Have you ever had a moment in your life after which you knew nothing would ever be the same? In the midst of great change, hope is always a welcome thing. Advent can remind us that God makes us ready for whatever unknown may come our way and calls us to be messengersof #morehope in an ever-changing world.
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord andl offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
In the Old Testament, the same angel Gabriel says these words to Daniel: “I have now come out…to declare it…you are greatly beloved.” Comforting words, inspiring, but in the biblical narrative, angel messengers often demonstrate very poor timing. Upon arrival, God’s message is usually a bit frightening, but if you know God, you know that God’s true message will never leave us the way we used to be. We will be transformed, made new.
Is God trying to tell you something? If so, what is it? It not, why? Why would God not want to communicate with you? Are you taking the time to listen?
At a wider level, what is God telling our country? In Genesis 19, two angels come to the town of Sodom (Genesis 19), and experience a corrupt, posh society where unchecked masculinity and domination run amok—along with violent hazing, greed and, perhaps worst of all, the persecution of anyone perceived weaker than the he-men of Sodom. After the men of Sodom try to force themselves on the angels, and then the solution was suggested to offer two young women instead, God says “enough” and destroys that town. Sexual assault was the sin of Sodom.
In this week peppered with famous men accused of sexual assault, it’s worth remembering that God does not call anyone to endure abuse or live as a lesser-than. If you are the victim of harassment, assault or ongoing abuse, please reach out for help. Remember God’s message: “I have now come out…to declare it…you are greatly loved.” Do not be afraid. There is always more hope.
A story about God’s messenger, John the Baptist. At Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, many moons ago, the congregation put on a production of Godspell. That church, which reminds me a lot of Calvary, is an institution. Central was and is a great congregation. Everyone at Central was excited for the opening night of Godspell, but as they arrived at the doors of the church, they noticed that there was a black man who had camped out on the steps. He looked like he was homeless. Usually, the staff would ask homeless people to vacate the steps just before worship, like we do here at Calvary. The audience filed in through the one doors that could be opened and stepped politely around the man asleep on the steps.
Upon taking their seats inside, the light dimmed and music began. From the back of the sanctuary the same man, now fully awake, flung open the doors with a thwack and looked at each of worshipers as he walked down the aisle singing “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Turns out, he was an actor hired by the church to play the role of John the Baptist, the messenger of God.
That church was changed —never to be the same. Could it be that we step around and politely miss God’s messengers all the time? The person we step over could very well be the one sent to prepare the way for Jesus. What a way to drive home Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (unawares).”
Gabriel v. Zechariah
Zechariah, the priest, the elder, the one who had been a part of that congregation as long as anyone could remember—he had resigned himself to the soothing repetition of ritual. But that day, as he went into the Holy Place, a place that only priests could go. Amid the incense-laden smoke, he glimpsed a figure, Gabriel, messenger of God, and remembering scripture, Zechariah was justifiably afraid. The angel Gabriel informed the elderly priest that he would have a baby with his wife, Elizabeth, who, by some accounts, was 88 years old. Zechariah says, “But we’re old.” And the angel says, “But I’m Gabriel.” So, Zechariah was rendered speechless. It was then, only then, in his silence, that the people realized Zechariah had encountered God!
Zechariah and Elizabeth became the subject of gossip, giving birth to a son who would not support the institution as his father had, but, rather, live out in the desert, wear funny clothes and eat honey-covered bugs. John the Baptist made ready the people, preparing us for the One who is coming. Advent is that same period of preparation. It’s about more than overeating. It’s about more than putting up the tree. It’s about more than making a list and checking it twice.
Carrying the Hope: Feathers
As you entered worship today, you were handed a feather. These feathers symbolize the power of God, the ability to span any distance between heaven and earth. All through this Advent season, we are invited to unite in prayer using this symbol. Hildegard of Bingen said, “I am a feather on the breath of God.” Will you dare to ponder that kind of spiritual freedom of flight? Is it possible to leave behind fear and to dream dreams for this church? I invite you to attach this feather to your key ring, a necklace, school bag, rearview mirror, etc. Carry it in a pocket. Place it where you will be reminded to keep your eyes open for God’s messengers in your daily life. Claim your part in the story of God’s people as a messenger of hope, building up each soul you encounter.
There are angels walking the earth; some don’t even know
They are angels walking the earth making miracles from below.
Somewhere a mother weeps for nothing but a bed.
Somewhere a poor man seeks nothing more than bread.
Somewhere a schemer struggles to not to care.
Somewhere a dreamer lives in her nightmare.
But there are angels walking the earth; some are here always.
There are angels walking the earth; some are here just for a day.”
Maybe I’m insane. Maybe I should act my age.
I’d rather be a hopeful fool than a melancholy sage.
There are angels walking the earth made of flesh and bone.
There are angels walking the earth; it may be that you are one.
It may be that I am one. It may be that we are one.
Let’s become one, unifying in prayers and actions, inspired daily by these feathers, symbols of God’s messages yet to be heeded. Your mission, should you choose to accept, is to become a hash-tagger of hope by sharing our weekly memes and messages through social media. If texting, tweeting and posting are not in your repertoire, I still charge you to share your worship bulletin with someone—a neighbor, a relative, a stranger—an angel unawares.
 See Daniel 9:20-10-15 for context.
 Mona West, The Bible and Homosexuality, accessed online at <http://mccchurch.org/files/2016/08/BibleandHomosexuality.pdf> (November 22, 2017)
 Abbreviated for the purpose of this sermon, Daniel 9:21-23 without omissions: “While I was speaking in prayer, the man Gabriel, whom I had seen before in a vision, came to me in swift flight at the time of the evening sacrifice. He came and said to me, “Daniel, I have now come out to give you wisdom and understanding. At the beginning of your supplications a word went out, and I have come to declare it, for you are greatly beloved.”
 This story I am pulling from the cobwebs of memory as related to me on several occasions by my friend and colleague, Rev. Agnes W. Norfleet who served Central as a pastoral intern and associate pastor.
 The monotheistic Mandean tradition, which venerates John the Baptist, teaches that Elizabeth was 88 at the time of John’s birth.
 Marcia McFee, Worship Design Studio, accessed online at <http://worshipdesignstudio.com>, 2017. At Calvary this year, we are using resources from the Worship Design Studio. Other churches will also use “Angels Among Us” as an Advent theme. We look forward to searching for the hashtags of hope, peace, joy and love—building community through Marcia’s fabulous creativity.
 R. Allen Culpepper, The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. IX Luke (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 42.
 Matthew 3:4
 “There are Angels” by Wayne Self, Walter Topper & Manny Chargualif. Sung with permission of the composers.
 Marci McFee’s infectious terminology