When Jesus came, the messenger changed

Luke 1:11-25

Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la la la. Tis also the season to send

packages and letters. These weeks prior to and after Christmas are among the

busiest of the year for the unsung people who work to make sure that your family

letters are received and your packages are delivered. In 2017, between

Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, the Postal Service delivered more than 15

billion pieces of mail, including 850 million packages. UPS delivered more than

750 million packages globally in the 25-day period between Thanksgiving and New

Year’s Eve. And FedEx deliver around 400 million packages. That’s a lot of

deliveries. And a lot of people that help to make it happen.

On Thursday during our staff lunch here at the church, our new office

manager, Melinda Long, shared some of her experiences working as a package

handler at FedEx over the past several months. She and her son Riley lived with

her sister and brother in law in Indy, near the airport, where the second largest

FedEx packaging facility in the country is located. Even though the house is only 7

miles away, and it takes only 10 minutes to drive there, it would often take

another 35 minutes to get to her position in the facility. Why? Taking the shuttle

to security from the parking lot, getting through security, and then on to the

warehouse where her job was located took a lot of time.

In addition, the employees are always instructed that taking vacation time

off during the Thanksgiving to New Years period is prohibited. And it was also

interesting to hear that while commercial airlines fly during the day primarily,

planes making deliveries for UPS, FedEx, and the Postal Service fly at night,

systemically and almost rhythmically taking and landing one after another. If your

phone tracks the location of your package on Amazon, like mine does, you’ll

notice the constant movement of the packages you’ve ordered, Melinda’s

experience can give you a small glimpse into the broader world that makes these

deliveries timely and possible.

Of course, in our culture, these aren’t the only types of messengers. The

means of our communication has multiplied in ways beyond our comprehension.

Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter, WhatsApp, Tumblr, WeChat, Skype,

Zoom, Duo, not to mention the now ‘old fashioned’ email and text messages – all

of these are forms of sending messages or communication in nearly real time.

Ever stopped to think about how the biblical narratives would be different if these

forms of communication had been available back then? Moses would not need to

trek up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. He

could have pulled his mobile device from his robe and received a text from God,

then shown it to the Israelites.

In actuality, God was even more creative in the messengers of the Hebrew

Bible. God spoke through a burning bush, a cloud, dreams, dry bones, and a

simple, yet powerful voice. God sent messages through signs and wonders. And in

the Hebrew scriptures, God speaks through messengers that we call angels –

seraphim and cherubim. The prophet Isaiah provides the image of an angel

pressing a burning coal to his lips and pronouncing him as forgiven. The book of

Daniel features angels who rescue Daniel from the lion’s den. The book of

Zechariah probably features more angels than any other book, with angels serving

as symbolic healers and intermediaries of prayer, along with the traditional role

as messenger interpreting God’s intent.

The role of the angel in the Hebrew Bible sets the stage for this story at the

beginning of Luke’s Gospel. The angel comes in a surprising, yet familiar manner.

The plight of the Hebrew people is paralleled by an aging couple’s waiting and

hoping for the birth of a child. In both cases, the waiting is so prolonged that hope

seemed lost. That the angel came to the priest Zachariah in the temple, who was

only in the temple by chance, underscored the intention of God to do a new thing

through the birth of John.

The angel in this text offers a different message than those in the Hebrew

scriptures. In those stories, the angel came to directly speak to the needs of the

people in that moment. The people needed something immediately, whether

rescuing or a miracle or information, and the angel provided it on behalf of God.

This text is different. It sets the stage. Zachariah’s and Elizabeth’s waiting is over,

but the waiting of the world continues until the culmination of Jesus’ birth. Hope

is imminent, but not fulfilled. Not yet, but almost.

Fulfillment of this hope, however, required a response of openness from

Zachariah, who demonstrates that even the faithful may grow weary and tired in

their petitions. Here is the story of a priest who was praying without ceasing, but

was not prepared for his prayers to be answered. He was officiating in the temple,

in the holy of holies itself, the very place where the Hebrew people believed God

to reside, but he did not really expect to experience God’s presence. This very real

experience of life is humbling, because we can likely imagine ourselves in

Zachariah’s place – perhaps not necessarily with his circumstances, but with his

predicament of disbelief by the events happening before him that seemed

beyond his understanding. Zachariah’s faith was intact, but his hope had waned,

which left him struggling to comprehend the message of the angel before him.

Emily Dickinson once wrote, ‘We tend to think of hope as a "winged thing,"

flying serenely above the storms, untouched by the mundane earth. But the value

of hope lies in its presence in our everyday lives, a constant earthly promise of

welcome to ultimate fellowship with God. And hope doesn't have wings - if we

choose to invite it, hope walks beside us as we travel. Hope means to keep living

amid desperation and to keep humming in the darkness.”

Author Henri Nouwen also adds, “Hoping is knowing that there is love; it is

trust in tomorrow; it is falling asleep and waking again when the sun rises. In the

midst of a gale at sea, it is to discover land. In the eyes of another, it is to see that

he understands you. As long as there is still hope, there will also be life.”

Or consider that in the British Museum there is a painting called "Hope." In

the background are the familiar outlines of the continents and oceans of planet

Earth. But in the foreground is a beautiful woman seated at a harp - a harp with

strings dangling helpless from the top or lying uselessly on the lap of her dress, a

harp with only one string still tautly strung. A curator of the museum tells the

story of two women who stood in front of the picture and commenting on how

little of the harp was still intact. One said to the other: "Hope - why do they call it

hope?" The reason is that from Moses to Mary Magdalene, the harp of hope has

always been a broken instrument. Hope is always almost lost or it would not be

hope. Hope is plucking that one string, knowing that.

God places messengers of hope before us each day. What are yours? For

Zachariah, it was an angel. For Elizabeth, it was John the Baptist. What are yours?

The Bible? Time spent in nature? A surprise encounter? Writing in a journal?

Spending time in prayer or meditation? Finding yourself immersed the wonder of

our own heart beats – bu-bum, bu-bum, bu-bum.

We go through the motions of prayer and worship, but do we expect to

meet God in the midst of this time, or in our daily activities? In Zechariah, we find

a kindred spirit, one who expresses the same surprise that we might in that

moment, the surprise of actually encountering a messenger of God who is

actually bearing a message of hope that actually brings joy and hope to his

constantly praying soul. In spite of all he did and all he was, Zechariah struggled to

open himself to the messenger God placed before him. Do we open ourselves to

the messengers God places before us?

Earlier this week, I preached at Timbercrest Retirement community in

North Manchester. One of the residents joined Wilma Anderson and Esther

Hamer from our congregation for breakfast following the chapel service. In the

midst of our conversation, he asked about my calling story to ministry. I’ve shared

parts of that story in worship before, but the part that came to me in that

conversation is the same that I was reflecting on as I pondered the question of

God’s messengers.

Leading up to Christmas break of my senior year in college, I thought my

future was clear. I had gathered graduate school applications for a degree in

history and would work at a museum or write books about historical figures. But

when I sat down the first time to complete an application during Christmas break,

I just couldn’t do it. I figured it was senioritis. The second time, however, the

same thing happened. I figured it was holiday busyness. The third time, when it

happened yet again, I knew something else was happening.

That experience didn’t immediately lead me to seminary and ministry. But

it set me on a more direct path. That path was clarified by messengers who were

already in my life, but who didn’t know one another. In that winter and spring, I

had conversations with at least 20 different people, from all parts of my life, who

would inquire about my post-college plans and then ask, ‘have you ever thought

about ministry?’ These were professors and classmates, church people and

friends since elementary school. There was even a complete stranger and a friend

who is an atheist, who each asked me about ministry. To the atheist, I asked if

there was a conspiracy. I realize now there was one and it was filled with human

messengers of divine intent.

We wait with hope for the messengers of this Advent season to inspire us

with awe and wonder found not only in Jesus’ birth, but in the divine messages

we receive from a God who created us, who loves us, and who journeys with us

on paths of hope in life. Thanks be to God. Amen.