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
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.