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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

December 9, 2012, 2nd Sunday of Advent

The Characters of Christmas: The Angel Gabriel

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 1:26-38

             This morning’s passage in Luke’s Gospel is called “The Annunciation,” the announcement to Mary by the angel Gabriel that a child is going to be conceived within her.  The deliverer of this Divine announcement is Gabriel, whose name means “strength of God.”  Gabriel appears four times in the Bible, twice in Daniel and twice in Luke.  In Daniel, he is called in both Daniel 8 and Daniel 9 “the man Gabriel” or “one having the appearance of a man.”  In both Daniel appearances Gabriel speaks the word of the Lord to Daniel.

             Gabriel also identified himself to Zechariah when he announced the birth of a son to this couple who were too old to expect a child.  In the Annunciation to Mary, though, it is Luke who tells us that “the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.”

             Angels are, of course, messengers of God’s Word.  The word “angel” means messenger. Karl Barth wrote almost three hundred pages in his Church Dogmatics of angels, as they appear in the Bible.  Barth said, “Where God is, there the angels of God are.  Where there are no angels, there is no God.”  John Calvin believed in angels as well.  “The angels are dispensers of the divine beneficence toward us; they regard our safety, undertake our defense, direct our ways, and exercise a constant solicitude that no evil befalls us.”  John Milton, that imaginative, masterful Christian storyteller, thought angels were everywhere.  “Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth unseen, both when we sleep and when we are awake.”

             But no angel is better known to us, or appears as often, as the angel Gabriel.  So let’s focus on this angel’s message to Mary this morning.

             First, Gabriel begins with a greeting.  “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” is how this often is translated.  But it could just as easily be translated, “Rejoice, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”  The first word of the angel’s greeting is the Greek word for “joy,” χάιρε, from the word χάρα.  It is the same word that the angel of the Lord will deliver to the shepherds when it is announced, “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be to all the people….”  Gabriel’s first word is not “shalom,” the traditional Hebrew greeting, but “chaire,” a Greek word for joy, which opens the door of Christmas not just to Jews, but to Gentiles as well.

             Gabriel’s message, as mysterious and as puzzling to Mary as it may be, is first and foremost a message of joy.  Christmas, for everything else that it might be for you, is first off a message of joy.  It is easy to forget this.

             Last year I noticed that Connie was buying a lot of Christmas lights.  We covered and recovered our wreaths with them, and then she got the idea that we should cover the front bushes with them.  I was trying to spread them out so a few strands would do the trick.  She said, “No!  The point is to use as many as you can, to fill our boxwoods with lights.”  So Monday evening we took out last year’s lights and started putting them outside again.  And this year we used all our lights on those front boxwoods, and when I said, “Well, what are we going to do about the tree now that we’ve used all our lights?”  She said, “We’ll just buy more.”  (Our wreath on our front door looks like it is nuclear powered!)

             Then the next morning we were sitting on our back porch, drinking coffee, and Connie said, “I think I want to put lights on the boxwoods in the backyard as well, and hang a wreath from the railing above it.”  I said, “Why would you want to do that?” in a voice that sounded, even to me, like the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge.  And Connie said, “You sound like an old cat!  Christmas is about joy, and more lights mean more joy.”  (I hate it when she preaches to me!) 

             There are five hundred forty-two references to joy in the Bible!  Joy is hardly peripheral to the Biblical story.  And Gabriel begins his life-changing, world-saving word to Mary of the birth of God into the world with the word, “Rejoice!”  We will sing of it later in this season:

 Good Christian friends, rejoice

With heart, and soul, and voice;

Give ye heed to what we say:

Jesus Christ is born today!

            Later in this morning’s service, we shall sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”

            Gabriel teaches us to make this season one of joy and rejoicing over the birth of Jesus into the world.  It is still “Good news of a great joy for all the people.”

             Secondly, note that Gabriel’s message to both Zechariah in the Temple, and to Mary in Nazareth, as well as to the shepherds out in the fields include the words, “Do not be afraid….”  Is there a message we need to hear any more than the one about rejoicing, except the word, “Do not be afraid….”?

             Dick Halverson said, “People who fear God face life fearlessly.  People who do not fear God end up fearing everything.”  Of all our passions, fear weakens our judgment most.  This is why the Bible teaches that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  If we possess a proper fear of God, we will not be haunted and crippled by lesser fears.  We never make good decisions when we make them out of fear.

             Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds are told by the angel, “Do not be afraid….”  Joseph will be told exactly the same thing.  It is precisely because of “the strength of the Lord,” which is what Gabriel means, that we need not allow fear to overwhelm and control our lives.

             Mary was told by Gabriel that her child’s name is to be Jesus, which means, “God saves.”  “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

             In other words, you need not fear because our God reigns.  You need not be afraid because God came down at Christmas, and was born a baby in Bethlehem.  You need not be afraid because the Christmas story is true, and you can believe in it.  “Fear knocked on the door.  Faith answered.  No one was home.”  “Do not be afraid.”

             Finally, Gabriel says to Mary, who wonders how all of this can be so, “For with God, nothing will be impossible.”  This is my favorite word of the whole encounter that Gabriel has with Mary!  These words echo the wonder of Sarah in Genesis when she is told that she is going to have a son finally, and pay her bill with Medicare.  She asks, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” in Genesis 18.  And these words of Gabriel look forward to Jesus’ words that appear in Luke 18, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.”

             I really believe this!  Do you?  “For with God, nothing will be impossible.”  It is a promise made by the angel of God in the future tense, which means it is a Biblical promise that covers all of your tomorrows.

             God is utterly sovereign and hence, free.  God is free to do with the future whatever God wills.  I have always resonated deeply with P.T. Forsyth’s words: “I know not what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”  May you know this good word as well.

             “Rejoice!”  “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”  “Do not be afraid….”  “For with God, nothing will be impossible.”  That is Gabriel’s angelic word, for such a time as this.  May it be God’s word to you!

                                                                                     Amen.

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