When I was a young boy our Christmas tree was always well-
Well, leaving aside the pictures on Christmas cards, I’ve never to my knowledge seen an angel and rather doubt that you have either. But I firmly believe that angels exist, that they are real. After all the Bible speaks often enough about them (there are nearly 300 references in my Bible to angels.) And indeed the Christmas story wouldn’t be the Christmas story if angels were air-
This morning I want us to look together at the role angels carried out in the months preceding Jesus’ birth and then next week I plan for us to consider just what they were doing immediately after the birth of the Saviour.
This morning, then, we will think about three different angelic appearances. As we do this we will not simply be asking the obvious factual questions such as:
to whom did they appear?
where did they appear?
and for what purpose did they appear?
But we should also be asking ourselves questions like:
What can I learn from this?
How does this relate to me?
What response is expected of me?
So let’s get started!
Zechariah was an old man. He was a priest and a godly one at that. He was married to a woman called Elizabeth and she was as godly as he. And yet all was not well – they had not been able to have any children. As believers they had prayed and prayed about their inability to have children but nothing had ever happened and now they were both advanced in years.
When we are introduced to Zechariah we find that he had been chosen for a very special, once-
As Zechariah was carrying out his spiritual responsibilities Gabriel, an angel of the Lord who was used to standing in the near-
The effect on Zechariah was immediate – he didn’t react with a song and a dance but with a sober fear. Something unusual, extremely unusual was taking place and Zechariah, godly though he was, felt at once out of his depth.
You’ll sometimes hear people today say some very silly things when they speak about spiritual matters. Some talk about giving God of a piece of their mind if only they were given the opportunity. But they won’t, you know. Zechariah was a godly man and yet the presence of one of God’s angels troubled him deeply and he didn’t come out with any glib comments at all.
Gabriel didn’t speak or deal harshly with Zechariah but straightaway spoke to encourage him and to put him at his ease:
v.13 "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard,"
It is impressive that messages from heaven often begin here: "Fear not", "Don’t be afraid" or something similar. There are well over a hundred examples scattered through the Bible. The fact that there are so many of these instructions tell us that fear is a normal reaction when men and women meet with the supernatural. The repeated command to "fear not" doesn’t tell us that the reaction of fear is necessarily wrong or inappropriate but rather that God’s intentions in drawing near are for our good and not for our hurt.
A little later in the encounter Gabriel would explain the reason for his appearing to Zechariah along just such lines. He has come to share news with Zechariah, good news, very good news indeed!
v.19 "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news."
What was this news and why did Gabriel think it was so good?
Well it concerned God’s answer to their prayers, prayers that they had most likely come to think would never be answered.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to have a son of their own! What wonderful news that would have been to a childless couple. But Gabriel’s message didn’t stop there. Not only was this a childless couple it was also a godly couple and such folk had spiritual interests. Zechariah and Elizabeth took God seriously and looked to him to fulfil his promises about sending his long-
Zechariah is flabbergasted. He hadn’t begun the day expecting this to happen. He had apparently given up on the idea of ever having children and so he responds to Gabriel in a manner which reveals his lack of faith.
His lack of faith is culpable and draws some disciplinary consequences. Zechariah will not be able to speak until this son, whose birth he did not think possible, was actually born. And yet his lack of faith does not exclude him from God’s plans. Later in the gospels we’ll find a desperate father call out to Jesus from the depths his own struggles:
Mk.9:24 "I believe; help my unbelief!"
I wonder: Have you ever cried out like that?
We often go wrong when it comes to questions of faith and believing. We think that having faith means screwing up our courage to believe that whatever it is we want to happen will happen. But Biblical faith doesn’t start with us at all it starts with God. True faith means taking God at his word not trying to make him conform to ours.
And what happened to Zechariah and Elizabeth? Well in her old age Elizabeth conceived and nine months later her baby was born. They called him John and he grew up to be the man we know as John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Messiah.
The second person to be visited by an angel in those months was a young, unmarried girl called Mary. She was already pledged to be married to a man called Joseph but she was still a virgin as no sexual relations had occurred between them.
Once again the angel concerned is named as Gabriel. Whereas Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the sanctified rooms of the Temple it seems that he was happy on this occasion to visit Mary in her home. I think we can draw from this the conclusion that you don’t need to be in a specially set-
We don’t know whether Gabriel’s presence caused Mary any particular worries but we do know that the way he greeted her did trouble her and trouble her greatly. This is what he said:
Lk.1:28 "Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!"
It was not long however before Gabriel was explaining just what he meant. He had a message to give to Mary and the content of that message was detailed and highly significant.
As when speaking to Zechariah Gabriel began his explanations with an encouragement – Mary had nothing to fear.
She had nothing to fear because God is intervening in her life not to punish her or anything like that but to do something wonderful. Mary is going to be the woman who will give birth to the Deliverer, the Saviour of the World, the Messiah. Listen to how Gabriel put it:
What an announcement this was! Had there ever been a more staggering message sent to human being than this one? This was a complete one-
And how would Mary respond?
She responds with faith. Oh yes, she has her questions about just how it would all be brought about but her question doesn’t express doubt, it is just a simple request for further information, information which Gabriel is happy to provide.
It is interesting to note that Gabriel doesn’t stop when he has given Mary the information she has asked for but he goes further than that and seeks to encourage her in her faith by telling her about the extraordinary things God had been doing for a near-
Summing up his explanations Gabriel concluded by declaring a simple truth which we find all too often difficult to wholeheartedly embrace for ourselves:
Lk.1:37 "For nothing will be impossible with God."
This second angelic appearance is nearly over but before Gabriel left Mary he waited to hear how Mary would respond to everything that he had had to say to her. Her response is a wonderful example of humility and quiet trust in God:
Lk.1:38 "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her."
The Bible portrays Mary in a very positive light because of her humble submission to the will of God but we must not exaggerate her role either – she is not able to save us because she herself needed to be saved. She did have however the immense privilege of giving birth to her own Saviour!
The third and final person we want to think about this morning is Joseph, the man to whom Mary was pledged to be married. Luke doesn’t record much about Joseph so we turn now to the Gospel of Matthew for our information.
Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant and knowing that he wasn’t the father he could only deduce that Mary had been unfaithful to him. We can only imagine how he felt. And yet he was a just man and didn’t want to make a public example of her. He decided to put an end to their marriage contract but he planned to do so as quietly as possible.
It was at this juncture that God once again intervened in the life of a human being. Joseph had a dream and in that dream an angel of the Lord appeared to him. We don’t know why when Joseph had his encounters with angels it was always through the medium of dreams but that is what the Bible tells us. Perhaps all we are meant to draw from this is that God is a God of wonderful variety and has no problem in finding appropriate means of communicating with us when he wants to do so.
Joseph was confronted with a situation that he must have found very discouraging. He had to do something and so he planned to "divorce" Mary. But it was not the right response! Joseph was not in possession of all the facts
And so an angel appears to him in a dream to give him the information he lacks and to tell him what God wants him to do next.
Once again we notice that fear is a factor in the equation. How fear can spoil lives!
The angel immediately addresses Joseph’s concerns and explains why the course of action he was preparing to take was unnecessary:
Once again we find information and guidance go hand-
As we draw to a close what might we take for ourselves from all of this? There are plenty of lessons we might draw out for ourselves – here are just a few of them:
Angels are God’s messengers – they are not free agents. When we realise that we can deduce from the three examples we have been looking at that God is at ease about intervening in his world and in particular in the lives of men and women.
In each of these examples angels were messengers: they sought to encourage, to impart information and to instruct how to behave in the light of the message of good news they brought with them. The underlying assumption is that heaven is not out to somehow "get us" but wants to do us good!
I wonder if you’re tempted to think that an angelic message has some special overriding importance. It’s interesting to note that with each of these appearances there is a reference to the promises that God had already made to his people and which are recorded in the Bible – they don’t contradict the written Word of God at all. So we are not to think that somehow angelic voices are better than Bible that we have.
God knows how to communicate his message and will use the method he chooses – he is not limited by what limits us. This we learn from the fact that Gabriel appears directly to Zechariah and Mary but Joseph meets with his angel in via dreams.
When God determines to speak to a person it there are certain things that have no bearing on the matter at all. Just look at it:
Age is no issue – Zechariah is old, Mary is young and we’ve no idea about Joseph.
Gender is not an issue – Zechariah and Joseph are male and Mary is female yet they all three received their messages from God.
Location is irrelevant: Zechariah was in the Temple a religious place, Mary was at home and Joseph it seems was in bed!
Another lesson we might take from all these encounters is that when God speaks he doesn’t do so simply to inform the mind with his truth. God reveals truth expecting us to respond to it in the right way. He may intervene to stop us taking a wrong decision, explaining for example why we should not "go with the flow" but take a different course of action. Failure to do so may have unpleasant consequences.
Finally the most important lesson for us to learn is that our God is a God of wonderful grace and generosity! All of these angelic appearances are related intimately to the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World. Zechariah’s son will prepare the way for his coming to the people, Mary will give birth to this Saviour, Joseph is to provide the stable family background and care for this Saviour while he is yet an infant. Everything draws our attention towards Jesus. Our God expects us to respond, to repent of our sins and to wholeheartedly embrace the Saviour as our own.
May God grant us all grace that we might do so.