(I originally wrote this for Christmas 2006, as the first of four parts looking at the many ways God shows Himself in the Christmas stories. At the heart of the Christian Gospel is the name that the angel gives to Jesus: Emmanuel — God is with us. May you and your loved ones experience the presence of the living Christ this Christmas.)
It was my first Christmas Eve in our new, suburban home, and I was worried. No fireplace. Santa was going to land on our roof, look around in puzzlement and dash away without leaving me a thing.
My father assured me that Santa was a pretty clever guy and had learned ways to get into modern houses, but I was still worried. I remember pressing my nose to the cold glass of my bedroom window and watching the stars in the black night sky for a red light, or the sound of sleigh bells, until at last I fell asleep in a cloud of concern.
I awoke early Christmas morning and rushed out to our living room to find everything just as it should be: gifts were piled under the tree, and Santa’s milk and cookies were gone.
As we grow up, our rationalism, our enlightenment, perhaps even our fear of seeming childish all press hard on us to abandon any hope of encountering the supernatural.
Which is why the Christian religion is so difficult to swallow for many. It is a religion posited on a God who orchestrates encounters with His creation, His people. And the Christmas story is where those encounters all begin.
Luke claims in his opening sentences to have “investigated” the written accounts of all that took place in those days. He starts his report with an encounter between Zechariah, a Jewish priest, and an angel.
One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple, for his order was on duty that week. As was the custom of the priests, he was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and burn incense in the Lord’s presence. While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying. Zechariah was in the sanctuary when an angel of the Lord appeared, standing to the right of the incense altar. Zechariah was overwhelmed with fear. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! For God has heard your prayer, and your wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son! And you are to name him John.” — Luke 1:8-13, NLT
Luke was himself a rational man, a physician, a student of the human body, of disease and remedies. The Greeks and Romans had greatly advanced understanding of the complexities of the human body and had made medicine into a science, training a corps of physicians who practiced in many of the same ways doctors do today.
Luke is thought to have been a Greek physician, which if true means that he was the only non-Jew to have contributed to the New Testament writings (the books of Luke and Acts are his). As you read those two books, you find a great attention to detail. Luke is careful to name the rulers in power during the events he chronicles, to place his accounts in historical context. He is careful to identify the people he writes about and their relationships to each other. This roundabout introduction to Jesus through Zechariah, we discover, is because Elizabeth is Mary’s cousin, who will become the mother of Jesus.
Luke is careful to justify Zechariah’s presence in the sanctuary — it was his turn to perform a duty he had performed many times before. One did not walk casually into the inner places of the Temple. Zechariah had been chosen by lot, like a roll of the dice, a method meant to remove human influence and allow God to choose the one who would serve.
Luke tells us that the angel stood to the right of the incense burner. This is an interesting detail, since it is always with God’s right hand, and on his right side, that we see him bestowing honor and blessing. The Apostles Creed says, “I believe in… Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord… who ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.”
The angel goes on to inform Zechariah that he should raise this child in preparation for service to God. He predicts that his son will have “the spirit and power of Elijah, the prophet of old.” That’s quite a statement.
But Zechariah is a rational man, too. He and Elizabeth are well past the age of having children. He questions the angel’s understanding of human physiology. What do angels know, anyway? Viagra won’t be invented for another 2,000 years!
The angel puts Zechariah in his place.
“I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was He who sent me to bring you this good news! And now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you won’t be able to speak until the child is born. For my words will come true in the proper time.” — Luke 1:19,20, NLT
The Scriptures also mention an angel named Gabriel appearing to Daniel in a vision. Daniel doesn’t understand what he has seen, and a voice summons Gabriel to interpret Daniel’s vision, which had to do with a future time and the rise and fall of various powerful leaders.
It’s interesting that this same angel, Gabriel, may be the one to appear to Zechariah, and who will later appear to Mary. It’s not a detail that Luke would be inclined to invent, since he seems to be trying to be careful about other aspects of his account. The name must have been part of the original testimony by Zechariah of his encounter.
The angel gives his name only to prove himself to Zechariah and silence his questions. A priest would have immediately recognized the name, and I imagine it would have produced some shock, and immediate silence, in Zechariah.
Is it possible that this Gabriel has a gift of communication, some special facility with language? Has he been given special insight into God’s work in history, so that he can explain God’s purposes at just the right time?
An angel. A promise of a child to a couple who had never had children and were well past the age of child-bearing. A message — good news! — that God, Himself, had entrusted to a special messenger. An ordinary Jewish priest on an ordinary day of service encounters God in a way he could never have expected.
Thus begins the Christian story — the Christmas story — and the first of a cascading series of encounters between the eternal God and His people.
Illustration credit: Woodcut by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld, from Wels.net