When Dan and I were first married, we lived in Detroit, Michigan where I had already served as a pastor for a year. The summer before our September wedding, Dan had finished seminary and been interviewed for a placement at an urban church in consultation with the Presbytery (the same as our Synod) who was going to help pay the salary. They thought they had the agreement of the congregation’s board.
We announced at our wedding that Dan finally had a call to a congregation, and we all cheered. We weren’t on the ground for 12 hours after our honeymoon, before the Presbytery called Dan into their office and said, “oops, you don’t really have a job." It was an ethnic-specific ministry and they wanted a pastor from their culture. We completely understood that, but felt whip-sawed that the judicatory leadership did not do their homework before promising him a job, complete with a signed salary package.
This was a rough way to start a marriage. Dan was a 6th generation pastor with both the weight of and expectation for the church to show up for him. No matter how hard I worked, my $17,000 salary was not going to pay insurance for his car or for more food.
After two weeks of lying on the couch watching Leave It To Beaver reruns, Dan got a job at the fanciest restaurant nearby—but because he didn’t have waiting experience, he had to start bussing tables. They all treated him like dirt. The future looked bleak and barren; we were not sure from where a sign of hope would come.
Zechariah and Elizabeth had resigned themselves to a bleak and barren future. In their culture, value, and status, especially for women, lay in having children. But Elizabeth had become too old for that dream to come true. They seemed resigned to this reality and settled into a routine of service and faithfulness despite this hopeless truth. They were both faithful and devout, Zechariah was devoted to serving in the Temple, Elizabeth worked at home and helped other women in the community, but there was no hope of a changed future for them.
So, of course, Zechariah is terrified when the Angel Gabriel appears to him in the sanctuary where for that ministry, he served alone, offering incense. Then when the angel announces that Elizabeth will give birth to a son, all Zechariah can think about is how old they are, and how unlikely it all is. If God wanted to do this, why did he wait so long? You can hardly blame him for questioning the Angel, Gabriel. Sure, it happened to Sarah and Abraham hundreds of years earlier, and to Hannah in the early Scriptures—but both of those stories were so long ago. Wouldn’t you ask for some kind of proof?
How will I know that this is so? Where’s the proof that God can do this? I had already lost all hope that my life could be different—that this bleak and barren place in my life could have any hope.
Zechariah has several months to ponder God’s unexpected and surprising ways of bringing him a message of hope, since he is rendered mute until his son, John the Baptist is born. I wonder if this forced silence is not so much a punishment, but an invitation—an invitation to really listen for the on-going messages of hope that God will send as Elizabeth goes through pregnancy. When one adjusts oneself barrenness and hopelessness, it becomes harder to listen, to hear, to notice the unexpected and surprising ways that God shows up for us with messages of hope.
Silence attuned Zechariah to noticing hope, to looking for signs of new life, and to watching his wife transform—releasing expectations of barrenness, and instead paying attention to an expanding belly with kicking feet. Muteness forced him to break the habit of repeating pessimism; it gutted the power of despair because it simply had no air time. All Zechariah could do was notice the repeated flutter of angel wings, the echo of Gabriel’s words, the moments of joy and gladness in the life, the good, the hope, the light, the womb, the expanding truth becoming bigger and more present in his household until at last it made its presence known in the cry of a newborn.
By then hope had taken over barrenness completely—not just in their life, but in their hope for the world. After his son, John, the Baptist, was born, Zechariah was re-born—broken out of silence, he could now himself become a voice of hope—taking up the role of an angel among us—a messenger of good news along with his son of the coming Savior. An angel is a messenger of good news—the one who has been ministered to by an angel, becomes one himself. It took nine months of silence for Zechariah to become an angel among us—and then he sings a prophecy similar to Mary’s, a few verses which proclaim:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour[g] for us
in the house of his servant David,
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon[h] us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Gabriel, Zechariah’s angel of hope came unexpectedly, and so did Dan’s when he was in this season of despair with no church to serve coming out of seminary. One Sunday Dan decided to visit a small inner-city church. He arrived and the sanctuary door was locked. At first, he thought it was for safety, and he couldn’t believe he was locked out of worship—couldn’t life get any worse! But then it occurred to him, they probably could not afford to heat the building, so he walked down to the fellowship hall, and sure enough, a group of about 25 were starting worship. He snuck in the back and sat in a dark corner.
After the sermon, the Pastor asked if anyone needed prayer, and when Dan tells the story, he says “before my feet could consult with my brain, I was already walking up to the front of the church.” He told the pastor about having a church and then not having a church and didn’t know what God was up to or what he was supposed to do with his life when no other churches were open.
The pastor asked all the elders to come forward and lay hands on their brother. And all these beautiful souls got up and surrounded Dan and laid hands on him. Dan says, they did not have many teeth among them, but they had more faith than anyone he had ever met. They prayed him up from here to Calvary to heaven and back again. It was like being touched by a forcefield of angels.
Everything changed for him after that. Barrenness turned into hope, bleakness turned into gladness, despair turned into possibility, doubt turned into confidence. Like Zechariah, Dan began to look for opportunities and signs of life. Pessimism was on “mute.”
About 3 weeks later a suburban church needed an Interim Pastor; Dan put in his resume and was called in for an interview. Dan continued to look 16 until he was about 35, so when he arrived for the interview the chair of the committee asked if he was looking for the Agoraphobics in Motion meeting.
But the good news is, because he had been visited by angels among us, he had become a messenger of hope. So he got the job and was finally ordained. And what a party we had! He did a second Interim in the area and helped facilitate a merger between two congregations. All this experience uniquely qualified him for his next call in Kansas City, Missouri.
Like Zechariah, we do not often get to see the big picture, but there are angels among us who bring us good news for today, who give us hope for the next step, who show that Christ is with us, who let us know that God is here with a plan, and hope for our future.
Where do you need hope spoken into a barren spot in your life? We are here today to ask God in Jesus Christ to bring you a message of hope in your life where it feels bleak. Then I invite you to notice who or what brings you messages of hope, signs of new life, moments of joy and gladness. Who are the angels among us—for you, who are the messengers of good news? It may come from unexpected sources in surprising ways this week. They may be human or a furry friend. They may have good teeth or no teeth. They may vote like you or be the polar opposite of you. This season is about being open to unexpected messages of hope from unlikely sources. Jesus opens our hearts to receive the angels among us who bring good news.
Then God calls us to expand hope as we become messengers of hope ourselves—angels for others. How might we become angels among us for others? Like Zechariah, what message of hope do you have to offer the exhausted parent at the mall, the stressed store clerk, the overworked airport staff, the underappreciated teacher or principal, the unnoticed neighbor? Ask God to show you one way this week to be a messenger of hope and good news for someone else.
As we receive God’s hope for us today in our Savior Jesus Christ, we become messengers of hope for others—and not just a flutter, but we go from here as a force field of angels among us!