Luke 1: 5-17, 26-38
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord…”
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
We go backward from our story last week to the pre-infancy of Jesus and John. Years before they become the ministers we know, they were merely the promises given by God to their respective parents. John was promised to Zechariah, though he could tell no one about it, and Jesus to Mary, though no one would believe her. A child born to impossibly old parents on one hand, and to a young woman out of wedlock on the other. Scandal and mystery stand side-by-side, as they often do, and we as people who know the ending look on in wonder to know that God made such wonderful things come from these circumstances.
Strange to both these stories is the appearance of angels. While we tend to think of the Bible as being full of angelic beings, they are really quite rare in scripture. Much like the miracles we consider synonymous with the pages of our scripture, angels were not more common long ago than they are now. Hundreds of years would pass between one recorded appearance of an angelic being and another. If we take out the prophetic descriptions of angels, which often come from ecstatic visions, then we can make that gap even larger. To see an angel is never a common occurrence, and the presence of these messengers here is nothing but spectacular.
Our term “Angel,” just means “messenger,” and the Greek (Angelos,) and Hebrew (Malak,) reflect this. In the Hebrew Scriptures, angels were seen as being wingless young men. The idea of angels with wings comes from the use of wings in Greek art to denote messengers of the Gods (e.g. the winged shoes of Hermes.) The angels in this story would have been differentiated from regular men somehow other than having big wings floating behind their back, but something about them stood out to those who saw them. Maybe it was their sudden appearance or disappearance, the clothes they wore, the sound of their voice.
The appearance of these men are not nearly as important as the things that they said. To the two women, in very different circumstances of life, the same message was given. You’re going to have a baby! It’s a boy! For one person this was the answer to years of prayer and struggling with infertility. For the other, this is a major reason to worry. You’re not married, the kid isn’t your fiancé’s and he knows it? That is a recipe for disaster. People could get killed for that kind of thing in the first century, if not by the powers that be, then by an angry mob. The two contrasts of these circumstances show something about what these children would mean to the world.
John was welcomed at first because he seemed to be bringing a message that everyone could resonate with. Redemption was coming! The harder part of his message was that we had to get ready for that redemption by changing our hearts. This is the message that was harder to hear, but still one that brought even Pharisees and Sadducees to come and be washed by him. John was not an easy person, not an attractive person, but he brought a message that people struggled to find a way to fight against. At the end of the day, his ministry ended over a personal squabble with a politician, and not because of the message he preached. John was the long-awaited prophet that promised something new, and even in his bizarre way of being, he found his niche.
Jesus was a more complicated figure. His birth to an unmarried woman made him a pariah. Legitimized though this birth may have been through his mother’s marriage, there were always going to be rumors. Jesus took John’s message and made it even more urgent. The time to repent is ending, the time to join the movement was short, the Kingdom of God was dawning. Jesus drew in massive crowds, like John before him, but these crowds were far more varied. Even some gentiles began to come to him looking for the redemption he fulfilled. Jesus offered an alternative to the way the world ran, and the world silenced him for his trouble.
I think it would be too simple to make too much of those contrasts. However, I do think that the birth of these men, relatives by blood, shows something of the contrast in their life. Both would die at the hands of the powerful, both lived lives in service to God, and both were ordained by Angels. Yet, while John was seen as another prophet in a long line prophets, Jesus was regarded in a much more varied way. John was the child of two people of good repute, and Jesus was the seeming bastard of a couple too poor to offer more than a few birds at the temple. The worst that John’s critics could say was that he was not really a prophet, but the Gospels say they would never say such a thing in public. Jesus could be shamed, though, because he was born to nothing, and sought to have nothing, and so was deemed to be nothing.
The announcement of two births, in two different circumstances. Both necessary for the start of something new, but both not quite what anyone might expect. Jesus our savior, Jesus the Lord of All, who we celebrate as coming to be with us, and as coming one day to set all things right again. That Jesus, was from his conception someone the world doubted. For Mary long ago, the news of her conceiving a child would have been terrifying as much as it was an honor. There is a reason that the Catholic Church honors her with a prayer modeled after the words the angel says here. To them her willingness to follow God into this terrifying adventure is the start of something amazing, and terrifying.
Faith is the sustaining blood of this life. It is what gives us the ability to hope. It feeds our love for one another. It is the simple commitment to the truth that is revealed in our meeting God, face to face. It is also a big scary thing. To have faith is to say that you trust something you cannot always see, and that you are ok with the road not always going where you expect.
Angels are universally met with fear in the Bible. They appear and people get ready to run. The first thing out of their mouths, therefore, is “Do not be afraid.” I think that those words are very necessary in our walk of faith. “Do not be afraid,” is the natural response to us realizing there is a God. “Do not be afraid,” is the response we need when we realize we have failed to do what is right. “Do not be afraid,” is the comfort we need when we are lost and alone and heart broken. “Do not be afraid,” is the little bit of drive we need to keep going, even when things seem tougher than we can ever imagine.
Mary is the real hero of today’s Gospel reading, because she accepted a heavy burden. She would always be seen after this angel’s visit as an object of scorn. She’d be called all kinds of nasty things by those who knew her kid wasn’t Joseph’s. She’d grow up with a child she could only begin to understand was somehow God and her little boy. She would walk with him as he preached his hard messages, and as countless people called him all the things she had tried to shield him from. She would know the greatest pain of watching him be killed for crimes he did not commit. Stranger still to meet him again, resurrected and glorified. Her little boy, long ago promised, now fully shining as the deity he was. Mary, our lady of sorrows, and mother of God, stands out as the first evangelist. She took Jesus into herself and gave him to the world at great pains to herself.
The angels still speak, though maybe not by appearing to us. The Spirit of God whispers to us, asks us to take the hard road, to try and bring about the Kingdom here and now. Sometimes we like Elizabeth and John, get to face hardships with relative dignity. Sometimes, we like Mary and Jesus, must abandon our self-image and our reputation to do what is right. May God give us the strength to do either, and may angels give us all rest this holiday and for ever. – amen.
 Luke 2: 22-24
 Mark 11: 27-33