The Promising Angel
A woman telephoned a friend. “How are you, dear?” she asked. “Simply awful,” came the reply. “My migraine headache is back, my feet are killing me, my back is almost breaking into, the ironing is piled to the ceiling, the house is a mess, and the children are driving me out of my mind.” “Now, you listen to me,” said the friend on the other end of the line, “You just go and lie down and rest. I’ll be right over to cook lunch for you and the children, and get your ironing done, and whisk up the house a bit, and watch the children while you get a bit of rest. By the way, why isn’t John helping?” “John?” asked the complaining housewife, “who is John?” “Why, John, your husband of course,” said the caller. “My husband’s name isn’t John,” came the reply. “Oh my,” gasped the caller, “I must have dialed the wrong number!” To which the exhausted woman whimpered, “Does this mean you’re not coming over??”
Promises that leave us hanging. You’ve been there before, haven’t you? We all have. Children swear they will stay out of the cake you baked for the church dinner. The weatherman assures a sunny day for your outdoor wedding. A candidate pledges to clean up corruption. A spouse vows never to leave. God covenants to be with us in every moment and to give us strength for the day, no matter what the day brings. But we feel as if we are left hanging. We hurt; we fall exhausted; we yearn for the fulfillment of that promise. And we ask, “Does this mean you are not coming?”
Luke in his book (which has been on the best-seller list for 1,921 years) tells this story of the birth of John the Baptist as his way of saying to us that God’s word is trustworthy. Zechariah and Elizabeth are devout Jews living in the hill country around Jerusalem. Both are descendants of Aaron, the first Hebrew priest, and Zechariah is currently a priest in the 8th division of the 24 priestly divisions that serve the Temple. In spite of the fact that they are righteous people, leading blameless lives, Zechariah and Elizabeth are childless, which was seen in those times as misfortune or disgrace or even as punishment from God for some sin committed. Worse, they are now too old; Elizabeth is beyond the age of child-bearing. Obviously this had been the subject of many a prayer by Zechariah for many a year. Then, THEN, the archangel Gabriel appears and announces, “Your prayer has been heard.”
If I had been Zechariah, I would have responded, “What?? Now?? This is a pretty old prayer, you know, Gabe. You couldn’t have granted this wish when I was younger? By the time this child hits high school, I am going to be collecting Medicare.” But I guess it would be disrespectful to speak to an angel that way. It was bad enough as it was when Zechariah asks the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife (listen how tactful old Zech is) is getting on in years.” Husbands, this is Biblical proof that you should never call your wife “old.” For Elizabeth never got mad at Zechariah, but the angel was pretty ticked off. “How do you KNOW?? I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God Almighty and this is God’s promise! And you don’t believe it!” Well, no, Gabe. We tried for so long. Consulted all the doctors. Went to the fertility specialists. Swallowed all the medications. Took our temperature. Watched all our friends getting pregnant. Watched their kids grow up and marry. And now, NOW, you tell me we are going to have a child. No, that’s too hard to believe.
So Zechariah was struck speechless, literally. Obviously deaf as well, since people had to motion to make him understand. He finished his two weeks of Temple duty and went home. And Elizabeth got pregnant. Maybe it was all that talking before that had been the problem.
Or maybe it was just the timing. That’s the part we have trouble with, isn’t it? Fulfill your promises today, Lord. Bring an end to all wars this year before Christmas. In six months when this chemo is over, make me cancer-free. Take an afternoon, Lord, and clear up this mess about starving children and whole cultures with nothing to look forward to in life. Soon. Imminently. Immediately. Now! And Gabriel said, “Believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And he meant in God’s time. The Greek word for “time” in this scripture is kairos. Not chronos, which is the time you keep on your watch and your calendar, but kairos which means when the time is right, when the time is full, when God is ready. Though we may get frustrated by the timing, God’s word is trustworthy. Prayers will be answered, prophecies will be fulfilled, problems will be solved, promises will be kept.
No, things don’t always happen WHEN we expect them to and things don’t always happen HOW we expect them. This child of their old age was to be named John, which means, “God is gracious.” We know him as John the Baptist. God through the angel promised that John would bring gladness and rejoicing. That he would turn the hearts of this generation to care about reforming society, so that their children might reap the blessings of a better world. The promise was that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit. That he would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. What more could a mother or father ask for their child?
And yet we know, reading ahead several chapters, that their son John was beheaded by King Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, when John was only about 30 years old. That doesn’t quite fit the human concept of a desirable, successful life, does it? Who would wish that for their child? And yet here almost 2,000 years later we still mention his name with reverence: John, John the Baptist, John the Forerunner, John who prepared the way for Jesus. The neighbors and family members wondered, “What then will this child become?” But the answer had already been given by the angel, was already sealed within the promises of God. When God makes a promise, nothing in all creation, nothing in time or space, nothing can prevent its coming true. Maybe that’s not very assuring to us as we experience immediate need. As we watch a loved one on a hospital bed or we suffer through the evening news report on TV. Or maybe it is absolutely the most assuring thing we could ever hear—that it WILL happen. We WILL be okay. There WILL be peace. Love WILL conquer evil. Goodness WILL rule in the hearts of humankind. For God has spoken it.
In 1990, a month before I was to move to Shreveport, Louisiana to take a church there, I saw a soul-shattering and decision-doubting photo in the Shreveport newspaper that they had sent me. Pictured there on the front page were men in the full regalia of the Ku Klux Klan! In 1990! They were handing out literature to passing motorists at a major intersection of the city. I looked closely at the photo and then, shocked, I looked again. The Klansmen were standing in the intersection right in front of the church to which I had just been called! And I groaned, “Oh, God, not again, not again. I have been fighting this same battle all my life. Won’t it ever end?”
Two and half years later I took my middle school daughter just across the Red River in Shreveport into Bossier City to watch the Christmas parade. It was wonderful to see the glow in the eyes of the children watching the bands and floats. One particularly exciting moment for the children was when the Shriners came by in clown faces, driving those funny, tiny little cars with their knees sticking up around their shoulders. Some honked horns and waved. Some drove in tight circles and figure eights. But one Shriner drove his little car close to the crowd on the curb. And as he drove by, he slapped hands with the kids on the sidewalk. Little ones rushed forward with outstretched hands—some black, some white, some brown, some in expensive gloves, some in cheap mittens, some bare and cold and dirty. But in that racially divided city, he slapped every hand, he touched each one of them. And in that touch was the wonder of Christmas, the value of every child, and the promise of God.
That Shriner didn’t solve the racial strife in Shreveport nor, as is obvious these last few weeks, in the USA either. That one night didn’t obliterate hatred and prejudice from the face of the earth. But it was as if an angel had bent down to tell me, “See, Bill, this is how it is going to be; on behalf of God, I promise.”