Luke 1:1-25 “Of Angelic Things”
In our sermon series on the Gospel of Luke, we are taking a trip backwards in time to the beginning of the story. You may recall when we started this series that we actually started with Luke 4. I noted to you at that time that come Christmas we would get back to the beginning of the book so that we would get the complete story. This morning we begin with the beginning as is right.
Luke starts his story with an author’s forward text as if he were writing to a friend named Theophilous. We today do not know who this is. Some scholars would like to point out that the name “theophilous” literally means “friend of God.” In other words, it may be that the Gospel of Luke was written really to all people who would believe in Jesus, the Son of God and not one particular individual.
I have my own theory of why Luke starts the Gospel with this note to Theophilous: The persecutions against Christians were already starting up when Luke is writing this Gospel. The words of the Gospel would have been written on a scroll and hand carried from a group of believers in one town to the next. If the person who was carrying the scroll were stopped by Romans and interrogated as to whether or not he or she were a Christian, there would have been what we euphemistically call “plausible deniability.” In other words, they could bend the truth a little and simply state rightly, “I am just carrying this mail for a fellow named Theophilous, and that is not MY name. Sorry.”
It would be kind of like this: Let us say that you throw a surfboard in the back of your truck and then go park your truck in front of fire hydrant. The police see you coming back out of the store and ask, “Is this your truck?” All you have to do is point to the surfboard and say, “I don’t even know how to surf, officer.”
“I am not Theophilous, officer. I have no idea who he is or where you can find him!”
The audience for this gospel is assumed also to have already heard something of the story of Jesus. This Gospel is being written by Luke “to set the story straight” about all the different things that have been said and are still circulating about Jesus. In our day and age of so-called “Fake News,” I want Luke to set the story straight about everything that I hear! Wouldn’t that be great if we had the “Luke” channel on television. We could just turn it on and listen to Luke tell us “Now, let me set the record straight about… ..” You all could fill in the blank.
One of the “fake news” items that was out there in those days was the idea that perhaps Jesus of Nazareth was not really ever human—that he was always nothing more than an angel sent by God. Luke’s Gospel is focused, therefore, on the difference between angels and the Son of God. By the way, still today Muslims will say that Jesus was merely an angel, therefore never died on the Cross, and was obviously therefore never resurrected. Without the resurrection and the promise of everlasting life, then there is no Good News. It is therefore super important to make the distinction between angels and Jesus.
Another way that we know that this gospel is written to those who already believe in Jesus is that place where Luke begins his story. He does not start with Jesus, does he? The other Gospels start right off with Jesus. Luke starts with John the Baptist, well, actually the father and mother of John the Baptist. Zechariah sees an angel in the Temple in Jerusalem.
If you think about it, that would be very difficult place to start for someone who was not already of the faith. If you want to bring someone to believe in Jesus, to evangelize someone, you would most likely not want to start with the line: “I see angels.” Even if you do in fact see angels, the person you are trying to reach might be put off by this word of Truth.
I have a friend in Germany who sees angels all the time. She told me that she shares this information about herself with me because I am a pastor and should believe in such. She does not share this information in her medical practice. Yes, she is doctor. She feels that her colleagues would not understand this spiritual gift and that she would be ridiculed if they knew of it.
So, here is a bit of prophetic news that we should all know and accept: We have all seen angels. That is to say that perhaps we have not seen the kind of winged angel that God sent to the people in biblical days. Those kinds of angels are called “Seraphim” in the Bible. They are best described in Isaiah 6:1-7 (read). This is the commissioning of Isaiah.
Another kind of angel that we see in the Bible is the Cherubim. We can read a description of sorts about them in Ezekiel 10. They are not cute little babies with little wings after all. They are monstrous creatures with four faces carrying swords of fire.
In Exodus 25:17-22 we hear a description given to Moses about putting statues of Cherubim, two of them, on the Ark of the Covenant. This is important for us to understand because Zechariah is in the Holiest of Holies where the Ark is kept looking right at those two statues of Cherubim when a totally different looking angel approaches somehow and addresses him in conversation.
So, we see that there be a third kind of angel in the Bible. We see this kind of angel in Genesis 18, the three “men” who come to announce to Sarah that she will bear a child in her old age, who are then described as “angels” in chapter 19. These angels apparently look just like you and me. In the text from Luke for today, we get the sense that the angel Gabriel is coming to Zechariah in a human form. Gabriel does not seem to be in the form of the angels that Zechariah can see right there on the Ark of the Covenant.
The term “angelos” in the Greek, or “angel” now in English, simply means one who is sent from the realm of God with a message. Last week Della Reese passed away. She is perhaps best known for her television portrayal of an angel sent by God to help another novice angel do good on the earth. Can an angel even look like Della Reese? Yes, of course.
That is why I can stand up here this morning and guarantee that we have all at one point or another in our lives seen those people whom God has sent to us. I recall when I was 19 years old, getting on a Greyhound Bus in Los Angeles to go down to the Mexican border. I was off on a youthful adventure to climb the pyramids of the Maya and Aztecs.
I got on the bus. I sat down next to an elderly woman who was dressed in poor clothes. We greeted one another politely. She extended her hand toward me to shake mine. She had a limp handshake, but she smiled broadly. As the bus pulled out, she started telling me all about my life—not all about HER life, all about MY life. It was as if she were a second parent who knew me from the day I was born.
I was amazed, and I asked her how she could now all these things. She told me that God had told her these things. She told me that God was blessing my life. I never caught her name. She got off the bus before crossing into Mexico. I never saw her again. So, today I think that she was an angel sent to me. She knew things she could not know. She knew who I was. She had a message from God for me.
Isaiah 49:1, “The Lord has called me even before I was born.” I believe that God sends angels to us to remind us of those words from Isaiah—to remind us that God has a set plan for us—which includes being born! I think about what happened to Zechariah in the Temple. He had already decided that his plans of being a dad were through when the Angel Gabriel reaffirms that God has different plans for him and Elizabeth. God already knows that a child named “John” is to be born. John is going to be the prophet who foresees the coming of Christ and in fact is the one who will anoint Christ in the Jordan River through baptism, thus starting the ministry Jesus.
That is why this angel gets to name the baby. In fact, Gabriel will come again and tell Mary to call Jesus “Jesus” as well. How does Gabriel get the right to name these children? Because God’s plan of redemption for humankind has already been set! All the way down to the names of all the players who will be on that stage. In Revelation 20, another angel shows a different John the “Book of Life” in which everyone’s name is already written. My name is there. Yours is there.
Zechariah hears the Angel Gabriel say that his son will be born, will have the name John, and that he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Yet, Zechariah does not believe the angel. Gabriel’s response is to make Zechariah mute. In other words, Zechariah’s usefulness as a priest of the temple is over until he absolutely believes, as he obviously must, at the time of John’s birth.
What a terrible thing to have seen an angel sent by God to tell you of a miracle that is going to happen but not be able to share that with anyone—out of fear that you do not believe or that the people hearing you would not believe!
The first thing that the angel commands to Zechariah and later to Mary is “Fear not.” Do not be afraid to believe in angels yourself. Do not be afraid to share what you believe with others. Actually this story enforces the notion that we ought to be afraid only if we do not believe. How should we ever stand against God’s plan?
In this way, if we believe in the Son of God, then we have to believe in the angels that announced his coming, too. We have to believe as well that God has a plan that we are a part of. This is the good news of salvation! Amen.