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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Listening to Angels

When Zechariah saw [the angel,] he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John...'
Zechariah said to the angel, 'How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.'
The angel replied, 'I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.'

That passage from the first chapter of Luke is part of the epic story of Jesus' birth, part of Christmas!  This Zechariah will be the father of John whom we call "The Baptist," who will prepare the way for Jesus.  In the story, Gabriel coolly explains that there are consequences when one dares to ask an angel for clarification.  (Perhaps Gabriel was not wearing his Nike "Just Do It!" t-shirt that day.)  We can sympathize with Zechariah, can't we?  We spend a lot of energy saying to each other, "How will I know that this is so?"

Actually, this is a savvy way to deal with contractors and children, infomercial spokespersons and lovers, teachers and preachers.  Many promise us that they will do such-and-such a thing.  Frequently, people claim the wisdom to say how events will unfold.  Consider how nuclear arms treaty conversations always include the phrase we attribute to President Reagan, "Trust, but verify!"

Does the Bible, then, suggest that we are not to be clever and careful about such matters?  No, of course not.  We are elsewhere advised to be clever as serpents and gentle as doves.  So don't forget to be clever in your life and go ahead and ask the question, "How will I know that this is so?"

Then again, this is no roofing contractor promising no more leaks.  This is the angel of the Lord.  I think that Gabriel had some basis for expecting that anything he had to say would be taken on trust – no "verify" required.  There are some people whose relationship with me is so deep and long that when they say something will happen I know that it will.  And yet, that's not the same as what Gabriel expected of Zechariah.

I propose that you think about this truth.  God is neither a contractor nor a trusted family member.  God is not even a person at all.  God is the space from which the future arises, the domain where hope lives, the home of the assurance that we are part of the creating universe, the essence of all life, the possibility of love and the source of all true love.  When you read where God speaks to characters in stories, you should understand that the voice arises from within – from a place so deep and connected within us that it seems like it comes from another person.  When we understand the words of the angel, we have already heard the truth, we already know that this is so.  When Zechariah speaks, he reveals his confusion about how he knows anything to be true or where meaningful truth begins.

It is winter as I write this and we recently had a mid-winter thaw.  That which was bound up and frozen has been released.  In time, Zechariah's inability to speak was relieved by the very birth of which Gabriel spoke.  Zechariah's first words were, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!"  I'm guessing that for the rest of his life, Zechariah took what any angel cared to share with him as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  May you and I be kind enough to do the same.