Summary: We need to be seized once more by heavenly realities – just as Zechariah was. We need to experience something like a shock to our smug certainties that whittle God down to a manageable size and leave us underwhelmed by the mysteries of eternity.
Angels have fallen on hard times these days. Hardly anyone thinks about them anymore…except at Christmas, of course. But even at that, people don’t much believe in them. Although…I knew a woman – a member of this church at one time: She told me that she had actually seen an angel. She was just a girl when it happened, but in her mind there could be no mistake. It was an angel all right. Me? I’ve never seen one, though I’m sure if I did, it would be a frightening encounter – at least, at first.
Some years ago, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wind in the Door. It’s about a young girl named Meg and her brother Charles Wallace. One day, Charles Wallace tells Meg that he saw a drive of dragons in the broccoli patch. Meg goes with her brother to check it out, but all they find is a pile of odd-looking feathers. Later, Meg goes to the garden alone, and she has the terrifying experience of discovering that the feathers haven’t been left by a dragon at all. They belong to a cherub, of all things, an angel named Proginoskes. And there he is! Right in front of her. Now, this cherub is certainly no innocent looking, plump, little winged baby. Progo, as the children later come to call him, is huge, and he is all feathers and eyes and movement – frightening, unsettling even, in his appearance.
It is no wonder that, in the Bible, whenever an angel appears to someone, the first thing the angel has to say is, “Do not be afraid.” Those were the angel Gabriel’s very first words to Zechariah, weren’t they? Zechariah the old priest was going about his duties in the temple when “there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.” And Luke tells us that, “when Zechariah saw him, he was terrified” – just like Meg in L’Engle’s novel was when she saw the angel. In fact, Luke says, “fear overwhelmed him.” But the angel said…what? “Do not be afraid, Zechariah….”
Still, as awe-struck as others may be by the appearance of angels, most moderns are unimpressed. And I think I know something of the reason why. Our lack of interest is symptomatic of something much larger. Not only do we fail to see the point with angels. For most people, there’s been a wholesale abandonment of anything that signals the celestial or the eternal. As Westerners, we have become skeptical of the supernatural. We just don’t see its practicality.
Now, this is a mindset, and it emerged full-force some three hundred years ago with a movement in Europe called the Enlightenment. You may have heard of some of the big names of that period, names like like John Locke, Voltaire, Rene Descartes, and others. No doubt, you have. They gave us many inestimable gifts. It is because of that era in the history of ideas that we have made so many great discoveries in nature. We have seen huge strides in science and technology. And we have come to value human rights and individuality.
But along with such a prized legacy, there have been other influences, changes in the way we think that have managed to shrink the human soul – and shrink it down to almost nothing. Just to give you one example, the seat of authority has shifted. Perry Huesmann in his book, Covenant as Ethical Commonwealth, writes about this. He says that, in Enlightenment modernity, “the autonomous individual is found to be at the center of reality and [the] rational determiner of it.” In other words, things are what we say they are. We used to look outside ourselves for the source of authority, but no more. Now, we look internally. We go inside. It’s no longer what God says that’s important; it’s what we think. The Enlightenment assigned ultimate authority not to God but to human reason. Although now – some three hundred years later – even reason doesn’t seem to carry the day. Most people don’t bother to think through anything anymore. Nowadays the final court of appeal is…what? It’s our feelings. We judge whether something’s right or wrong or good or bad or true or false – how? by how we feel about it.
Even Zechariah, who lived in ancient times – not just hundreds of years ago but thousands of years ago – even he had a hard time with this. He was a priest, after all, “righteous before God,” according to Luke. But despite all that, he had difficulty entertaining the thought that there could actually be an authoritative revelation from beyond himself. Did you catch that? When the angel Gabriel told him that God was going to bless him and his wife, Elizabeth, and they were going to have a child in their old age, how did Zechariah receive the news? He didn’t believe it! “How will I know that this is so?” he asked. And then he rationalized the unlikelihood of it. “I am an old man,” he said, “and my wife is getting on in years.” It can’t be. You must be wrong. It’s outside the realm of possibility.