A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 30, 2014
Luke 1:5-25 GNT
One of the familiar holiday movie classics that will show up on television in the coming weeks is It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. I enjoy watching It’s a Wonderful Life again and again because of the positive, timeless messages the movie holds for us. If you have never seen it, you should do yourself and your family a favor and watch it sometime during this holiday season.
It’s a Wonderful Life centers on George Bailey (played by Stewart), the chief officer of a struggling savings & loan, who loses all hope and all faith just before Christmas. Things look so bad from George Bailey’s vantage point that his hopelessness and despair push him to the point of suicide. But just as George is ready to end his life by jumping off a bridge into an icy stream, an uncharacteristic angel in human form by the name of Clarence Odbody appears to save him. Clarence has been sent back to earth to earn his wings, which he will earn if he can help George Bailey make his way through his present crisis. Thus, Clarence’s mission is to help George Bailey see that things are not nearly as bad as they appear to be. I am not going to tell you any more of the story for those of you who may not have seen it. But in short, Clarence becomes for George Bailey an Angel of Hope.
Realizing the very prominent role that angels play in both Matthew’s and Luke’s Christmas stories, as well as the repeated mention of angels in many of the beloved Christmas carols, we decided to frame our Advent services and sermons around the theme of “Advent: Season of Angels,” attempting to look at the messages of the angels from a contemporary perspective.
Which brings me back to today’s topic: Angels: Bearers of Hope. Such was the angel Gabriel to Zechariah and Elizabeth in the Lukan story that I read today: an Angel of Hope. The angel Gabriel became an angel of hope for Zechariah and Elizabeth and their people in more ways than one. First, the angel Gabriel became a messenger of hope by announcing they would finally, after all of those long, barren years, have a son to call their own. For people of that day and time, being childless was a difficult lot in life, for many different reasons. For a couple to be childless meant they would not have the joy that children bring to a home. They would not have anyone to care for them and keep them company in their old age. They would not have any heirs to whom to leave whatever property or wealth they had accumulated. But perhaps worst of all, the wife, especially, was burdened with the disgrace of not being able to have children. Being barren was often seen as punishment by God, who was thought to close up a woman’s womb so that she could not conceive. And so, we can understand why Elizabeth would exclaim, when she realized she was pregnant, “Now at last the Lord has helped me. . . He has taken away my public disgrace!” (Luke 1:25). So Gabriel in this story becomes a bearer of hope by promising that Zechariah and Elizabeth would know the joy and gladness that a child brings to the home.
But Gabriel was a bearer of hope in another way. Their son, whom they were to name John, would bring religious and political hope to the people Israel. He would be a preacher of righteousness that would turn the hearts of people back to God. But more importantly (and for our Advent purposes), John would be a forerunner of the long-awaited One. In other words, something great, long-awaited changes, long hoped-for deliverance were in the works. And this son to be born would be a big part of it. Here was a ray of hope for a downcast, oppressed, people. Gabriel is a bearer of hope .
Now, it falls to each of us to decide how literally, or how symbolically, metaphorically, or mythologically we interpret this and other Advent and Christmas stories that include the presence, actions, and messages of angels. It is not my purpose either to defend or refute the historical factuality of angels in the Christmas stories that all of us hold dear, or the reality of angels in general. But when we investigate angels mentioned in the Bible, we find that the subject is broader than we might first think. Most often the meaning of the word translated “angel” in the Bible is “messenger or agent.” Sometimes “angel” in the Bible refers to a heavenly being messenger. But at other times the word “angel” designates a human being who serves as an emissary or messenger for God. And so, there can be angels of hope among us, whether we recognize them as such or not.
I have told the story a number of times how that in the winter of 2001 I suffered a herniated disk which caused excruciating, almost unbearable, pain for eight weeks. I went from doctor to doctor, doctor to chiropractor, looking for hope. Finally I found a surgeon who said he could fix my problem and put an end to my pain. I had found an angel of hope.
All of us have been following the news of the Ebola epidemic that has brought such suffering, devastation, death, and fright to parts of the world. Perhaps the Ebola crisis was not so critical in our eyes—until it came to America. But the reality is all of those doctors and nurses who are laboring in the Ebola treatment centers in Africa and other places are nothing short of angels of hope. And so are those medical personnel who work with children who have life-threatening illnesses at St. Jude’s and other hospitals like it. And those who work with people diagnosed with other life-threatening illnesses. Or those who work with the homeless. Angels of hope are everywhere, if we only had eyes to see them. And one need not be in the medical profession or social work to be an angel of hope. Could it be that any one of us might become an angel of hope to another “Zechariah,” “Elizabeth,” or “George Bailey” who may be at the point of despair or hopelessness?
Many years ago, a young man who found himself working long hours in dark, dingy factory aspired to be a writer. So time after time he mailed out stories he had written to publishers. But every time he got a rejection letter in reply. Finally one day the young man received a letter from an editor who liked what he had written and offered to publish it. The young man was so ecstatic, that he wandered the streets of London that night crying tears of joy. Someone had actually liked what he had written. That someone, that editor, had become an angel of hope to Charles Dickens. And the rest is history, as they say.
Perhaps a worthy commitment for each of us to make during this Advent season is to determine that we are going to become an angel of hope to at least one other person who is discouraged, at the point of despair, or lonely and in need of some compassion and hope. Maybe it is someone who is seriously ill. Maybe it is someone who is homebound, in the nursing home or assisted living. Maybe it is someone who is homeless. Other someone who is just having a very difficult time right now. By reaching out, lending a listening ear, showing human compassion, affirming someone’s human dignity, each of us can become an angel of hope to another. That may seem like a small thing. But just think about what a difference we could make if everyone at our services today became an angel of hope to just one other person during this Advent season!
Truly, there are angels among us—angels of hope. Maybe, just maybe, we—like Clarence Odbody in It’s a Wonderful Life—can get our wings (in a manner of speaking) by becoming an angel of hope during this Advent-Christmas season. May it be so. Amen.