Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 3rd Wednesday in Advent + December 16, 2016
Readings: Daniel 9:17-23a; Luke 1:5-20
The angel Gabriel is mentioned by name in four stories in our Bible: two in Daniel, and two in Luke. We just heard one Gabriel story from each of these books. We will hear the most familiar story about Gabriel during worship this Sunday: the Annunciation, when Gabriel appears to the young virgin Mary and tells her that she has been chosen to be the mother of the Son of God, to be the mother of Immanuel, God-with-us (Lk. 1:26-38).
And here’s my fun fact for the evening: in Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, and Joseph is just mentioned in passing as Mary’s fiancee. In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of Jesus’s birth begins more suddenly, without an angel’s warning: “Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph quite reasonably comes to the conclusion that Mary has been with another man, and decides to call off the marriage. It is at this point that an angel comes to announce what God is doing; this unnamed angel appears to Joseph in a dream, tells him to stay with Mary, and explains that she is carrying the Son of God (Matt. 1:18-25). Mary is not visited by angel in the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel.
But anyway, back to Gabriel. The very first time that Gabriel appears in our Bible is in the book of Daniel, just a chapter before the story I read to you a few minutes ago. Daniel has just had a crazy vision involving a goat and a ram whose horns get broken and regrow. One of the horns grows so tall, it grabs the stars and throws them to earth and tramples on them. Needless to stay, Daniel is pretty confused, and he’s trying to figure out what all this means. At that moment someone “having the appearance of a man” is suddenly standing before him. And Daniel hears a voice say, “Gabriel, help this man understand the vision” (Dan. 8).
Those are the very first words spoken about this angel: “Gabriel, help this man understand the vision.” And to help people understand what God is saying and doing is Gabriel’s role in each of his appearances in our Bible. He appears to Daniel, to Zechariah, and to Mary, and he helps each of them to understand what God is doing and what it means for the world. He delivers and makes clear God’s messages.
This is why Gabriel is considered to be the patron of many professions involved in delivering messages and making sure they are clear: telecommunication workers, radio broadcasters, postal workers, ambassadors, clergy, and even stamp collectors.
Gabriel’s name is an interesting choice for the role he plays as the consummate messenger. In the Bible a person’s name often tells us something about their character. The name Abraham comes from the Hebrew word for “father,” and he is the father of the Jewish people. The book of Genesis tells us that the name Jacob means “heel-grabber,” a metaphor for the sneaky way Jacob gets ahead in the world throughout his life (Gen. 25:26). The angel Raphael’s name means “God heals” and refers to Raphael’s works of healing, which we heard something about last Wednesday (in the story of Tobit). Gabriel tells Mary to name her child “Jesus,” which in Hebrew is Yeshua — a form of the name given to the Old Testament figure we know as Joshua, who led Israel into the promised land. Jesus also means “he saves” or “God saves.”
The name Gabriel means something like “God is my strength.”
It struck me this this name was not given to the angel we know as Michael, even though he is the one most obviously associated with strength. Michael is a warrior-angel, the leader of God’s armies, the defender of Israel. In art he is often dressed in armor and standing on top of a dragon he is just about to slay. But the name “Michael” does not refer to might or skill in battle; Michael means, “who is like God?” — maybe a reference to how the God on behalf of whom Michael fights is powerful beyond all human power.
Instead it is Gabriel the messenger whose name points to the strength that comes from God. Which made me wonder: why? Could there be a connection? Here’s the wild speculation I’ve come up with:
There are lots of kinds of strength, from the strength needed to move a couch to the strength needed to get out of bed when you’d really rather tap out for the day. Underlying all the different kinds of strength is the strength of faith, trust, confidence, hope. The warrior is strengthened by his faith in the cause he fights for. The hospital patient is strengthened by the love of family and the hope of getting better.
Messages from God strengthen us by boosting our faith and our hope. This must be part of the reason why we are always seeking messages from God and seeking to make sure we understand the messages we have been given. We seek to know what God is doing, what God is saying to us, in order that we have more confidence in the way we are living our lives. We worship, we pray, we read the scriptures and tell their stories, looking for hope and for guidance to strengthen us along our journeys. When we hear from God, we are strengthened for love and service.
The angel Gabriel strengthens people by bringing them words from God and helping them to understand. We see this in the examples of Daniel and Zechariah.
Daniel’s powerful visions often make him faint: he falls to the ground, weak and trembling (ex. Dan. 10:8), and then a being having the “appearance of a man” appears to help him understand the message of the vision and to strengthen him. This being is not always called an angel and not always called Gabriel, but I think it is Gabriel returning to help Daniel over and over.
At one point Daniel says to this being, “I am shaking, no strength remains in me, and no breath is left in me.” He is weak, he can’t go on. But the angel touches him and says: “Do not fear greatly beloved, you are safe. Be strong and courageous!” And Daniel says “When he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me” (Dan. 10:15-19). The angel’s message of love and protection strengthens Daniel.
In tonight’s reading from the gospel of Luke, we saw Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, in states that society might call weak. They are both very, very old — and they have no children, no heirs to carry on their legacy. For Elizabeth especially this was a source of pain: to be unable to have children can be a very painful thing on a personal level, but in the ancient times barrenness was a mark of social shame on a woman.
The angel Gabriel brings the couple the message that now, in their old age, they will have a child, and that child help turn the hearts of their people back to God. This message strengthens the couple, revives them, gives them renewed purpose. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Lk. 1:25). She is lifted up both emotionally and socially. She is made stronger.
Even more than that, Zechariah and Elizabeth are strengthened by the bigger message: the messiah is coming, and they will get to see him come (Lk. 1:67-79).
We continue to find strength in these messages of Gabriel. God pays attention. God speaks to us — and speaks not to the powerful, but to the lowly: to Zechariah and Elizabeth, too old to have children; to Mary, young and poor. Gabriel’s messages continue to give us faith and hope, because at their core they are a reminder: God is with us, and God is our strength.