Some Favor!December 18, 2011, 9:00 am & 11:15 am & 7:30 pm
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Order of Worship | Download
“Greetings, Favored one! The Lord is with you.”
These words from Gabriel to Mary are not unlike the words with which I greeted you this morning: “The Lord be with you!” You hear them every Sunday; have you ever pondered what they mean? This is more than simply the way Christians greet one another or say “Good morning.” It is that, but it is also a reminder of a truth that you and I live in with every breath we breathe: the Lord is with us! But given the nature of modern life, most of us are unaware of it until it is called to our attention, or a situation in our lives drives us to it. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
Gabriel has come to remind Mary of this truth and bring her a word of blessing. But his appearance leaves Mary startled, just as you and I would be startled. Luke is clear about that. He tells us Mary was perplexed,1 confused, and highly agitated, wondering what sort of greeting this might be. Over the years we have romanticized this moment in art and poetry. Let’s be clear at the start–this is a crisis for Mary. As the author of the Book of Hebrews reminds us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hand of the living God.”2 Mary has good reason to fear, just as you and I would if Gabriel were to appear and address us.
“Do not be afraid, Mary....” There it is again: “Do not be afraid....” In the Bible, these words are spoken again and again when God or God’s messenger makes an appearance in someone’s life. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. But then Mary hears what God’s favor means. She is going to conceive, bear a son and call him Jesus.3
Favored? Some Favor! Mary can’t be much more than thirteen or fourteen years of age, and though betrothed to Joseph–probably since her early childhood–she has not yet been with him and does not expect to be any time soon. Pregnant: what kind of favor is that? This is only going to confuse her world–not to mention Joseph’s and, indeed, her family’s as well. To give birth without a husband in that culture usually meant one thing–you were a prostitute. In fact, an entire tradition will emerge that labeled Mary just that, and the child’s father a Roman soldier. It doesn’t matter that none of that is true. Joseph will surely insist on a writ of divorce and send Mary away into disgrace. Some favor, indeed.
Favored, here, means caught up in the grace of God. It may be “amazing,” but it is usually anything but cheap and easy. More often than not, God’s grace is demanding and often inconvenient. The grand narrative of God’s promise to David, to build him a house–a dynasty–is about to unfold. The mystery of God’s plan to bring about the obedience of faith, a mystery kept secret for long ages, is about to be revealed, and it starts with Mary and the inconvenience of the life that is taking shape in her womb without the benefit of a father. Her people have been longing for this child, waiting long generations for the appearance of this king, whose reign will be liberating and bring peace without end. God had promised it, and now God’s promise was coming true. With her people, Mary had longed for it, but little had she dreamed that she would be a part of it. And little could she understand just how important her ascent, her “let it be to me according to your word,” would be, much less what would come of that.
Mary is not that unlike the rest of us. Who of us does not want the Gospel promises for the world to come? At least weekly, and often daily, we pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And though we pray for it, and though we hope for it, who of us expects that how we live our lives right now just might have something to do with that? Who of us expects our lives to be as engaged as Mary’s? We want to be the recipient of God’s Grace. We want to be God’s favored ones. But more often than not, we expect that to mean a life of blessing and ease that is laid in our lap and demands little of us.
To be God’s favored ones does mean a life of blessing. But if Mary has anything to teach us today, it is that God’s blessings do not always make life easier and frequently make it more complex. God’s grace can draw us into situations that are challenging and demanding, and at first glance appear anything but a blessing. Go back and read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, if you think I exaggerate.4 And if we are not attuned to the truth that the Lord is with us, don’t those moments seem anything but a sign of God’s grace and favor? For Mary, it was the word that she would soon find herself pregnant. More, it would be in a way that could be attributed to no one but God–and who in their right mind was going to believe that? It was, at first hearing, anything but a blessed event. What are some of those the moments for us? Where are the hard edges of God’s grace in your life?
For some of you, the financial reverses of the last three or four years have been and remain very personal. Have you yet been able to discover God’s grace in them? For others, things are still shifting in your corporate structures and you know that more layoffs are coming. Are you able to hear “the Lord is with you,” and see God’s hand at work in all that is happening, or is this still as perplexing, confusing and agitating as Gabriel’s news was to Mary? The Lord is with you.
For others, it is an illness or diagnosis that has suddenly changed everything. It dominates every thought and affects every plan. Yet, the Lord is with you.
For others of you, this season of family gatherings and celebrations is anything but celebratory. Some are grieving the loss of a marriage or, as a result of that, being cut off from your children because of a painful divorce. The cheer and festivities of this season make that all the more poignant. Yet, hear this word: the Lord is with you. Such hardships are often the hard edges of God’s grace, and where we learn of God’s capacity to work in ways that are beyond this world’s understanding.
Recently, I was with a friend for whom the last two years have been extraordinarily tumultuous: loss of a mother, a grieving father, her professional life turned upside down by the financial crisis that not only left her displaced as a senior officer of a major financial institution, but also mired in the trailing edge and prop-wash of legal scrutiny that such things bring. I asked how she was doing. She smiled and said, “I’m blessed,” and as she did, reached into her bag and withdrew a piece of paper, slipped into a plastic sheath for safekeeping, for on the paper were photocopies of two important pictures. The photograph on the left showed a gray-haired woman standing at a table before soldiers. To the right was a photo of a uniformed man with a fierce look on his face, seated and staring straight at the camera. The woman, she explained, was her grandmother, a missionary physician in China in the 1930s and 40s. The Japanese, upon their invasion, had imprisoned all the Chinese physicians at her hospital. In the photo, she is standing before the military tribunal pleading for the release of those physicians. Her picture was taken for the man in the other photo, the Japanese Chief of Police. He had ordered the physicians imprisoned. He sent the photograph to the doctor, along with the one of himself, as a means of intimidation. His message was clear: she was being watched and could easily join the others doctors in prison. My friend said, “When I think things are getting rough for me, I look at this and remember my grandmother, and what God required of her.”
Not only were the physicians finally released, but the Chief of Police later became a Christian, primarily through the witness of a brave woman missionary doctor, who risked her life for people who were not even her own. Often, what we think is a hardship is really God’s grace at work in and through us. As Mary was favored to be the bearer of Christ, so, too, are you and I.
God’s grace and favor are not always immediately recognizable. Often, God works in and through hardships in ways we cannot know and may never understand. In the midst of them, you and I are called to bear Christ in our own way, as Mary did in hers. As you do, listen for Gabriel’s words: “Fear not; the Lord is with you; you are highly favored.” Then, with Mary, let us say, “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be to me according to your word.”
God is still at work, unveiling the mystery to bring about the obedience of faith, and doing so through you and me.
The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God!
- διεταράχθη, from διαταράσσω diatarasso, meaning highly agitated, confused, or perplexed.
- Hebrews 10:31
- יְהוֹשׁוּעַ Yehoshua Meaning: ‘the LORD is salvation,’ and is the contemporary form of “Joshua.”
- Matthew, chapters 5–7, or the parallel in Luke 6:17-49, often called “the Sermon on the Plain.”
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