Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
12/23/18 – 4th Sunday of Advent
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.”
38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.(NRSV)
The more I read the biblical story, the more it loses some things. And one thing it loses, something that needs to go, is its me-and-Jesus soppiness – all that unnatural sweetness responsible for things like shiny candy canes at Christmas and squishy yellow peeps at Easter.
This is no original idea. Many people complain about turning Christmas, and even Easter, into flurries of indulgence and consumption. And then there’s Mardi Gras – a Christian observance we’ve elevated to a level of commercialism and hedonism all its own. And yet, underneath the widespread grumbling, I sense a kind of twisted, lemming-like discipleship at work, because in one way or another, most of us continue to participate in the very thing to which we claim to object. That says to me that we continue to regard the means to obtain material possessions, and the freedom to engage in excess as signs of God’s favor. As much as we might say that we could be happy without our belongings around us, in our culture, even in our church culture, notto have these things tends to feel like personal failure, or even being judged by God. So, as much as anything else we say or do, leaping into the feeding frenzy surrounding our liturgical celebrations has become a creedal statement. For both individuals and institutions, owning and controlling assets has become a de facto affirmation of faith.
Biblical favor, God’s favor looks alarmingly different from the favor one assumes in competitive, consumeristic cultures. When someone in the biblical story finds favor with God, it’s almost guaranteed that they will rue the day that God showed up and said, ‘You. I pick you to do important work for me.’
Maybe that’s why Mary is “perplexed” when Gabriel shows up and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…You have found favor with God.” If Mary has been told the stories of the Jewish faith, she knows what being favored by God meant for Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, David, Jeremiah, Hosea, Daniel, and on goes the list. At some point along the way, being favored by God means being inconvenienced, uncomfortable, and anything but favored by those around us.
Being favored by God means being chosen to do something meaningful and memorable, and something difficult and potentially dangerous – something that may feel impossible. It’s not the same as being sent into some war zone. God does not equip us with tools of violence and purposes that are temporal and temporary. God equips us with the means of mercy and purposes of redemption for all creation – even when the creation wants something entirely different. What the world seems to want – whether in the form of Pollyanna or Rambo – is Santa Claus; and what God gives us is Jesus – a man who engages all that is sinful and sinister in the world because he sees all that is beautiful, eternal, and beloved at the heart of it all.
In his grand announcement, Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to a boy who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and [will sit on] the throne of his ancestor David.” So, for Mary, being favored by God means something immediate and specific: She will have a child. And that means she’s being called to motherhood – something permanent and open-ended. Mary will love her child as boundlessly as he will love her. He will be the earth beneath her feet and the stars in her sky. He will also, as the old priest Simeon says, be “a sword to pierce [her] soul.” (Luke 2:35) For Mary, then, favored means a lifetime of labor, love, anxiety, and heartbreak.
Here at Christmastime, I don’t find satisfaction in feeling like a kill-joy, or what my daughter likes to call a fun-sucker. But think about Mary’s life, and Paul’s life, and Stephen’s life, and Peter’s life. The lives of ones who are favored by God have nothing in common with presents wrapped in glossy paper and tied neatly with bright red bows. That’s just not God’s way in the world. Favored status always means a summons to a journey of faith, a life of uncertainty, discovery, and trust. That’s precisely why God enters the creation in general and the human condition in particular in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – a man whose own favored life was a journey of service, struggle, and suffering.
We inhabit an imperfect, corporeal reality. By faith, we also affirm that it is God’s beloved, manger-delivered creation. And if we’re to accept our favored-ness, we need Jesus, because we need more than an example. We need someone to follow. We need someone who doesn’t sugar-coat the life of discipleship. We need someone who fully receives his own favored-ness, and who fully shares it – even unto death. (cf. Phil. 1:8)
Mary does all of this. Before meeting Jesus, before hearing him speak, before watching him live and love, before feeling every wound that he feels, and before experiencing grief and loss as only a mother can – before all of this, Mary fully receives her favored-ness. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” From that point onward, Mary embodies the truth that being favored by God does not include being treated with favoritism. Favored-ness is a call to commit one’s life to compassion, gratitude, generosity, and reconciliation. It’s a call to commit one’s life to humble service. And through this commitment, we can experience a truly holy and human – a truly favored life.
I’m toying with the idea of instructing members of next year’s nominating committee, when they make phone calls to potential officers, to say, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.” That should get interesting results, don’t you think? Serving as an elder is a significant honor. It can be tremendously rewarding. It’s also real service. It requires time, effort, prayer, humble honesty and humble restraint, and a great deal of patience. And faithful, servant-hearted leaders make all the difference in how well a given group of people functions as a community – especially as a Jesus-following community.
Advent prepares us for the giving and receiving of a gift that reveals our deepest gifts, gifts we’ve been given to share. To use holy gifts for selfish ends always leads us to mistake God’s favored-nessfor privilege, and God’s blessing for whatever benefits us personally.
You may want to duck when you feel God favoring you with a call, but if you can, receive it, anyway. Let it be with you according to God’s word.
And remember Mary, who shows us that in the faithful receiving and sharing of our favored-ness, our hearts, minds, bodies, and our living come alive with the life of Jesus.
*To read sermons, newsletters, and other posts from earlier years, please visit: https://pastorallentn.blogspot.com