It feels very strange to be dropping in to Advent here at the close of the season, when Christmas Eve is nearly upon us. Already, you’ve been worshipping together and been preparing for the coming of the Christ child, even if virtually, but I haven’t been part of that preparation, even though I’ve been worshipping (online) too with a faith community in New Jersey. Still, the blessings of being connected as siblings in the body of Christ means that in our various places, we have been thinking about the peace, hope, joy, and love of Advent, that we have been singing some of the same tunes, and certainly, we have been about the same work of preparing our hearts and lives for Jesus.
Today, we’re turning our attention to a familiar text: a passage from the first chapter of Luke when the angel Gabriel tells a young woman named Mary that she will be the bearer of a child, God’s child, who will be the savior of the people. We probably mostly know this story, but it is always good to take another look. The text starts by saying that “in the sixth month” a messenger from God named Gabriel is sent to a town in Galilee, Nazareth, to a young woman named Mary, who is engaged to a man named Joseph. Joseph is a descendent of David, the favorite king in Israel’s history. The “sixth month” that the text mentions refers to the months of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy with a child we will know as John the Baptist, mentioned just before our text for today.
When Gabriel arrives, he says to Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” We read that Mary is perplexed by the messenger’s greeting. She ponders, we read, “what sort of greeting” this is that God’s messenger brings. I wonder exactly part of his hello she’s pondering. Is it that he says she’s favored? Or that God is with her? Or maybe both of those things are perplexing to her. At any rate, the messenger senses that part of her perplexed response is actually fear, and he tells her not to be afraid because, as he says for a second time now, Mary has “found favor with God.” And then he drops the astonishing news: Mary will have a child to be named Jesus. And this child will be called “the Son of the Most High,” and he will inherit from God the throne of David, the seat of authority of all Israel. This child will reign over Israel forever, an unending reign. If Gabriel meant to comfort and alleviate how perplexed Mary was, he can only have accomplished the opposite, because of what he says to her! What Mary hears from Gabriel is something that would be blasphemous to claim. To claim your child is God’s child, an anointed one, a messiah, who will reign over Israel forever? Blasphemy. A crime to claim. Punishable words.
Mary seems to take it in stride. We don’t know anything about her aside from what this passage tells us. We don’t know why she’s able to handle this enormous, life and world-changing news from Gabriel. But Mary asks just one question in response to Gabriel’s announcement: How can this be? Gabriel says that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, the Most High will overshadow her, and her child will be of holy birth, of holy origin. Well, that clears things right up, doesn’t it? He tells her about Elizabeth, that she, too, is expecting a child, an elderly woman thought to be barren. And Gabriel sums up the nature of this news: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary asks no other questions. Instead, she agrees to this whole plan: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And with that, Gabriel leaves her to her thoughts.
Aside from hearing a beloved story, what’s the message for us in this text? I think sometimes that Advent and Christmas are so rightfully special to us - we love the sacred season, and we love telling the story of Jesus’ birth. But I wonder if the story has become so special that we lose sight of our place in the story. As I was thinking about this, my attention was drawn back to the opening lines of our text. Greetings, favored one. God is with you. You have found favor with God. I think we hear those phrases: “Greetings, favored one,” and “You have found favor with God,” and we think of it as, “Greetings, favorite one,” and “You are a favorite of God.” And this makes sense to us, because, of course God would choose a favorite human to be the mother of Jesus, right? Maybe not the favorite, but certainly one of the best of the best? Mary is favored - a favorite - and therefore she’s a good choice to carry the Christ child.
But - the Greek word in the text that we read as favored doesn’t mean favorite at all. What it means is “one who has been shown grace.” And that changes everything. Because if we’re trying of figure out where we stack up as a favorite of God’s, it is easy to convince ourselves we’re not at the top of the list. But if the question is: to whom has God shown grace? Well, it turns out we have everything in common with Mary. Grace is love that isn’t deserved. Not that we don’t deserve love. It’s just that grace is love that we don’t have to earn - we get it for free. There’s nothing we have to do or can do to be worthy of it. It’s a gift. God’s free gift of love and blessing without price. God’s practice of unlimited second chances. Forgiveness whenever we ask for it. Loving us even when we screw up. And God’s grace extended to all, even when we can’t believe God could love us, and even when we can’t believe God could love the people who drive us crazy, who we can’t stand, who we consider not just unlikable, but enemies. They get God’s grace too. Grace is God’s gift. And to receive God’s favor is just another way to say to receive God’s grace. So, favored ones? That’s Mary. But it’s also you and me. Because I’m quite sure - 100% positive - that you and me - we’re recipients of God’s love, poured out freely over us, in unending abundance. How has God shown grace to you? I want you to think about that, how you would answer that question. Write it down if it helps you think through your answer. Talk to a friend about it, or someone in your family. How has God shown grace to you? I know that God has loved me even when I’ve felt very unlovable. I’ve received God’s forgiveness even when I’ve disobeyed God in the same way I have before and sought the same forgiveness I’ve asked before and committed to do better with the same words I have before. How has God shown grace to you?
So, if - since - God has shown grace to you, just as God has shown grace to Mary and to all of God’s people, since God favors you and me like God favors Mary and all God’s people - then there’s no difference between you and Mary in terms of who God might pick to do God’s work. In fact, I think God is choosing you to do God’s work. Where the difference might enter in is in how we respond to whatever God chooses us for. Mary listened to Gabriel’s words. She was confused at first, but listened for clarification. She heard God’s vision for the world, and the role she was called to play in it. She asked the question she needed to, but she accepted God’s answer, as improbable as it seemed. And then she said yes to God’s vision.
What will we say? I think we want to say yes to God, but part of saying yes means believing in the impossible. “For nothing will be impossible with God” Gabriel says. Do we believe that? Really? We do learn to believe the impossibly bad. The impossibly bad seems somehow easy to believe, despite the craziness of it. After all, this year with Covid, which has altered our reality in nearly every aspect - it has a sense of unreality to it, doesn’t it? And yet, at this rate, I think we’d believe nearly any bad news that unfolded for 2020. We make jokes about it, about all the strange things of 2020. So, if we can believe the impossibly bad, can we believe the impossibly good? Do we trust God? Nothing will be impossible with God. And if everything is possible, and if God favors us, shows grace to us, then we can say yes to God with confidence. Mary tells Gabriel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She’s saying, “Let it be like you say. Let it happen just as you have said.” Can we say the same? Do you want God’s vision of hope, peace, joy, and love, of justice and righteousness for the world to become a reality? Then let’s answer God: “Yes. Here we are, your servants. Let it happen just like you are saying it will.”
God has favored you. You are favored by God, because God has shown you grace upon grace. In terms of what qualifies people for service to God - you and Mary, Mother of Jesus the Christ? You’re on equal footing - favored by God. God is with us, just as God was with her. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Love, let us be confident that we are loved by God without measure. And since we are so loved, we are also chosen, called, and equipped to be God’s servants in the world, called to be messengers of God’s love, each in our own way. Even me, and even you. Because nothing is impossible with God. Here we are! Let it be just like God says. Amen.