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December 21, 2014
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The 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. And 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then 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.
Protestants have never known quite what to do with Mary. Roman Catholics tend to idolize Mary, while Protestants, historically, have largely ignored her. I’ve heard of Presbyterian churches bearing the name St. Andrew, St. Stephen, and St. Mark, but I’ve never seen one called St. Mary. This despite the fact that she played a more important role in God’s salvation story than did Andrew, Stephen or Mark. While views on Mary vary widely, there is broad consensus on at least one point. Namely, that Luke intends us to view Mary as the first disciple. As such, Luke holds her up as a role model for all of us. Far from being an inaccessible image of Christian perfection, Mary is a mirror in whom we see a reflection of our own calling as followers of her son.
Notice first that God bestows favor on Mary. “Greetings, favored one!” declares the angel Gabriel to a startled Mary. “Do not be afraid, Mary, “the angel says, “for you have found favor with God.” Now in popular piety, it is often assumed that God’s favor is earned by good behavior, so we imagine that God favored Mary because she was exceptionally worthy, virtuous, pious, and so forth. Yet others have pointed out that there was nothing exceptional about Mary. Quite the opposite. She was notable for her ordinariness. She was a young girl in society that valued men and maturity. She was a poor village girl with no social standing. Mary was not a person who would have been noticed or honored according to any human measurement at all. So if Mary is the model, then we can conclude that God’s favor is not restricted to the worthy or the exceptional. Rather, she is an example of the surprising generosity of God—God who bestows favor on the just and the unjust, the notable and the ordinary. No wonder, then, that Mary is perplexed. Notice that her bewilderment arises even before the angel gets around to announcing the part about her conceiving and bearing a child, who will be the Son of the Most High. No, the mere suggestion that she has found favor with God is itself shocking to her. She immediately wonders: Why am I favored? After all, she is a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks, of little account in her world, and definitely not the stuff of legends…and she knows it.
Come to think of it, all the major players in the Bible are unlikely characters. They are surprising choices to receive God’s favor. There’s not a single one of them who chooses God. Rather, in each case, God chose them—Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, and Mary. In spite of their ordinariness and flaws, though, God came to these individuals. God bestowed his favor upon them and called them into service. The only
reason we know about them today is that they responded to God’s favor saying in effect: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”
Now, if Mary—like most of God’s servants—was mystified because God favored her, surely we experience a similar bewilderment. Why would God call us favored? Favored, not in the sense that God prefers some people over others, but favored in the sense that God has chosen to abide in, and work through, the very likes of us.
At a recent Preaching convocation, noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, made an interesting comment. “Few of our people,” he said, “imagine God to be an active character in the story of their lives.”
I don’t think that Brueggemann was suggesting that most of us don’t believe in God. Rather he was most likely suggesting that for many Christians, day in and day out, God seems fairly passive, more in the background, perhaps watching, waiting, being supportive, even encouraging. Kind of like the refrain of the Julie Gold song that Bette Midler recorded a few years ago: “God is watching us, God is watching us…from a distance.”
But in the first chapter of his Gospel, Luke challenges that assumption. He depicts a God who gets involved in human affairs, a God who does things, all kinds of things—great and small, mighty and mundane, common and miraculous. Of course, Mary was chosen to do something great and miraculous. She was chosen to bear the Son of God, who would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end. Still, Mary didn’t quietly acquiesce in the face of this calling. She debated. She questioned. She pondered: How can this be? In short, Mary knew that the announcement she was hearing was impossible. Actually, impossibility abounds in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, a barren, elderly woman, was pregnant with John. Now we hear that a young teenage virgin from a nowhere town was favored, and by the power of the Holy Spirit would give birth to a child. Yes, it’s incredible, impossible. Yet the angel of the Lord counters our incredulity with the assurance that “nothing is impossible with God.”
So, friends, the figure of Mary is so compelling and important to us today not simply because she is the mother of Jesus, but also because we see in her our own pattern of discipleship. Mary’s response to God’s call moves through bewilderment, confusion, fear, incredulity, and only then to faith and obedience. My prayer is that her story will awaken us to the good news that God is not finished interrupting people’s lives to use us in the service of God’s kingdom and for the health of the world.
Looking around this congregation I see persons who are also favored by God, and through whom God plans to do marvelous things. Perhaps we won’t conceive and bear the Son of God, but so what—that one’s been done already! But think how many other wonderful things there are that God wants to accomplish through us. Even between now and Christmas, there are kind words to be spoken, deeds of love to be offered, gestures of hospitality to be made. We can’t begin to name the concrete ways and places where we can make a difference, because God’s favor is upon us and God is at work in our lives each and every day, calling us to faith and service.