Pastor Drew Williams
Many of you know my two kids, Emmy and Ollie. Emmy just turned three years old, and it’s really crazy, because it was just like a week ago that I was holding her in my arms all bundled up when she was only a few days old.
I was so excited to be a dad, but let me tell you, I was NOT ready. I THOUGHT I was ready, but I had NO IDEA how much everything would change for my life. Some of you might have had a similar experience.
And I’m reflecting on this right now because we’re in the season at church where we once again visit the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s easy to zone out with these stories around Christmas-time, because many of us are so familiar with them. We’ve heard these stories for years, we’ve seen Charlie Brown and his friends act them out, maybe you’ve even been in a Christmas pageant, or at least we’ve all seen some summarized version on a TV show or movie.
So that’s why I’m going to ask you for a CRAZY favor: to try and forget what you know about these stories so that we can approach the Scripture with new curiosity. It might be hard, but if we listen as if we’ve never heard these before, we might be able to see what God might be trying to communicate to us today.
Let’s read Luke 1:26-38 together…
If you heard last week’s sermon from Pastor Chris, you’ll realize that parts of this sound very familiar. We have Gabriel, a messenger of the Lord, sent to someone to tell them that a baby is about to change their life, and change the world.
But while last week showed us Zechariah encountering Gabriel at the center of Jewish life in the temple in Jerusalem, this week we see Gabriel travelling far away from Jerusalem, to Nazareth in Galilee.
The fact that Luke has to mention where the town of Nazareth is gives us a clue that this was an insignificant town that no one really knew about. Now, because of Jesus and countless Christmas pageants performed by preschool students, we are all familiar with the names of Nazareth and Bethlehem. But these were tiny towns on the fringe of Jewish society.
Nazareth was in the north, in Galilee, separated from Jerusalem by Samaria. Archeologists tell us that it probably had a population of around 500 at this time. Tiny town. Tiny, insignificant people. In fact, the recipient of Gabriel’s message in our passage isn’t even named at first. She’s called “a virgin,” from the Greek word for a young woman of marriageable age, which at the time meant she was between 12-16 years old.
Her husband-to-be had something going for him, since he could trace his family line back to David, that famous king of Israel. But nothing is said about the virgin’s family, so we’re left to assume she’s probably from a poor, common family, the type of people who get forgotten and glossed over by history.
Before we continue, I just want us to back up and remember the context of the story that came right before this. Zechariah and Elizabeth are both members of the priestly class and can trace their lineage back to Aaron, the first High Priest, brother of Moses. They were righteous, which meant they followed the Jewish traditions and laws really well, and were probably respected in their community. They were in Jerusalem and Zechariah served at the temple. You couldn’t have picked two better candidates for God to partner with for his plan. The only thing that seemed off was that God had not blessed them with children…yet.
But then we immediately zoom over 60 miles to the north to an unknown town, to an unnamed young girl who has nothing noteworthy or mentionable about her, other than the fact that she’s engaged to a guy named Joseph. And this is what the angel says to her, “Greetings, Favored One!”
The angel doesn’t call her by her name, either, but instead addresses her as “Favored One”. Instead of a name, she gets a fancy title. Then he says “The Lord is with you!”
Now this is more than just a greeting. Saying “The Lord is with you,” isn’t a normal thing to say, like, “good morning!” In the OT, that phrase is used to refer to someone who is chosen by God for a special purpose. We see it when God calls Isaac, the son of Abraham, and when God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. So the fact that the angel says this is supposed to tip us off that God is up to something big here.
See, many of us are so used to this story that we don’t think twice about Mary as the mother of Jesus. But to the first readers of this story, they’re asking, “What makes this young girl so favored? She’s not from a notable family, she’s from a poor area of the country, and she’s barely old enough to have gotten acne!”
Honestly, that’s exactly what Mary seems to be thinking herself, because we see that “Mary was greatly troubled at the angel’s words.” She’s confused, perplexed. “What? God hasn’t favored me. I’m a nobody.”
Isn’t that typical of us humans? We think that titles are earned. Get your PhD and THEN we’ll call you “Doctor So-and-so.” We think we receive the title when we earn the role, like “president” or “manager” or “coach.” We think special names are only given after something special has been demonstrated in the life of the person. The successful businesswoman has “the Magic touch.” The star athlete is “the Golden Boy.” Show us how you’re special, and then you get a special name.
Mary is confused because she doesn’t know what she has done to earn the title “Favored One.” And when she looks at her life, it doesn’t look like God has favored her much, so it doesn’t seem like an honest descriptor of her. But the angel calls her Favored One because that’s how God sees her. The greek word that is translated for favor is the same word used for “grace.” Mary is favored because she stands in God’s grace.
This whole greeting turns our attention away from a “what” to a “whom.” It’s not about what Mary has done; it’s about who has favored her. It’s meant to turn our attention to the personal agency of the Lord-who-is-with-you, the with-you-God who breaks into human reality. Mary’s lack of notability IS notable precisely because God is the one who has given favor to her. Mary, the one who had no claim on her own to worthy status. But God is the one who raised her up from a position of lowliness and has chosen her to have a central role in salvation history.
But Mary still needs a little time to come around. She’s confused and unsure what is coming next from this messenger.
“Do not be afraid, Mary…” He addresses her by her name, letting her know that he does, in fact, have the right person. His message is addressed to her. “You, Mary, have found favor with God…” or, another way to say it is, “you have been favored with grace.” The angel is trying to make it clear that Mary isn’t earning God’s favor. Rather, she’s receiving God’s predetermined blessing that he intends to bestow on her only out of his own goodness. Mary didn’t do anything special for God to choose her. God chose her out of his grace.
Then comes the bombshell announcement that is the whole purpose of the angel’s visit: “You’re going to become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, which means Yahweh Saves.”
I wonder what must have been going through Mary’s mind as she was hearing all this. Was she thinking of the prophecies that had been handed down by her people? Was she thinking of the different ways that Israel had needed saving by God? From Egypt, from unfit kings, from exile, and now from occupation by Rome? How could the Son of God, who is to be a king in the line of David, come from a peasant girl like her? She wasn’t from a royal family. She was on the edge of society, low on the ladder of success and influence. How could these handicaps ever be overcome? Not to mention, she knew where babies came from and what was required for conception…
“But how will this be, since I am a virgin?”
Mary isn’t doubting the message about God’s plan for the Messiah, and she’s not doubting God’s ability to save his people, but it seems like she is doubting her own involvement in this plan. After all, she is a virgin, so, how…?
Gabriel answers and redirects her again away from her own seeming lack of ability towards the Divine Creator who is Able to Accomplish anything: “God is the one who will make it possible.”
Gabriel describes that the Holy Spirit will “overshadow” Mary. This word is connected to the time in Exodus when the people of God finished constructing the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and the presence of God descended and overshadowed the Tabernacle, completing it and infusing it with his power and glory. It’s an image of God partnering with human activity.
And contrary to what some people have jokingly insinuated, when Gabriel talks about the Holy Spirit “coming/arriving upon” Mary, it isn’t a sexual image, but it’s an indication that God is the one acting. Again, it’s not about What, but about Who. God’s agency is at work in a miraculous way in Mary, and the same word is used by Jesus when he says he would send his Holy Spirit to give his followers power to be his witnesses, and the same word used to describe what happens at Pentecost. Gabriel is redirecting Mary to put her attention on God, who is able – God, who is with her.
Then Gabriel gives Mary a miraculous sign to prove that he is from God. He tells her that Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, is pregnant and expecting a child, even in her old age. Mary couldn’t have known this on her own, because Elizabeth had secluded herself for the first five months of her pregnancy. And now it’s barely entering her sixth month, and Mary lived far away. There wasn’t a Facebook announcement for Mary to “like.” There wasn’t an animated email with confetti. The only way for Mary to know that Elizabeth had a miracle baby was through the miraculous message from God.
And then Gabriel finishes his message with, “For no word from God will ever fail.” Other translations put it this way, “For nothing is impossible with God.”
Boom. Mic drop.
Gabriel, an angel messenger from God has just shown up in front of this young peasant girl, probably scaring the bejeezus out of her, and given her a proclamation that God was coming to rescue and save his people, and SHE was going to play a central role in the plan. SHE was going to become the mother of the Son of God.
I mean, this isn’t small news, right? This is BIG news! With BIG implications. EVERYTHING about Mary’s life is about to change, starting with the fact that she is about to become an unwed pregnant girl. And in those days, in that society, there was going to be a LOT of suspicion around her. Probably a lot of shame heaped on her. Who knows what Joseph is going to say? Who knows what her own family would even do? Would she be disowned, thrown out? She was a young, unmarried woman, there was no protection for her in society. She couldn’t own her own house. She couldn’t get a job, unless she sold herself as an indentured servant.
But her life was on the brink of getting established! She was betrothed to Joseph. He was a good man! Could she risk all that? She was about to start her life with Joseph, and once they had a few kids, Mary’s life would be secure. She would have a husband, a family, people to care for and to take care of her. Would all of that get taken away from her?
Mary was a young woman with a lot to lose, and this angel’s message, while it was GOOD news for Israel, might have sounded a bit too risky to be good for Mary. God was asking her to partner with him, but it would involve letting go of everything that Mary had in mind for her life.
How would you have responded? If God was asking you to partner with him, asking you to take a central role in his plan, but it would involve some big risks, and maybe even letting go of your own plans for your life?
To be honest, I have a really hard time with this. I don’t like laying down my plans. I’m a driven person. I’m goal-oriented. I’m all for getting advice on where to go, or what goal to shoot for, but don’t you dare tell me HOW to get there. I’ll take care of it myself. I’m self-sufficient, and honestly, my way is probably better than whatever way you were going to tell me.
Maybe you don’t struggle with thinking so highly of yourself, like I do, but we all want some autonomy, don’t we? We all want to be able to choose for ourselves. I haven’t met anyone yet who is completely content being told what to do by others. And that self-worth is something that has been put into us by God, which is exactly why he doesn’t force Mary into this plan. He invites her.
And Mary responds in an incredible way, “I am the Lord’s servant. May the message you shared with me come true.”
“I’m in. I accept.”
Even at the risk of great personal loss, Mary accepts God’s invitation of partnership. Even though it might mean changing all her plans about her life, she trusts God and submits to his leadership. And for any of you that have had a baby enter your life, you know it changes EVERYTHING.
Maybe this story hits me differently because I’m in the stage of life with very young kids. But I had never thought about the gift of Jesus’ presence like this before. I had always conceived of Jesus as a friend to walk beside me. Friends are fun. You enjoy their company. They help you feel not alone. You do fun activities together. You schedule hangouts, or sleepovers, or trips together. But most of your time is spent away from our friends. In fact, it’s when you spend a lot of time with a friend that you realize they are impinging on your normal way of life and sometimes it gets a little annoying.
Or maybe you’ve thought of Jesus like a coach. That’s a great image of Jesus, right? A great coach, who can help us get better at life. We like coach-Jesus, because coaches are available at set times and come prepared with pertinent advice about the thing they are an expert in. That’s why we hired them. That’s why we joined the team, or the gym. They focus on that one area of our lives that we’ve decided we need help with, leaving us to manage the rest of our time and life ourselves.
But the unexpected gift of Christmas that we didn’t ask for is God With Us. When Jesus comes as a baby… you CAN’T keep the rest of your life separate anymore. Babies are ever-present, influencing and changing every decision we make. Affecting every place we go. Co-opting how we spend our down time. Transforming how we plan for the future.
I’ve told my wife before that kids are really inconvenient. And I was only half-joking. But they ARE inconvenient to MY way of life. I’m no longer able to just come and go as I please anymore. I don’t get to choose my sleep schedule any more. I don’t get to behave the way I want, or eat whatever I like.
Don’t get me wrong, my wife and my kids are the greatest joys in my life. My life before these other humans invaded might have been more autonomous,
but my life now is SO. MUCH. FULLER.
My life is so much richer for having these other humans deep in my life. Deep community and connection is what we were made for, and the people that we are in deep connection with are one of the primary ways that God forms us. God knew exactly what he was doing when he gave Headstrong-Drew a daughter like Emersyn. But it involves a complete change of life to have someone WITH you at all times.
Is that really the way we want God? Do we want God With Us? Or do we prefer a Savior-on-Retainer? Who only comes when we call? Who stays in his own lane, and stays out of our business?
I mean, if he’s around all the time, he’ll notice all the dark and untidy areas of my life. If he’s around all the time, I might need to watch what I say. I might need to change my habits. Is that what I really want? That sounds…inconvenient.
Have you been living a compartmentalized life? I know I often do. Where we keep the different areas of our life separate. Sometimes we even act different when we’re around different people. This is my jovial, nice self when I’m around people from church. These are the jokes I tell when it’s just the guys. This is the side of me that only my family sees when it’s at the end of a long day.
We keep these different areas of our lives separate, and we work hard to be as successful as we can be in each area. We try and act like a good Christian when we’re involved in church activities, and we try and be a good friend in our social circles, and we try and stand out at our work. It’s exhausting.
But God doesn’t desire to be compartmentalized to a small section of our life. God WANTS to be WITH you. He desires to partner with you in every area of life, because he extends his grace to us in every area of our lives. Remember when we talked about how the word for “favor” is the same as the word for “grace”? Mary was favored because God was WITH her.
With-ness is a sign of God’s favor and grace. If God wants to be WITH us so much, it’s a clear sign of how much he cares for us. And we all understand this when it comes to people, right? When someone wants to be with you all the time, it is a sign that they like you.
“Oh, she’s just a daddy’s girl…”
“Well, he must be a momma’s boy…”
“Honey, I think he must like you because he seems to be spending a lot of time over here…”
God desires to be with us, and his presence brings favor and grace to our lives, but it also brings implications. God’s presence with us brings with it an invitation to partner with him. The with-you-God calls us into his mission of restoration.
We were created for an abundant, flourishing life. But are we experiencing that? Does your life feel abundant and overflowing in mercy, generosity, forgiveness, trust, and compassion? Or are we settling for less?
God is inviting us to be a part of his bigger story. He’s inviting us to take part in his plan, and it’s going to have far-reaching implications for our family, our neighbors, for the world.
So if you are ready to receive the gift of God With Us, even if it’s a gift you didn’t really ask for, then I want to encourage you to ask God where he is trying to partner with you right now? What area of your life is God showing up in?
And if you don’t know how to answer that, or you can’t point to a place where God is at work in your life, then maybe ask him what is getting in the way? What needs to be laid down so that you have room for God?
God reaches out to us, even when it seems like we have done nothing to deserve it, because he chose us before we were ever born, and he created us specifically to partner with him in revealing the kingdom of God here on earth. We GET to take part in the work of God! Isn’t that good news?