The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour 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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
A young mother took her three-year-old son to church for the first time. Getting impatient while waiting for the service to start, the little boy turned to his mother and asked, "What time does Jesus get here?"
I wonder if anyone asks that about Christmas these days—“what time does Jesus get here?” We are expecting someone to come but who is it we expect? Our culture is anxiously anticipating a fantasy. At the first Christmas the Jewish people were longing for the promised Messiah to come. Who do we long for?
This coming evening is an evening we have been anticipating for some time, Christmas Eve. When children arrive here for Christmas Eve worship it seems that the anticipation for Christmas is at a fever pitch. At each of the services we will sing the much loved carol Silent Night; at two of the services we sing it by candle light which seems to highlight the words of the song among us. I can hardly wait to get to the third stanza when we sing, “Son of God, love’s pure light.” Love’s pure light; we have taken this as a theme for the sermons of Advent—that in Jesus we see love in all its purity. God is love, the Apostle John tell us. The angel Gabriel makes clear to Mary, and us, that the one to be born in her is the Son of God. So in the birth of Jesus is true love come among us.
I invite you to reflect with me on the gospel assertion that Christmas is love come among us; that the most profound longing of the human heart is for him.
1. In the angel Gabriel’s encounter with Mary the first words out of his mouth are, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you!” Gabriel must be able to see by the look on her face that his presence and greeting has unnerved Mary, to put it mildly. So he reassures her. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” I invite you to hear this reassurance to Mary as a word that isn’t only for Mary but also a word that God speaks to every one of us. “Do not be afraid, (enter your own name), for you have found favour with God.”
Our English translations hides what sometimes leaps of the page in the original Greek; the hiding isn’t done on purpose, of course, but simply in the process of translation. The word we translate “Greeting” spoken by Gabriel is indeed the standard way people in Mary’s day said “hello.” What we don’t see in English is that this word is a direct cognate of the New Testament word for “grace.” And we know that the word grace is a loaded term in the New Testament because it stands for God’s saving action towards a lost world. What’s more, this same word could also mean “Rejoice!” So it’s an open question whether the angel was merely saying, “Hello” or telling Mary she should rejoice. It calls to mind a later angelic message that is part of this same story of “good news of great joy for all the people.”
Further the word translated “favoured one” is also a cognate (derivative) of this same Greek word for grace as is the word translated “you have found favour.” In other words this story is full of the grace of God. This is what love’s pure light” looks like. When God comes to us in Jesus he comes to bestow his grace.
Favour is what God bestows on Mary—it isn’t a characteristic of Mary as she states in her song at Elizabeth’s house—“for he (God) has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.” Please note that we are not saying anything derogatory of Mary. Clearly she is a faithful follower of God and a wonderful example of faith for us. Indeed, Mary shows us how to trust God. What she knows is that God’s coming to her is because of God’s grace.
To be sure the Saviour born to her is an experience only she will have in the way she has it. Mary is forever the mother of Jesus. Still, the gospel witnesses that this one born in her is one who can be born in each of us. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, “you must be born from above.” And so I believe this word to Mary is a word that is for each of us. “Do not be afraid for you have found favour with God.” Jesus comes to bless you and me with his salvation born of his grace. Will we, like Mary, say “yes”?
2. There is more here that I invite you to reflect upon in how this pure love comes to us. It is in the details of the text. Our reading began with “in the sixth month.” This time marker identifies a particular moment in Mary’s life. It is the sixth month of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy who is the mother of John the Baptist. Note that God sends Gabriel at a particular time. God knows what time it is in Mary’s life and further what time it is in your life and mine. God comes to us personally in the here and now with his word that Jesus wants to do a work in our lives.
The story of Christmas that includes this angel announcement to Mary isn’t merely an ancient story that we dust off once a year and remember so we can derive or drive home some moral principle of being good to our struggling neighbour. It is a part of that glorious story that God is coming to us now at this time (10:40 AM, December 24, 2017) with his word of grace—for you have found favour with God.
Next we note that Gabriel finds his way to a town in Galilee called Nazareth—without GPS, I might add. In other words God knows where Mary lives and so too God knows our address as well. His salvation isn’t just a religious thing you do away from your home. Jesus wants to come to where you live and make is dwelling with you. God knows the time and place of our lives and would accompany us there. Many people live alone but the promise of God in Jesus Christ is that you are never by yourself. This is what love looks like. God comes searching for you and me. He comes right to our homes. “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking,” says the risen Jesus, “if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” (Revelation 3:20)
You may know the art of Holman Hunt and in particular his painting depicting Jesus standing at a door knocking. (There is a lovely stained glass rendition of this picture in the chancel at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto.) In the picture the door has no handle on the outside to enable someone outside to open the door. The door has to be opened from the inside. Will we open the door? Mary shows us the way in how to respond to God’s incursion of grace into our lives.
There are yet more details. The Angel comes in time to a particular address in Nazareth “to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” God knows her name and the particulars of her life. This is how love’s pure light shines. God knows you name and mine and the particulars of our lives. God knows the name of each person grieving the loss of the one dearer to them than life; and God knows the name of the one lost to us as well. And in Jesus he offers his marvellous word of grace—for you have found favour with God.
There are things in our lives that make us feel unloved but these are contradictions to the truth that God loves—that he wishes to bestow his favour on us. It is sin and the enemy of our souls that seeks to deflect us from God’s love by these contradictions—whispering in our hearts that God’s can’t love us.
When you were a child did you ever do something to your sibling to make them think you were favoured above them by your parents? Maybe one child took the tag off their brother’s Christmas present, hid it and then whispered to the brother—“I see a present under the tree for me but none for you.” (Perhaps you even did things like this.) I realize the illustration has limits but perhaps affords a picture of what the enemy of our soul whispers with regard to these contradictions in life—aimed to get you to think that God does not love you. In Christmas love’s pure shines and assures you and me—“for you have found favour with God.”
When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary she has her whole life in front of her. She is engaged to a man named Joseph whom we come to know is a devout and kind person. I am not sure what all her aspirations where—likely typical for a young woman in her time and place. It is true that what God asks her to do disrupts her life in significant ways. It is often the case for us that the idea of opening the door to Jesus and let him into our lives looks disrupting and may demand things we worry we will have to give up on. I can only point out what Mary found and countless believers have since, that in Jesus we find life’s true purpose. We find in serving Jesus that we serve that which is eternal and everlasting. The believer can testify to the truth of Gabriel announcement—for you have found favour with God.
3. In love’s pure light we discover that God would bestow his favour on us and that God knows us and desires to give this grace in the particulars of our lives. But one more thing that Christmas tells us of love’s incursion into our lives is that God gives us this love by giving us himself. It is a relationship God seeks with us.
Think for a moment about Jesus, God’s Son who now inhabits Mary’s womb. The One who was with God in the beginning, through who all things came into being and without whom not one thing came into being is now growing inside of Mary. The one who created Mary’s hands will be held by those hands and will have his life sustained nursing at her breast. Here we see that love will pour himself out for our sakes; self-forgetful self-giving that begins in a womb and ends on a cross. God gives himself for us and our response is to give ourselves to him.
Note with me that Mary’s obedience in neither optional nor forced. Mary acts freely when she offers herself as a servant of the Lord. To embrace her true identity as the mother of God’s Son is the only choice that is true to her calling because it is consistent with who she actually is. The point I want to underline with you is this; in relationship with God, in embracing love’s pure light born in us who we really are emerges—in this relationship our true identify is found.
‘Do not be afraid, Mary (your own name), for you have found favour with God
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.