December 24 For you have found favor with God

For you have found favor with God

Luke 1:26-38

Well, here we are on the last Sunday of Advent with a scripture about Mary receiving the news that she is going to become pregnant with the holy Child. After all of this Advent emphasis on waiting and wilderness, it seems suddenly a bit rushed: This morning, conception; this evening delivery.

But we need this story of Mary and the angel Gabriel before we can turn around and come back this evening for the story of shepherds and angels, stable and manger, and the tiny infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. And we need this story of Mary and the angel Gabriel not only because of the chronology of things, but maybe even more importantly because we need to get something very significant straightened out in our hearts and minds.

And that is, we need to figure out whether we are people of fear or people of favor. And by that, I mean to say that we’ve got to figure out whether the promise of the coming Christ and all its expectations and uncertainties is something that causes us extra anxiety or does our heart good. 

Now you might say, “Well of course – Jesus’s birth – that’s a blessing, that’s good news, that makes everything better – so of course it does our heart good.” But nothing is ever that simple, especially if we are already infected with fear. Jesus comes into the world and it’s a game-changer and game-changers, even for the good, always upset the order of things, they ask something new and courageous of us, they move us past “the way it’s always been” into the unsettled and unknown future.

When Gabriel says to Mary, “You are going to become pregnant and you are going to bear a son and your son is going to change the world – and all of this shows that you have found favor with God,” that’s great news, unless it isn’t. “How can this be?” she says, “since I am a virgin?” And we don’t know whether she says it with curiosity and wonder in her voice or a note of sheer panic: How can this be?!

Listen: There’s a reason that Gabriel starts off his announcement with the words “Do not be afraid,” and I think it’s because more and more people are more and more fear-driven – even people of faith. And so, what could be (and maybe even should be) good news could easily be honed with the sharp edge of fearfulness. That is, almost always when someone shows up and says, “Guess what? Something new is coming!” we focus on the impact of change and on the loss of control and on the anxiety of the unknown…and then, what could be interpreted as possibility takes on the tone of uncertainty.

And it’s hard to be faithful – or even faith-filled – when you are scared. It’s hard to make good choices and new commitments when you are anxious. And it’s hard to open wide your arms (much less your heart) to the little, vulnerable, life-altering baby Jesus when you are afraid. If we get the news of change, of new birth, and we respond with all the issues of our anxiety, there really won’t be much room for trust and hope, will there? 

Writing in a recent op-ed piece titled, “White Christianity is in big trouble. And it’s its own biggest threat,” religious studies professor at the University of Virginia, Charles Mathewes writes, “There are many factors — historical, social and political — that have helped shape white American Christianity into what it is today. But when it comes to keeping us away from the core truths of our faith, I suspect this one error is key: Christians today seem governed by fear.”

He continues, “Theologians as well as psychologists will tell you that there is a spiritual peril in acting out of fear and a sense of danger. Fear drives us into patterns of “reasoning” that are far from reasonable, but more akin to reactionary patterns of cause-and-effect. And fear moves us away from the core of Christianity — love. “There is no fear in love; but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love,” says the first epistle of John.” (Washington Post, 12/19/17)

So, Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid,” but then quickly on the heels of that, he also says, “for you have found favor with God.” And that’s the part I want to try to unpack a little bit this morning. You know about fear and how toxic and paralyzing it can be. But what about favor? What about being “favored by God”? Is favor the antidote to fear, the answer to fear? What does it mean to be favored and how does that move us away from fear?

Well, one thing that seems to go along with the word “favored” is the similar word “favorite” – as in “preferred” or “chosen.” So, does being favored by God mean chosen by God? Does it mean that Mary (and only Mary) can do what Gabriel tells her God has chosen her to do? Is she so special that actually what happens to her has nothing to do with us since we are “mere mortals” and not those favored by God?

Those are important questions, and for those who revere Mary as a saint, as a person with special status, a partner with God of the sort that no one else could ever be or has ever been, the answer would seem to be “yes.” Mary is favored – chosen – and does what no one else can do: participate with God in the birthing of Christ.

But what if favored doesn’t have to mean exclusively chosen? What if favored might not have to be a designation of exclusivity, but an invitation to engagement? That is, what if “favored” means something less like “uniquely special” and more like “fully included”?

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God might be re-imagined as something like this: Do not be afraid, Mary, for you are completely on the team, you are fully part of the plan, you are wonderfully and wondrously invited into the company of those who partner with God to do good things in this world, you are with me in this just as I am with you.

In fact, the word for “favor” is probably best translated from the scripture for this morning as something like “grace,” as in, Don’t be afraid Mary, God is extending grace to you.” Huh – isn’t that interesting? One scripture translation I sometimes turn to, the Common English Bible, offers it this way, “Don’t be afraid Mary, God is honoring you.”

Maybe favor has less to do with chosen-ness and everything to do with acceptance. Do not be afraid, Mary, God sees something of worth in you, and that means you are good enough to be part of this grand and glorious plan to bring together heaven and earth…

And maybe if that’s the angle we take, then the contrast between fear and favor makes a whole lot more sense: Don’t be afraid, Mary, because God is drawing you close, bringing you into the circle of hope and trust and even miracle. Don’t be afraid, Mary, because these changes that are coming, they aren’t changes that are pushing you out on a limb; they are changes that are making your wholly who you are meant to be – a partner with God in the redemption of all creation.

And does Mary receive all of it that way? By the end of the scripture passage we have concrete evidence that Mary understands what is being asked and offered. She says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In other words, “I’m in – I see that I have a role to play and place to stand and I’m in. I ready to be part of all of this, whatever it means and wherever it takes me. I don’t feel isolated, I feel included. God has included me.

So, what about you? How are you “favored” – by God, by those around you, by the opportunities you have for being on the team, being fully “in,” being included in possibility and expectation?

And what takes you from the fear of the unknown, the anxiety you harbor about the changes that are coming and instead moves you to a place of feeling honored, feeling privileged to participate, confident that you have a part to play, and that whatever comes, “all will be well”?

If you will indulge me just one more time, I have one more story from Father Gregory Boyle’s book that I have mentioned the last two Sundays. This is the last story I want to share with you, but I want to share it because I think it says something about how we move from being afraid of how others see us, afraid that we are less than, afraid that we will be misunderstood or judged… to being confident that we have a place and a purpose in the universe – a God-given grace and calling.

Boyle writes, “I admit there are some homies you look at and think to yourself, “Yeah, I’m not so sure this guy will ever be able to turn the ship around. You don’t admit this to anyone, though. You keep it to yourself and hope that everyone – anyone – can alter course. People always surprise you.”

 

“Johnny was such a kid. I met him when he was fifteen, but never in my office. He never wanted to be seen there. I’d catch him in the alley where his homies would gather; he was way tougher than someone his age ought to be. He certainly “put in work” for his neighborhood, stuff that eventually landed him in juvenile hall, then probation camp, then Youth Authority, and finally prison. He walked out of there at twenty years old yet still refused to set foot in (the Homeboy Offices).”

“But it takes what it takes, Johnny found himself tending to his mother, who was struck with pancreatic cancer. In the last six months of her life, I’d visit and watch how tenderly Johnny would attend to her every need, becoming the hospice point person and caring for her with such affection. When she died, I (officiated at her funeral). A week later Johnny walked into Homeboy Industries.”

“Four months into his stay with us as a trainee, he wanders into my office to talk. “What happened to me yesterday,” he begins, “has never happened to me in my life.” He tells me he was riding the LA Metro Gold Line train, which he caught at the Chinatown station, heading east after his day’s work. The car he was in was packed, yet he managed to secure a seat for himself. Standing in front of him, hanging on to the pole, was a gang member, a little older than Johnny, but with tattoos and a little bit drunk. Johnny was wearing his Homeboy t-shirt with the insignia and slogan “Jobs not Jails” quite large over his chest. The (gang member), still a little wobbly, looked closely at the shirt, then at Johnny.”

“You work there?” he asked. Johnny, initially hesitant to engage the guy, nodded. “It any good?” the guy fired back – not belligerent, just persistent. Johnny shrugged. “Well, it’s helped me. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to prison because of this place,” tapping the front of his shirt as he said it. The Johnny stood, feeling as the prophet Ezekiel did when he wrote that “the Spirit set me on my feet.” He fished a clean piece of paper from his pocket and located a pen from another. He wrote down the Homeboy address. He tells me “I couldn’t believe I knew it by heart.”

“Johnny handed the note to the man, “Come see us,” he said. “We’ll help you.” The guy hanging on the pole studied the paper. “Thank you,” he quietly replied. The train arrived at its next stop, and the guy got off. Johnny reclaimed his seat and looked around the train.”

“What happens next,” he tells me, “has never happened to me in my whole life. Everyone on the train was lookin’ at me. Everyone on the train was noddin’ at me. Everyone on the train was smilin’ at me. His lip trembles and a tear escapes. “And for the first time in my life…I felt admired.” (p.203)

 

That’s what it means to be favored. Not admired in the sense of hero-worship or false adulation, but admired in the sense that those around you see that you are a person who knows your own worth, your own place in the kingdom of God, as someone who is included in God’s plan, as someone who is partnered with good. Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.

And that can happen any time. You don’t need an angel Gabriel. You don’t need to birth a Savior. You don’t need to be particularly holy or remarkable or unusual. You just need to be willing to partner with God to birth into the world a moment of grace, or a testimony of hope, or an expression of love. 

We’ll come back this evening to church to celebrate the birth of Christ – to hear the stories of shepherds and angels, stable and manger, and a tiny infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. It will be a familiar story, this old story of the nativity. Until then, we are pregnant with possibility, with anticipation. Until then we wait in the spirit of God’s invitation to become partners with all the ways in which God can be (and become) Immanuel – God-with-us.

And while you wait for Christ, for this last little stretch of Advent, remember this: You are favored by God. That is, God wants you to bear the gift of grace too. God believes that you have possibility and purpose. God includes you in the story that is unfolding. God intends for you to bring love into the world anew. Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

December 24, 2017