Sermon: Receiving the Favor of God

Good Shepherd, you know each sheep in your flock by name and your sheep hear your voice. As we hear your word this morning, we ask that you would open our ears to hear you speaking our names. We ask that you would open our hearts to receive your word in faith and give us the feet to walk in it. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

Last week, we began the season of Advent, a season of anticipation where the church joins its story with the story of Israel as it awaited the Messiah, Jesus Christ, in order to set our hearts to anticipate his coming again in glory. This year, we are listening to the opening chapter of the gospel according to Luke. Luke is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Luke, chapter 1. We are hearing the promises of God, receiving the good news, and setting our feet to walk in joyful gratitude. Last Sunday, we heard how the angel Gabriel came to Zechariah and Elizabeth after a long time of waiting and hoping and they were not ready. Yet God did not wait for them, or for us, to be ready in order to come to save. This morning, the angel Gabriel comes with incredible gracious news to a young girl named Mary. It’s Luke 1:26-38. Hear these words from the book that we love:

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel 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. 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 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 I am; the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Have you ever noticed how little we really know about Mary? This is Mary, to whom an angel came and declared that she would bear the Incarnate Son of God in her virgin womb, and we learn so little about her. There is no fanfare, no pomp and circumstance. All we know is that she is a virgin and she is engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. That’s it.

How different is this from so many other people in the Bible? When, in the story of Ruth, Boaz enters the scene, he is described as “a kinsman on her husband’s side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz” (Ruth 2:1). Or even when Gentiles like Naaman are introduced in 2 Kings 5, we get “Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram” (2 Kings 5:1). Or even just a few verses before the story of Mary, when her relative Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah are introduced, we hear, “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God and lived blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.

But not Mary. In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. That is all we know: She is a virgin and she is engaged. I don’t want to make too much of this, but when Luke was researching all the accounts about Jesus, I’m sure he found all sorts of good accounts about Mary. I’m sure he could have listed all sorts of ways she was faithful, how hard working she was, what family she was born into, but he didn’t. I think it is intentional, and not as a slight to Mary, but to point us to grace.

The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” The phrase ‘favored one’ is from one word in Greek that means ‘to bestow on freely’ and, at its root, is tied up with the word for grace. So when the angel comes to Mary, he comes and proclaims that she has received grace.

Mary is one who has received grace. Grace – that freely given gift of God’s love and favor. Grace – that unearned and undeserved gift of God. Mary is one who has received grace. She did not earn the privilege of bearing the Son of God in her womb. It came to her by grace.

And I think this is why Luke does not tell us all he could about Mary. We live in a world built on performance. Report cards with letters and numbers cataloguing how we measure up. Quarterly reports, annual reviews. But even before we begin grading our children at school, which is the most obvious way we measure who is worthwhile and who is not, we live in a world with unspoken rules about who will succeed, who will measure up, and who will not. It is the best and fastest kids who get to be captains at recess. They fight over who gets the pick first, because you want to pick the best. No one wants to be picked last, or not at all.

So we work hard and push ourselves to get the grade, to get into the right school, to get the right job, to get the raise, to get the promotion – or we don’t get in, we don’t move up, we get rejected. Even for those who seem to bypass the line, who get the inside track, there is always something about them – who they know, who mommy or daddy are, what they have in the bank or the letters behind their name. We live in a world based upon performance. Those who do move up to bigger and brighter things and those who don’t.

I think Luke does not tell us much about Mary because, if he did, we might begin to think that this is how it works with God. If we heard that Mary was righteous, a faithful believer (and she probably was) or the many good works of service she probably did, we might think, “Ah, that’s it. That’s what made her special. That’s the ticket into God’s good graces.” Or, “Ah, I can never make it. There is no way for me.”

I think this is why the biblical portrait of Mary is so easily distorted. Mary is one who received grace – unmerited, undeserved. God came to her and gave no consideration to her qualifications or disqualifications, her virtues or her sins, and instead chose to show her grace in Christ. But that just doesn’t seem right to us. There must have been something else. It couldn’t just be grace. Mary must have been completely sinless, right? Mary must be a co-redeemer with Christ, right? Mary must have the inside track with Jesus, so we should ask her to pray for us, right? Mary must be the queen of heaven, right?

We easily take the simple, beautiful picture of Mary, the virgin who received grace, and try to make it something more. But when we make it more, we actually make it less. The good news of Christmas, the good news of the gospel is grace. That grace comes to Mary. It comes to Mary, not because of her goodness and is not withheld from Mary because of her sin. It comes to Mary freely from the hand of God.

You who have succeeded in this world, you who have made it, you who have honed your skills and positioned yourself to move up in this world, the message of the angel is for you, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” The message of God’s grace is for you. You don’t need to work hard to earn God’s love. He does not love you more because of how much you read your Bible, serve the poor, or how much you put in the offering plate. The good news of Christmas, the good news of the gospel is grace. God loves you. God in Christ is for you. So work hard, read your Bible, serve the poor, give generously, not because you somehow need to earn your way into God’s love, but because he loves you, because he came to Mary and graciously was born as baby for us and for our salvation. Because Christ was born, lived, and died for you, you can freely live with all your life, with all your skill, for him.

And you who were never picked on the playground. You who have a past you wish you could change, but cannot. You who seem to fall behind. The message of God’s grace is for you. Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. Neither our success nor failure, our good deeds nor our sins and failures determines our relationship with God. It is his grace, his love, his coming in the virgin’s womb, in a lowly manger, and heading to an even lower Cross that makes us right with God.

I am convinced that Luke does not tell us a great deal about Mary because the gospel is one of God’s grace, not our performance. It is the grace of God that comes and does something impossible. Virgin Mary will have a child. How can this be? For nothing will be impossible with God. God’s grace comes to Mary and does what is humanly impossible, brings new life where none could have arrived.

The grace that came to Mary, the grace promised by the angel is his greeting, has a face, has a name. Jesus. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, 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 him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the kingdom of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Jesus. The grace of God is a person, a baby, a Savior, a King. When God’s grace comes to a young virgin, unmerited and undeserved, it comes as Jesus. When God’s grace came into the world to those slaving to perform, slaving to try and be good, and to those who had given up, it came as Jesus.

When Olga and I were expecting our first child, we took great care in choosing a name. We didn’t know whether we were having a boy or girl, so we had two names picked out. We focused on the meaning of the name, because in giving our children names we were giving them an identity. For the rest of their life, this is how they will be known – this is who you are. We gave them names and, in some ways, called them to be certain kinds of people. Olga’s parents named her Olga, which means ‘Holy,’ and she has certainly lived into her name. My parents named me ‘Stephen,’ and I have always loved the name. Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom, spoke the gospel powerfully and served the poor and widows. If only I could live more into my name. But I always wondered what my parents were thinking. Stephen was stoned to death, Mom, what exactly were your hopes for me? Our son was born and we gave him the name Elijah. We pray that he would have the passion and be filled with the Holy Spirit like Elijah, but also his name means “My God is the Lord.” It has been and continues to be our prayer that Elijah would say the Lord is his God all the days of his life. Our older daughter is named Moriah, which means the ‘seen by the Lord,’ which is a Hebrew way of saying ‘chosen by the Lord.’ We pray that she would be loved and chosen by God in Christ. And little Joanna’s name means grace and our hope is that she would both receive and give grace all the days of her life. In giving them names, we give them an identity and a calling.

Mary and Joseph didn’t have to pull out the baby name book. When the angel came to Mary with the message of grace, with the promise of the child who would be born to her, the promise that God himself would enter the world in the flesh through her, she did not have to deliberate on what the child’s name would be. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus. From before his birth, from long before Gabriel came to Mary, but revealed in that moment, this child would be named Jesus. Before his first breath, his first meal, his first steps, he had a name, an identity, a calling. Jesus.

The name Jesus means “The Lord is Salvation” or “The Lord saves” or “The Lord’s Salvation.” That was who this child was to be – God’s salvation come to us. God’s grace in the flesh. God’s work to deliver us from all our bad performances through his death and to give to us his perfect performance so that we could stand righteous before God.

When God’s grace came to Mary, when God’s grace came into the world in power, that grace was a person, that grace had a name: Jesus.

From the moment the angel announced it, this promised child was given an identity and calling – to bring God’s salvation to the world. This name tells us from the beginning of the gospel story, from the moment of Christmas, the goal and trajectory of God’s work in Christ – Salvation. This name tells us that this child who is king will show his power and authority by rescuing his people. The name of Jesus is salvation. The name of Jesus is grace.

How do we receive this grace? Mary’s response shows us the way. Then Mary said, “Here I am; the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” We have seen how little we know of Mary and how her sparse introduction points us toward God’s graciousness in coming to her, in coming to us to save. At this moment, we cannot help but be amazed at Mary. She has been told the impossible will be done in her by the power of God – a child in her womb, a child who is the Son of God, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made – she has been told this and responds with faith. She responds with faith knowing that receiving this gift will change everything. There will be no going back for Mary. She receives the grace of God by faith. “Here I am; the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.

Faith. She trusts that what God says is true and places herself in the Lord’s hand. Faith, not a blind leap, but a firm trust in God. Mary’s response to the angel is powerful and significant in the history of salvation. But it also shows us the way. God has come into the world in Jesus Christ, he has come to save, and we receive this grace by faith, by trusting in the one whose name is salvation, by trusting in Jesus Christ, just as Mary did.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Mary is the very same thing that in which we should follow her. Mary had faith in God, faith in the Savior she would bear in her womb. May each of us, as we hear the gracious words of the angel, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” may each of us respond as Mary did, “Here I am; the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

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