“Greetings, Favored one! The Lord is with you.” With those words Mary’s world was thrown upside down.
But wait a minute now. You call this a favor?
An unexpected pregnancy. Morning sickness. Forget about clothes that no longer fit. Or no longer being able to see your feet. Then there’s the perils of childbirth – the pain, the dangers, the possibility of death. This is a favor, God?
Some Favor! Mary can’t be much more than thirteen or fourteen years of age, and though betrothed to Joseph–probably since her early childhood–she has not yet been with him and does not plan to be any time soon. Pregnant: what kind of favor is that? Imagine the impact on Joseph’s and, on her family. The gossip in Nazareth will shift into overdrive. Think of the shame. To give birth without a husband in that culture usually meant one thing–you were a prostitute. In fact, an entire tradition will emerge that labeled Mary just that, and the child’s father a Roman soldier. It doesn’t matter that none of that is true. Joseph will surely insist on a writ of divorce and send Mary away into disgrace. Some favor, indeed.
The evangelist Luke introduces us to not one, but two such favored women. Elizabeth, Mary’s kinswoman, gets unexpectedly pregnant at the end of her life. Mary is found unexpectedly pregnant at the cusp of her adult life. Elizabeth’s pregnancy, despite the chuckles of her neighbors, removed the shame of barrenness. Mary’s pregnancy also incurs shame. So Mary seeks out her the older woman. Elizabeth, whose pregnancy is advanced, affirms her young kinswoman. Together they find favor. Together they celebrate the presence of the hidden, growing Christ. Together they find hope in the midst of the turmoil brought about by Favor
For us, in our final week of our Advent Journey, the gospel invites us to embrace God’s favor and God’s love even as we are days away from celebrating the birth of Love Incarnate. We pause to remember that God chose two ordinary women to be messengers and each brought forth powerful messengers of Good News. But why would the Infinite One bother with the messy human process of birth, of waiting, growing, changing? Why take the risk? How does God see this all as favor? So God’s favor comes uninvited. Or unexpected. God’s favor creates upheaval. God’s favor can turn our world upside down
I once served for 10 years at Broadway Community, Inc. an outreach program to homeless addicts of Broadway Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. There were told countless stories of the despair of having a child removed from care, of lifetimes of abuse, addiction and living as outcasts. Over time I learned that a main focus of recovery was the work of realizing God’s favor after a/and within a lifetime of suffering. Nothing, not prostitution, not self-inflicted violence or violence directed toward others, not AIDS or cancer or mental illness could stop God’s favor. For many the weight of such a reality sent people back to the street. They couldn’t bear the truth of love after years of rejection. Others banded together, helped each other, heard each other into life – (much like Elizabeth and Mary did for each other). In doing so they found they could embrace God’s favor.
One Christmas, we had a seminarian intern named David join the group. The community of recovery knick-named him “Mr. Happy Face.” They also called him “Jesus” because they told him, “You always have a smile no matter what you do.” Behind that smile was a story.
David shared the painful struggles of his spiritual journey which led him to seek the guidance from the monks at the Holy Archangels Monastery in Serbia, in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars. He described how he was at an all-night vigil at one of the holiest liturgical days of the orthodox calendar, the feast of the Archangels, where thousands were present for hours on end. In the midst of the solemn service a monk’s beard caught on fire, and without missing a beat, the monk waved the fire out. David, holding back laughter left the church.
Outside the church, David encountered an old woman, with one solitary tooth. She began telling David a tale of distress and dissolved into crying. The woman was speaking in Serbian and David could not understand a word she was saying. He felt inadequate. He felt the weight of not knowing how to help her, this woman who had probably witnessed so much loss and bloodshed in her life. He wanted to hug her, but he felt awkward. Finally he felt all he could do was gently lead her into the church, where the orthodox liturgy was at the height of its beauty. There, standing next to her, they shared the sacredness of the moment – across the division of language, culture, life experiences, gender and age they found healing and connection. In that encounter, David felt a confirmation – a call, to manifest God’s love. It was God’s favor. Recovering persons – people of different histories, race and culture, listened raptly to David’s story. They talked about finding themselves in a church -- in the holy season of Christmas – where they found favor come through each other. They could relate to the heartache of the old lady. They could relate to David’s sense of emptiness and not knowing what to do, not being able to understand. They could relate to that connection that came through being in church together – and the power of worship and chant to bridge the divide. We saw how God’s favor transcended age, race, culture, ability.
God’s favor is not a private experience. It always takes us out of ourselves and puts us in someone’s path. Like Elizabeth did for Mary, what the elderly Serbian woman did for David, like that recovery community did for each other -- we have to be God’s favor for each other. It may be “amazing,” but it is usually not easy. More often than not, God’s grace is demanding and often inconvenient. Who of us expects our lives to be as complicated as Mary’s? Or that of a Serbian grandmother? Or a recovering addict trying to stay clean during the holidays? Sometimes we expect God’s favor to mean a life of blessing and ease that is laid in our lap and demands little of us. However the God who gave all calls us to give our all.
If Mary has anything to teach us today, it is that God’s blessings do not always make life easier. In fact, God’s favor often makes life more complex. God’s grace can draw us into situations that are challenging and demanding, and at first glance appear anything but a blessing. God’s favor can have some hard edges to it.
For some of us, an illness or diagnosis can suddenly changed everything. It dominates every thought and affects every plan. Yet, the Lord is with us.
For some of us, this season of family gatherings and celebrations is anything but happy. Some are grieving the loss of a marriage, relationship or being cut off from children. Some find resurfaced pain of loved ones who have died and whose place at the table is vacant, never to be filled. Some of us are struggling to stay sober or clean in a culture where alcohol and drugs are pervasive. Some of us face financial restraints and maxed credit cards in a culture that has been in hyper-drive, saying buy, buy, buy 24/7. Yet, hear this word: the Lord is with us. God’s favor rests on us.
Mary understood God’s favor. She sang of it and nailed it: God’s forever promise to pull down those who think too much of themselves and abuse their power. God’s promise to lift up the poor. God’s promise to fill the hungry with good things that for once the rich don’t get to keep taking. The assurance that those who are self-righteous and self-absorbed will trip over their own grandeous schemes. God remembers. God’s favor made Mary positively radical, not a demure submissive young lady. We know now where Jesus got his vision: Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4 echoes his mother’s song. Mother’s favor rests on her son.
If there is anything to remember this day it is this and this only: God’s favor rests on you. Don’t run away, don’t doubt, only believe. Only one thing is needed in response to God’s favor: to respond like Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be to me according to your word.” Amen.