Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1:26-38  December 19, 2021

Here’s a question for you:  Historically, when was the very first church service?

  1. At the Manger
  2. At the Last Supper
  3. At Pentecost
  4. None of the above

Hold that thought … I’ll give you the answer in a minute.

Now, try to put yourself into Mary’s mind as you listen again to today’s scripture.

Luke 1:27b-28 The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

And then the angel went on to say (Luke 1:31), You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.

What a way to start the day!

Continue to imagine yourself as Mary as these events unfold.

As Mary, you would be an ordinary young woman, with ordinary dreams, living in an ordinary town.

You’d have planned a modest wedding to a local carpenter and planned to raise a normal family.

Got that in mind?

So, what would be your reaction to the angel’s news?

Most of the portraits we have of the annunciation to Mary    depict her with a quiet serene smile.

But that is not the picture we have of her in Luke – at least, not yet.

Luke 1:29 … she was greatly troubled and disturbed and confused at what he said and kept revolving in her mind what such a greeting might mean.

I should say!

Who among us would really welcome a visit by an angel    who would take all our dreams for a safe and ordinary life and turn them upside down?

Is this what it means to be favored by God?

Now I want you to hear this: The fact is that when God announces He wants to do a favor for you, then, quite naturally, like Mary, you too, may feel greatly troubled and disturbed and confused, wondering what this all means.

This is the beginning of a mysterious intrusion of the divine into the ordinary: something unexpected, unexplainable, uncontrollable turns the safe and familiar upside down.

This doesn’t always come with the announcement of angels.

Maybe you’re closing your laptop at the end of your workday when the boss announces that you need to come in early tomorrow morning for a private meeting.

A woman wakes up one morning feeling a little nauseous.

A birthday comes but instead of celebrating as you’d expected you are haunted of why you never pursued your old dreams and of where your life is headed.

At first you may feel troubled, and then hopes and worries begin swirling around your mind.

That’s because the thin veneer of the ordinary has just been pierced by mystery – mystery that feels unfamiliar, unsafe, and uncontrollable.

We hope that when God answers prayers or intervenes in our life it will be a joyous moment of revelation and clarity.

It may be, but often when God’s grace breaks into your life things feel unsettled and confusing.

As this happens, our natural reaction is fear – we want to re-gain control, we want to force resolution, we want to get back to the ordinary as quickly as possible.

That’s why the angel reassures Mary:

Luke 1:30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.”

Easy for the angel to say; do not resist this; just be still and see what God is up to by turning your life upside down.

We may have assumed that sweet Mary responded in a calm but inquisitive voice.

But I think it is far more likely that she shrieked,

Luke 1:34 Oh my God! How will this be,” Mary screamed at the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

Seriously, if this is what God means as a favor, then who needs enemies?

Thus, the title of this sermon: WTF … “What’s This Favor?”

Again, put yourself in Mary’s sandals: Dizzying thoughts and fears must have whirled around her head like, “The other women will shun me, the whole town will spread rumors about me; Joseph will hate me; and, according to the law, I might be publicly stoned for this.”

But what makes Mary so remarkable is that her trust in God was such that she could eventually move to a point of saying, “Well. This isn’t what I’d choose. I can’t imagine how this is all going to work out, but if God wants to mess with my life, I’ll just call myself ‘Blessed.’”

That is maybe the biggest statement of faith any of us can make.

A change is forced upon you.

You can’t understand it.

Your carefully constructed life is suddenly shaken by something too great to control.

Perhaps it involves your job, your family, or your health.

You lie awake at night staring at the ceiling saying, “This isn’t right”, “This isn’t fair”, “How can this be?”

But, in fact, all you can do is receive it, because if God did conceive this thing, then it is a holy favor, and as disturbing as it seems, it will save your life.

Of course, not every interruption in life is conceived by God.

Tragedy strikes, random violence brings people down, diseases attack our bodies.

But even amidst tragedy God can use what He did not choose – but we have to give Him space in our souls to work.

Romans 8:28  And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, [that is those who trust enough to make space for God to work in the midst of their turmoil] who have been called according to His purpose.

One of the reasons we hold to this season of Advent is to practice slowing down and making room for the birth of our Savior.

Every year you hear me quote Meister Eckhart, “What good is it to me if Jesus was born to Mary 2000 years ago if he is not born to me in my time?”

He cannot be born in us if we don’t prepare.

Learning to wait, learning to seek, learning to listen for God’s movement is a spiritual discipline that needs cultivating.

When we are chronically self-absorbed or flooded by our busyness, we lose the ability to perceive anything much beyond our own agenda or our own fears.

Then, when life gets messy, we cannot imagine how God might be involved so, like with Mary’s initial reaction, we become perplexed and anxious.

If we stop there, our anxious spirit shuts us down to God, blinds us to new possibilities, and spreads our anxiety to everyone around us.

Good News can be revealed only if we choose instead to see life as an unfolding mystery in partnership with God.

This is why we often close our service with the reminder to stop and ask, “Whatever happens this week – whether it feels like a blessing or a problem – where is God in this situation, and how can I get on board with what He is doing?”

Getting back to Mary, did you notice that the angel Gabriel simply announced God’s plans for her life: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”

He didn’t ask Mary’s permission.

This is one of the personality traits we least appreciate about God because, well, when it comes to decision making, He is not big on participatory process.

The angel doesn’t say, “You know Mary, the Triune Fellowship was thinking this would be a good time for the Savior of the world to be born, and someone nominated your womb, but we want to run that idea up the flagpole and get your input.”

No, God would never make a good Church Council member because sometimes He just takes control of our lives, sends us to places we don’t want to go, gives us gifts that we don’t want, and takes away things to which we would cling.

The angel responds to Mary’s objections by telling her that her pregnancy was all the Holy Spirit’s doing.

This is the same Spirit we first met in Genesis.

There, the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep pushing aside the darkness and chaos to create order and beauty in their place … who could have imagined what order, what beauty, what life would be born from the chaos?

When God intervenes – whether it is in something God initiated or something the world has imposed on us – our choice is to shut down, or to make space to see what God may be up to.

Mary demonstrated faith – not by understanding all that God was doing – but by just making herself available.

Mary demonstrated faith – not by announcing to the whole village that God had chosen her for a divine mission – she just stilled herself to allow new possibilities to take form.

Mary demonstrated faith – not by holding onto her old dreams, but by allowing God’s dreams to unfold through her.

Mary demonstrated faith by getting herself to the point that she could say to the angel, (Luke 1:38) “May it be to me as you have said.”

This is the path of spirituality that moves from troubled to terror and then finally to trust.

These are the steps of discovering God amidst life’s interruptions – but you can only walk this path if you are convinced that God is involved.

Mary assented to the angel, but she had no idea where this interruption of her life would lead.

At this point, there was no way she could see how giving birth – when she was not even married – could possibly be good news.

All she knew was that God was in the midst of it all – which was all she needed to know.

Mary soon headed to her elderly aunt Elizabeth, who had been blessed with a pregnancy in her old age.

Luke 1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

We worship when we gather in the presence of Christ; we worship when we allow the Holy Spirit to fill our soul.

That means that the very first church service – the first gathering of believers brought together by the presence of Christ – was two pregnant women who had allowed the Holy Spirit to interrupt their orderly lives.

Then Elizabeth turns to Mary and asks,

Luke 1:43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

Why me?

Sometimes the explanations are not clear – at least not as events are unfolding.

As with most of our “why me” questions, Elizabeth receives no answer.

Instead, her question simply evaporates as the joy within her leaps up to be so near the coming Christ Child.

Why you?

Why has God chosen to present you with a Christmas gift that is creatively disruptive?

Or, why you that you should have to deal with an unwelcome illness, financial turn, or tragedy – even if we know God will see us through it?

It is a reasonable question, but it is not exactly the right one.

The only pressing question is: will you embrace God’s presence in the middle of it all?