My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
One of the blessings of this time of year is the opportunity to listen to choirs offering beautiful music, to drive around and see houses alight with color, to walk into Taft Farm and inhale the pungent smell of greens. It is also a time when across our land, pageants are being staged. Children of all sizes and ages have been rehearsed and costumed to more or less tell the story of Christmas through angels and farm animals and the characters that make up the holy night.
On Friday, my granddaughter was cast as a member of the firmament. But she was not just any star. She was the “Biggest.” And she was not a reluctant star—she shone brightly through a smile that lit up the place, her face sticking out of a giant star costume, and she sang with full bravado to make sure that everyone was aware that this star was up to something huge. Later in the day, her mother asked her how she liked the pageant. Beth responded, “My heart just bursted into love!”
If we are fortunate, when we are children we have many opportunities to know that we are loved—that we are favored—that there is something about us that delights others. But too often as we grow up, passing through the valley of the shadow of adolescence, and then the highs and lows of adulthood, we can misplace our “favoredness”—our ability to see ourselves as beloved, as beautiful, as delightful.
Today in the Gospel of Luke we hear the story of a young girl who is visited by an angel. That would be startling enough, but this angel greets this young girl by calling her “favored one.” The angel tells her that the Lord is with her. She is perplexed, confused and ponders what sort of greeting this might be. In Greek the word translated as “ponders” in 2:19 means debates, considers, reasons over the angel’s greeting. She is not passively staring at this presence—she is wrestling with what the angel has said. And the angel has just gotten started.
Why is Mary so bewildered? She knows her place. She’s a girl, a teenager. And she is not a princess or priestess. She’s from small town Nazareth, a backwater of Galilee. Mary cannot believe this impossible possibility. What?! Me? Who am I? Favored? This cannot be real! The angel tells her not to be afraid and then repeats that she has found favor with God. But then angel kicks into high gear. The angel tells her that she will become a mother of a son and not just any son, but the Son of God—“the Son of the Most High.”
Her son will inherit the throne of David who is promised by God in our earlier reading from Samuel, as a kingdom that will be “established forever.” Mary can only counter, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
This short story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is surrounded by the impossible. Mary’s kin, Elizabeth, has also been favored by God when she is able to conceive and bear a child in her old age. It is to Elizabeth that Mary sings the words of what we call “The Magnificat.” In this song, we hear Mary’s full embrace of her role as the servant of God, the One who has done great things in her. And this God’s “great strength scatters the proud in their conceit; casts down the mighty from their thrones, and sends the rich away empty– but lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. God remembers his everlasting promise of mercy. By her acceptance of God’s invitation, she knows that all generations will call her blessed.
Mary hears the voice of the angel and opens herself to the possibility of God’s favor and God’s presence in and through her. In this brief story, Mary has been able to see in herself what God sees in her. And in this is no ‘Hallmarky’ easy step. Because we know what this acceptance will mean. Mary’s life will be transformed. In her, God will come to be among us. God has sought her out and she has said, “Yes.” Mary says “Yes” to Gabriel, and Jesus says “Yes” to God, and the disciples said “Yes” to Jesus.
If you have sat in this room and listened to my sharing, it will come as no surprise to you that I believe deep in my heart that each one of us is favored by God. That God sees us for who we are—God’s beloved. We are God’s particular and spectacular creation in whose life and gifts the world can be made better. God has great plans for each of us. Now, I know that that can make you hopeful, dubious, or downright worried.
But I know because I have witnessed the many ways God seeks us out, sees us as favored, and has brought light and life to the world through us. God has used and will continue to use each of us for good. God is still interrupting and engaging us so that in us God can do marvelous things. We always have the ability to say, “Not right now, God can’t you see I am busy, too old, too young, too married, too single, tired, not talented enough…But each of us have the ability to bring Jesus into the world through our lives, by the way we love, by the way we share our time, by the way we live out compassion. How much God has already accomplished through us and how much more is waiting for our “Yes?”
Sometimes being found to be favored is gentle and easy—holding a door for someone with overfilled hands or saying thank you to a store clerk who has been helpful. And sometimes it is rough and challenging—like listening with generosity to someone who is angry with you or disagrees strongly with your point of view allowing the seeds of connection to be sown, or challenging someone in love to live their better life.
And sometimes being favored can be life changing—becoming a foster parent, beginning a relationship with a refugee or immigrant family, walking with someone who is seriously ill or addicted or troubled, standing alongside someone in despair. There are countless ways to open ourselves to Gods’ love within us and birth that love into the world.
Mary’s “Yes” is not a passive acquiescence. Mary’s reception of the angel’s invitation caused her to wrestle as her ancestor Jacob did at Peniel. (Genesis 32:24) She opened herself despite the impossibility of the moment to God’s possibility. She moved from denying God to recognizing God’s presence with her. And then she courageously accepted her part in the fulfillment of God’s promises. She did this because she assented to God’s call on her as “favored one.”
Mary’s story of one who moves from village girl to prophet, from Mary to the mother of God, from confusion to discipleship is in a very real way, the movement from Advent to Christmas. Mary’s story moves us all from how we sometimes see ourselves to how God sees us, from who we think we are to what God has called us to be, from observant believer to witness to the Light who shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, from whom each of us can receive grace upon grace.
Each of us are favored by God. Each of us have something that the world desperately needs. How will we serve as a vessel of Christ in the world? In this time of Advent as we look ahead to Christmas, may we hear in this story a call on our hearts to remember that, through God’s grace, who we are and what we have can bring delight and beauty to this world. As followers of Jesus we can look to Mary, who establishes a way of the life in faith. Each of us, whether with fear and trembling or great bravado can embrace our ‘favoredness,’ step out and respond, “Here I am God.” Each of us a shining star in God’s firmament and our hearts “just bursted into love.”