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“Favor with God”

     The relationship between Mary and Joseph is a rare example of what God must have intended for couples and families from the beginning. Despite their unsettling circumstances, these two natives of Nazareth entered into matrimony willing to obey God’s command even at the expense of their own reputations. Luke’s account of Mary’s relationship to God illustrates how His divine light can shine through an ordinary person’s life to overcome the extraordinary shadows of an otherwise gloomy existence.

Mary’s experience is worthy of note because she trusted in God’s peculiar plan for her life despite the obstacles that stood in the way. She was “favored and blessed,” says Scripture, not for who she was, but because God had chosen her, and she willfully followed His plan for her life. Like Noah’s building an ark in the Old Testament, or Sarah, giving birth at the advanced age of 90; Mary trusted God and He transformed her ordinary faith into an extraordinary miracle. This simple pattern of God’s choosing and the believer’s trusting, is the basis for relationships that Scripture deems worthy of biblical note. Faith can be troubling at times, and down-right puzzling, but we can always be sure that God will challenge us to fulfill His plan to experience our life’s ultimate purpose.

Luke 1:26-29

“In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!” 29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.” (The New Living Bible)

Every year at this time some of America’s more vocal skeptics of Christmas face off with willing Christians to engage in the customary quarrel over the biblical account of Jesus’ Birth.[1]

Caught in the crossfire of this perennial battle are characters like Joseph and Mary who lived the experiences we only talk about. We’re told in Luke 1:28 that God sent the angel Gabriel to visit Mary and said to her; “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”[2] Indeed the Lord was with Mary that “silent night” but there was still a great deal more for her to consider as the angel spoke.

 

Faith Can be Troubling

     First of all, in Mary’s case, faith can be troubling. According to Luke, after being “stunned” by the appearance of the angel Gabriel in v.28, a frightened Mary was given the news that she was to bear a child by means of God’s Holy Spirit. Already promised to Joseph in marriage, Luke says in v.29 that Gabriel’s news “troubled” Mary. The Greek term he uses, describes her as being so “agitated” inwardly that she couldn’t help but show it outwardly.[3] This is the same angel who had previously visited a rather elder man named Zechariah back in v.19 and rocked his world with the announcement that his elderly wife, Elizabeth was 6-months pregnant with their son, John, (as in John the Baptist). Now he’s telling Mary that she was about to conceive the messianic promise of the Christ-child.

Luke says down in v.29 that Mary was not only “troubled” by what she heard, but that she was equally “wondering” about what was going on inside her. Again, the Greek term Luke uses to describe Mary’s troubled mind was that of her wrestling over what was real and what could only be described as some sort of psychotic break with reality. We can only speculate, but Mary must have experienced a flood of human emotion before accepting the seemingly implausible news. Her experience would prove to be much more than just the stuff of historical inquiry and theological discussion. Her life was to become a virtual catalog of classic human emotions as well. When faced with the peculiar prospects of participating in God’s plan, Mary was compelled to either adjust her expectations to believe what she’d heard, by faith, or pass the whole thing off as just “weird.” Essentially, what we see in Mary’s case, was that she is initially troubled, then “wondered,” says Luke in v.29, what it all meant. Luke indicates in v.30 that Mary was “afraid,” so the angel offered her comfort saying, “Mary, you have found favor with God.”

Trying to imagine how Mary must have felt that night is difficult, to say the least.

To have the light of God’s grace shine down into your soul’s deepest recesses, exposing all the shadowy elements and hidden fears that are part of being human would be frightening, to say the least! For most of us, it would be horribly disturbing to have God’s holiness flood our hearts revealing what we know to be a rather unholy self, with all its less-than-likeable human quirks and characteristics.

Let’s face it, we’re all a reasonably afraid of God’s will since it usually means exposing ourselves to doing something we’d not likely do otherwise. That was certainly the case with Mary. This fear can be so paralyzing that it prevents us from even trying—and according to Scripture that’s worse than failing. Like Jonah in the OT, we figure if we can just run away from God’s plan and bury it deep in the sea of our cluttered self-denials, maybe He’ll forget about it and leave us alone. We won’t have to do His extraordinary will because we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re too ordinary for such a task. The difference between Mary and others is that she took a giant leap of faith and instead of falling off the edge of reality, God caught her and swept the virgin up into the confidence of His incredible plan for her life. She obeyed God rather than excuse herself from doing His will.

Back in 1959, President Kennedy told an audience that “when the English word for “crisis” is translated into Chinese, its composed of two characters; one represents ‘danger’ and the other ‘opportunity.’[4] A “dangerous opportunity” is what we face when something comes along that’s out of our “comfort zone” of acceptable behavior. It’s fourth and one—with only two seconds left in the game—and the coach says, “Get in there and score one for the team,” but then you look back and say, “Gee coach, I’d really rather not.”

Mary’s situation presented her with a “dangerous opportunity” to play a significant role in God’s plan for the salvation of lost souls, or just dismiss it as someone else’s problem. She was an ordinary woman faced with the extraordinary prospects of trusting God or fearfully fading into life’s obscure background like a billion other mortals who’ve passed on the opportunity to live out God’s plan. Faith, like love, is a risky proposition that requires trust in God as well as belief in His only begotten Son. Mary’s love became evident when she faithfully submitted herself to God’s puzzling plan, even though the thought of it stirred up “trouble” and “wonder” in her young heart and mind.

 

Faith Can Be Puzzling

The book of Hebrews says that “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we don’t see.” Not only is faith troubling—as we’ve seen in Mary’s case—but it can be downright puzzling as well. Verse 34 is a snapshot of a young woman—probably in her teens—who must have been perplexed by what she was hearing.

Consider Mary’s situation for a moment: She’s a sharecropper’s daughter, chosen by God to birth a child from Jewish royalty that the OT prophets had said would “save the world from sin.” She’s engaged to a carpenter named Joseph, who sooner or later was going to wonder how she got pregnant. And her sixty-something-year-old cousin, Elizabeth is six months pregnant by some fluke of nature or a miracle of God. Like Mary in v.34, we would probably ask Gabriel, “How [can] this be?”

As I look back on my life, I thank God for His plan that has troubled and puzzled me from time to time. Although Gabriel hasn’t come to my bedside and audibly spoken the details of God’s strategy for my future, it has been weird at times. Through the humbling process of crashing my ignorant intentions into God’s firm-but-patient plan, I’ve slowly grown to understand what a covenant relationship to the Creator means. And it usually means stress and strife rather than success and celebrity.

The more I learn about Mary the more of a hero she becomes to me. Not because I think she was divine or worthy of my worship. But precisely because she was none of those things. She was like you and me; an ordinary person who devoted herself to an extraordinary God. Sure, it was a troubling—sometimes puzzling—journey from mortal fear to immortal faith , but Mary and Joseph—and every other genuine disciple whose ever lived—knows that you can always trust God. The “Christian faith,” wrote Karl Barth, some 50 years ago, “is the gift…in which men become free to hear the word of grace which God has spoken in Jesus Christ in such a way that in spite of all that contradicts it, they may once for all, exclusively and entirely, hold to His promise and guidance.” (Dogmatics, p.15)

 

Faith Is Always Challenging

While we’ve seen in Mary’s experience that faith in God’s plan can be troubling and puzzling, the truth is its ultimately challenging. Verse 38 says that, despite her disturbed heart and perplexed mind, Mary willingly agreed to go along with God’s plan. At this point she had no idea what the next 33 or so years would hold, she simply trusted God. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the character Malvolio reads a note that says, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”[5] In my humble opinion, no single woman better portrays the peak of human accomplishment; the fullest application of feminine potential; and the ultimate willingness to be used of God as did this unsuspecting peasant girl. She wasn’t born the “Queen of Heaven” nor had she achieved greatness through her own birth; it was simply thrust upon her one “holy night” when Gabriel told her she would bear the Son of God. Oprah Winfrey, Lena Dunham, and Hillary Clinton combined have nothing on Mary as a feminist, because she one-upped every man or woman when God chose her to be the mother of His only begotten Son. Yet, by all accounts Mary was an ordinary woman who simply submitted to God’s extraordinary plan and the rest is your salvation history and mine.

Fear for the Christian is often a dangerous opportunity to follow God to the very fringes of plausible reason. To step out confidently into the scary depths of potential embarrassment and failure knowing that God will either catch us before we fall or provide us a place to stand. While the traditional elements of modern Christianity and its ancient Jewish roots may suggest to some that our faith is “just another religion,” in really it isn’t a religion at all. It’s a covenant—a holy agreement—between an extraordinary God who challenges His ordinary people to become the persons He created them to be. You see, God wants you to be who He created you to be, not what this world wants to make of us. God is just as interested in your participating in His will today as He was in fulfilling His will in Mary’s life 2000 years ago.

Sure, it’s a little troubling at times and even puzzling, but the challenge is there for everyone.

 

     In my mind, the relationship between Mary and Joseph is a biblical peek into what God must have intended for couples and families when He created us. Despite the difficulty of their ancient circumstances, these two peasants entered into holy matrimony willing to obey heaven’s command at the expense of their own reputations. Luke’s account of Mary’s relationship to God illustrates how His divine light can shine through a person’s life overcoming the shadows of spiritual darkness. Like Noah, Sarah, and countless other biblical heroes, Mary’s witness was that she trusted God and He transformed her ordinary faith into an extraordinary miracle. This simple pattern of God’s choosing and the believer’s trusting, remains the basis for relationships worthy of biblical consideration today. But as most of us know, faith can be troubling at times and even puzzling, so we can always be sure that God will challenge us to fulfill His plan in order to experience our life’s ultimate purpose. So, what’s God’s plan for your life?

 

[1] As the TIB points out, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is not explicitly mentioned as part of the primitive Christian message (kerygma) or in the epistles of Paul or the early chapters of Acts. There’s no hint of it in Mark’s Gospel or in the common tradition of Matthew and Luke for that matter. It, again, has no explicit place in the birth narratives which assume that Joseph was one of Jesus’ parents (2:27, 33, 41, 43, 48). It is implied in the editorial parenthesis (“as was supposed”) in Luke’s version of Jesus’ genealogy (3:23) but nowhere else in the body of the Third Gospel. For that matter, apart from the first chapter of Matthew, the only reference to the doctrine in the N.T. is in this paragraph. George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Bible – Volume 8, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “Exegesis”.

[2] Blessed art thou among women is missing from codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, The words were borrowed from vs. 42 and interpolated at this point in most later MSS. In time the angelic salutation became the Ave Maria of the Latin translations. There is sporadic support in early Christian literature for the view—incompatible with the future tenses in vs. 35—that the angel’s utterance marked the moment of Mary’s conception. Zechariah had been troubled at the sight of the angel (vs. 12), but it was by the angel’s saying that Mary was disturbed. George Arthur Buttrick, ed., The Interpreter’s Bible – Volume 8, (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952), WORDsearch CROSS e-book, Under: “Exegesis”.

[3] Cf. Vine’s Expository Dic.

[4] This is actually a literary trope that has been basically debunked, but I thought since Kennedy used it, I would too. The origins of his use of the analogy is from a speech at the Convocation of the United Negro College Fund, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 12, 1959.

http://www.jfklibrary.org/Historical+Resources/Archives/Reference+Desk/Speeches/JFK/JFK+Pre-Pres/189POWERS09JFKPOWEES_59APR12.htm

[5] Twelfth Night (II, v, 156-159)