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Message #2 - The One About Grace and Favor

Message #2 - The One About Grace and Favor

Dec 15, 2019

Passage: Luke 1:26-38

Preacher: The Reverend Andrew Van Kirk

Series: Messages of the Angels


The summer I was sixteen, I went on a road trip to Colorado with my best friend. I went to a Catholic school, and so — as the odds would dictate, my best friend was Roman Catholic. He and I were following in one car while the rest of his family was leading in another car.

My friend’s family had two specific road trip habits that I remember. The first was that they always stopped at the rest stop on 287 just west of Mineral Wells, and so we stopped there too. I have no idea why; it was a terrible rest stop. It’s eight broke down picnic tables about fourteen feet off the highway.

The second thing is that after rest stopping outside of Mineral Wells, finally out of the suburban sprawl and with the long drive across Texas ahead of us, we were all to say the rosary. Despite there being two cars, we were to say it together, both cars at the same time, using those yellow Motorola hand held walkie-talkies.

And so my friend and I dutifully turned off Easy-E, which either means something to you or doesn’t, and joined in the road trip rosary.

I knew what the rosary was, but I don’t think I had ever said the rosary the traditional catholic way, with all the “Hail Marys.” The prayer, if you aren’t familiar, goes like this, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”

And I remember thinking — and still this tugs at me obviously, since you’re getting a sermon on it — is how much of that prayer is about Mary. It begins by is just quoting the angel Gabriel from this morning’s reading. The first line, “Hail Mary (Ave Maria in Latin), full of grace, the Lord is with thee” — is just verse 28 of your gospel reading, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”

The message of the angel Gabriel that we repeat, the part of it that’s entered so deeply into our vernacular that we use it to describe long football passes with a low expected completion percentage, is the angel’s description of Mary.

Surely the rest of the stuff about the baby Jesus, and who he would grow up to be, surely that matters. But we have a whole gospel describing Jesus; the angel’s words are the most extended description of Mary we have in the whole scripture.

Every setting of Ave Maria; every Catholic grandmother with a worn set of beads; every pickup truck with a rosary dangling off the rearview mirror — all of it bears witness to the message of the angel for Mary.

Today is the second in our four part series on the messages of the angels. Last week we heard the angel bring the message to Zechariah that John the Baptist would make the people ready for their savior by showing them they needed saving, by showing them that they were on the naughty list. Today we’re focusing on the same angel, but a different message. Today is the message of the angel to Mary — the one about the grace and favor of the Lord.

The angel Gabriel from heaven came, and he came to Nazareth of Galilee. Nazareth is like small town Appalachia or something. Year after year, preachers try to describe how Galilee is not the place you want to be from. For 2019, let’s go with this: if opioid epidemic had been a thing in ancient Israel, it would have been worst in Galilee. Nazareth would have been hard hit.

Mary is a youth-group aged girl in an age when young women were valued as marriage partners rather than independently. And the angel is coming to tell her that her value as a marriage partner—the best thing she has going for her—is about to be destroyed as well, since she’s about be pregnant out of wedlock.

This is hard stuff; it should not be coated in saccharine sentimentality. To what degree does the world think Mary has chance of mattering at all? Ha! Trick question. The world doesn’t even bother to take the time to answer that question. Mary doesn’t matter.

And then, a bit of heaven bursts forth. “Hail Mary, full of grace.” “Most highly favored lady!” “Ave Maria.” “The Lord is with you.”

In a way, Gabriel is playing the role of mirror here. He is showing Mary, letting her see, what God sees when looking at her. And yet, that vision Gabriel reveals is as crazy as if you looked into in a mirror and saw, I dunno, Thor. Or Luke Skywalker. Or a dragon. The gap between what the angel says about Mary and what the world says about Mary is…we’ll more than you can imagine, I can tell you that.

Gabriel is better than a spiritual mirror, actually because mirrors don’t talk. Mirrors don’t correct us when we lie to ourselves. A mirror would seem to show the honest truth; but because we’re stuck assessing ourselves, mirrors only show us a picture to caption with the self-assessment the world has burdened us with.

I remember when the moderate acne I had in high school looked to me like a map of the surface of Mars smeared across my face. We all know skinny people who see fat, beautiful people who see something vulgar, and children who can see only the gap between the mirror’s image and the Photoshopped influencer on Instagram. Because the subject (the person looking) is the object (the person being looked at) mirrors are not so much truth tellers as lie reflectors.

Do you think you are better at honestly, truthfully assessing your spiritual worth than your physical attractiveness? Or let me put it this way: If somebody could hold up a mirror that would reflect your worth as a person, would you see what God sees, or would you see the lies that picked up from living down here as long as you have?

If you were Mary, would you see the simple, peasant girl from a backwater who was so poor she gave birth in a barn; or would you see the one to whom “Salve Regina” — “Hail Holy Queen” would be sung. Would you see what the world says, or what the angel says?

Because here’s the trick: Mary, at the end, has to buy into the angel’s message about her. She has to say, “When I look at me, I see what you see.” Because there is no way she can say yes to the giving birth to Jesus without knowing that God’s grace and love and presence are there for her. Hers is a ministry that will bring her derision. Her son will be called crazy, possessed. And eventually her yes will take her to the foot of the cross with tears streaming down her cheeks. If the angel’s message about her — full of grace, the Lord is with her — if that isn’t true, this is a nightmare, not an angelic vision.

“Favored one. The Lord is with you. You have found favor with God.” The first and immediate question for Mary — the one she must answer before she answers about the baby — is does she believe this?

The first and immediate question for you and me — the one we must answer before we do whatever work of God we are called to in the world — is do we believe this?

God loves you. God favors you. The Lord is with you. You have found grace with God — found that grace through the gift of Mary’s son, Jesus Christ. Do you believe that?

Gabriel departs from Mary not just when she says yes to the getting pregnant, but when she says yes to being the person he described her to be. She has to be the favored one; she has to have the Lord with her.

It is only then that she can go play her absolutely critical part in God’s great story of salvation. Let it be with me according to your word, Gabriel. Yes about the baby. But yes too, oh, a million times yes, about the favor of the Lord.

I know the Lord is never going to send some angel to tell me I’m going to get pregnant. I’m not Mary — not as pure, true, and good.

But the message of the angel about God’s favor, grace and presence being where God chooses and not where the world is looking for it — that remains true beyond this angel and this woman on this day.

Indeed, that’s part of the whole Christmas story: Christmas is a time when the most important king is the most humbly appointed baby; when the most perfect mother is the most worthless girl; when the proud king rages in his citadel while the shepherds wonder at the angels in sky above. Christmas is a feast of God’s grace going where human beings least expect it.

And unless we say that, and live that — we can’t really go to Bethlehem in our hearts, we can only pretend.

Oh church, we have to capture some piece of that vision; some sense of that God whose grace goes where human beings least expect it! To see ourselves, and one another, not as the world sees, but as God sees, as the angel told Mary. To glimpse the abundance of the Lord precisely where it’s easy to see the want of the world.

And the first place it has to be true is with ourselves. If we cannot look at our ourselves in the spiritual mirror and see people for whom there is fullness grace, people whom the Lord is with, then we cannot do the work God has given us to do. And we will not be able to see others as full of grace either.

This season is about giving gifts, sure. But it’s really about receiving a particular gift, about receiving the gift of a God who favors you, of a God who is with you. You have found favor with God. And we have to receive that gift; and let others receive it too.

Mary is an exemplary example. Ok, so your job this year is not to bear the savior of the human race; maybe it’s nothing more than to bear with your spouse…or your parents. Maybe you have to lead a ministry, start a small group, feed kids over the summer. Maybe you’re going to talk with customers as you drive for Uber or assist them at the vets office. All of these things need the gift of God’s grace and favor. Receive it.

To borrow Mary’s turn of phrase, let it be with us according to his word, according to the message of the angel. Amen.