“You Have Found Favor”
December 20, 2015
Perhaps the greatest fear-dispeller of all is the grace of God.
I. You have found favor (Luke 1:26-33)
II. Nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:34-38)
III. My soul rejoices in the Lord (Luke 1:46-49)
Do you feel like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders? In Greek myth Atlas was a Titan on the losing side of a war and was condemned, not to hold up the earth, but to hold the heavens above the earth. Then there is Sisyphus, who was so sneaky and treacherous he was condemned to roll a huge boulder up a high hill and every time he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down and he’d have to start over. Sometimes we feel like those guys. You’re a father and you look down at your sons and think ‘man, if I mess this up, my example, or my spiritual walk, or my parenting, their lives are going to be ruined.’ You go to work, and you know ‘If I get one thing wrong, I’m outta here.’ You look at your finances ‘Why is this so hard? I was never cut out to be a juggler. Why is there always something unexpected in my bill pile?’
You’re a mother, raising children who challenge your strength, endurance and peace from the time they are newborns to the time they have children of their own. ‘I can’t do this. I don’t have the wisdom, the patience.’ Maybe you’re a wife, but your relationship with your husband is too painful to even describe; abuse and relational distance that crush your soul. Or maybe you’re a single mom, trying to do everything from dinner to dollars to discipline all alone.
Maybe you’re a college student, and you look at your courses and your schedule and you think ‘how does everybody else handle this?’ ‘Am I too dumb to do this?’ You look at your so-called social life and you see many Facebook friends but few deep relationships and a longing for a true love for your life, and you sink under a weight of loneliness and frustration.
Or maybe it’s a sin issue. You’ve struggled with anger or lust or fear or laziness or a crippling lack of confidence for years. And the Bob Newharts of the world just keep saying “Stop it,” but you can’t, or don’t feel you can and the weight of repeated failure, guilt and shame is like the weight of the world. Or maybe it’s denial of sin. Knowing in your heart that what you are doing is wrong, but doing it anyway with ever more elaborate self-justifications and excuses.
This morning we’re going to look at another Christmas ‘do not fear’ that is linked to a tremendous promise of God, one that we can generalize to our benefit. We’re going to look at Mary, who in a symbolic sense received the weight of the world in her womb as with her body and her life she took on the task of nurturing the Savor. This was a weight no human should be asked to bear. But even as God placed the weight of the world on her shoulders, he gave her the one thing that can enable any of us to carry this weight of the world: grace.
Let’s begin with the familiar verses in Luke 1 where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, Luke 1:26-33 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Gabriel, who had previously spoken to Zechariah now comes to Nazareth. Luke calls it a city in Galilee, but Nazareth was not big or well known. In fact, this town never appears in the Old Testament record. Even in the prophecy of Isaiah, it is Galilee of the Gentiles from which the promised ruler comes, not Nazareth per se. And you may remember in the Gospel of John that Nathaniel said “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Not a major tourist attraction.
Nevertheless, living there was a man named Joseph, a descendent of David. Now don’t miss that key phrase. Joseph was a descendent of David. And it was to David that the promises were made concerning a future heir, one who would reign on David’s throne forever and ever. So if this child was to be the Messiah of God, the Savior of the World it was Biblically and culturally imperative that he be a descendent of David. Thus the mention of Joseph and his descent.
But Gabriel was not in this instance sent to Joseph, but rather to Mary. Twice in verse 27 this Mary is called a parthenos, a virgin, an unmarried woman. In contrast to our culture, the two were considered inseparable. An unmarried woman who was not a virgin would never be called by this word. The same is true, by the way, of the original prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 A virgin will conceive and bear a son and will call his name Emmanuel.
This particular virgin was betrothed, pledged to be married, to Joseph. The marriage pledge was a stronger union than our engagement, It could not be broken except by divorce. This marriage pledge could take place early in life, but the wedding, but the actual wedding would wait until at least the age of thirteen. So Mary was almost certainly a very young woman, a contrast to her relative Elizabeth, who was well along in years. Thus in the first few verses we see two of the key people involved in this amazing grace. We see Joseph, whom Luke later tells us was a carpenter, and we see Mary, a young, betrothed girl.
And in these two people we see such a typical example, of how God fulfills prophecy in surprising and unexpected ways. When God told Israel that the Messiah would be a descendent of David, it’s almost certain that Israel pictured a son born in a palace, to sit on a throne. They thought of might and power. They didn’t, I’m sure, think of a carpenter. When God spoke of the virgin who would conceive and bear a son, the readers of that text would not imagine a young peasant girl in rough clothing with work-reddened hands as the person God would choose. God keeps his promises - these are the right people - but he does it in unexpected ways, whether using a country like Israel, ‘the least among all the peoples,’ or humble people like Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
So Gabriel appears to Mary, and he says: Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Greek emphatically does not imply that there was some quality in Mary that had somehow earned God’s favor. There is no implication here of sinlessness or even special righteousness. The implication rather, is of special blessing, undeserved favor from God to her. In fact, the implication is that she is given grace – grace, perhaps, to carry the weight of the world.
The Greek word, is charitao, from charitas, grace, which is from the same root as the word gift, as in spiritual gifts. This is the word Paul uses throughout his letters to identify how God saves sinners. Ephesians 2:8 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” This is what has been given to Mary: Grace. You are graced by God. And it is not just the grace of salvation; it is a gift of God’s power when we are weak. God says to Paul “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That’s what Mary is blessed with – God’s strength in her weakness, God’s strength to bear this other-worldly burden. The wonder of this event doesn’t lie in Mary, but in God, who chooses to give extraordinary blessing to ordinary people. And it is by that same grace that he strengthens us to bear the burdens and temptations of a tragically fallen world. When we feel like the world’s weight is on our shoulders, we can count on his grace.
The text says that Mary was greatly troubled at his words. The word literally means stirred up, and could be used of an ocean in a storm. It can mean terrified, which is why the angel later says to her ‘do not fear.’ But in this case she is as troubled by his words as by his appearance. She wonders what they mean. The word wonder here means to think, to reason, to consider. Wonder is more than just an emotion, it is also a kind of curiosity. And I’m sure among Mary’s thoughts was: Why is God choosing me? I haven’t done anything to deserve his grace. She didn’t even know yet what blessing and what grief would be her burden, but she already knows that this is an undeserved grace. In the same way, no matter what our burden, God’s grace can stir us to wonder.
Gabriel says to Mary: Don’t be afraid. Of course, we expected that. Mary’s fear, like Zechariah’s and the shepherds was partly of the bright scary angel. But like Zechariah’s fear, there is a larger issue going on here. For Zechariah it was the truth that the prayers of the world have been answered. For Mary it is the truth that the answer to the world’s prayers comes with an overflow of grace, given to one who felt undeserving. And in the same way the answer to the burdens you carry comes with grace, with grace to meet every need.
Gabriel immediately ties that grace to news that could easily be ‘the weight of the world’ to an unmarried girl. “You will be with child and give birth to a son. There is no question that this is a reference to Isaiah 7:14, where the wording of the prophecy is similar: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son. This is the first of many, many prophecies that will be fulfilled by Jesus. He is the virgin’s child, the miracle child, born of a woman yet not of a man.
In Isaiah’s prophecy the virgin gives birth to a son, and calls his name “Immanuel.” But Gabriel’s message to Mary is “call the baby Jesus.” Jesus was a common name, their version of the Biblical name Joshua. But it has a great meaning: Jehovah saves. That’s made clear in Matthew’s Gospel, which we’ll look at on Christmas Eve. “call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew goes on to say: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” - which means “God with us.”
Then, as he did for John, Gabriel specifies the kinds of promises that this baby will fulfill. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. Zechariah says of John that he will be a prophet of the Most High, but Jesus is the Son of the Most High. To you and me, maybe, this sounds perfectly natural. We’ve read the Gospels, the epistles, and we know Jesus to be the Son of God. But to the Jews, and to Luke’s first readers the announcement of one who would be the Son of the Most High was stupendous. The generations immediately preceding the birth of Christ, had moved further and further away from a personal conception of God. They had, to their credit, focused on the greatness of God, his omnipotence, eternality, and holiness. But it means that Mary, even more than we, would be overwhelmed by the thought that the baby she was to carry in her body was ‘Son of the Most High’ and ‘God with us.’ Truly the weight of the world placed on her young shoulders.
Yet there is even more. This child will be the Messiah of David’s line. Verse 32: The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Jesus fulfills perhaps the most longed for promise of the Old Testament.
It first appears in 2 Samuel chapter 7. God speaks to David and says: “‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: 12When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14I will be his father, and he will be my son.” At one level this prophecy was fulfilled by Solomon, but after Solomon’s death, in the decline of the kingdom, the promise was seen to apply to a future eternal king - the Messiah. In addition to Isaiah 9:7, which we’ve already studied in this series, Isaiah 16:5 says “In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it-- one from the house of David- one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.”
We find these kinds of promises from Chronicles to the Psalms to the Prophets. And Gabriel, in these few words, tells us that Jesus is the fulfillment, of all these promises of a Messiah from David’s line. There is no mistaking this reference. This child that Mary would bear is the Son of God and the Messiah. What an astounding gift. What astounding grace. It’s not surprising at all that Mary’s question would be “How?” “How can this be?” Gabriel’s response makes it even more clear how God’s grace makes the impossible possible.
Verses 34-38: Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Now in one sense Mary could have had a theory about how the angel’s promise would happen. After all, she was about to be married to a man from the lineage of David, and it would be natural to expect to conceive and have a baby. The thing that I think tripped Mary up is the immediacy of Gabriel’s promise. He implies that it will happen right now. And so she responds quite naturally: I can’t have a baby, I’m not married yet. But she may also have wondered how any baby of hers, or of Josephs, could be called Son of the Most High. If she took that phrase seriously as we discussed it a few moments ago, then we understand why she is both amazed and confused. How can she bear the Son of God? And if modern Bible critics took the Scripture seriously they would not imply that Mary was pregnant by Joseph or by any other mere man.
Listen to Gabriel’s answer. Verse 35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” Here’s how it is can happen immediately. Not through a human cause, but through the power of the Holy Spirit, God will make it so. Both the word translated ‘come upon you’ and the word translated ‘overshadow you’ are words which in the original Greek were applied to God’s presence in the tabernacle. God was to be present in the same way with Mary. He was present as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And his presence as the Son would remain. God the Son was somehow united with humanity. In that embryo was God Incarnate. God as a man. And though human he remains holy, sinless, pure. Gabriel calls the child the Holy One. He does not share the inevitability of sin with us. He is the Son of God. Now an interesting question is: who is going to call him the Son of God? It turns out, in the Gospels, that the recognition of Jesus as God’s Son comes from the Father himself. When Jesus is baptized in Luke 3, we will hear the Father say: “You are my Son, whom I love’ with you I am well pleased.” And on the Mount of Transfiguration, when Jesus was glorified before the disciples, they heard the Father say: This is my Son, whom I have chosen, listen to him.” In fact it was for the blasphemy of being the Son of God that Jesus was ultimately crucified. That’s the question they asked him before the Sanhedrin. “Are you the Son of God?” If so, blasphemy! They couldn’t conceive of God in human flesh. Even today that thought is a stumbling block to many, including modern Jews and Muslims. But this truth is at the heart of the incarnation.
Now, unlike Zechariah, Mary has not asked for a sign. Nevertheless, the angel gives her one, by pointing her to her relative Elizabeth. She’s going to have a child in her old age. She’s supposed to be barren, but she’s six months pregnant. By the way, given the age difference, Elizabeth may not be Mary’s cousin. She could be Mary’s aunt or even a more remote relative. But the sign is intended to show Mary one very simple thing: That nothing will be impossible with God. It is a future tense, by the way: Neither this thing that has been promised to you, nor anything else, will ever be impossible for the God of the universe.
Do you see where we keep coming here? God pours out his grace on Mary. God lays on her the burden of bearing the Messiah, God the Son. God the Holy Spirit makes that true in her womb, because for God nothing is impossible. And Mary’s fear of what God is doing is answered by the abundance of his grace. In the same way for us grace comes first. Any burden that we bear, relational, emotional, financial, physical, and any sin or temptation that we fight is as nothing to the power of the grace of a God to whom nothing is impossible.
The situations we face, which may seem impossible to us, are child’s play for the God of the universe. He isn’t daunted by the forces and circumstances arrayed against you. Your greatest enemy is as nothing to his power and his wisdom. And when it feels like your situation is unbearable, God’s counsel is very simple: He would like you to remember his power and his grace. It is God’s power that made it possible for Jesus to come and fulfill these promises. It is His love that motivated him to do it. And it was and is his grace to undeserving people like Mary and Joseph and you and me, that is displayed in its glory in the humble womb of Mary and the humble cattle stall.
And how should we respond to this grace? We can do no better than to respond like Mary: I am the Lord’s servant. I am your slave, God. Let it be to me as you have said. This is a response of submission. Giving the rule and authority in our lives to the God who has already shown his grace and his power in such a wonderful way. It’s also an acknowledgement that we are dependent on that grace. We can’t do this on our own, we can only do this in submission to him.
This is what Mary did, despite the difficulties that her submission entailed. She was engaged to a man with whom she had never been intimate, and yet she would have to tell him that she was pregnant. It was perfectly within his rights to accuse her, to divorce her, and to shame her for the rest of her life, potentially even to have her stoned. But Mary was trusting in God. If he gave her this burden and privilege, then she would depend on him to provide the strength and the grace to bear it, and to provide circumstances that would allow her to do what he had asked. Do not fear Mary, for you have already received grace.
After the angel leaves Luke’s next focus is on Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth, who, the angel told her, is in her sixth month of pregnancy. When she arrives Elizabeth immediately confirms the sign. In fact, the Holy Spirit reveals what God has done to Elizabeth, and the baby in her womb confirms it. Elizabeth says “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Elizabeth says that Mary has already believed what the Lord has spoken. It appears Mary has been thinking about what the Lord is up to on her whole journey to Judea. She says, Luke 1:46, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
She goes on to praise God in particular for his care for poor and needy, that by this Messiah he is renewing his care for those who fear him, those of humble estate, his servants. She praises his faithfulness in keeping his promise of mercy. But she starts by applying this truth to herself, praising the Lord and rejoicing in her spirit because he looked on her humble estate. Notice that. She recognizes that in herself and in her situation she has no resources to deal with this burden, the weight of the world that is being placed in her womb.
But he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. It’s almost a mistranslation to say ‘he’s done great things,’ because we use the word great so poorly. Dinner was great, the semester was great, the movie was great, my nap was great. Oh, it was great. There is little or no greatness left in the word. But when Mary says that the mighty one has done great things, she is not being trite or trivial. She is literally saying that God has done wonders, miracles. The Greek word is megale, mega things, magnificent things. This is the same word Mary uses when she says ‘my soul magnifies the Lord,’ my soul makes known or makes great his greatness.
Mary is recognizing grace. I’m humble, lowly, incapable, but God in his power has done this great thing. He has made me able to bear this great burden. And so I will praise his name. I will exalt and extol him. I will not fear the weight of the world for I have, for no merit of my own, found favor with God, received grace from God, and despite the burden I carry, which Simeon will later tell her is a sword that pierces her own soul, despite that, I am blessed.
Do you feel that way? Are you able to see the world and your circumstances in light of God’s grace. Yes, there are times when you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders, when that boulder just keeps rumbling back down to the bottom of the pit and you keep trudging down to try to push it back up again. But rejoice. The strength you need is not your own. You are the recipient of grace and the one who is mighty is ever able to bear the weight of the world. He has yoked himself to you, and though he himself may give you the burden, as he did Mary, he also gives you rest. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” His yoke is easy, his burden is light, because he is the dispenser of grace. Do not fear this burden you carry, friend, for God offers you grace. Do you believe this? It’s his Christmas gift.