Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B RCL
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 15; Luke 1:26-38
An angel suddenly appears in the room with Mary. Mary is strong because she doesn’t show her fear, but the angel knows she is frightened. “Do not be afraid,” the angel says. Now Mary wasn’t of noble birth. Her family doesn’t appear to be wealthy. The angel meets Mary in her house, probably her parent's house, in a small, small town. This town is not like Eagle Lake. It is more like Elm Grove or Egypt, places where we would least likely expect a spectacular event to happen. But this was Bethlehem; a backwater town, with a population under 200, a place most people didn’t even know existed. Through this young girl, in this unknown town, is where God chose to literally change the world.
Angel Gabriel greets Mary with a rather royal address. “Greetings favored one!” In many ways, we view the arrival of Gabriel as if Mary just won the lottery. We may think how wonderful it is that this poor, unassuming girl receives this miracle. We may also think this way about many other biblical people who find favor with God. Think of Noah, Abram, and Jacob.
Noah finds favor and is told to build an arc. He watches the animals arrive. And as the rain comes he sets adrift for forty days so he and his family can repopulate the broken world. In this adventure have we thought how favored he must have been when he hears the people screaming, drowning, and clawing at the door to come in. Jacob finds God’s favor, wrestles with an angel, and gets a new name Israel. He becomes the patriarch of the twelve tribes. But how favored does he seem when he severely injures his hip by wrestling with that angel? Or losing his son Joseph to a wild beast, only to discover decades later, that his other sons deceived him. Though they plotted to kill Joseph, they only sold him into slavery instead. Few of us would find this to be a sign of God having favor on us.
Today we have the highly favored Mary. How favored must she have felt when she “and [Jesus’] brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. [Jesus] was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’”[i] What pain she must have felt by this rejection. Then there is Mary at the foot of the cross where Jesus is hanging; watching as the life drains out of his body. No mother, no parent would even begin to believe they were highly favored on such an occasion.
Being favored by God initially comes from their faith in God. Because of their great faith God finds favor with them. Yet at the same time, it is not an answered prayer. Some of these people were hoping and praying to have children. Some even gave up hope because of their advanced age. And though having children was an answered prayer for them, this is clearly not the case for Mary in her unwed state. Being favored comes with great difficulties putting us in circumstances that no one would ever desire to be in. Yet at the same time, there are great blessings that come with God’s favor.
We find that through these people’s faith and the favor they have found with God, they see God’s plan at work around them and working through them. Even though their life may be no easier than others these favored people find great joy in God. They are happy to wait and see how God’s plan works out even in the hard times.
David, the youngest of his brothers, the one who slew Goliath, and eventually became the second King of Judah, is another person who God found favor with. About a year before our story opens, David reunites Judah in the South and Israel in the North. The civil war has ended and there is peace within the country. David is feeling good about what he has accomplished. So David tells his confidant, the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." The ark of God was the “footstool” of God and the tent was God’s home on earth. David is saying, look at me I’m better than God. Just look at my beautiful permanent house while God lives in a nomadic tent.
God speaks to Nathan and reminds him of all the wonderful things God has done for the Hebrew people and for David. It is only because of God that the people are no longer nomadic, that David has a permanent home and a permanent kingdom. God never asks for a permanent home but this doesn’t make God less; less loving, less happy, less powerful, less anything.
We find that David will never build the temple, God’s permanent home. God tells David that it will be one of his sons who will build the temple and his son's line and his kingdom, will never end. Obviously, we find Jesus’ lineage traced to David and we know that Jesus’ reign will never end. We discover an advent theme as David waits for his son Solomon to be born, to build the temple, and to carry on the kingdom on.
Many of these favored people look too good to be true. We don’t see much of their dark side. Mary is squeaky clean; so much so that some traditions believe that she is perfectly sinless just like Jesus himself. Clearly, this is not what we find in David. David makes very human mistakes; coveting another man’s wife, adultery, murder, and calling for a census. God gets angry with David but David is also good at repenting, asking forgiveness, and returning to God.
What strikes me is that finding Gods favor is not an answered prayer. With the exception of Jacob, who won God’s favor by winning the wrestling match with an angel, God’s favor cannot be earned. God’s favor was given to them by grace out of the faith that they already had.
This is where we find ourselves in Advent. Many of us are waiting for signs of God’s favor within ourselves. Through prayer, we will not gain God’s favor but prayer can allows us to see that we are already favored by God. From God’s grace, through our faith in Jesus, by the Holy Spirit in our Baptism, we have God’s favor. Just like our biblical heroes, this favor doesn’t mean we will not make mistakes; that we will not witness horrible things in our lives or in the lives of those we love. What this favor does is gives us the ability to be humble. Humble enough to know that our achievements are not ours alone. Just like David our successes only come through God’s hand both within us and the world. By recognizing this we can let go of trying to control the world around us. We can trust that God will make the world a better place by working through us and others over time. This favor offers us unending life; even as our body decays, we will live on. For through Christ we have been adopted as his own children from David’s line.
[i] Luke 8:19-21