If someone were to ask you to describe those who have received God’s favor, how might you respond? What are the types of people you imagine? Perhaps those who are well-off, or the ones who are well-spoken. Maybe you conjure up those who have done something for God or given back to humanity. Possibly you’d think of a renowned world leader, or someone who’s worked hard in the medical field. I suspect many of us would include those who’ve done the right thing and have thereby “earned” God’s favor. We would expect that the ones we’ve imagined that God has shown favor to have done something remarkable to deserve it. Chalk it up to that ledger we also believe God has up there in heaven where every good and bad thing we do gets meticulously noted down, and we just hope to have more credits than debits during our lifetimes and earn God’s favor. Imagining all that, however, is the building blocks for some bad theology. Let me explain.
The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is favored by God in the encounter we heard this morning not once, but twice. Gabriel begins with the words, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” In response, Mary shows some uncertainty about this sudden appearance by an otherworldly being, and also seems a bit perplexed by this greeting. It seems Mary thinks like us. While we may know her as the “Blessed Virgin Mary,” at this encounter she was just Mary, a local, poor young woman. She couldn’t imagine what she hadn’t done to earn favor from God. So that’s when Gabriel says it the second time, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” This heavenly messenger appears in an impoverished rural neighborhood to a young unmarried woman and tells her that she has found favor with God. Putting it mildly, she’s perplexed. She isn’t the type that we conjure up when asked to imagine those who’ve been favored by God. She likely isn’t the type she would think of either. And yet here we are.
Theologian Robert Tannehill posits that Mary finds favor with God simply because she has nothing. She has nothing to give, and there’s nothing remarkable about her. Another theologian sums it up: “She is a young girl in a society that values men and maturity; in her song of praise [the Magnificat] she identifies herself as lowly and poor.” She’s a poor young woman in a culture that puts a premium on mature men with resources and standing. If we asked people to pick the one on whom God has favor, and then show them two photographs, one with a picture of a poor young unmarried woman who looks by her clothing that she’s just scrapping, and the other with a high powered male exec in an immaculate business suit, well, I don’t think we’d be surprised at the results. And yet, God once more doesn’t do as we expect. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
In the early 1970s, Ernesto Cardenal, a Roman Catholic priest in Nicaragua, wrote a commentary based on the conversations he had with the peasant farmers and fisherman in a small community around Lake Nicaragua reflecting on the Sunday gospels at church. When they’d gather for services, instead of a sermon, they’d have a conversation. Usually one of the younger members would read the lesson—most of the elders were illiterate—and Fr. Ernesto would ask a question to get them started. The commentary The Gospel in Solentiname describes their interactions with this reading from Luke about the Gabriel’s announcement to Mary of the coming of a savior, a liberator. Old Thomas Peña responds to Gabriel’s message with these words, “He means that the savior is not going to be born among the rich but right among us, the poor people.” Pablo adds, “It’s not the rich but the poor who need liberation.” Olivia responds, “The rich and the poor will be liberated. Us poor people are going to be liberated from the rich. The rich are going to be liberated from themselves, that is, from their wealth. Because they’re more slaves than we are.”
Who do you imagine God shows favor on?
I believe our issue is that we imagine God thinks like us. That the people God likes or doesn’t, the policies God stands behind or rejects, is in alignment with what we hold to be true. In our country, we uphold and value the ones with resources disproportionately more than those without. Case in point: news reports emerged this weekend stating Stanford Medical Hospital prioritized hospital administrators working from home to receive the COVID-19 vaccine over residents, nurses, and other personnel working the frontlines. After an outcry, a course correction happened. And I suspect we’ll see that those living in less wealthy areas—be they rural or urban—will inordinately fall to the back of the line when it comes time for us to receive vaccines. So maybe those peasants from the 1970s could see something we don’t: we as a culture are slaves to wealth, and I might add, power. And we tend to equate those things with God’s favor. But Gabriel’s announcement shatters that entirely, and perhaps we need to reimagine what God’s favor really entails, and the need we all have—rich and poor—for God’s redemption.
But I also suspect there’s one more thing that we might benefit from in looking at this passage. What those farmers and fishermen back in Nicaragua happened upon in their conversation has implications for us personally. They lived in a world that assumed God would always choose someone else, someone further away. Someone more worthy. So when an angel appeared in a place that looked remarkably similar to their own, to a person much like themselves, they began to wonder if they might be favored by God and called to some greater work after all. You see, we have a tendency to do the same. To think that God is calling someone else, some other person more deserving of God’s attention. Someone not us. Because many of us if we were handed photos and told to pick the person chosen by God to do some great work and then came across a photo of ourselves in the pile, would pick someone else.
Yet, as Dr. Ashley Cook Cleere explains it, “The selection of Mary to be the mother of Jesus is an occasion to spur Christians to exit the realm of predictability and open themselves up to the unexpected and the unimaginable.” What might be the most unexpected and unimaginable of all is that you have found favor with God, and that God is calling you. Calling you in some new way to bring redemption, liberation, and hope to others. Calling you to open yourself up in unimaginable ways to the life’s work God has been leading you toward for some time. While this message is perplexing and unforeseen because you don’t imagine yourself to be prepared or ready, may our response can be like Mary’s. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” May we open ourselves up to receive the favor of God this Christmas. May we make space in our hearts for the coming of Christ, for we have truly found favor with God.