Scripture: Luke 4: 16-21; 28-30
I received the inspiration for this Lenten series of messages on Christmas Eve. I sat that night and watched and listened to Cheryl sing what has become a Christmas Eve tradition, “Mary Did You Know”. The same song heard just moments. As Cheryl transported us to Bethlehem and Mary at the manger which held her newborn son, I suddenly had a very different vision. I saw Mary at the foot of the Cross and in that context the questions of this song took on a completely different meaning.
Think about the questions being asked of Mary:
*Mary, did you know that your Baby Boy would someday walk on water? That He would be Lord of all creation? That He would calm storms with the wave of His hand?
*And Mary did you know that your miracle Baby Boy would someday be a worker of miracles Himself? That because of Him the blind would see again, the deaf would hear, the lame would walk, the dead would come back to life?
*And Mary did you know that this little lamb in the manger would someday be Heaven’s perfect lamb? That He would save the sons and daughters of the world? That this child that you just delivered, will someday give you new life, will deliver you?
*And Mary did you know, that this Baby Boy which you cradle, is God–the great I Am? That He would someday establish His Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven?
Surely those questions take on a completely different meaning when they are being asked at the foot of the Cross, rather than next to a manger. And so I wondered, as I watched (and watching Cheryl sing is an important part of the whole experience) and listened, what did Mary know about the incredible journey that began in that animal shelter when she gave birth to Jesus and laid Him in that manger? How much did what she thought she knew that night change by the time she came to Calvary and the foot of His Cross? Just think how much our understanding, what we know about Jesus, changes from manger to cross. Mary, did you know?
Of all the people that populated Jesus’ life, none is more revered all of these centuries later than Mary. But it is really tradition that has made that true. Because really scripture says relatively little about Mary. Of the Gospel writers, only Luke goes into some detail about her role. Matthew gives more prominence to Joseph. John and Mark say very little at all, just passing references at best. And yet, we have taken Luke’s brief sketch of Mary and surrounded her with tradition in the church. Tradition, for instance, gives her a family. And tradition makes her seem older than Luke implies that she was.
Tradition has even given greater importance to the Virgin Birth than Scripture does. And tradition has ascribed to her saintly qualities, and elevated her to a position of adoration in many Christian faith expressions. Down through the centuries there are those who have claimed to see visions of Mary, and claim that Mary has spoken to them, and shrines have been established to which people take pilgrimages seeking healing and salvation. Now I don’t know about all of that, but I do know that none of that is ascribed to Mary in scripture. And artists have tried to capture Mary for us. One of the most familiar portraits of Mary is Gabriel Rosetti’s painting of the annunciation (on screen). And then there is this picture of Mary holding the baby Jesus on her lap. Often times when Mary is depicted in art she has a halo, denoting her piety. (on screen). Perhaps the most famous image is this sculpture by Michelangelo which shows Mary cradling the lifeless body of Jesus (on screen). No halos now. Just the horror of the moment. Mary, did you know?
But the problem with the way tradition has defined Mary is that we tend to rob her of her most essential trait, and that is her humanity. And to do that is to really miss the essential nature of the story. Luke’s description of Mary is much more down to earth. A mere child by our standards. A poor girl. Promised to Joseph (who interestingly tradition has depicted as a much older man), but Mary was promised to him, probably not because they were in love, but because it was what her parents wanted for her. And yet God chose such an imperfect vessel, to be the threshold through which the long awaited Messiah would come into the world.
It did not have to be that way. Jesus could have descended on a cloud of light and glory, just as He ascended. In fact, had that happened people may have paid more attention to Him. But Mary represents humanity, you and I, in the divine plan. Mary speaks to the unexpected nature of it all. When we create a Mary that is more than what she was, we take from the story of the birth of Christ part of its essential message. And that is that God came to live among us, not as a God, but as a Human Being.
Of all the ways that He could have sent the Messiah, He chose this young peasant girl. Even the first Moses, though born in humble surroundings to a peasant mother, was, through divine intervention, raised in the court of a king. But not Jesus. Born to a poor peasant. Raised by a poor peasant. And when He died, it was Mary, the poor peasant girl, who wept at the foot of the Cross. Mary, did you know?
Now, as I said, when Luke tells us about Mary he really gives us very little to go on in discovering who she was. But there is one word of description that kind of jumps off the page when we read it. Luke tells us that in the words of the Angel, Mary had found favor with God. In fact, in case we miss it, the angel says it twice. Look again at what Luke tells us the Angel said. First, it’s in the initial greeting: “Greetings you who are highly favored.” And then again: “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Now we aren’t told why, but in describing Mary as favored by God, the Angel was placing Mary in pretty exclusive company.
There are few in scriptures for whom we can make that same claim, that they were “favored by God.” Noah was favored by God. Abraham. Moses, certainly. And then there was David. And after Mary there would be the Apostles and Paul. But it’s a pretty exclusive group, those who would be considered to be favored by God. And what did it mean to be favored by God. Our first impression might be a place of special privilege and ease and comfort. When we are the favorite, people go out of their way to serve us. To make us comfortable. We get special attention. Special privileges. But there can be another side to being the favorite.
In sporting events, for instance, the favorite is the one that everyone is aiming for. The University of Kentucky basketball team is learning that lesson. Everyone is giving them their best shot. Pulling out all the stops. Beat the favorite at all costs. And if you are the favorite, you are the one that bosses and teachers and even parents turn to for responsible action. Often times the favored position is the most difficult position to be in. People expect so much from the favorite.
I read an article not too long ago about what happened to some of the first responders after 9/11. And one of the firemen who responded to the towers said that after 9/11 he rose to a “favored position in the fire department.” But he said, “That did not mean that I got a cushy desk job back at the station house. It meant that I got to be the point man. The first one in. That I took the most difficult positions in responding to fires.” Mary, did you know what it really meant to be favored by God?
Scripture says that Noah was favored by God, and because of that he faced the ridicule of his friends and neighbors while he built a boat to wait out a rain storm before seemingly the first drop of rain fell to the earth. And his position as favorite meant enduring long days of isolation and loneliness in the ark, burdened by the death of the rest of humanity. For Abraham being favored by God meant leaving his homeland and everything he knew and coming to the brink of killing his own son. For Moses, it meant long years of exile, confrontation with the Pharoah, the most powerful man in the world, and wandering forty years in the desert with a rebellious people. For the Apostles, it meant a life of hardship, rejection and for most, a violent death.
It’s a curious relationship, this being favored by God. It really has little to do with our traditional thoughts about being the favorite and everything to do with sacrifice and service. John Claypool has written: The favor of God turns out to be an invitation to participate with Him in a costly–specifically the redeeming of His people from their sins. Challenge–not ease–is what “favor” meant. We have it all wrong if we equate the favor of God with life made easy. It is rather the high and holy chance to participate with God in something infinitely hard but at the same time infinitely worthwhile.
I wonder if Mary knew that when the Angel said she had found favor with God, it really meant that a life of sacrifice was what God was calling her to. When we strip away all that tradition has placed on Mary, there is that truth. Being favored meant for Mary the scandal of a child conceived out of wedlock that would soon be born, the grueling trip to Bethlehem, the difficult birth in a stable, the flight to Egypt, separation from family and friends, living a life of poverty, probably becoming a widow at an early age. And then she had to watch as her son became the suffering servant, hated by many of his own people, and now dying a criminal’s death on a cross. Perhaps being favored was not all it was cracked up to be.
But being favored also meant being a part of God’s divine plan that would lead to the salvation of humanity.“Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?” And so Claypool continues, “This is where the deepest of all joy is to be found. It is easy to confuse joy with pleasure or comfort, but in the Christian sense it is something far more profound than these. Joy is what one experiences, even in the midst of pain and conflict, when we sense that we are sharing something God is trying to get done.”
Being favored by God, meant for Mary an opportunity to participate in the salvation of all humanity. Which brings us to Jesus’ first teaching in his hometown synagogue. Look at what’s happening here. Fresh off His time of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus begins His ministry by going to His hometown synagogue. Now the text does not say it, but I think it is probably safe to assume that Mary would have been present that day. And Jesus takes up the Isaiah scroll and reads:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
And then He sat down, which was the typical posture of a Jewish Rabbi when teaching, and He said: Today, this scripture has been fulfilled.
Basically, he was proclaiming that the year of the Lord’s favor had begun. So what did He mean by that. Well, when Isaiah first spoke this prophecy it is believed that he was referring to the year of jubilee. Elsewhere in Hebrew scripture, the year of Jubilee was described as coming every fifty years and would be a year when all debts would be forgiven, all slaves would be set free, and all prisoners would be released. But, here’s the thing. There is no record that the year of Jubilee ever took place. And down through the centuries, Isaiah’s prophecy came to be interpreted as a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. The year of the Lord’s favor would be the year when the Messiah comes and it would be the Messiah who would preach the good news to the poor, and set the prisoners free, and give freedom to the captives, and sight to the blind.
In other words, the Messiah would not be favored as much as He would bring the favor of God on the poor and oppressed and the infirm. And the people liked that because they believed that they were God’s favored people, the chosen ones, and that when the Messiah came they would be elevated to favored status, over the Romans, over the pagans. Of course, when Jesus went on to explain what the year of the Lord’s favor would require of those who were favored, his friends and neighbors became so enraged that they dragged Him out of town to the brow of the hill and were ready to throw Him down the cliff. And that was only the beginning of the outrage towards Him because of His redefinition of what it meant to be the favored ones, ultimately culminating with God’s favored one going to a Cross.
The people asked how it could be that Jesus was the one to usher in the year of the Lord’s favor. How could He be the Messiah, the favored one? I wonder if, as Mary witnessed the animosity towards God’s favored one, His Son, that she was reminded that being favored in God’s eyes is not the same as being favored by the world.
I believe that Christians are favored by God. And sometimes we think that means that we are in line for special blessings. That we will be spared the painful circumstances that sometimes come with this life. But the witness of Mary is that being favored means a willingness to accept the wonderful times like the birth of a baby, but also that we are willing to endure the times of pain like standing at the foot of the cross and watching that baby boy now a man suffer and die. Mary, did you know? That being favored by God meant that God was going to use you as a vessel to bring blessings to others? It is then that being favored becomes our witness, our chance to participate in God’s plan of salvation. When God decided to send a savior, He favored Mary with a Son. And now when God chooses to save a soul, sometimes He favors us. Because God’s favor is not defined by how much we are given, but rather by how much He asks of us.
Mary because you’re favored, God has chosen you to bear His Son. What joy that would bring. But Mary, did you know that your status as God’s favorite would someday lead you to this cross, watching your Son, God’s greatest blessing on your life, suffer and die. Sometimes being favored isn’t all that we expect it to be, because the favor of God is so much more then we can ever comprehend.
The other day on the news there was an interview with a man who was suffering from terminal cancer. He had had it all. A great job, wonderful family, comfortable life, and then all of that changed with the unexpected words of a doctor. But this man, rather than be defeated by that, had decided to consider that diagnosis as a prescription to truly live. And he set out to serve God in whatever way he could, touch as many lives as he possibly could in the time he had left. And he said, of all the blessings that he had received from God, the greatest was his diagnosis of terminal cancer, because it was then that he truly started to live. Mary, did you know that this child that God favored you with, this one that you would give life to, would someday bring new life to you? And to you, and to me.
And so we come to receive this Sacrament, this celebration of the life of the Messiah. We will read the words of the ritual and take them to heart as we reflect on their meaning for us. And what they are saying is that the favored one was willing to sacrifice His favored status so that you and I could be highly favored by God. So come, and by your coming proclaim that the year of the Lord’s favor has begun in your heart and life, and in your family, and in this church and in this community and world. You come and take your place as one of God’s favorites.