by Robert Austell
Scripture: Luke 1.26-29
Today we are focused on the first three verses of the scripture read today, particularly the announcement by the angel, Gabriel, and Mary’s reaction to it. Certainly anyone would be surprised and even perplexed by an angel appearing and speaking, but we will see that God has come to each of us in a strangely similar way. We too are faced with figuring out “what kind of salutation this is.”
So the story begins by setting the scene: a small, rural town, called Nazareth, to the far north of Jerusalem. The main character is Mary, a very young woman engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, who was of the Messianic line of those descended from King David. Angels are the messengers of God, and this one had a message for Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (v. 28)
I want to start with Mary’s response and we’ll work our way back to the message. She was “very perplexed.” (v. 29) Of course she was perplexed – wouldn’t you be? For one, at the human level, she was a woman and this was a strange man talking to her. In that culture, that would have been unusual enough. It is not clear whether Gabriel appeared angelic or simply as a man. Either way, to have a stranger come in and begin to speak, presumably in her home, would have been perplexing, to say the least. After the initial greeting, things began to get sorted out a bit, at least in terms of putting her initial fears to rest and announcing why he was there, but we get this snapshot into Mary’s thoughts and feelings after the initial greeting, and it’s there I want to pause and reflect with you.
There is definitely a kind of “are you talking to me?” feel to this. Except this isn’t out in a crowd or at the mall; it seems pretty clear that Mary is being addressed. It just seems really unusual. I wonder if you’ve ever had that kind of reaction to God. It’s one thing to go to church where the preacher is supposed to speak of God or teach from the Bible or some such thing. But have you ever felt like God was trying to get your attention and you wonder just that, “Are you talking to me? Don’t you mean the preacher over there? Or my churchy neighbor? Me? Seriously?”
I’m not talking about angels appearing in your kitchen or a big booming voice in the sky. I just mean the sense that God wants your attention. Like you can’t get Him off your mind or you feel like, “I need to be in church,” or even that your kids keep asking you spiritual questions you don’t really have answers to.
What I’m making of this is that there is feeling like we need to explore God or faith or church or something – and that’s a good thing. But sometimes it feels like God (even if you’re not real sure who or what that is) kind of busts into your life demanding attention. And maybe that’s not really all that far away from some sort of godly messenger showing up at your house with something to say. And whether you are a Christian, churchy type or not, that sense of being on God’s radar leaves you a little perplexed, like “what’s going on here?”
Mary “kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.” (v. 29) My paraphrase is, “Say what?!” Gabriel had said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (v. 28) If he’s a burglar, that’s a very strange thing to say. If he’s a holy man or teacher, it’s still mighty strange and inappropriate for him to be at my house speaking to me. If he’s sent from God, what in the world? Why me? What’s he talking about? Favored one? The Lord with me?
If God has been trying to get your attention, well at least it’s God! That’s better than scary nightmares. That’s better than many of the things of this world that want your attention and money and loyalty. (Well, I believe it’s better than all of them, but I realize not everyone would believe that.) But it’s the “say what?” part that I can relate to. It’s the “what does God want with ME?” part I can relate to. Surely there are other people He’d rather deal with. I’m such a mess. I’m not putting myself in your shoes; that’s ME (Robert) talking. That’s what goes through my mind.
Notice, too, that Mary “kept pondering” – what an interesting way to describe that, especially since Gabriel apparently went right on talking. We get this intimate snapshot of her thoughts and feelings, no doubt something she shared later with some of those who wrote the gospels. Even though Gabriel went on to identify his purpose and message, she kept thinking about his first words of greeting: “favored one… the Lord… with you.”
I wonder if you ever hear something at church or in the Bible or about God and it just sticks with you. You can’t get it out of your head. Whether it’s “Jesus loves you” or “God can forgive any sin” or something like what I said last week – “the church is not a museum for finished masterpieces, but a hospital for the sick” – do you sometimes get those spiritual thoughts stuck in your head and roll them over and over?
That’s what I want to focus on in the first part of this narrative this week. I believe God can and does get us in His sightlines. We see something or hear something or get thinking about something and it’s like God wants our attention and won’t let us go. While that can be perplexing, even scary, what do you do with that? What is it that God wants? What is God trying to say to you?
The Lord is with You
Let’s look at Gabriel’s greeting. While this is a pretty unique situation – greeting the woman who would be the mother of Jesus, God speaks similar words to you. And while the announcement of the birth of Jesus was a singular and unique event; Jesus did later speak of a new birth and welcoming him in faith into your life. What is it that God wants with you?
Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (v. 28) While it doesn’t spell out all the particulars, that short statement is a good summary of the Biblical message. And that message is one that God would speak to every one of you.
“Greetings, favored one.” God made the earth and created human beings in His own image. And He declared it good. We have God’s favor because God delights in us as his children and creations.
Who me? Seriously? I’m a mess… why would God delight in me?
And yet, He does. Despite human sin – our messing up left and right and at every turn, God has pursued us in order to show us His love and grace. That’s why Gabriel can say, not only to Mary, but to each of you, “The Lord is with you.” That is the message we’ve been talking about since September: God came all the way down to where we live to make a home with us. The Lord IS with us, and for us.
What does God want with you? Whether you attend church all the time or this is your first time. Whether you feel close to God or far from God, the angel’s message is for you: God loves you… finds you favorable; and God wants you to know Him… that’s why He has revealed Himself in creation, in Scripture, and most perfectly in Jesus.
So yes, it’s a perplexing message, because it can be hard to imagine God speaking, much less to someone like me. It’s a message worth pondering – to grasp what it means that God loves you and wants you to know him. But that short message – “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” – is the heart of the Christian message. If God has been trying to get your attention, or even if He hasn’t, that is a message He wants each of you to hear. And it’s not a message for perfect people, or some other person; it is a message for you. Ponder it in your heart in these coming days and weeks as we come to Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Christ. It may well be that God desires a birth or re-birth of His son in your own life. I can think of no better Christmas present than that. Amen.
You Have Found Favor with God by Robert Austell
Nothing Will Be Impossible With God by Robert Austell
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Malankara World Special on Shunoyo of St. Mary
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