Sunday, December 9, 2012

Most Highly Favored Lady

Most Highly Favored Lady
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 9, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 1:26-36 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

Luke 1:26-36 

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He 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 ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to 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 holy; he will be called Son of God. [1]

Do you all recall the comedy skit that Bill Cosby used to do about Noah? Well in it Noah would be going about his daily life, and then this bell would go off, and then the voice of the Lord would sound, deep and echoing, "NOAH." Then Noah would look around a little bit. Then same ding, and, "NOAH." Somebody call me? "NOAH." What, what do you want, he'd reply. Then God would tell him about building the ark, and Noah's response was always, "Right." As if the whole encounter hadn't really set in yet.
I picture a similar encounter here. You can even see it in the Biblical Text. Ding. . . "Greetings favored one." Now how often do you get addressed like that. The text is so funny, in case you missed it, "but she was much perplexed by his words, and wondered what sort of greeting this would be." You can see her saying, "Right, what's wrong with you, who talks like that?" And then the angel says, and for the first of many times in the gospel you hear these words, "Do not be afraid." Why is it that these encounters with aspects of the Christ story, when people enter into it all the first words spoken to them is exactly that, "do not be afraid." You wonder should we put up a sign on the church doors or something, "Do not be afraid." Because here you see it, Jesus repeatedly tells his followers the same, after healings, on boat rides, while taking a stroll across the lake, again and again and again, finally the last one beyond the rolled away stone in the empty tomb. . . "Do not be afraid." We often forget after years of church attendance and study just how frightening it all, angel annunciations, miraculous healings, miraculous notion challenging actions, resurrection, can truly be. So try to put yourself in Mary's shoes, visibly shaken enough for Gabriel to tell her not to be afraid, but then as if the look on her face was, are you talking to and about me, then Gabriel removes all doubt, going beyond favored one and calling her by name, "Mary." Like Noah in the Bill Cosby skit, it takes twice. . . Umm me? "Yes You, favored one, you have found favor with God." Then Mary, "Right. . . favor, what does that get me?"
Hmmm favor, it gets you from a practical human point of view some shadowy overcoming encounter with the spirit followed soon after by a teenage pregnancy, out of wedlock, with no teenage pregnancy case worker assigned, and thankfully no planned parenthood hotline, no MTV's Teen Mom contract to sign, no instead just nine months of hormones being out of whack, growing larger, having to try to eat for two, swollen feet and fingers, your hair starts falling out. You have uncertainty as to whether your betrothed husband will still marry you, still talk to you, or worse, have you stoned, and all that works out, but then when you are close to the birth, you get to take a long over land trip, perhaps on the back of a donkey, all to  your husband-to-be's hometown, so the occupying foreign government can count you, giving you your number as a person, so that you though not a citizen can pay your taxes to that same occupying foreign government, but then when you get there, the city is busting at the seems with people also travelling to be counted and taxed, so there was no room anywhere to stay, and it would appear that your husband to be forgot to call ahead and make the reservations, again nine months pregnant, a little short, cranky, not in the mood to deal with such adverse circumstances, but then a kindly innkeeper takes pity on your plight and gives you a corner suite in the, yeah you guessed it the stable, lodged somewhere between the goats and the cows, so now you are ready for the labor to start, with no doctor, not even a midwife, no epidural, no birth plan, no what if scenarios taken into consideration, no optional emergency C-Section, just you your husband the animals, and your newly born son, for which you have no crib, no cradle, no specially designed and approved car seat, nothing but the stable's feed trough, and then visited by the animal stink of shepherds and their sheep, and some other foreign kings, but if that wasn't enough you get word that  your king, your country's puppet ruler feels threathened by your little miracle, so  you need to flee into the deserts of Egypt to hide out for a while, a long while, until that king, called Herod, dies. And with all that behind you, your new family gets to raise your son, living a life of underground non famous private family bliss for a time back home in Nazareth. Everything is great. You love your son. You love your husband. You have other children together, but then the time comes when your son must leave to go do his work. And so he goes, you see him from time to time, and you hear stories of the wonders he performs, three years you follow his career as a proud mom, but then it all starts to fall apart. He ventures out of Galilee and goes to Jerusalem. You've heard the stories, you know that all prophets must go up to Jerusalem, up Zion Hill, and you also know what happens to them there. Your son is no different. He's betrayed, arrested, abandoned, tried, sentenced, beaten, flogged, forced to carry a cross through the jeering spitting crowd, across town to Golgotha in Aramaic, Calvary in Latin, and in English the place of the skulls, there to be nailed to the cross, and crucified, hung out to die slowly and painfully as you, "Son behold your mother, mother behold your son," look on completely powerless, but then  your son is resurrected, you become a saint, highly favored by all, prayed to, worshipped, Songs are written about you, Theologians make up words to describe you, like Theotokos, one who carries God,  but then comes the Reformation and many of your statues are taken down, some destroyed, these new denominations throw you out with all of the other Saints, and this is what it means to be "Favored by God." As Psalm 1 puts it, one might rather be like the chaff who are blown away by the wind. Most Highly Favored Lady, gloria.
It's a tough life, but Mary is not alone. Look throughout the Bible, you will see many whom are called to lives of service to God, and in such lives of challenge. We already mentioned Noah, imagine how his neighbors reacted to him building an Ark in his yard, expecting rain. Abraham, leaving his homeland, becoming a wanderer, promised a son, and then asked to sacrifice him. Jacob and his swindling then his conversion wrestling match, forever crippled by it. Joseph sold by his brothers, Moses going up against Pharoah, leading wandering through the wilderness, only getting a glimpse of the promised land, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, all facing the challenges of conquest, being a judge, and trying to keep the community identity together in the new land. Ruth, Naomi, Hannah, Samuel, David, Nathan, Solomon, all the other kings, Daniel, Esther, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah, the disciples, the martyrs, the church fathers, the reformers, Mother Teresa, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, the list goes on and on. All called, all challenged, all favored? Yes all favored.
As we have seen often in our lives and in our study of the Bible and Church History, the life of a Christian is not blessed with ease. Unlike what many seem to expect, especially from the outside, Christians do not earn blessings by their deeds, they do not go to church so that their lives will become perfect or simple or uncomplicated, instead we are called, and called to a life of service to God, an amazing, challenging, all encompassing distinction. So why? Why Why? Why does Mary respond to this tall order with the words of the Magnificat?

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48     for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50     His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51     He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52     He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53     he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54     He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55     according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” [2]  

How can she see the perspective of her situation, going from fear and disbelief, doubt and confusion, worry and apprehension, to those beautiful words of faith, confidence, and strength?
I have been reading every poem this week, listening to every song, anything to get a better concept of Mary's story, and the one that I found that most seems to get at it is Amy Grant's "Breath of Heaven." In the song, speaking from Mary's voice, the verses are filled with doubt: the first two verses are printed in the bulletin. The first verse is doubt about God's choice of her. . .

I have traveled many moonless nights
Cold and weary with a babe inside
And I wonder what I've done
Holy Father, You have come
And chosen me now to carry Your Son 

Then a description of her struggle. . .  

I am waiting in a silent prayer
I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world as cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now, be with me now 

Then the last verse is doubt about her own worthiness. . .  

Do you wonder as you watch my face,
If a wiser one should have had my place,
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong.
Help me be.
Help me.

But it is the chorus that stood out to me this week about what made the difference for Mary and what makes the difference for us. The Chorus goes. . . 

Breath of heaven,
Hold me together,
Be forever near me,
Breath of heaven.
Breath of heaven,
Lighten my darkness,
Pour over me your holiness,
For you are holy.

And the music seems to make the difference. There is strength in the words and in the music as if the breath of heaven is there with her, and it is. Again breath and spirit are the same word in Hebrew. She has with her always filling her life with power and strength the Spirit of the Living God within her, always, through the labor, through the birth, through the exile, through the good family times, even through the crucifixion and loss. There is real solidifying strengthening power, and it makes all the difference for Mary. . . We know it must because when we think about it there is no way we could do what she does. . .  It seems too that before it happens she feels there is no way she can do what she does. . . and then when it does, she can, there must be something in the moment that gives her the ability beyond what she feels she is capable of.
And that same spirit is within all of those other Biblical Characters, and in those martyrs, reformers and fighters for peace. And when we are called, in our own way, the same is true for us. We get called to do things outside of ourselves, called to be things outside of ourselves, and we are given the strength and presence to do them because to be called is to be favored and to be favored is to be loved, and to be loved is to never be abandoned. May we have ears to hear, faith to listen, and be given the will to carry through, all for the glory of God. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 1:26-35). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 1:46-55). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.