Sermon 12-21-14: “Mary, Highly Favored One”

This is the fourth part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton's new book.
This is the fourth part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton’s new book.

We Christians often elevate the Virgin Mary to such lofty heights that she can seem inaccessible to us. In truth, she’s a lot like us—at least those of us who are followers of Jesus. She is literally the first Christian. As such, we can learn a great deal from her example of faith in Luke 1. The best news here is that, just as Mary found favor with God, so can we!

Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I love Christmas music. During Advent, I play old Christmas records by artists such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys, and Elvis Presley every day.

The only problem is that these songs have become so familiar to me over the years that it’s easy to stop paying attention to them, if you know what I mean. That is, until someone changes the words

A couple of years ago, I was listening to a recent recording of the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And you know that line—“Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”? The new version I heard said, “Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” And I’m like, “What?” I’ve never heard that line before! But it turns out that if you see the Judy Garland movie, Meet Me in St. Louis, where the song originated, that’s what she sings in the movie. But when Sinatra was recording his Christmas album in 1957, he asked the song’s author, Hugh Martin, to change the lyric. Sinatra said, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” And so the change.

Sinatra’s version became so popular that even Judy Garland started singing it that way. So no wonder I had never heard that line before!

My point is, this Christmas song, which I had taken for granted for so many years, had been transformed: it suddenly seemed different and new; more down to earth; more real. You know?

I hope a similar transformation can happen as we hear this very familiar Christmas-related text, the annunciation to Mary, when the angel Gabriel gives her the news that she’s going to miraculously conceive and give birth to a son, even though she’s still a virgin. I hope we can bring the story back down to earth where it belongs.

And we can do that by recognizing that Mary really isn’t so different from any of us—at least those of us who have placed our faith in Jesus Christ. Because Mary, when you think about it, is the world’s first Christian. Now it’s true that Old Testament patriarchs and prophets like Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah looked forward to the coming Messiah—but they could have only seen Jesus as if from a great distance, through a glass darkly; they didn’t have all the specifics of who Jesus was, or how God’s Son was going to come into the world at Christmas and redeem those who place their faith in him. But Mary, in today’s scripture, is the first human being who responds freely and willingly by faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ—just like we all must do.

Given that Mary is the world’s first Christian, we can probably learn a lot about being a Christian from her.

Today I want to focus on three things we can learn. And the first thing is this: Before we can experience the good news of great joy of Christmas, we have to first, like Mary, be “greatly troubled” by this news—deeply unsettled and disturbed by it. Notice when the angel Gabriel shows up and speaks his familiar greeting— which could be translated with the traditional “Hail, full of grace” or, “Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.” The Lord is with you. We think that’s automatically the greatest news ever, but not so fast: How does Luke tell us that Mary responded? He says that she was “greatly troubled” by the angel’s words.


For the same reason that everyone else who comes close to God in the Bible is greatly troubled. Think about the prophet Isaiah, when God first comes to him in that great vision of Isaiah Chapter 6. What is the first thing that Isaiah says? “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”[1] He thought if he came so close to God, he would be destroyed! He was afraid! But even later in the gospels, as the disciples become aware of who Jesus is, how do we see them respond? With fear! For example, when the disciples are on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, and a terrible storm comes up, and wind and wave are battering their little ship, and they’re afraid they’re going to drown, they wake up Jesus, who’s asleep in the stern of the boat. And when he miraculously calms the storm, we’re told that the disciples were “filled with great fear.”

Afraid of Jesus? Yes! This surprises us because, in our modern culture, we’ve tried to make Jesus as non-threatening as possible. We make him into this peace-loving hippie who came into the world and died on a cross in order to tell us how great we are—just the way we are—and how we don’t really need to change a thing! By contrast, in the gospels, the people who knew Jesus best, who called him their friend… they fell at his feet in fear!

When I was a kid, John Mellencamp had a Top Ten hit with a song called “Small Town,” about his experience growing up in the small town of Bloomington, Indiana. And there’s a line in the song that used to bother me. He’s singing about all the stuff he learned growing up in a small town. He says, “Educated in a small town/ Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town.” I used to think, “That doesn’t sound right… the fear of Jesus. Why not, ‘taught the love of Jesus?’” But now I see what Mellencamp means. In the song of praise that Mary later sings to her cousin Elizabeth, the Magnificat, what does she say? “[God’s] mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.”[2] Remember the hymn? ’Twas grace that taught my heart to do what? To fear. And grace my fears relieved. So the Virgin Mary, John Newton 17 centuries later, like John Mellencamp two centuries after that, all understood that fear comes first.

If you want to be a Christian, you first have to be greatly troubled. Why? Because the first thing the gospel tells us, contrary to popular belief, is that there is something deeply wrong with us—at the very center, the very core, of our being. The gospel tells us we are utterly and completely unable to solve this problem on our own. And it tells us that unless or until Somebody solves this problem, we are lost—as Isaiah said. We are doomed. We cannot stand in the presence of a holy God; we are bound for hell, bound for eternal separation from God. Unless or until Someone who has the power to solve our problem does so.

Obviously, this problem I’m talking about is sin. We are sinners… sinners who, left to our own devices, cannot be brought into a right relationship with God.

This is not a popular message. Among other things, it’s a terrible blow to our pride. Also in the Magnificat, Mary sings, “he has scattered the proud,” “brought down the mighty from their thrones,” and “sent the rich away empty.” Why? Is it because the Lord doesn’t love the proud, the powerful, and the rich? No, it’s because the proud, the powerful, and the rich have the hardest time recognizing that they need to be saved!

Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is dining with a powerful, wealthy Pharisee named Simon.[3] A woman who’s a prostitute comes in and anoints Jesus’ feet with oil and her own tears. And Simon is beside himself. “Doesn’t Jesus know what kind of person this woman is? How can he let her do this to him?” And Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven, that her faith has saved her. But Simon is proud. He can’t accept the fact that Jesus is saying that Simon is really no better than this prostitute, this sinner. He couldn’t accept the fact that he was just as lost as she was—just as in need of a Savior, as this prostitute. It wounded his pride too much! He needed to be humbled!

Back in early 2001, I got so sick I was convinced I was dying. I went to the doctor. He said it was the flu. He gave me a pill and sent me on my way. Told me I’d just have to wait it out. This was on a Thursday. By the time Saturday evening rolled around, I had a fever of 104. I called the doctor on call. I was worried. I told him that my regular doctor said it was the flu, but I’m sure this is something much worse. He said, “No, that sounds like the flu.” But I said, “No, you don’t understand. I think I’m dying!” And he said, “That’s the flu! That’s why the flu kills tens of thousands of elderly people and people with compromised immune systems each year. This is why we encourage all of our patients to get a flu shot.”

So guess what I’ve done every year since then? I’ve the flu shot! Of course, I hear that this year’s shot may not be effective!

The point is, I needed to come face to face with the problem in order to be convinced that I needed the cure!

And so it is with us and our problem with sin. Have you faced up to your problem with sin? Are you ready to let Jesus start healing you?

I read an interview with actor and comedian Bill Murray in Vanity Fair last month. Murray isn’t exactly, you know, George Clooney in the looks department, but since he’s a Hollywood star, the interviewer was surprised that he’s always by himself when he shows up for Hollywood galas or movie premieres or parties. Why doesn’t he ever have a date? Why doesn’t he have a girlfriend or wife? And Murray, who’s been divorced a couple of times, told the interviewer that he needs to commit to fixing himself first, before he commits to someone else. And what’s stopping him from making this commitment to fix himself? Murray said, “What stops [any of] us is we’re kinda really ugly if we look really hard. We’re not who we think we are. We’re not as wonderful as we think we are. It’s a little bit of a shock . . . it’s hard… I can’t take care of another relationship if I can’t take care of the things I really need to take care of the most.”

Whether Bill Murray knows it or not, he’s very close to the gospel of Jesus Christ! I pray that he’ll ask the Lord to take care of his problem, because he can’t solve it on his own!

The second thing we can learn from Mary, the world’s first Christian, is to have a profound trust in God’s Word—even when it doesn’t all make sense to us. Notice that she asks Gabriel, “How will this be”—how will I give birth to the Savior—“since I am a virgin?” This question contrasts sharply with the question that her cousin Zechariah asks earlier in Chapter 1, when an angel reveals to him that his previously infertile wife would give birth to John the Baptist. Zechariah asks, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, “Do you expect me to believe this? I’m an old man and my wife is an old woman.”[4] And because he doubted God’s Word, the angel struck him mute until John’s birth.

But notice Mary’s question isn’t like that. Her question is one of faith. She says, in so many words, “I believe God’s going to do this, but I don’t know how. I’m trying to figure it out.” Hers is not a blind faith, or an an unquestioning faith. She’s inquisitive. She’s curious. Ultimately, however, she accepts it—not because it all made perfect sense to her—but because she trusted God, with whom “nothing will be impossible.” She took God at his word and said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

What if we had this same attitude as Mary? In our day, if we don’t like what the Bible says, too many of us Christians try to find wiggle room—try to find a way in which God’s Word doesn’t have to apply to us! Needless to say, Mary, the world’s first Christian, didn’t do this.

As you probably know, our church lost a good man last week: John Maddox. When I was talking to Rosemary and his family in the wake of his death last week, I learned something about him that I didn’t know. Six years ago, John had a brush with death. He had a pulmonary embolism, which triggered a heart attack and some strokes. He nearly died. But it was a wake-up call for him. It was as if he heard a message from the Lord, and I think that message sounded something like this: “John, I’m trying to get your attention. You almost died today—or this week, or this month—but I’m choosing to give you more time. Will you take advantage of it? Will you be faithful to me for the next six years of your life the way I wanted you to be faithful to me for the past 66 years?”

And John said yes!

According to his family, John got his second chance to get his life right with God, and he didn’t squander it! Rosemary said that she gave him her mother’s Bible to read. He read the Bible cover to cover so many times that the pages started falling out—and Rosemary had to buy him a new Bible!

That’s a great testimony! I want to read a Bible cover-to-cover so many times that the pages start to fall out! Don’t you? I’m working on it, I promise!

The point is, John rededicated his life to Christ and said, in his own way, “Here I am, Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” And if we could ask John, “Do you wish it hadn’t taken you 66 years to figure this out?” what do you think he would say? I’m sure he would say, “Get started now! Don’t wait 66 years to start being faithful to God and faithful to his Word. Do it now! Because otherwise you’re missing out on a great blessing!”

Speaking of blessings, has anyone in the history of the world ever been more blessed than Mary? I doubt it because literally no one has ever been closer to the Lord Jesus than she was—after all, he was literally a part of her. God blessed her more than anyone, but what a strange kind of blessing it was! Blessed to be pregnant out of wedlock—with all the scandalous gossip and innuendo that came with that! Blessed to have an incredibly difficult conversation with her fiancé, who doesn’t at first believe her when she tells him she didn’t cheat on him. Blessed to have to flee for her life to a foreign land with Joseph and Jesus in order to escape the murderous clutches of King Herod. Blessed, as we saw last week, with the heartache of losing her son for three days while he was in the Temple in Jerusalem. Blessed to watch her son grow up and face opposition and hostility—even from the people he grew up with. Blessed to stand at the foot of the cross and watch him die! Blessed for those three days between his death and resurrection.

Now, there was a lot of great stuff to go along with all that pain and suffering—and it was all completely worth it. But there was a lot of pain and suffering—especially for someone who was “more blessed” than anyone else. If God didn’t spare even Mary all that pain and suffering and heartache, well… we shouldn’t be surprised when we, too, face pain and heartache and suffering in life! When trouble comes our way, it hardly means that God has given up on us or abandoned us. He is Emmanuel, God with us! James writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”[5]

So Mary was uniquely blessed. But guess what? She wasn’t uniquely graced. We all, just like Mary, have access to this exact same grace that she did. The angel told her that she had found “favor with God”—or literally “grace with God.” The good news is that we can too!

This is why Christ came into the world at Christmas. When you believe in Jesus, it’s as if God were saying to you, “Ryan, because of what Jesus accomplished through his life, death and resurrection, you are highly favored by God…”

Believe in Jesus today, and find this same grace!

[1] Isaiah 6:5

[2] Luke 1:50 ESV

[3] See Luke 7:36-50.

[4] Luke 1:18 The Message

[5] James 1:2-4 NIV

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