Behold Sermon 3
December 10, 2017
So I brought along a riddle this morning. It comes from Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Faster and Slow. I want to see how quickly you can solve it. Are you ready? It goes like this (slide 1): A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” Know the answer? Turn to your neighbor and tell them how much it costs.
How many of you came up with 10 cents? If you did you are in good company. According to Kahneman, more than 50% of students at MIT, Harvard and Princeton got the same answer. Too bad it’s wrong! If the ball costs 10 cents, then the total cost will be $1.20. Ten cents for the ball and $1.10 for the bat. The correct answer is 5 cents. If the ball is 5 cents, then the bat is $1.05. For a total of $1.10. (www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2012/february/7022012.html) Kahneman uses the puzzle to illustrate the importance of slowing down and focusing. He argues that the answer doesn’t depend so much on intelligence as it does paying attention.
I share that with you because it’s so easy to lose focus during this time of year, it is easy to lose focus. Advent is designed to be a season of reflection and preparation for the coming Christ child. But that is often the last thing we do. What with the Christmas tree, the Christmas gifts, the Christmas lights, the Christmas cards, the Christmas parties, the Christmas in-laws, and the extra five pounds from Christmas cookies! And yet, when we fail to slow down and pay attention we are likely to miss the point all together. Just as some of us did in our little quiz this morning.
In recognition of this, we are working our way through a sermon series called BEHOLD! As I was picking out Advent scriptures this past summer, I noticed that the same Greek word occurs throughout the Christmas story. It’s the word is idou. Which means BEHOLD! Or PAY ATTENTION! Or in southern Greece, Y’ALL, LOOK! We first encountered it two weeks ago when Pastor Craig led us in reflecting on Joseph. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…Matthew 1:20. We are going to encounter it again this morning in the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary. Only you won’t actually find in the Bibles we read today. Turns out the translators of the NIV Bible dropped the word somewhere along the way. Idou or BEHOLD is used over 1300 times in the KJV. But in the NIV Bible it is found only 6 times. Nevertheless, it’s there (in the original Greek) in the last verse of our reading today.
So, take your Bibles and turn with me to Luke 1:26-39. One of the first things that Gabriel is going to say to Mary is – do not be afraid! Which as we know, is the standard angel opener. Because in the Bible, when angels appear, people get afraid. Every so often I’ll read a story or see a TV special about an angel appearing. And it’s all sweetness and peace and nice. And I’m going – I don’t think so. When a Bible angel appears, folks fall on their face. They think they are seeing God. Bible angels are big and powerful and frightening even when they are not trying to be. You may want God to speak to you through his Angel. Me – I’m pretty sure I’d need to change my underpants if an angel suddenly showed up. With that in mind, let’s read together. Luke 1:26-39.
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” 34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.” 38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
So, two keys to paying attention this Christmas. And the first to recognize you are favored by God! God favors you. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Turns out, the particular word Gabriel uses for favored is only found in the Bible twice. Depending on your translation the only other place is in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians chapter 1 in his greeting. So, there is not a lot to be gleaned about God’s favor from cross referencing. And yet, we can learn some things from Mary’s own story.
First of all, God’s favor is not based upon our background. Mary was from an insignificant village on the edge of the sticks. In those days if you had actually heard of Nazareth – you didn’t have a lot of nice things to say about it. Remember the story where Philip has met Jesus and he goes to Nathaniel and says – Nathaniel I have found the Messiah. Nathaniel says – really? Who is he? And Philip says – Jesus of Nazareth. And Nathaniel says – you’re kidding, right? Can anything good come out of Nazareth?
And God’s favor is not dependent upon our wisdom and ability. As you know, Mary is very young – most likely somewhere between 12 and 14 when Jesus was born. We deduce this from the fact that in first century Palestine the average life expectancy of a woman was somewhere between 35 and 40 years of age. This meant that when you reached the point of being able to have children it was time to get married. In fact, a young Jewish woman in the first century could become legally engaged when she was 12 years and one day old. And the Scripture says is that Mary was legally engaged to Joseph when she found out she was with child by the Holy Spirit.
God favor is not about our resources. Mary was very poor. In Luke chapter 2 we read that after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph went to the Temple according to Jewish custom to fulfill the requirements of the law. According to the Law of Moses, after a woman had given birth to a son she was to bring an offering of a one-year-old lamb to the Temple for purification. If the woman could not afford a lamb, two doves or two pigeons could be substituted. Luke says that Mary and Joseph brought a pair of pigeons for the sacrifice of purification.
Being favored by God doesn’t mean we will always enjoy great circumstances. Or that we will always get our way. I read a sermon this week by a pastor named Michael Marsh. In it he wonders if Mary really felt favored – walking through town with her unwed pregnant belly the subject of stares and judgment? Did she feel favored as Joseph planned to leave her and avoid a scandal? Or when she gave birth on the ground among the animals? How favored did she feel when she had to take her family and flee for their very lives to Egypt? Being favored by God doesn’t mean that life will always be easy.
Maybe it’s your first Christmas without your partner or your child or your dear friend and you ache with the grief. Maybe you have recently lost your job and you wonder how you are going to make the mortgage much less buy Christmas presents. Perhaps you recently received an alarming diagnosis and you are afraid for your very life. Maybe you are in the throes of an addiction that has taken your freedom and robbed you of hope of ever being whole. Maybe you don’t feel so favored this Christmas.
But you are! That’s because being favored by God is to be pursued by God’s grace. It’s to be delighted in. (https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G5487&t=NIV). When we favor someone, we want to be with Him or Her. And clearly God wanted to be with us. John says that God so LOVED the world that He gave His only begotten Son. And Paul says – and I am paraphrasing here – that we are to have the same mindset that was in Christ, who being in very nature God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. But made himself nothing. And taking the very nature of a servant, and being made in human likeness, and found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).
I ask you this morning, what would it be like to go through this Christmas season fully aware that you are favored? Would you approach Christmas any differently? Would you treat others differently? What would it look like to use this Christmas to focus on God’s desire to be with us?
Second, focusing at Christmas means making yourself available to God’s presence. Verse 38 – “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Or in the ESV – And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant[f] of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Don’t forget the idou (slide 2).
It’s interesting to me that in Luke’s gospel, Gabriel’s visit to Mary comes immediately after the angel’s visit to Zechariah. Zechariah as you know was the father of John the Baptist. And her song about her miraculous conception comes right before Zechariah’s song about the miraculous conception of John. Luke could have written the entire story surrounding the birth of John the Baptist. And then recorded the conception and birth of Jesus. Instead he interweaves the two. He does this because he wants to highlight the contrast between the two responses. Zechariah does not believe angel’s promise. In Luke 1:18 he says – how I shall I know this? In other words, how can I be sure this will happen? Zechariah wants proof. Mary on the other hand says – how can this be? She wants information. She already believes that it has happened. And so, she makes herself available.
God chooses Abraham and Sarah to create a great nation, but they are too old to have children. God chooses Moses to deliver the Israelites from slavery but Moses stutters and is a refugee from the law. God chooses Ruth to become grandmother to King David but she is a Moabite – a foreigner and a widow with nothing. When God chooses David to be the next King of Israel David is still a boy tending sheep – picked on by his brothers and considered the runt of the litter by his father. But David is the one. And God chooses Mary, a poor teenage girl to bear His son. Time and time again God chooses the least, and the last, the too old and the too young, not because they are able. But because they make themselves available.
In her book, Accidental Saints, Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it this way. God does not define our relationship by our really bad decisions or our squandering of resources. On the other hand, our relationship with God is not determined by our virtue either. It is not determined by being nice, or being good or even how much we do at church. Our relationship with God is simply determined by the wastefully extravagant love of God.
So, my challenge this week is to sharpen your Christmas focus. In particular, I challenge you to identify three ways that you have experienced the presence of Christ this Advent. It might be the presence of Christ in the love of family or friends. It might be the presence of Christ in the abundance of delicious and nourishing food. It might be Christ in the joy of laughter. Or Christ in the singing of Christmas music. Identify three ways you have encountered Christ’s presence. And then share it with a loved one. This is so important. Because in Jesus we experience the grace of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In him we find the favor grace of the Son of God. Through his presence we receive salvation. “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.” Luke 1:31. Jesus or Yeshua loosely means savior. I ask you this morning – where is your focus this Christmas? Is it on a savior who came out of a wastefully extravagant love for us.
This past Thanksgiving Robyn and the kids I had the opportunity to make our annual trek to the mountains of North Carolina. It was a very important time with Robyn’s family. One that we all look forward to. But here is the thing. It takes me about three days to disentangle from work. And then about three days before I return I start thinking about work again. In part because of the way I am wired. And in part because I am so performance oriented, I wind up missing a good bit of our family time because I am focused elsewhere. Which is tragic. Because it’s time I won’t get back. It’s not a riddle about baseballs and bats. It’s real life.
I confess that to you because the same thing so easily happens to me at Christmas. I can get so wrapped up in the busyness and demands of Christmas, that I miss the wastefully extravagant love of God all together. So, this year I am going to focus on God’s favor. And I am going to make myself available. How about you? How about you?
Take a look at this video: