Scriptures: Luke 1:46b-66 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
God’s favoritism – It doesn’t mean what you think
As we continue with our theme for this Advent season of asking “Why” to various aspects of the Christmas story, I want to start today by looking at Mary and John (although John will be mostly through his parents).
We saw in part last week why John made such a good herald for Christ; but his selection came long before that. Even in his prenatal state, as is noted in the passage right before today's passage in Luke, he acted with the Holy Spirit; and as we saw in this morning's passage, his name was one that was unexpected by all those around him, and made them wonder, who was this guy
Likewise, Mary was someone no one in that day expected. So let’s take a look at them, and see, perhaps, what it means to be favored by God, and how that might play out in our lives.
Mary had been told, in her visit from the angel, that she was favored by God. She was given the task of birthing Jesus, God incarnate. She was given the task, along with Joseph, of naming Jesus. She was given a warning by Simeon about her future when she and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple to present him to the Lord. So who was she, this Mary?
She was a young adult. Many modern scholars today try to say she was at least twenty, because of modern sensibilities. However, biblically, rabbis said something different. What I'm going to quote happens to be from Wikipedia, but it is well cited and supported by other documents and articles.
Citing the primacy of the divine command given in Genesis 1:28, the time between puberty and age twenty has been considered the ideal time for men and women to be wed in traditional Jewish thought. Some rabbis have gone further to commend the age of eighteen as most ideal, while others have advocated for the time immediately following puberty, closer to the age of fourteen, essentially "as early in life as possible." Babylonian rabbis understood marriage as God's means of keeping male sexuality from going out of control, so they advocated for early marriage to prevent men from succumbing to temptation in their youth. Some commended early marriage for its benefits: Rabbi Ḥisda maintained that early marriage could lead to increased intelligence.
I will note, as a modern-day scientist and geneticist, this makes her likely to have been between fifteen and seventeen years old, which, biologically, is the ideal age for childbearing, in terms of both having a healthy baby and having a healthy mother.
We know that she was already betrothed to Joseph. As you may have heard before, this contract of commitment was seen to be as serious as the marriage itself. If a betrothed husband died before the marriage could be consummated, the woman was still able to inherit, take his name, and be part of the family. Likewise, if there was some sort of sex outside of the relationship between those two, it was seen as adultery, rather than fornication – with similar consequences as with adultery.
Mary was from an unremarkable or unnotable family, likely blue-collar or slightly lower on the economic and social scale. We know that in part, first of all, because of the size of the town of Nazareth, which was teeny-tiny. It had maybe 150 to 250 people. Also, Mary didn't seem to have had much of a dowry to have given Joseph.
We know that she had remarkable presence of mind, especially for a 15 to 17-year-old, great faith, and came from a very religious family. She was steeped in the Scriptures, despite being a woman. One sees this not only in her response in the angel’s visit, where the only question she asks is “How can this be, for I am a virgin?” to her song that we heard read this morning, that she breaks out into as John recognizes the growing fetus in Mary’s womb and alerts his mom by jumping in her womb.
Elizabeth was six months along, and Mary was probably one to two months along. When Elizabeth gets “notified” by John, then she says something to Mary, then Mary breaks out into what we call the Magnificat.
What isn’t emphasized here – or really anywhere, that I saw – is her incredible courage, and fortitude. But we'll have more on that in the second half of the sermon.
As we take a look at John, we already saw what he was like as an adult, and as he carried out his mission for God. But let us note that through the Scriptures today we can see that he began that mission even in the womb. He recognized Christ in the womb, and leapt for joy. He heralded Christ's presence to his mother, and his mother recognized his purpose in her speaking to Mary.
John's name meant “gift from God,” and while it could have been given because of an older couple miraculously becoming pregnant, the general naming convention (as indicated in the Scripture itself) was to name the firstborn son after the father. In fact, Elizabeth had to speak up (which is unusual) because her husband had been made mute by his interaction with the angel nine months before. (Apparently old men didn’t fare as well as young ladies with the angel, perhaps because we have too much experience and are skeptical.)
I think the name John had much to do with God’s plan. God used someone named “gift of God” to announce the greatest gift that we would ever know in this world. This baby, John, would ultimately have to face the doubts of his life-long mission being completed or correct, and respond in faith with courage. But we can see that even in his earliest days, people marked him as someone who had been set apart and had God's favor. God had plans for this guy.
Both Mary and John were called favored by God through various intermediaries. Both are considered to be blessed, and Mary, in her Magnificat, says so of herself. But let’s ask ourselves, at least momentarily, what did their lives look like with this “favor” from God? What happened when God showed His favor to them?
What happened to John? He gave up priestly duties to go be a hermit. He preached a prophetic message that got him hated by Jewish religious leaders. He stood up for God’s way, even when it meant calling the governmental leaders out, and he paid for it – first with imprisonment, then with his head.
It appears, biblically, that he was alone most of his adult life. Near the end of his life, while in prison, John doubted his own message enough (because of his current state) to ask his former disciples to please get reassurance from his cousin Jesus (and we presume that he did, since Jesus gave them a message to take back to John, and I'm sure it was what he needed to hear).
We can look at the “flip side,” in a way, in terms of God's provision. John ate locusts and wild honey. I don't know if you've ever tried to catch a grasshopper, but it's not the easiest thing. And wild honey means wild bees, and that's not the easiest things to collect either. So for God to provide those things is not very common. In fact, wild honey was seen as an extreme delicacy. For God to provide those things was unusual, out in the wilderness.
What happened to Mary? She ended up having to move away from everything she knew for a time, as they were sent to Egypt, and when she got back she had to deal with the social fallout of people thinking she had premarital sex – with Joseph, or worse.
She had to raise someone she knew was the Son of God. Can you imagine for a moment the pressure she felt at times? Think about it. Like when she and Joseph lose Jesus for a couple of days when he is 12 years old. Can you imagine leaving Jerusalem, being in the caravan and saying, “Where's Jesus?” then not seeing him and looking at Joseph and saying, “We lost the Son of God!” A scary thing.
She had to love and raise brothers and sisters to Jesus, knowing they weren’t the Son of God, and having (it appears) to keep it from them, not being able to tell them. She had to maintain the household unity after Joseph died, and then carry out the leadership in the family business while dealing with the fact that her neighbors in Nazareth thought her son was a nutcase, and blasphemous as well (they did try to throw him off a cliff, after all).
In that day and age, you couldn’t just ignore your neighbors, and keep to yourself. You had to live with them. There was no indoor plumbing, so you have to get water from the community well. You had to help with harvest. You had to do business deals and bartering, and you had to take your kids to the synagogue and worship, and you had to go there as well.
Mary had to watch as her son was fraudulently charged, beaten to within an inch of his life, and then crucified on a cross, and feel the sword through her soul that Simeon had prophesied so long ago.
From this, I hope we can see that being called favored by God is not a ticket on the silver spoon express. Being called favored by God is often a warning that you are called to an important (and probably difficult) mission. It won’t always take the rest of your life, but it will likely be long enough that we will get tired of it at some point and begin to wonder “Is this really what I was meant to do? Am I actually succeeding in serving God and His kingdom?” Where is God's favor?
You may even wonder if God has left you You're not alone. Jesus, from the cross, said, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You may wonder, as you look at this story, “Why does God have to do it this way? Why does it have to be so hard?” I bet that Mary and John both had days when they were feeling that way. Yet both were able to stay faithful to the end – even a violent one.
You may ask yourself, “Why did they do all that? Why put up with the hardships?” Let me suggest a couple of things that might help with your perspective, and might help you as well. First, they never doubted God had a plan. They never doubted God was sovereign. They never doubted, even when feeling alone at the moment, that ultimately God was with them. Remember how the angel quoted Isaiah when he spoke to Joseph, saying, “They shall call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”
They never doubted that God loved them; and they took joy in the favor God had shown in choosing them and knowing them. As the Psalmist said, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” Yet these two knew, as lowly as they were, that God specifically had His hand upon them, had shown His favor, and was using them in some way for His glory.
Now lest we think it was all negative things, let's also remember that, while Mary had to move, God provided the money, through the gifts of the wise men, the gold that they gave. That's how they were able to make the trip down to Egypt. God gave Joseph the dream so that they could get out and leave for Egypt, before the slaughter in Bethlehem.
God gave Joseph another dream when it was time to come back, so they knew when it was safe to go back to Nazareth. God provided, in Joseph, a loving father, someone who was definitely patient, and one of the two or three people in the Bible that the Bible actually calls “righteous.” You can't get a much better role model than that, other than God Himself. He took care of his family, through God's provision. And we know that God helped the family to survive after his death, and had a use for them as well.
As I noted earlier, John was kept healthy and safe in the wilderness. It really was a place where you would say, “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” And bandits were rampant. For a man to be by himself out there was pretty much normally a death sentence. Yet John survived, because God provided for him.
So we know that when God favored someone, yes, there was a mission. Yes, there was hardship. Yes, there were things that were not smooth sailing. But God also provided the resources for them to complete their tasks, and His presence to encourage them as they went.
Why is this important? Let me let you in on a little secret: God has favored you. God has shown His favoritism with you. Through no merit of your own (or mine!) God chose us. He reached out to you in love, saved you, justified you, and sanctifies you even now. God has a plan for each one of you, and God, despite the way the world looks right now, is still sovereign, and He is still providing for each and every one of us. \
So as we look at God's favoritism, and we see God's favor, let's notice His presence with us. Like Mary, may your spirit rejoice in God your savior – this Advent, and every day, that you might give praise to the Lord for His blessings in your life.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.