Hail Mary, Full of Grace (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Luke 1:26-38


The scripture we just heard from Luke’s gospel is called the Annunciation, the proclamation of the coming of Jesus to Mary by the angel Gabriel. It’s a well-known scene captured by quite a number of luminaries of the art world, such as Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni, and the like. But my favorite painting of this scene is by the African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, who lived in the later part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century. So I have learned, he was quite a world renowned artist who lived much of his later years in Paris.

In most artistic depictions of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel is pictured rather traditionally with flowing robe and wings or as a cherubish type character dressed in white with the requisite wings. And Mary is sometimes pictured as like a queen on her throne, or as a saintly character with her halo already in place. Not so with Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting. Gabriel is pictured as a shaft or column of light. And Mary is sitting on her bed, dressed, as we might imagine, for a night’s sleep. She is wearing a long flowing robe with the bare toes of one of her feet protruding. Her hands are clasped, as if in prayer. But she is obviously not praying. Maybe she is just cold. As she looks up at that pillar of light, her head is cocked to one side. There is no fear on her face. Just skepticism. It’s a “you’ve got to be kidding me” look.

There is nothing saintly about this Mary. No halo. No throne. Except for her biblical era garb, she could be in our youth group. She could be here among us even now. And no one would notice. Some might say she is a pretty girl. But, other than that, nothing about her stands out.

In this way, maybe she is like the Mary we meet in Luke’s story of the Annunciation. We don’t know much about her. Now her husband to be, Joseph—we know he comes from royal blood. His family can trace its lineage back to King David. What Mary’s family tree is like, we don’t know. We are never told, except that she is related to Elizabeth the wife of the priest Zechariah, the couple who were to be parents of John the Baptist in their old age. The gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. He was a good, God-fearing man. Mary? Well, in spite of those halos on her head in paintings, we don’t know anything about her practice of religion. Maybe she was just a typical teenage girl of the time. Nothing special. Not a stand-out. If an angel were to appear to her in the night, she might just cock her head with a smirk on her face.

One thing about it: Prior to the angel Gabriel showing up in her life, Luke or none of the other gospels give us any clue as to what prompted that pillar of light at the foot of Mary’s bed, what motivated the heavens to declare Mary the favored one who would give birth to Jesus, what special characteristics Mary had that would make her a wonderful candidate to be mother of the One who would be called the Son of the Most High, who would be given the throne of his ancestor David to reign over the house of Jacob forever.

She is called “favored one” and was told that she had “found favor with God.” Why? Because she was so good? No. We don’t know that to be the case. Because she was privileged? No, definitely not. She was a woman in a world where women were treated as second class citizens. And she was young in a world that respected the mature. As Mary herself would say, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he was looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Looked with favor? Found favor? The Greek word that is translated as favor here could also be translated as grace. And that really is what the story of Mary is about. Grace. That may just be the most important message of Christmas as well. Grace.

Maybe you are more inclined to see Mary sitting on a throne with a halo fixed above her head, than to see her as a skeptical teenager sitting up in bed hearing an angel tell her what she finds hard to believe. This Bible message, this annunciation message, is hard for a lot of us to swallow. We think of favor as something to be earned, or at least as something to be deserved. But the message of our faith and the message of this Christmas is that favor, grace, is given without merit. Why was Mary chosen to bear Jesus? Because God chose her. That’s all. No reason other than that.

And the good news of Christmas is that the incarnation continues. Jesus is born again. And Jesus is born again in the likes of us. Why? Because we are so good? No. Because we are so deserving? No. Because God wills it. Because of God’s grace Jesus is born again in the likes of you, in the likes of me, in the likes of all of us.

When the singer/songwriter Pink went up to accept an award for her music recently, she told of a time when she was driving her 6 year old daughter to school. At some point her daughter, who was in the audience that night and really quite a pretty girl, said to her Mom, “Mama.”
“Yes, baby.”
“I’m the ugliest girl I know.”
“What?” her mother responded. “Why would you say a thing like that?”
“Because I look like a boy with long hair.”

Her mother, Pink, didn’t say anything. But when she got home she made a power point presentation for her daughter featuring the weird-looking, non-conforming musicians that she had come to know and appreciate. And, by the way, Pink herself is not exactly the most normal-looking person you would see on the street. She is sort of “punk” looking, artsy in a strange-but-beautiful looking way. And what she was trying to say to her daughter is that regardless of the way you look or the way you feel about yourself, you are fine. You are gorgeous. Just the way you are.

This is the story of Mary. It is the story of each of us as well. We are fine. Just the way we are. God has chosen to take up residence in us. And maybe we don’t see it. Maybe to us we are the ugliest person around. No good and not worth anything. But when we reach out to hug and pass the peace in this place of worship. When we bless those we call our families with our love and presence. When we cheer up a stranger with a hearty “Merry Christmas.” When we drop a can of food in the basket at the church for the hungry. Or spend time offering hospitality to homeless guests. When we do the work that we have to do with care and love, God is alive in us. Jesus is being born again into the world through the likes of you. Yes, you! Not because of your goodness or greatness. But simply because you are and God wills to be born again in you.

I know, this is hard for some of us to buy, even for some of us who by all accounts ought to be feeling pretty good about ourselves. Nadia Bolz-Weber tells about Stephen, a man who attends the church where she is the pastor. As she describes him, “Stephen looks like an aging movie star, is the VP at a Fortune 500 company, is a statewide elected official (in Colorado), lives in a loft downtown (in Denver), and is still a hot mess of low self-esteem issues.” The Sunday before Nadia Bolz-Weber met Stephen in the basement of a local coffee shop she had preached a sermon about the love of God.

“Man, I wonder what my life would look like if I really believed this?” Stephen said in response to the sermon as he was sipping a cup of coffee. “How would my life be different if I was not scared, if I really believed that I am fully and totally loved by God?” Then, as a kind of afterthought, he added, “No wonder we have liturgy and (communion) every week. I have to hear this at least that often.”

I am suspecting that none of us here see ourselves in the place of that Mary sitting on a throne and with a halo floating above her head—receiving the words of favor she so richly deserves from a winged messenger of the Lord. But it could be that we might see ourselves as the Mary sitting on her bed awakened in the middle of the night by a voice. We may cock our heads a little to the side with skepticism as we hear the words, “You are my favored child. In you Jesus will be born. The Son of God will be given.”

“How can this be?” you ask.
“God makes it so. God will make it so,” the voice answers.

“Can it be?” you wonder. “Can it be? Given who I am, what I have been through, and what I have done, that I have found favor with God? That God wants to come to birth in the world through me? That God wants to take on flesh in the world through me? That amidst all the anger and hatred, the ugliness and vindictiveness, the languishing and suffering, that Jesus promises to come to the world with justice and healing and love through the likes of me?”

To quote Nadia Bolz-Weber again: “Mary is what it looks like to believe that we already are who God says we are.” And I would add: forgiven, loved, favored, called to be bearers of Jesus to the world. And so with Mary let us pray: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, December 24, 2017

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