We are going to be continuing on our mixed up Christmas story today and just like we learned last week how no one’s too old to be part of God’s plan of bringing humanity back in to fellowship with him. This week we are going to be looking at how nobody’s too young to be part of God’s plan. Next week we will be looking at how no one is too middle-aged to be part of God’s plan. Actually we are not; we are just skipping those of you who are middle aged. I am sorry about that. It was an oversight. Just kidding.
All throughout history God has been using the least possible, the least likely people to be part of what he’s doing and once again we are going to see today how he’s cobbling together a mixed up cast of characters to be part of his plan. You know, our society has an interesting dynamic with youth. On the one hand everyone in our culture seems bent on trying to project an image of youthfulness. Even some of my peers in our 20s are starting to think about, oh no, I’ve got some grey hairs or you know I’ve got to start getting a special shampoo or whatever, because you know we got to maintain an image of youthfulness. There is a multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry, all the way from special creams and what not all the way up to cosmetic surgery. You can barely flip through the channels and not find a makeover reality TV show because people have got to look young, even those who are in their 20s think that they don’t look young enough, they can look a little bit younger or a little bit better. At the same time, however, that we project this ideal of youthfulness, practically our society communicates a contempt for the idealism, the naivety, the inexperience of youthfulness.
You know, I was an English major in college and so I studied a genre of literature, the genre of literature out there that is dedicated to taking a look at the coming of age of young men and women and the hallmark of this genre is that once innocent teenagers have to come face to face with the cold hard reality of the real world. It’s about the beginning of this disillusionment, the beginning of cynicism. It’s about the beginning of becoming a grownup.
And children and teenagers and young adults are too often disregarded as too young to be of any real value. Not too long ago the proper place for children was to be seen and not heard. Now today we have more responsible parenting, but still the basic goal is to help them climb the ladder of success so that they can be something some day, but not today, not when they are young. First they have to finish high school with a good GPA so they can get in to a good college, maybe a professional degree, because in order to be of real value, you’ve got to have the proper credentials, the proper experience and, you know, even when you break into a field, many of the young adults that I work with today are experiencing the difficulty of realizing that when you start a job you are going to have to spend a couple of years at the bottom of the corporate food chain before you can do something that is really worthwhile.
Even in our religious culture and our churches we tend to send this message by designing programs that are really for people who are settled down in their careers and their families. We are in danger of feeding in to this message that children and teenagers and even young adults are too young, too immature, too transient to be worth our time and energy.
Now think for a minute how this idea of having the proper experience has played out in family dynamics in our society. In the past, our grandparents and even our parents got married at a fairly young age, even out of high school. But today many young people are told not to get married until they are established in their careers. Otherwise you will be unnecessarily handicapped. You are ill-equipped to start. In fact, just this week I was reading an Associated Press report about recent census statistics and it said this. “It used to be common for men and women to get a marriage certificate not too long after collecting their high school diploma. Not anymore. Census bureau for 2003 show 1/3 of men and nearly 1/4 of women between the ages of 30 and 34 have never been married, nearly four times the rates in 1970.” Now I know there are a lot of reasons for the pushing back of this marriage age, but I think one of them is because we are sending the message, “don’t do it too young because you are going to screw up your life.”
But against this cultural backdrop, God lays aside all of our assumptions, all of our prejudices and says, “You are never too young, you are never too inexperienced, you are never too new in your faith, you are never too uneducated to be part of my plan” and here in the Christmas story we see this reality most clearly revealed in God’s choice of Mary to be the mother of Jesus.
So I want to look now at the moment when Mary first learned about her place in God’s plan. So if you will turn with me to Luke, Chapter 1 and you can find that on page 723 in the red Bible or you are welcome to follow on the screen and we are going to be looking at Verses 26-38. This is what Luke writes:
“In the sixth month, that is the sixth month after Elizabeth had become pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled about his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be, but the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and you will give birth to a son and you are to give him a name Jesus and he will be great and called son of the most high. The Lord God will give him a throne of his father David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end.” “How will this be” Mary asked the angel since I am a virgin. 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. Even Elizabeth, your relative is going to have a child in her old age and she who is said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God. “I am the Lords servant” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said”. And the angel left.”
Will you pray with me for a moment. Dear Lord, we thank you for this special word of wonder and mystery and ask that you would open our hearts to hear exactly what you would have each one of us to learn and to hear. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.
Now the first thing that I noticed about Mary in this passage is that she is of inconsequential background with no credentials. She is from a backwater region in Palestine called Galilee. It’s off the beaten path, no place special. It’s kind of like Carroll County. You don’t even go through it to get somewhere special. Now, she lives in a town in Galilee called Nazareth. This is a totally unimportant town and that’s emphasized by the fact that Nazareth is mentioned nowhere in the Old Testament, nor does the first century Jewish historian, Josephus mention it all. In fact, he mentions 204 other towns and cities in Galilee, but neglects Nazareth altogether. Now our English translation says that she is virgin, but the Greek word that she is more accurately described a chaste young woman or girl. Because of this, most scholars put Mary’s age somewhere in her early to mid teens. Now put this in perspective, if Jesus was born when Mary was 15, by the time she was my age 27, she would have a 12 year old son. Talk about too young.
Now we can also infer from cultural studies that like other young girls who lived in Galilee at this time, Mary probably had no education, no opportunity and no hope for advancement apart from marriage to an upstanding man. And in fact, her marriage to Joseph is the only credential that were given even before we are told her name. So when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says, “Greetings, you who are highly favored, the Lord is with you” it’s no wonder she was greatly troubled. I imagine Gabriel may be thinking “God did you give me the wrong address. She’s only a girl. Why didn’t you chose a most successful mom in Israel? Maybe one who had sent six or seven men off to be successful doctors, lawyers and rabbis? This could be her coup-de-grace, her magnum opus, raising the Messiah.” But Gabriel was at the right address and instead of a matronly grandmother, God sent Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. Too young perhaps for some, but just who God had in mind. And here we come to the point, nothing we are told about Mary is of such value that would make God want to choose her out of someone else, and yet he does. And if we look a little more closely at the greeting that the angel brings to Mary and we see that the reason God chose her is fully and totally based on the surprising grace of God.
Now I would like to ask you to humor me for a few moments because I want to take a look at the original language that this passage comes in, because if we can take a look at the Greek, we will see the word grace is mentioned three times and we see it in Verse 28 twice in the words of greeting which translate in English, “Greetings, you who are highly favored” is in Greek just two words, “chaire kecheritomenhe” and both words you will find the same route “charis” grace. Now the first word, “chaire,” is a common greeting in the Greek language, but it means more than just a simple hello. It actually carries the feeling of “rejoice” or “be of good cheer.” Now the second word is a little more complex, and it’s a verb that has been turned in to a noun and we call this a participle. I do anyway. So do other people who work with grammar. An example in English might be “this was the 26th running of the race” and in that sentence the word “run” has been turned in to a noun, the running. Now in this case, “kecheritomenhe” comes from the verb that means “to bestow grace,” and we are going to complete the picture by seeing that “kecheritomenhe” is perfect passive participle. Perfect in tense, which means that it is an action that has begun and been completed, once and for all time in the past, and it’s passive meaning that Mary, the subject, is receiving not initiating the bestowing of this grace. So when you put it all together, “chaire kecheritomenhe” does not merely say, “greetings who you are highly favored,” it actually says “rejoice, you on whom God’s favor has once and for all been bestowed. The Lord is with you.”
Now the angel, sensing Mary’s confusion at this amazing greeting reinforces that his visit is all about God’s grace and he urges her not to be afraid and he says in Verse 30, “You found favor with God.” Now here again if we look under the surface we will see that Gabriel’s words again speak of the surprising grace of God. The Greek phrase is “eures charis” and notice there is a word “charis” in its pure form–grace. “You have found grace, Mary.” And there is this word “eures.” Now it’s very interesting that the root of that word is actually “eureka” and those of you who are students of history might remember that eureka is the word that Archimedes ran shouting through the streets in ancient Greece and the reason he did that is because he had just solved the riddle given to him by the king.
And stay with me, this riddle, it’s worth it, trust me. Okay, here’s the riddle. The king had been given a crown that was supposedly pure gold and he said to Archimedes, the trusted scientist, “Archimedes find out for me whether or not this crown is pure gold without damaging it.” Oh geez, this is a tough one. So Archimedes thought about it for a couple of days. I mean he was stumped. And finally he had to give up all together. Well one night he is taking his yearly bath and as he was sinking in to the tub he noticed the water rising. That was it! He realized of course that objects displace water relative to their density. All he needed to do was to find an equal amount of weight in gold, compare the amount of water displaced and he had it. He was so excited he got up out of the bath, didn’t even bother to put on clothes, ran around the street stark naked, shouting “Eureka! I found it!”
And that’s the nature of what eureka means. It says, “I found it.” I found it, in the sense that while I wasn’t seeking it the answer came to me. And that’s what the angel is saying about this grace that has come to Mary. You found grace with God, even though you weren’t seeking it, grace has come to you. Don’t be afraid or alarmed, it doesn’t matter that you are from Galilee, that you are a teenager with no experience or pedigree or credentials. It doesn’t matter even that you are a virgin because God has chosen to reveal his surprising grace to you.
Now the church calls the scene the annunciation: the story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she was going to have a baby and his name would be Jesus and that he would save the world from its sins. But I think this story is also about call. Because Gabriel had told Mary that she had discovered God’s grace because God was calling her, and for as long as God has been using ordinary people to carry out his plans, he has done it through annunciation, through announcing his call to them. He took Abraham out in the middle of the night and showed him the vast array of stars and said, “I am going to make your descendants as numerous as these and you will be my people.” He took an old outlaw shepherd named Moses and he took him before a bush that didn’t burn up and said, “You, Moses, you are the one that I am going to send to save my people and set them free.” He took a little shepherd boy and lined him up with all of his older brothers, and the prophet Samuel went and passed each and everyone of them until he came to the youngest David and said, “David, you will be the next king.”
But don’t think that God just uses annunciation back then, thousands of years ago in the Bible, because God is calling people to serve him in special ways right up to the present time. In fact, he might even be calling one of you today at this very moment. Because God changes the world through annunciation. Not through earthquakes, through fire, not through wind, but through ordinary people like Mary who get called to serve God.
Now you might be asking yourself, well who will receive this call? Here the Bible is pretty clear that every person who has committed their life to following Jesus is given a special call. In 1st Corinthians 12, verses 5 through 7 it says,
“There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men (meaning all people). Now to each one, the manifestation of the spirit is given for the common good.”
God has a call for each one of us. He gives a special call to each one of his followers and this call doesn’t simply mean a call to Christian ministry. God didn’t call Mary to be a rabbi, he called her to be a mother. And in the same way he may be calling you into what may seem to be a very ordinary field to do extra-ordinary things. Because the difference between a call and a career is that a call is wrapped up in God’s purposes, and it’s about being part of God’s plan to bring his kingdom of love and justice to this earth.
And he calls each of us in a different way. Now, not many of us will get an angel knocking on our door, but many of us will get a messenger in the form of a friend. Sometimes it may be a gradual realization that slowly builds confidence over many years. Or it might the result of a life-changing experience. Sometimes it’s a eureka moment and all of the sudden the surprising grace of God finds you.
But however you become aware of your particular call, this story serves as a good model for us because our experiences with God’s call are often the same as Mary’s. Like her, as our call becomes clear to us we can be troubled and filled with confusion. We begin to think of all the reasons why this doesn’t make any sense. “I am too young. I am too inexperienced. Too imperfect or I have too much baggage, too many limitations,” and as we struggle with the implications of our call, we ask like Mary, “How can this be?” And that’s exactly why this call comes full of the assurance not only of God’s grace, but also of his power.
Gabriel lets Mary know that the consummation of this call will not be her doing, but God’s. In answer to her question, “How will this be,” he says in verse 35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you.” When God calls us he does not leave us alone, high and dry to figure out just how we are supposed to live out our call. The very plan, the very love, the very grace that compelled him to call us is the same plan, the same love, the same grace that compels him to cause this call to become a reality in our lives through his Holy Spirit and through all the power he has at his disposal.
Now this word “power” here, it comes from the Greek word, “dunamis.” It’s where we get the English word dynamite. And in fact it shows up again a couple of verses later. In English it says, “For nothing is impossible with God.” If we were to translate that literally it would actually say, “With God no word will be without power.” Gabriel is telling Mary that since this word, this call, has come from God, she can be sure that it will also come with God’s power to see it through, because if God is involved, nothing, no word, is impossible.
Do you believe that God has a call for your life? You are never too young or too old for that matter, or too middle-aged, to experience and receive the grace of God’s call in your life, because this call originates out of the surprising grace of God and not from our ability to carry it out. Now if you are aware of a call in your life, what’s keeping you from believing that it can be done? You know, this struggle with our inability to live out our call is not unique. St. Paul who gets most of the credit for transforming Christianity from a small regional religion into a worldwide faith dealt with that same problem, and in the middle of his ministry he writes to the church at Corinth about how he wrestled with God about his insufficiency and here’s how God responded to him.
“God said to me, my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
Paul had come to the realization that his limitations, his lack of credentials didn’t have a lot to do with God’s inability to carry out his call. He simply trusted in God’s grace and power to see it through.
Now the reality is that we, like Mary, have the opportunity to disregard our call. Now Mary even after she heard of God’s grace and God’s power, she still could have said no, and we can say no. God gives us the freedom to say thanks, but no thanks God. I kind of like my life the way it is. I am a little bit involved in my own projects and my own life. I know it’s not a lot, but at least its mine. I really don’t want to get caught up in something all that big. And you know what, if you said that, that would be understandable. But like Mary, we also have the choice of saying yes. And I love how it said in the King James translation. She says, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” It’s as if she is saying, “This word, this call that you are bringing to me, the one you say won’t be without God’s power, let that happen to me.”
For this answer Mary is often regarded as the first disciple, this teenage version from a backwater province, through a stroke of grace, is the first one to be swept up in God’s ultimate plan to send his son to wear our skin, to walk our earth, and to save our souls. She was the first one to hear the call and to say yes. And the same joy of living out a life as a call, is the same as it was for Mary. The first words of the angel Gabriel brings to her, when we accept God’s call they become his words to us as well. “The Lord is with you. You are not alone and through the grace and power of God, your ordinary life is being transformed for his extraordinary purposes and may it be with us according to his word.”
Would you pray with me? God, your ways are mysterious to us. We don’t understand them and it’s hard sometimes to think about how it might even be us that you are calling to participate in this plan. And now for those who are just now thinking about and sensing your call in their lives, I pray that you would give them courage. For those who are sure of their call, but feeling discouraged, feeling like they are not sure if they can do it God, that you would reassure them of your power. And God for those who are here who are just beginning their journey with you, I pray that you would just remind them again of your grace in sending Jesus, so that we could have a restored relationship with you and that our lives could count for something more. Amen.