According to Dr. Gary Chapman there exist five “love languages” humans use to give and receive love: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Which is yours?
I would say that mine is probably quality time. It is not that I don’t enjoy the other four, but for all of us, one of them stands out more than the others. For example, it is clear to Monica and I which of our daughters’ primary love language is receiving gifts. Why gifts? Well, as Dr. Chapman says, "Gifts are visual symbols of love" (p. 83). "A gift is something you can hold in your hand and say, 'Look, he was thinking of me,' or 'She remembered me.' You must be thinking of someone to give him a gift" (p. 82).
You might think, then, that everybody would like receiving gifts. And, I am not going to say that they don't. But if you change the word "gift" to "favor", I can think of many people (myself included), who feel uneasy being on the receiving side of a favor.
If you think about it, a favor is a gift. Somebody does something for you, and they don't expect anything in return. Which is precisely why we cringe when we think of somebody doing something “free” for us.
I don’t want to delve too deep into this topic, but the reality is that we live in a merit-based society. We laud those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We take pride in hard work that leads to an intended outcome. And while Americans are good at giving charity—we are the most generous country in the world—I’m not sure how good we are at receiving it. You think of phrases such as, “I don't want/need your charity."
Well, this text is all about charity. It is all about "favor". Traditionally, these verses are known as the "Annunciation". The angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah. There is a ton of Biblical doctrine packed into these verses. What I want us to focus on for the moment is that what we have here in Luke 1:26-38 is a word from God.
Now, you could argue that the entire Bible is a word from God. And of course, that is true. But these verses deal with a specific message being sent to a specific maiden. The angel Gabriel announces to Mary the word that God has given him. And right away we see that this is a word of divine favor. Verse 28: "The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
"Favor" is undeserved kindness and goodness. "Favor" is what the Christian church understands as "grace". Indeed, the word Luke uses for favor is a form of "charis" from which we receive our English word "charity". And "charis" in the Bible always means "undeserved favor". So, what Gabriel is saying to Mary is that she is a recipient of God’s charity/God's favor. In what way? Well, "The Lord is with you", Gabriel explains.
It seems, however, that Mary missed the intended comfort in Gabriel’s opening statement, for Luke proceeds to say that "Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be" (v. 29). Literally, Mary was arguing with herself. “Is this a good visit? Is it a bad visit? What is going on?” And so, Gabriel repeats himself, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God" (v. 30).
Found. Not sought after. Not earned. But like walking down the sidewalk and seeing a $100 bill laying there in front of you. You find it. It had nothing to do with you. It’s just divine favor.
Now, I need to say a word to our Catholic friends. All the verbs in this angel's greeting are passive in regard to Mary. She is not the agent. She is the recipient. God is the agent, and God is the giver. Says Lenski, “Mary is a vessel to receive, not a fountain to dispense" (Lenski, p. 62). That is not to speak poorly of her, but it is to say that Mary is not the one who dispenses grace to mankind. She does not give us God’s mercy. She receives mercy and grace from God. For God is always the giver.
He is so with you.
You see, the malady (sin) of this text is a refusal to receive. It is the attitude of “I don’t want your charity, God." And many people don’t. It is not that they don't want God to do things for them; it’s that they think that in order for him to do things for them, they must first merit it. They must first deserve it. Well, if that is the order of things, then God's favor is certainly not favor. That would be a misnomer. Anything he gave us would then be a payment. We deserved it, after all. Oh, but there is not even a whiff of merit in this text at all. Mary was just a simple Jewish girl. One day she received a visit from the angel Gabriel. And all of history changed because of it.
Now, this next point is a simple point, but it is worth mentioning. A woman does not become pregnant in life because she deserves it. Do you see what I am saying? Whether a woman is good or bad, whether she is a believer in God or an atheist, has no bearing on whether or not she becomes pregnant. It is a gift!
Think of Sarah in the Old Testament. She was unable to give birth her entire life, and oh, how she wanted to have a son! Think of Elizbeth, the mother of John the Baptist. She too was barren, and yet she later says, “The Lord has done this for me … In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people” (v. 25).
Now that is a far cry from the attitude of society today towards pregnant women. “To conceive? Well, that means I might lose my job! That means that I won't have my freedom. That means I can no longer do as I want!" As the one young lady told me having been introduced to each other on a blind date, "I don't want to have children because then I can't travel around the world the way I want to. I don't want to have children because that will ruin my figure."
Well, that was her attitude towards children. So, I ditched her and started dating Monica. But you see, there is a huge confusion among so many young Christians today. Should I even get married? Should I have children?
The greatest gift for a Jewish girl was the ability to bear a child. In particular a son. Why a son? Because men are superior to women? Not at all. Because of the promised Messiah. And so, Mary's attitude is one of gratitude and acceptance. "Praise the Lord for the favor he has shown to me! Blessed be his name! Not only am I going to bring a child into the world, but I am going to bring the Messiah into the world!"
People wonder, "Did Mary know that this miracle child was going to be the Messiah? Yes. For notice the Old Testament language the angel uses: "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, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (vv. 32,33).
That is a direct reference to 2 Samuel 7. Every Israelite knew that the Messiah would be a direct descendant of David. "Son of David" was a Messianic title, after all. So, yes, Mary understood. Which is why she was so perplexed. "Me? Why me?" "Because of God's favor", the angel reminded her. That is the only answer adequate enough to handle the magnitude of such kindness.
There was just one problem. Mary understands very well how children are born, and she knows that she is a virgin. So, naturally she asks, "how?" This wasn't unbelief or skepticism, but rather an attempt to seek more information. We would ask the same question. So, with "how" Mary asks for some explanation. With "since" she states the reason for her perplexity. Mary is willing to have the son but doesn't understand how this will be possible since she has not known a man.
Verse 35: "The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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."
What does that mean? Well, I don't know exactly. It is a miracle. What we can say is that the Holy Spirit does not operate from a distance but comes upon Mary as the Glory of the LORD came upon the Tent of Meeting in Ex. 40:34-38. What we can infer with absolute certainty is that Joseph will not be the father. The Father will be God himself.
Now, if that is not difficult to believe, I don't know what is. It is true that the angel Gabriel mentions Elizabeth's pregnancy as an aid to Mary's faith. In other words, "If God did this for Elizabeth, you can be sure that he will do what he has promised to you." But even so, humanly speaking this is an obvious impossibility. How does Mary believe then? How do you and I believe that this account is real? Because "Nothing is impossible with God" (v. 37).
All of our faith hinges on the fact that salvation is God's doing, not Man's doing. It is a recognition that God is real, and that God interacts with humankind on earth. It is an admission that I am only a human, and therefore, I have limits, but that God is his own being and therefore has no limits. It takes humility to believe, loved ones. And Mary was humble at heart. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled" (v. 38).
Remember when I said at the outset that this text of Scripture is a word from God. There are only two things you can do when God speaks to you: you can believe what he says, or you can not believe (doubt) what he says. The title I gave to this sermon is "Ready to Receive". You and I are about to celebrate Christmas. The best way we can prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus is via a readiness to receive him. Receive him how? Through faith. For "faith" is essentially a synonym of the word "receive". Faith takes what is being offered and receives it. Faith is overwhelmed at the gracious offer and says, "Thank you! Thank you for your gift to me! Thank you for doing me this favor. It is undeserved."
Do you know what Mary called herself upon being the recipient of such good news from God? A servant. Literally a slave. She is saying, "I am the Lord's property to do with as his promised grace desires. May it be to me as you have said."
I pray that is your attitude towards God and his Word this Christmas. Let me just close with a quotation form one of my college professors: "What is the best way to prepare for [Christ's] coming? It is not with frantic doing. It is not with a focus with what we have done or promise to do. It's not with how we will pay back what he comes to bring. The best preparation for Christmas is with a readiness to receive." Amen.