Experiencing God's Favor

Original Date: 
Sunday, November 22, 2015

Luke 1:26-55 Experiencing Christmas: Experiencing God’s Favor

Favorite
So, I’ve been thinking about the word “favor” this week. It struck me that there are a lot of ways we use the word “favor.”

When we talk about sports, we’ll say this team A is favored to win over that team B. Just like yesterday, North Carolina’s basketball team was favored to beat Northern Iowa’s. What we mean is that more people believe team A will win. In a betting sense, it means that team A is liked more than team B. But as the Tar Heels found out, being favored doesn’t always mean you win.

In the world of interpersonal interaction, a favor is something nice you do for someone else. Most favors are acts of kindness, it’s something you do with no expectation of being paid back. Though, some people do keep track of favors, and there is sometime the idea that one kind turn deserves another.

And then, of course, there’s the idea of “favorite” which is derived from “favor.” This is something we talk about with our kids a lot: “What’s your favorite color?” “What’s your favorite animal?” “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?” The idea, of course, is that you prefer one over all the other items in the category. Purple is clearly the best color. Panthers are the greatest of all the animals. And good old vanilla is still the king of ice creams.

So, the word favor has to do with liking or approving of someone or something more than others. It means you look on someone with kind regard. It means that you do good things for them.

And when it comes to the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, one of the things that clearly stands out about her is that she had found favor with God.

The word “favor” shows up three times in Mary’s story. The first is when we are introduced to her. She is a young girl, probably between the ages of 12 and 16, living in the poor village of Nazareth in the Galilean region of Israel. She’s pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, but the marriage has not been consummated yet. She’s still a virgin. That’s an important detail.

Then the angel Gabriel shows up, and this is what he says, Luke 1:28:

28‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’

Mary’s immediate reaction is fear. Most people in the Bible react with fear when they encounter an angel. Which brings us to the second use of the word “favor”, verse 30:

30But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.

Mary is highly favored. She has found favor with God. He has looked with kind regard upon her and He is going to do a great thing for her. And that, of course, is that she is going be with child and give birth to a Son whom she will name Jesus. He will be the Son of the Most High and a descendant of King David and He will have a kingdom that will never end.

Mary, though, sees a flaw in this plan: she’s not married yet and there’s no biological way for her to be pregnant. Gabriel replies that the child in her will be conceived by the Holy Spirit. As incredible as it sounds, he points out that even her relative Elizabeth—who was barren and well past child-bearing age, is currently in her sixth month of pregnancy. Then he adds: “For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)

Mary, to her credit, tells the angel that she will do whatever the Lord asks of her. Then she sets off for Elizabeth’s house. When Elizabeth sees her, the child in her womb—who is John the Baptist—leaps for joy and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. She declares that Mary is blessed among women and so is the child she will bear. Then the third use of the word “favor”, Elizabeth says, in verse 43:

43But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

There’s the idea, again, of God looking kindly upon someone—in this case it is Elizabeth who feels God’s favor.

All of which raises this question: what kind of person does God favor? Being favored by God sounds like something I would like. And, apparently, God can show favor to more than one person. As any five year-old will tell you, you can have more than one favorite. God shows his favor to lots of people—we can all be people who are favored by God. My goal today is to use Mary’s story to show how we can experience God’s favor.

Catholic Teaching on Mary
Before I go on, though, I should pause for a moment and talk about the way Mary is viewed in the Catholic Church. You may be aware that there are many churches named after Mary, many shrines to her, many statues of her. The “Hail, Mary” which is a prayer to Mary, is one of the most important prayers in the Catholic Church.

Now, to be clear, official Catholic Church doctrine is that Mary is not worshipped, but she is prayed to. Official Catholic dogma about Mary teaches several things about Mary that are not found in the Bible, but were developed through tradition and papal decree. Among them are the idea of the “immaculate conception”—which refers not to the circumstances of Jesus’ birth but of Mary’s; her perpetual virginity; and her assumption into heaven without physical death.

As I said, none of those things are taught in the Bible, and the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity seems to be clearly contradicted. For one thing, Jesus had brothers, and unless you believe that Joseph already had children when he married Mary (which is not hinted at in the Bible) it would seem that they would have been the natural result of Mary and Joseph’s marital relations following Jesus’ birth. More than that, Matthew 1 says clearly that after Joseph’s dream of the angel, he took Mary home as his wife “but he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.” (Matt. 1:25) Key word there is “until”, which implies that after Jesus’ birth they had a normal marital relationship.

One of the unfortunate side results of this teaching on Mary’s virginity and immaculate conception is the impression that there is something sinful about a sexual relationship within marriage. There isn’t. And there was nothing sinful about Mary and Joseph being a normal married couple.

More than that, while the Bible is clear that Mary was blessed by God and highly favored—and there is no doubt that we should appreciate her—there is nothing in the Bible that would indicate we should pray to her or that we need her to act as a go-between for us and Jesus. In fact, the Bible says clearly that there is only one mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). One of the purposes of Christ dying on the cross was to tear down the veil that separates us from God so that we wouldn’t need anyone—not Mary or any other saint—to grant us access to God. We can all pray directly to the Father in Jesus’ name.

Mary was not sinless. She rejoices in God, whom she calls her Savior (Luke 1:47). Why would she need a Savior if she was without sin? She needed Jesus just as much as the rest of us, and she was saved by Him just like the rest of us. The Bible calls her blessed and we can to, but we need to be clear that it is Jesus alone that saves. We do not worship Mary, nor should we.

So, I want to be clear, as I talk about how we can be favored by God, I’m not preaching a “be like Mary” sermon. I’m using Mary’s story to illustrate. We can learn from Mary. But the important thing here is not that we admire Mary, but that we admire Mary’s God. Because that is precisely where Mary directs our attention.

The Magnificat
After being greeted by Elizabeth, Mary breaks out into song. Luke 1:46-55. We’re going to let these verses serve as our primary text this morning:

46And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me–holy is his name. 50His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.

This passage of scripture is known as the magnificat, from the Latin translation of verse 46: “My soul glorifies…” If you have the King James Version, that reads: “My soul magnifies…” That’s Mary’s intention here: to magnify God. To call our attention to who He is. And as she does, she teaches us who God favors.

So, I’m going to break Mary’s Song into three things we can learn about God, and in the process we will learn three things about the kind of people God favors.

Holy is His Name
First, Mary sings about the One who is Mighty Over All. God is the Holy One who does great things. Verse 49:

49for the Mighty One has done great things for me–holy is his name.

God is the “Mighty One.” The name Mary gives God here derives from the root word for “dynamite”, it’s the Greek word for “power.” Mary is saying that God is powerful, the most powerful. He is the One who has all might. He stands in a class by Himself.

Holy is His name. That means that He is set apart from all others. He is completely and utterly unique. Completely free from sin. His ways are not our ways. He is separate from and exalted above every creature. All His attributes are perfect and they all cohere in a perfect harmony called holiness.

God is the Almighty. The All-Powerful. The Holy One.

God is Mighty Over All.

And this mighty God has used His mighty power to do great things for Mary, and her soul glorifies God for it. Her spirit rejoices in God’s saving power.

God is Mighty Over All.

Isn’t this exactly what Gabriel said to her when she questioned how she, as a maiden, could possibly conceive a child? Luke 1:37, he said:

For nothing is impossible with God.

God has the power to accomplish His purposes.
• A woman well-advanced in years who has been barren her whole life giving birth to John the Baptist? Not a problem for God.
• A young girl from a backwater village who never knew a man pregnant with the long awaited Messiah? Nothing is too difficult for God.
• The eternal Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, taking on flesh in the form of a human baby and taking up residence in the womb of a young woman? Easy for God.
• The Holy One coming on a rescue mission for men and women who are dead in trespasses and sins and offering salvation and new life? Nothing is impossible with God.

This is who God is. He is Mighty and Powerful and Capable and Sovereign over the world He created. God is able to do exceedingly, abundantly more than we can ask or even imagine according to His power at work in us (Ephesians 3:20).

So what does this say about whom God favors? I’ll say it like this: Because God is the One who is Mighty Over All, Therefore He favors those who Magnify Him. God favors those who rejoice in Him.

That’s what Mary is doing. Listen again to verses 46 and 47:

46And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

As I said, the word “glorify” could also be translated as “magnify.” The word in the original language is “megalynai”, a word which literally means “make large.”

Now, that might not make sense at first. We just said that God is mighty over all. He is the biggest, so how can Mary—or anybody else—make him bigger. But there are two senses to the word magnify. On the one hand, you can think of magnification like you would do with a microscope. Take something that is incredibly small, and enlarge it so that it becomes visible to the human eye. If that is how we think of magnification here, we are thinking completely wrong.

But the other way we magnify things is with a telescope. That’s where we take something incredibly big but not necessarily easy to see—like a star or a planet—and make it more visible.

That’s what Mary is doing here, and what we need to do too. Take something unimaginably huge, beyond our ability to comprehend in fact, and draw it to attention. Some may not be able to see God’s greatness, at times our own hearts fail to grasp it, and so we need to magnify the Lord.

So, let me ask you: how are you doing at rejoicing in the Mighty Power of God? Are you leaning on, depending upon, trusting in and singing about the power of God? Or are you doing it your own way?

Most of our troubles in this life stem from trying to do life our way instead of leaning on the power of God and doing things His way. But, good Christian, rejoice! God is mighty over all.

The Great Reversal
Now, you might be thinking, that’s easy for Mary to say. She just found out she was going to be the Mother of God’s Son. She was so great, God took notice of her. But who are we, that we think God would notice and do great things for us?

But that’s the point of the song: Mary was not great. God is great. But Mary was not. She was nothing but reverent and humble and trusting. And God chose a nobody like her because His might was directed by His mercy.

That’s the second thing for us to learn about God: He is the One who is Merciful to the Weak. God loves to undertake for the underdog. Verses 50-53:

50His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

We must avoid the mistake of thinking “that because God is great, He is partial to great men, or because God is exalted, He favors what is exalted among men. Just the opposite is the case. God’s holiness has expressed itself and will express itself by exalting the lowly and abasing the haughty.” (John Piper, http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/meditation-on-the-magnificat)

God has reversed the order of the world. The world normally gives great things to great people. If you have wealth, power, or prestige then you get more wealth, more power, and more prestige. If you are great, you get great things. Our celebrity culture is built on that principle.

But this says that God has turned it all upside down. God gives great things to not-so-great people who recognize their bankruptcy and fear Him alone. Mary says it three times, just to drive the point home:
• “His mercy extends to those who fear him”, verse 50
• “He has lifted up the humble”, verse 52
• “He has filled the hungry with good things”, verse 53.
Those who are weak, those who at the end of their resources, those who know they cannot help themselves, those are the ones God delights to help.

The opposite is also true. God has no time for those who think they are sufficient unto themselves. Mary says this three times as well:
• “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts”, verse 51
• “He has brought down rulers from their thrones”, verse 52
• “He has sent the rich away empty”, verse 53
If you think that you are rich, if you think you are the king of your life, if you think you are good and capable and deserving of all that you have, then God will set Himself against you.

1 Peter 5:5 puts it like this, quoting Proverbs 3:24:

5God opposes the proud
But gives grace to the humble.

And Psalm 18:27 says:

27 You save the humble
But bring low those whose eyes are haughty.

How could God be partial to the things in our world which are, more often than not, substitutes for Him rather than pointers to Him? Why would He turn His attention to those who think they can exist without Him?

Mercy is that characteristic of God by which He is kind to those who do not deserve it. God is drawn to those who are humble and lowly of heart. As my friend Matt says: “God’s might is directed by God’s mercy.”

And so, who does God favor? I’ll put it like this: Because God is the One who is Merciful to the Weak, therefore He Favors those who are Humble.

Mary says this about herself in verse 48:

48for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed,

And 1 Peter 5:6 says:

6Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.

Recognize your need for God. Stop thinking that you are the main character in your life’s story. Admit your need, you failures, your weakness. Admit that you would be hopeless to save yourself. Admit that everything you have, from the body you inhabit to the air that you breathe to the earth you stand upon belongs to Him and that you are entirely dependent on His great mercy.

Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God to experience the mercy of God.

The Remembering God
Then, third, Mary’s song directs our attention to the One Who is Mindful of His Promises. God remembers His covenant. Verses 54 and 55:

54He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.

God is Mindful of His Promises. God remembers the deal He made with Abraham and His offspring. He remembers His plan to bless them and make them a blessing to the world. (cf. Genesis 12:3) We could go back even farther, to Adam and Eve. God remembers His promise to crush the head of the serpent (cf. Genesis 3:15). He remembers His promise to establish the throne of His servant David (cf. 2 Samuel 7:8-16). God remembers.

My friend Matt, again: “God’s Might is directed by God’s Mercy and guaranteed by God’s Memory.”

And Mary knows, God always keeps His promises.

The Messiah has come. And Mary knows it. She doesn’t know all that that will mean. But she knows that the Power and Might of God has come in His Mercy to those who have humbled themselves and has been fulfilled in the Messiah and guaranteed by God’s un-wavering commitment to His oath.

Matt, again: “God’s Might is directed by God’s Mercy and guaranteed by God’s Memory and fulfilled in God’s Messiah.”

So who does God favor? I’ll put it like this: Because God is the One who is mindful of His promises, therefore He favors those who trust in Him.

Because God always keeps His promises, we should trust in Him. This Christmas Season, learn the promises, know the promises, believe the promises, stand on the promises, live out of the promises, and trust the promises.

He will not forget them!

When Mary went to meet with Elizabeth, Elizabeth concluded her greeting by saying this in Luke 1:45:

45Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!

What Elizabeth says about Mary could also be said about us. Blessed are those who believe that what the Lord has said will be accomplished.

The word “believe” here means more than just to acknowledge that something is true. This is about more than just mentally co-signing what the Bible says; this is about trusting in what God has said, about building your life on it. It means responding the way Mary did after Gabriel gave her her assignment, verse 38:

38”I am the Lord’s Servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Mary believed. She humbled herself before the Lord. She rejoiced in God her savior.

And because God is like this...because God is Mighty and Merciful and Mindful of His Promises....Because God’s might is directed by God’s mercy, guaranteed by God’s memory and fulfilled by God’s Messiah...

Then we can do the same:

Magnify your Savior
Humble yourself before Him
Trust in His promises

And you too, will experience the favor of the Lord.