“And the soul felt its worth…”— When God Calls Us “Favored” (Luke 1:26-38, Matthew 6:25-30)
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
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. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38 NIV).
I hope all of us are doers of good deeds. If we want to be like Jesus, we will be. Peter describes Jesus’ activities to Cornelius and his family as “going about doing good.” The interesting and critical question, though, is “Why do we do good deeds?” Is it to get God’s favor or is it because we already have God’s favor? There is a world of difference for us.
We can learn a wonderful, blessing-filled lesson today from Mary. One of the many wonderful things about Jesus is His mother: selected to carry God in her womb, the only girl we ever see in nativity scenes, singer of an amazing song about all God will do to reset the social order, beautiful, the queen of heaven, “blessed among women.”
Hold that thought and let me take you to another place for a bit.
In 1847 a priest in a small town in France asked a local wine merchant and poet to write a song for Christmas Eve mass. So Placide Cappeau, not particularly religious at all, composed the words of a poem and asked his Jewish composer-friend Adolphe Adam to put it to music. Thus, at a Christmas Eve mass in a small town in France, the great hymn O Holy Night was first introduced to the world. Soon afterwards Cappeau left the Catholic Church to join France’s socialist movement. The church wrestled with what to do with a great song, now written by an apostate. They banned it, but it lived on in the hearts of the common folks.
Ten years later, in 1857, an American abolitionist, John Dwight, heard it and was taken by the line, “He sees a brother where there is only a slave” and translated it to say “Chains shall He break for a slave is a brother, And in His name all oppression shall cease.” Dwight introduced it in the northern US; many believe the song aided in breaking the chains of slavery.
There’s an interesting epilogue… At Christmastime in 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a coworker with Thomas Edison, was experimenting with a microphone and a telegraph. Unsure if anything would go over the telegraph wire, he tried to send voice anyway, first reading words from Luke’s gospel into his microphone: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered…” Imagine it… ships at sea had never heard other than dots and dashes but that night heard someone reading the story of Jesus’ birth! Fessenden then picked up his violin and started playing a Christmas song – the first song ever played over radio waves – O Holy Night! So imagine again, ships on the open sea hearing music declaring the worth of human souls: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn…”
When Jesus was born it was indeed the dawning of a new day; “He appeared and the soul felt its worth.” Jesus was not just another baby being born, He was a redefinition of what it means to be human! “Fall on your knees, O hear the angels’ voices… O night Divine… O night when Christ was born!”
Let’s go back to Mary. The text gives no details of what she had done to earn God’s favor. We are told nothing about what she was like before the angel’s visit and her “yes.” But here’s the strong likelihood: she didn’t just suddenly become a good girl who God favored because she heard a sermon on righteous living and because of it started living the way she should. God looked on her with favor for a different reason – because He by His nature of grace and love looks on peasant girls, prostitutes, tax collectors, adulterous kings, lawyers, prices, and fishermen with favor. He’s like that! Jesus loves me… the Bible tells me so!
When the angel told her, “You’re God’s highly favored one to be mother of the Savior of mankind” and she answered “yes,” we wonder at what faith it took for her to believe that the Holy Spirit would make her pregnant and that her son – a son who would appear to be the illegitimate son of a carpenter and a peasant girl – would have a kingdom and a throne. If you were in her place, which would be harder for you to believe: the details of what was coming or being favored by God? If an angel came to us and said, “Greetings, favored one,” we’d believe he had to be talking to someone else and likely peer over our shoulder to see if someone was standing behind us. No way we’d think he meant us.
But Mary heard the angel’s words… and trusted them to be about her! Maybe that’s why she was favored: she seemed comfortable with the idea that people –for example, her – could live a life worthy of God’s favor. If she didn’t feel favored before, she surely did once the angel said she was! If God can create the universe by speaking it into existence, He can make us into His beloved by calling us beloved, and help us to know it. Even Jesus, who knew He was fulfilling His Father’s will, still heard directly from His Father that He was pleased with Him on three occasions. This seems an overlooked part of the announcement: an angel came from God to a town called Nazareth to a woman whose name was Mary and said, “Rejoice, O highly favored one, for God is with you.” And her soul felt its worth!
God’s opinion was the only one that counted! So she said, “Let it be with me according to this word.” Though we can’t speak to the worthiness of Mary before the angel came, we can see she trusted God’s word. Just as God called Abraham “righteous” and so he was (Romans 5:1-4), God’s messenger called Mary “favored,” and so she was! Her answer wasn’t, “Oh, what an honor. I’ll work hard every day and do everything within my power to be who God wants me to be.” It was, “Let it be to me according to whatever God says.” She said in essence, “I trust that I am who God says that I am.”
That brings us to us. Here’s where we can learn from her and get from it joy and peace. “Let’s be what God’s Word says we are: beloved sons and daughters, His offspring, precious in His sight, temples of the Holy Spirit! If God says we are, then let’s be! Let’s take His word… not the word of others whether teachers, or bankers, or family calling you “black sheep,” or society saying “you’re nobody.” Hear God’s description and let God alone define your worth.
How would we live if we really believed this? How would your life be different if you really believed that you’re totally loved by God? That living would be different from living and working every day to get God’s favor, different that trying to do good because we feel bad about Jesus dying for us and we need to make ourselves good enough to get His favor.
We need to learn to say, “Lord, let it be with us according to Your word.” Look around… God’s creating, sustaining, redeeming connection makes His claim on our lives. That is His “Yes” to us! His “yes” created us and all we enjoy in the world. His “yes” is the foundation of the Bethlehem Babe with a cruel cross in His future. His “yes” to us came as “light” in a black-as-midnight world and walked among us “full of grace and truth” and His “yes” to us brought Him out of the tomb!
Is your reaction, “Thank God”? Or “How I wish that were true”? We struggle with this idea of worth. Two roadblocks keep us from believing God loves us. One is our faulty self-talk voice in our head, plus others’ reinforcement: “You won’t amount to anything, you’re ugly, you’re not very bright.” Then when we hear something like “the soul felt its worth” we have trouble believing because no one has ever told us that, including us. We just don’t know if it can be true.
Two is mistaken theology. We don’t grasp the difference between having worth and being worthy. Here’s clear Scripture: “…there is no one righteous, not one” (Romans 3:10) and “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Yes, we’re unworthy sinners. “Worthy” means deserving. No, we’re not deserving. But “worthy” is not the same as “worth.” Here’s clear Scripture, too: “God so loved the world” and He’s “not willing that any should perish…” God tells us humans have worth! The message of the gospel is this: although we are unworthy (sinners), God proves what He thinks of our worth by the main event at Christmas – He came to dwell among us and then, in time, His give up His human life for our redemption price. He proved our worth by invading our story!
My guess is you’ll give and get presents this year. My hope is that I give you one today. It would be admitting “unworthiness” but claiming “worth” as tight as you can hold it. It means new life and joy no one can take away! If your soul feels its worth today, it’ll be the greatest gift you’ll get this year, and a gift that, in turn, you’ll give to the people around you as you “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” You’ll have no pressure to make a name for yourself; Jesus has made a name for you already.”
John’s gospel invites us to see the Christmas story from heaven’s view: “the true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world” and “all who receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-17)
Be reminded again of Jesus’ wonderful lesson to His disciples: “Aren’t two sparrows sold for only a penny? But not one of them falls to the ground outside your Father’s care. He even counts every hair on your head! So don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
Paul chimed in: “…may have the strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ… … that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19).
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining… it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
So judge yourself this way – Once lost, now found. Once blind, now seeing. Once deaf to God’s “yes,” now hearing it loud and clear. Once in “sin and error pining,”
now fully aware of the worth of your soul!!
So Father, we come. We come, in many ways, wrestling with this truth that You count us to be of great worth. We know we’re not worthy. Yet the manger speaks a stronger word. Jesus’ blood speaks a better word. His life given for us reminds us of the fact that You love us, You’re for us, You provide, and that You’re always enough. Thank you. In the Baby’s name, the One who grew to be King of the Ages – in His name. AMEN!