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Playing Favorites
a sermon based on Luke 1:26-38
by Rev. Elizabeth Quick

How do you show someone that you really cherish them? How do you let someone know that you think they are special? I am the second of four children – I have one older and two younger brothers. At one time or another, all of us accuse each other of being our mother's favorite. I'm the favorite because I'm the only girl and I spend a lot more time with my mother than my brothers do. My oldest brother is the favorite because he was the first child, and had six years of being the only child with my mom before I came along. My younger brother is the favorite because he's the one that still lives at home, and my mom loves that. And we all think our youngest brother is the favorite, or at least the most spoiled, since he's the only one who mom gave a car to. In truth, we all know how much mom loves each one of us. But we like to tease her about playing favorites.

Sometimes, playing favorites isn't a joke though. In the scriptures, we find multiple instances of people playing favorites – with some life-changing consequences. In Genesis, Rebekah favors her son Jacob and her husband Isaac prefers his son Esau, and Rebekah schemes to trick her less-loved son out of his birthright. Jacob first favors one wife over the other, loving Rachel more than Leah, causing Leah and Rachel to compete in child-bearing. Then Jacob favors the children born from his favorite wife, loving Joseph and Benjamin above his other sons, which ultimately lands Joseph in hot water, when his jealous brothers sell him into slavery, upset over the pretty coat his father had given him.

In our text today, we find out that God, too, favors people. And, as with the stories from the Old Testament, God's favoritism has life-changing consequences. But as usual, God's way of favoring someone is much different than the way we human play favorites. The scriptures testify throughout the Old and New Testaments to God's giving favored status especially to the poor, the hungry, and the needy. But here, in our text from Luke, we read about God favoring a single person, a young woman named Mary.

One day, a young woman, engaged but still not married, is visited by a messenger from God, named Gabriel. The messenger addresses Mary, saying, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." These words naturally confuse Mary. We read that she was ‘much perplexed by his words" and that she "pondered what sort of greeting this might be." I think this is just a nice way of saying that Mary wondered if this messenger was in his right mind, or if she was in her right mind. The messenger, seeming to read her thoughts, continues on to say, "Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God." He's said her name. He must have the right person. Gabriel proceeds to inform Mary that she will conceive a child who will be called "the Son of the Most High," and that this child will reign on the throne of David, over a never-ending kingdom. Mary has just one question for Gabriel: "How can this be? I'm a young, unmarried woman." Gabriel explains, in an answer that wouldn't suit me well at all, that the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary and she will be "overshadowed." So her child will be holy, and called the Son of God. And to top it all off, her cousin Elizabeth, a woman thought to be past the child-bearing years, is also going to have a child. After all these details though, Gabriel gives the most important answer to Mary's question of how this can be: "Nothing is impossible with God," he says. This, apparently, makes sense enough to Mary, and she responds, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." With that brief and detail-lacking conversation, apparently with Mary and Gabriel both satisfied, Gabriel departs.

I wonder what was going on inside Mary's head that she didn't say out loud. We read that she ponders over Gabriel's words – later on, Mary will ponder over the birth of her son on the day we call Christmas. What would Mary be pondering? Mary is a young woman – probably 13 or 14 years old. I would imagine she is pondering whether anyone else will believe her when she shares this news. I bet she's especially pondering what Joseph, her fiancι, will think. Perhaps she's even pondering the consequences for herself. An unmarried woman found pregnant could result in death in her society. But aside from these small concerns, I wonder if Mary is pondering why she has found favor with God and been chosen for this special purpose. Twice, Gabriel tells her she is favored. Does Mary wonder how she's gained this status? I would. Because for Mary, being favored by God potentially means big trouble. Her life will change because of God's favoring her. Everything she's been planning for herself will be changed irrevocably. Perhaps even her life will be at risk because of God's favoring of her. Yet, even though being favored by God seems to bring her only trouble, Mary still answers the news with an open mind and an open heart, with boundless faith. What a brave and courageous young woman.

Being a favorite can bring some great perks. But the scriptures remind us that being favored by God can bring us more than we bargain for. Are you favored by God? Being favored by God can get us into hot water. But before you start to think you are off the hook just because you haven't yet been approached by the angel Gabriel, don't count yourself out too early. Before Mary hears she will conceive and bear a child, we hear of no remarkable feat that Mary accomplishes, no miracles she has performed. We know of nothing that distinguishes her from any other young woman, except that she is part of a certain line of ancestors, one of many who could make that claim. And yet, she is favored. And she is chosen for a task. And she accepts, with a ready heart.

Whether we feel it everyday or not, I would argue that we have already been named as by God as favored ones. What else can you call the gift of God's grace – unconditional unwavering love at no cost – what else could this be but God's favoritism toward creation? We're favored because we're loved, no matter how undeserving we prove ourselves to be of that love sometimes. Indeed, the Greek word used by Gabriel for "favored" literally means "one who has been shown grace." (1) So we are favored by God. There's no doubt about it, no denying it.

As favored ones, graced ones, we're asked to respond as Mary does, when God sets tasks before us, as God does and will do in our lives. We're asked to put our fears and questions aside, and to answer that we're ready. Mary could do this because she believed what Gabriel told her – two important things he reminded her of. First, he reminds her not to be afraid of what God is doing in her life. Do you know how many times we can find the phrase "do not be afraid," or some similar variation, in the scriptures? I think God has to bring us this message over and over again because God is also encouraging us to do such crazy things over and over again – things that we'd never dream up on our own, things that would rightfully cause a sensible person a bit of fear and hesitation. But God urges us to let God be the one to dispel fears from our hearts. Why?

Because of the second thing Gabriel reminds Mary of: Nothing is impossible with God. If you believe that you are not a usable person for God – if you believe you are not person that God can use to do ministry, to do mission, to share love – if you believe that you are not a person that God can use, as God used Mary, to change the whole world, then you must also believe that God isn't really so powerful after all. That there are limits to God's abilities, and that somehow you are outside of God's ability to be at work in the world. If we're not ready to claim that – I don't think we are – then we must believe what Gabriel says – nothing is impossible with God. And if we are favored, and anything is possible with God – then we better be ready. Because God's favorites get their lives turned around in the most amazing and powerful ways.

Blessings on you, favored ones of God. God is with you. Don't be afraid. For nothing is impossible with God. So let it be, according to God's plans for you. Amen.