I’ve been reading a lot about angels lately. It seems that the Catholic church has more to say about angels and who they are and what they do than Protestants like us. I don’t want us to think that we can’t do and believe what the Catholics do, because before the Protestant Reformation in 1517 the Western church was only Catholic. We can draw on their beliefs and practices as valid Christian tradition even though they are often different than what we are used to.
One belief that a lot of us can agree on is that we have a guardian angel. The Catholics believe that we are given at birth a guardian angel who guides us and guards us during our life. Some believe they are assigned at our conception and watch over us even in our mother’s womb.
As I’ve been thinking about the archangel Gabriel and our reading of his birth announcements preparing the way of Christ’s birth, I wanted to incorporate him, somehow, in my preparation of these sermons. I pray about each sermon each week, praying to the Holy Spirit for inspiration, God to reveal the truth of His word, and Jesus to help me see how it is relevant to us today.
I found a prayer to the angel Gabriel and decided to pray that prayer during Advent for his aid in preparing these sermons. The prayer is known as a novena; novena is Latin for nine. A novena is a prayer that is prayed each day for nine days for a special blessing. They are often prayed to saints or angels. Praying novenas is a practice I’ve taken from the Catholic church and have been doing for years. This season, as I’ve been praying to Gabriel on our behalf, I’ve been praying for a special blessing upon us.
There is something at the end of the novena that causes me a little trouble. It ends with “that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.” In the litany of the rosary, there is a prayer to Mary that ends with “that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.” These words never caused me pause before, but in light of reading today’s story, I paused when praying “that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.”
When Gabriel appeared to Mary, the angel said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.” We don’t know anything about Mary’s devotion to God at this point in the story. We only know that she is to be married to Joseph. Based on Jewish tradition at the time, we can assume that she was 12 or 13 years old. That was the age a girl was betrothed. Their marriage would become binding at their engagement, but she would remain in her father’s home for one year. Then, there would be a marriage celebration and she would go to live with her husband.
We know nothing of Mary’s faith. She was a simple, ordinary girl from the little town of Nazareth in Galilee. So, what could this teenager have done to be favored by God?
The truth is she couldn’t have done anything to earn God’s favor, but if we keep reading the Gospel of Luke, we know why God favored her. She was a nothing, a nobody. She was a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks, a peasant. If we keep reading the Gospel of Luke, we know that she is just the type of people God favors, like peasants, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, lawyers, and fishermen. This early in the Gospel, though, we question what she did to be favored by God.
If an angel came this morning, joined us in the sanctuary, and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored, the Lord is with you.” Would that be hard to believe? Would it be hard to believe that we are favored by God? Would it be hard to believe that we are worthy of God’s favor?
That’s the thing that strikes me about this text and causes me to pause when praying the novena to Gabriel. They seem at odds. Gabriel says, “you who are highly favored.” The novena says, “that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.” We are worthy of the promises of Christ. We are highly favored. Not by anything we do, but because God loves us. We can’t try hard enough to do or say or believe the right things. We are sinners who cannot earn God’s favor. We are favored and worth the promises of Christ simply because we are loved by God.
It is so easy to let the world define us. We think about whether or not we are successful enough, or have enough money, or drive the right car, or wear the right clothes, or have perfect kids…I could go on about all the ways we try to define ourselves by things outside of ourselves. But, we are doomed to fail to live up to any definition of ourselves when we look to things to define us.
Mary didn’t question the angel’s words. She allowed the words of Gabriel define her, because he brought a word from God. We can take the lesson from Mary that only when we allow God to define us by His love can we believe that we are worthy of the promises of Christ and favored by God. I wonder if we placed ourselves in this scene as Mary and heard the words of Gabriel, which would be harder to believe, that we are favored by God or that God was going to do something great and wonderful through us?
Mary does question Gabriel, “how can this be?” But, her question is not, “how can I be God’s favored one?” Her question is, “how is it that I will become pregnant?” She didn’t question why God was going to use her to do a great thing. She just questioned how God was going to do it. She took Gabriel at his word and believed she was favored.
At Christmas, we have the carol, O Holy Night. The lyrics go:
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,
‘til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
And the soul felt its worth.
Christ was given to us, not with condition. We are given a Savior because God loves us. We can’t earn the gift of Christ. Christ was freely given to us, because we are favored. At His birth, we know the worth of our soul, because He is given to us without condition. We are given the self-sacrificing, live-giving, gracious and generous gift of a Savior, because we are worthy of God’s promises simply because we are defined by God’s love.
Gabriel’s message to Mary is that she is favored and that God will do great things through her. Gabriel’s message follows that same announcement as that to Zechariah. Gabriel addresses her by names, says, “Do not be afraid,” announces the birth of a child, gives him a name, and reveals the role He will play in God’s plan of salvation. Like Zechariah, Mary asks for a sign and Gabriel assures her that it will be so by the sign that her cousin Elizabeth is pregnant. Gabriel leaves Mary with parting words that are often quoted, “for nothing is impossible with God.”
Mary’s response is, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” There is one major difference between Gabriel’s announcement to Mary and Zechariah. Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah was the answer to a prayer. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is an invitation. Knowing the nature of God, we know that God would not come upon Mary and force her to participate in God’s plan without asking her to willingly do so.
Mary has the mark of an obedient servant. She accepts God’s invitation and receives God’s blessing. We should remember that the miracle of Christmas was possible because a simple, young peasant girl was willing to accept God’s invitation to be a part of a life that would alter the world as she knew it.
God has an invitation for us. He continually asks us to participate in His plans. We may not be asked to birth the Savior of the world, because that’s already been done. God asks us to do great things, too. We have to believe that God is still active in the world and still interrupting our lives with worshipful work to do. We have to believe that we are favored by God and capable of being used by God to do work that will alter the lives of others.
I’d like for us to claim Gabriel’s words of favor and accept God’s call to service.
I’ll ask us to say, “I am highly favored by God. The Lord is with me.” And, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as God invites me.”
Please repeat after me, if you are willing to do so.
“I am highly favored by God.”
“The Lord is with me.”
“I am the Lord’s servant.”
“May it be to me as God invites me.”
Research for the sermon includes:
4) The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX: Luke, John, p. 49 – 53