Today I want to talk to you about two things, grace and humility.
In the last three weeks we’ve gone through most of Adam Hamilton’s book Not a Silent Night, and we’re nearing the end. Last week we talked about Mary losing Jesus in Jerusalem and the week before that we talked about Mary’s death and Mary at the cross. Today we get to one of the key moments, the heralding, when Mary was approached by the angel Gabriel and told that she would be having a child.
I want to start this off by recapping this story, specifically, I want to start by recapping this story in the first person, as if it’s us there. Can we do that? If you’re comfortable, feel free to close your eyes, or not it’s your choice really.
So there you are. You’re standing alone, it’s the first century in Israel and you can tell because you just turned your calendar over from BC to AD. Alright so you’re alone, minding your own business when you look up and there standing in front of you is a figure, who is it? You’re startled and maybe a little terrified. Just as you’re beginning to form a question in your mind this figure starts talking, telling you to expect great things, a miraculous birth, a child that will change the world. You open your mouth, ask a question and… the angel lays a curse on you and you can no longer speak.
Oh, you thought I was talking about Mary weren’t you? Sorry, the stories of Mary and Zechariah are just so similar I had difficulty differentiating them, let’s try again.
You’re standing alone, it’s first century Israel and you’re a young girl, anywhere from 12 to 16. Suddenly you look up and there’s a figure standing in front of you. Who is it? You’re startled and maybe a little terrified. Just as you begin to form a question in your mind the figure speaks, telling you to expect great things, a miraculous birth, a child that will change the world. You open your mouth, ask a question and… the angel answers, and blesses you!
So what is it about these stories that are so different? Why is Zechariah cursed but Mary blessed when they both encounter Gabriel in almost the exact same manner. Well to answer that we need to look at the context of the situation.
On one side you have Zechariah in the Temple and on the other you have Mary, somewhere in Nazareth. Now when you consider these two which one would you expect to be given the greater gift? Which one would you be more apt to reward with something? The pious and righteous priest in the Temple or the young peasant girl in a nowhere town like Nazareth? Which one would you expect God to show favor to. I know you know the answer but realistically, if we expected God to act and make decisions like we do who would you expect to receive such an incredible blessing in their lives?
“Come on, just say it’s Zechariah, we know that’s what you’re getting at.” You’re right. Anyone would expect God to have given Zechariah the greater gift of the two and to bless greater. But we find that’s not the case. Not only does God give the greater gift to Mary, but God curses Zechariah, muting him for the next nine months. That’s not fair right? That’s what I would think. Zechariah gets cursed because he asks Gabriel a question but Mary doesn’t? What’s the deal God?
Well what is it that Zechariah has that Mary doesn’t?
Zechariah is in the Temple, a place he’s had his sights set on his entire life! Most priests only got to do this once, go into the Temple and sprinkle incense and offer prayers, by chance and lot we have Zechariah entering into the Temple, the house of God on earth! That’s a big deal! And when Gabriel shows up what does he tell him? Gabriel tells Zechariah everything he needs to know. His wife Elizabeth will have a child, this child is to be named John, he’ll be a prophet calling people back to God. And Zechariah questions. The angel gave him all the information he needed and Zechariah questioned. Zechariah was essentially saying “No, I know better than you God, I’m old, my wife is old, we can’t do this!” Zechariah knew the stories of other miraculous births to people in their old age but he was so sure it couldn’t happen to him that he decided he would correct God and tell God what was what.
Now let’s consider Mary’s encounter. Mary is approached. Mary is given a small bit of information, namely that she will bear a son. Her question? How can this be for I am a virgin?
Think about this, Gabriel only told her that she would bear a son, he told this to a woman betrothed and Mary, instead of simply assuming that this child would come of her time with Joseph instead immediately accepted that not only was this angel telling the truth, but that God could do it even when she was a virgin! Mary was the one who brought the virginity idea up! This wasn’t just a sign of acceptance of the power of God, this was a sign of total humility. “OK, this angel guy has given me this news that I will have a child, he must mean it will happen now and not later.” I don’t think that’s where my mind would go, I think I would just say that that’s neat, my future wife will have a son who will be important!
I’m not even thinking that God is meaning it will happen right now, I know God can do some amazing things, but prophecy is prophecy and this will obviously happen in the future!
So, in looking at these two stories we can make two observations of what is at work here.
- Mary is showing absolute humility.
- God is showing absolute grace.
I’ve already started in on Mary’s acceptance of the news but I haven’t really gotten into this idea of grace. But let’s hit on Mary’s humility one more time. This can all be found in the words she says and the attitude she has towards Gabriel. When the final bit of news is given to her and it is confirmed that she will have a child as a virgin, she completely accepts it.
“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be done to me according to your word.”
Wow. What do you say to that? Mary is given the biggest surprise ever, she will bear a child, not just a child but a son, sons were a big deal at this time, and not just a son, but the one who would come to be called the “Son of God.” Mary’s told all these things, she’s told she will bear the Son of God (whatever that means) and not only that but that her cousin is also pregnant in her old age. And Mary doesn’t question at this point. Mary accepts, nervously, frightfully, but she accepts it. Mary accepts this gift, this gift of grace with complete humility, she doesn’t know what to expect, she doesn’t know what will happen, but she has faith that God will provide for her and that God’s grace will protect her.
What I’ve recently realized is that the idea of grace is fascinating to me, I’d always kinda known what it was, but not really, grace was just that thing, it was church jargon. We say it but we don’t really know what it means. One way to think of it is with the idea of love and with the idea of getting something we don’t deserve, for free no less. Grace is a gift.
So between these two, between Mary and Zechariah we’ve already established that we would lay the greater blessing on Zechariah, Mary can take second, maybe a new pair of shoes or John the Baptist or something, whatever. Let’s look at God’s track record though, God has quite the habit of siding with and blessing the underdog right?
God chooses Moses, a stutterer, a murderer, and fugitive to lead the people from Egypt.
God chooses David, a shepherd, small in stature to become one of Israel’s greatest kings.
God chooses Samson, a thick-headed arrogant moron to destroy the Philistines.
God chooses the ones we wouldn’t. That’s what I’m trying to get at here. God sides with the little guy. God doesn’t have more love for some than others, God’s love is God’s love, and fortunately, it is for everyone. It isn’t even that it is for everyone, but it is more than enough for everyone. You can bathe in God’s grace and love completely everyday you’re alive and you will never reach the bottom of it. That’s how good it is.
Here’s the thing about this grace though, it’s not like we get more if we do the right thing. God’s love is not conditional on how good a person you are or how bad a person you are, it simply is.
Now grace can have two effects on a person, at least in my experience. Grace can lead to humility, or grace can lead to pride. Sometimes we receive incredible gifts from others or from God and we can only admit how unworthy we are, how humble we feel because of it. Other times we receive gifts from others or from God and we feel pride. We begin to think we deserve it.
Maybe we begin to think we worked harder and so we deserve it. Maybe we think we have more opportunities because we’re just better than others. I’ve felt this way from time to time. This is a lie. This is a single spark that infects us until it’s a burning fire of pride within us and we can’t do anything but congratulate ourselves. What we need to remember though is that everything we have is a gift from God and everything we have we absolutely do not deserve.
We don’t have a right to it, we don’t have a claim to it, it has been given to us. In the light of a God that has given such great things to us, when we begin feel pride the next thing we should feel is foolishness. To think we’re better than others is the greatest mistake, it leads to a great many problems and the only thing that can wipe it away is humility. And we have much to be humble for.
What we can remember though is that God has privileged us in some way be it race, language, economic status, or even place of birth, some of us have been given more than others. Sure, we could boast that we worked hard to get where we are, and that’s true, but without God, and without God’ gift of grace where would we be? What would we have? Little and less I can assure you of that.
And so as we’re coming up on the end I want to offer some ways we can remember how to apply this to our daily lives. Remember that everything is a gift, your home, your family, your job, all of it. It is a gift that none of us deserve, but that God has given us anyway. Remember also that in light of such grace, and such gifts that God has seen fit to grant us there is only one proper response we can have and that is humility. Jesus never boasted, nor should we.
And so go! Go celebrate Christmas, go celebrate the moment when grace was embodied in human form! Go celebrate and remember that child that was born without many of the privileges we have today, that child that was born with almost nothing, and yet came to change and transform the whole world.
I want to go a little off the rails here and leave you with a question. I don’t expect you to answer it, in fact I don’t think any of us could answer it completely if we tried.
If Jesus were born today, in the world or in the US, where would he be born? What community would the Son of God call home? Where would God appear to the least of these?