What does it mean to find favor with God? Do you feel that you have found favor with God?
Sometimes, it is easy to believe that God favors us. Usually that is when life is going well, when our troubles are few and our blessings are many. But what do we think when life is hard, when troubles are many?
This year, it’s often been hard to believe that we have found favor with God, because life has been more than challenging. Many have lost their jobs Those who are still working are either providing the risky work of healthcare or other essential jobs, or they may be struggling to work full time from home while caring for their children. Those children and many young adults have been going to school online, isolated from their friends.
I’ve been very blessed to be retired, but this year has taken its toll on me too. Since I am at high risk of having the virus turn deadly, I’ve tried to stay very isolated at home. All of my usual social activities—choir, quilt guild, church activities—have been cancelled. I haven’t hugged my son and daughter in law in months and haven’t even seen them–or anyone besides my immediate household–in person since the weather turned colder. And I’ve lost one of my best friends to Covid, plus I knew two other people who died from the virus. Grief, loneliness and fear colors my days.
One of the only things I have been doing is online preparation to become a lay preacher for my parish. But when I was assigned to preach on the readings of the last Sunday of Advent (for my cohort, not the congregation yet), I nearly gave up. The joyful reading of the angel appearing to Mary left me with a hollow feeling, just as the upcoming Christmas season filled me with more dread than joy.
But with time, prayer, a lot of research and the grace of God, I began to see that if we take a deeper and broader perspective on our faith stories, we will find the complexity of what it means to find favor with God, a complexity I could live with.
In the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear about two people who found favor with God, King David and Mary. At first glance, their lives are truly blessed. David has been chosen as King. He’s settled in his palace, his enemies vanquished, and he’s feeling so grateful for all that God has done that he seeks to do something in return—build God a temple. At first, even Nathan the prophet thinks this is a good idea.
But David’s idea does not find favor with God, not at all. God does not want to be confined by something built by human hands. Now this may be only a minor setback for David. But in the rest of his life, David, the favored one, will experience loss, pain, and deep regret.
Mary’s story we all know well. The Angel Gabriel declares that she has “found favor with God.” And that should be a good thing. She will carry and give birth to the Son of God, the Word made flesh, a great blessing for her and the world. But this proclamation comes with the words, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” And Mary was “greatly troubled,” because there were plenty of reasons to worry, reasons we sometimes overlook during the Advent and Christmas season. First, Mary was engaged to Joseph, and getting pregnant before they were living together could be dangerous. Joseph would have every right to divorce her; the neighbors would find out and then her child would be labeled illegitimate. Mary was young, but she knew that saying yes to God could lead to trouble.
Also, she probably realized more than we would, that the angel’s words put her in a dangerous category, that of a prophet. Mary’s encounter with Gabriel followed the pattern of God’s call for most of the Old Testament prophets, and as a devout Jew, Mary surely knew that being called as a prophet was no easy task. Prophets might have found favor with God and been given the important work of bringing God’s word to God’s people, but usually those people didn’t want to hear those words, to recognize the ways they needed to change. So they took it out on the prophets, ridiculing and harassing them, arresting them, beating them, throwing them in wells, even attempting to kill them. It’s no wonder that most prophets tried at first to say no to God’s call.
Now some might argue that Mary was not a prophet. She did not speak the word of God to others. She did not directly face the trials that beset the prophets. Yet, she did carry the living Word of God to the people—she was Theotokos, the God bearer. And when her son faced the trials of ridicule, harassment, arrest, and ultimately death, she experienced them as only a mother can understand, deeply and painfully.
But Mary doesn’t say no to God’s call. And David didn’t either. Because they both knew that while being favored by God didn’t mean life would always be easy, it did mean that God would always be with them, through the good and the bad. This is something David finds out in the reading on the Fourth Sunday of Advent—God doesn’t want David to build him a temple, but God promises to make David’s kingdom firm, to give him heirs, to protect him. God will always be with David, even when he sins.
And Mary may face many days ahead of her that come with pain and disappointment, the most devastating being the brutal death of her son. But she will also experience Jesus’ resurrection and her own assumption into heaven. God was always with her.
And God is with us, as we face the challenges this year and in the years to come. Because we have found favor with God. Our lives may be challenging, but God is right here with us, sustaining us, promising that we will not be abandoned. That is a hope we can cling to both today and as we go forward into the Christmas season.
No matter what happens, God is with us.