Do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God. Here’s one version of the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary, in the reading set for this morning’s Gospel, from St Luke, chapter one, and I’d like us to reflect on those words for a moment: do not be afraid, for you have found favour with God.
Now I’d say Mary had some cause to be afraid. It’s not every day you get spoken to by an angel! Personally, I’m not convinced that Gabriel needed to appear before her with his robes dazzling white and with wings of burnished gold. To my mind that might be unnecessary and even counter-productive for messenger angels, so I’ve always thought of Gabriel as likely to turn up in ordinary clothes, off the street, rather than in celestial splendour. But even then, for a young woman of good character to be spoken to out of the blue by a stranger of the opposite sex would have been scary; and the message he then gave her was of course scarier still, by some way.
The angel goes on to say: God’s been gracious to you, or God has looked favourably upon you, or, in the translation I opted for, you have found favour with God. The very first thing the angel said to Mary, and the cause therefore of her fear, was this: “Greetings, most favoured one.” And I think I might well be knocked off balance, myself, if someone I didn’t know came up and addressed me in those terms.
What might it mean, to find favour with God? We may choose to curry favour with our superiors, with people who have some kind of power or influence over us. Currying favour is a big element in office politics: to my mind it usually has more to do with looking good than actually being good. Does it work? trying to get into the boss’s good books by bringing the best biscuits in, by being obsequious, sucking up? Surely a good boss would see through that, and expect something more.
One thing we can say for sure is that Mary wasn’t one to curry favour with God; there was no false or showy piety in her, designed to attract his attention and impress him. I’ve got to admit that from time to time I’ve come across people whose all-too-obvious piety and enthusiastic religiosity I’ve tended to find, sorry to say, rather wearing, and maybe God has too, I suppose. Though are such people currying favour with God, or just looking to impress those around them? Jesus came across a few folk like that: remember the “look at me” attitude of the Pharisee who stood up to pray in the temple? I have a shrewd suspicion Jesus will have based that story on someone he’d really seen.
But maybe that’s been me as well, from time to time, taking pride in the outward show of my performance as a minister, while neglecting the inward purity of the heart? Anyway, Mary didn’t curry favour, but she did find favour. God’s not fooled by outward show, he sees into the heart. He’d seen into Mary’s heart and found there a simplicity of faith and an obedience of spirit that asked for nothing, but offered so much. At the end of his visit to her, Mary said to the angel, “I am God’s servant; let it be as you wish.” But God had known that of her already, God had seen that response already written in her heart.
Mary’s yes to God places her as the first among saints. She is the one whose simplicity and obedience sets the standard to which all Christian folk should aspire. She was a woman from a different place and language and culture than us, so I should probably be cautious about putting words into her mouth, but I can’t help but think that she herself might well have said, “I’m nothing special.” And maybe that’s just the point.
We’re all saints; that’s really just the Biblical word for people who serve God. And when he looks for saints God isn’t searching out superheroes; he makes his saints out of people like us, people who are nothing special, just trying our hardest to be good and doing our best to follow Jesus. People who are not currying favour, but trying to live lives of simple service. Someone once said that when we give God anything less than first place in our lives then we give him no place. He should be number one on our list: being a Christian is a full time job, and a whole self commitment. Nowhere is that more true than in the story we’ve heard today, and the angel’s message to Mary.
But it needs to be true for us too. Of course Mary is special. She is singled out to be the God-bearer, to be the mother of God’s only begotten Son, in whom dwells all the creative majesty of the godhead, even as he suckles at her breasts. God needed a very special person for that task, and he chose Mary, and for a long moment or two as Gabriel gave her the message, God’s great work of salvation depended on her “yes” to him. In response to that awesome story, the Church has rightly wanted to make much of Mary, but that can sometimes mean we place her so high above us that she’s almost out of our reach.
And that, I think, is not a good thing. Of course, Mary is special, but at the same time Mary is also ordinary. She is one of us. Plucked from obscurity, to coin a phrase. And while God’s call to her was unique, that doesn’t mean God isn’t calling you and me with just as much of a personal intent, with something to do for him that’s special to you, special to me. He’s hoping that we too say “yes” to that call, and “yes” to the favour he seeks to bestow upon us. To us too he says, “Do not be afraid,” for he won’t lay upon us more than we can do.