Favored One

The angel went to her and said “Greetings, you who are highly favored! . . . Mary was troubled at his words (Luke 1:28-29).

Before Gabriel spoke Mary’s name, he called her “favored.”

Her name is spoken later as the angel tries to reassure Mary and give some definition as to what this favor looks like and what it means. What’s notable is that Mary’s proper name is only spoken once (1:30). The designation “favored” is spoken twice (1:28, 30).

This is true of all of us: grace defines life far more than a name or title.

Mary is favored by God. That sounds good, doesn’t it? What could be better than being told – by an angel no less – that you are favored by God, that God is inclined toward you, takes notice of you and directs his blessing toward you? God’s favor sounds like a very good thing indeed.

God’s Favor on Our Terms  

I’d be perfectly willing to be numbered among the favored ones because in my mind God’s favor would look like this: good health, a flourishing family life, meaningful and satisfying work, money for what I need and occasionally for things beyond that. To me, God’s favor means tangible experiences of blessing.     

In other words, God’s favor means a good life as I’ve defined it.

What strikes me about Mary’s story is her response to God’s favor. Mary, the favored one, is troubled at Gabriel’s greeting. The NIV Bible says, “greatly troubled.” The Amplified Bible says she was “greatly perplexed,” while the NLT renders the phrase “confused and disturbed.” After Gabriel’s first attempt at an explanation, Mary still has questions. God’s favor comes to Mary as something disturbing, perplexing, confusing.

Mary’s story teaches us that God’s favor doesn’t mean getting the life we want. God’s favor means being summoned to a life we never imagined. God’s favor and our comfort have little to do with each other; they are not the same thing.

God With Us

I take encouragement from Mary’s response to God’s favor: troubled, perplexed. Maybe you can too. Most of us know what it is to face something that has us confused and unsettled. We know what it is to struggle to make sense of what we’re living through. God’s favor may rest on you right now, but you don’t know it. If we define God’s “favor” strictly on our terms, it’s probably easy to miss.

If we look ahead in the nativity story, we see Mary and Joseph, about nine months after Gabriel’s appearance, making their way to Bethlehem from Nazareth. Mary knows she could have her baby very soon – but she isn’t at home, near her own bed, with friends and family nearby. She’s making an 80-mile journey on a donkey, possibly frightened and miserable, hoping for a decent place to stay. This hardly looks like being favored.    

But maybe Joseph reminded Mary of his dream. Their child is “Immanuel . . . God with us.”

And perhaps that is the true meaning of God’s favor: his faithful presence with us in whatever it is that has us perplexed and disturbed. Take heart, all you who are troubled. There’s favor to be found in what you can’t seem to sort through or figure out. In whatever that might be for you today, God is with you.

And you too are favored.


God, we thank you for your grace and favor. We give you thanks for the many different ways your favor comes to us. Teach us to look for your favor in what troubles us and not simply in what we believe would make for our own happiness. We would be a listening and trusting people today, in reliance upon your Spirit. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.   

You Can Be ‘All In’ (even if you’ve still got questions)

And Mary said, “Behold I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

As Luke introduces us to Mary, he tells us a story in which Mary has very little to say.

Most of the talking is done by the angel Gabriel. Gabriel has figured prominently in Luke’s gospel, having already appeared to Zechariah in much the same way as he appears to Mary. Gabriel – as we might expect of God’s messenger – carries the major speaking role in the drama. Mary only speaks twice.

She asks a question (“How can this be?”).  

And she speaks a prayer (“Let it be to me according to your word”).

Don’t miss that. Our questions and prayers belong together.

Somehow, we forget this. We assume that people who have questions about God’s will and God’s ways don’t pray, or that those who pray don’t have questions about God’s will and God’s ways. We are wrong to think this way. Good questions make the stuff of good honest prayers.

“How can it be” and “let it be done” make good neighbors.

“How Can This Be?”  

It’s worth pondering that both Zechariah and Mary responded to Gabriel’s message with a question. Mary’s “How can this be” is matched by Zechariah’s “How can I be sure of this?”

We see that Zechariah’s question was an unwillingness to believe (1:20). We get no trace of that in Mary. Understandably, Mary is “greatly troubled.” The NLT Bible describes her as “confused and disturbed” (1:29). Her question is not resistance, but true wonderment.

The story of Mary is the story of a literal conception. Cells divided. An embryo took shape in her womb and a heart began to beat. Fingers and toes, chin and nose, the body of a boy. This was Jesus. This was the body of the one whose mouth would speak God’s thoughts and whose touch would heal. This was the body that would one day be crucified.

We ask Mary’s question: “How can this be?” The answer we receive in scripture ignores cellular biology. This happens by the Spirit and Power of God. At the creation of the world, the Spirit hovered over chaos and brought forth life. In Mary’s womb the Spirit came with power and created life.

In Mary we see a perfectly legitimate question. And yet, her question never gets in the way of faith and trust.

“Let It Be As You Say”  

Gabriel may get all the good lines in the dialogue, but Mary gets the last word.

After her questions, after Gabriel’s very brief answer about the Holy Spirit and the power of the Most High, Mary yields herself to what she cannot fully understand. She never insists on being able to make sense of what God is doing. She questions but she doesn’t interrogate.

She stands before God with open hands and a willing heart.

“Behold I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (1:38 ESV). The NLT again is helpful here: “May everything you have said about me come true.”

Mary is all in. Even with her questions. 

In Mary we see the model of a prayerful life. We may not know exactly what God’s will is. We do not always receive assurances as to what will happen and explanations as to how. We lay the matter that concerns us before Jesus and we leave it there, knowing that he will do what is good, even if we don’t understand it.  

Now it’s your turn. What matter do you bring before Jesus today?

What will you leave with him trusting that whatever he does will be good?

What are you facing that eludes figuring out, refusing a clear answer or resolution?

Listen carefully to Mary and borrow her prayer, confident that God will do what is good. Ask your questions and open your hands.

All in. 


Do what you will to do, Lord God. In the midst of what we cannot understand or figure out, teach us to trust you, knowing that “You are good and what you do is good” (Psalm 119:68). We come before you today with our honest questions. And we come with yielded hearts, praying in Jesus’ name. Amen.

So Much for Our Plans

In the sixth month God sent the angel Gabriel . . . to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David (Luke 1:26-27).

December is barely one week old, and already it seems like I’m seeing the month disappear.  Like a mirage that takes shape before parched desert travelers, December looms large on the horizon until we move closer. Where does it go?

‘Tis the season for making plans: Family plans, travel plans, social plans, financial plans to undergird our gift-giving plans. Plans are a necessary part of Christmas, and one of the most enjoyable. Plans give shape to our anticipation. Plans keep words like joy and love from being mere abstractions or nice platitudes. Plans embody our highest hopes and best intentions.

But there are times when the plans we make and the Christmas we actually live through bear no resemblance to each other. Travel is thwarted, relational tensions intensify, financial constraints force restraint. Christmas – perhaps more than any season of the year – teaches us to hold our plans loosely.

Living with Our Hands Open   

Mary was a young woman with plans. These plans weren’t private property, something she had cooked up in her own mind. The plans that Mary had were made for her at some point; by the agreement of the parents involved she was pledged to be married to Joseph. We have no reason to believe that Mary was forced into this plan. This is how marriages took place in her world. The plans made for her were her plans too.

We know enough about that time and place to know that being pledged to Joseph brought with it other plans: plans for making a home and having a family, plans that sound very much like the kinds of things we plan for ourselves today.

And then God sent the angel Gabriel to announce a new plan. “You will be with child and give birth to a son” (Lk. 2:31). So much for Mary’s plan.   

For a few days this week we’ll be keeping company with Mary. We’ll watch and listen as she gives herself to a plan not of her own making, a plan she never imagined. She is a remarkable woman: direct and honest, bold and humble. Mary models for us a life of trust and risk. She stands before God with her hands open, not clutching at the life she had in mind for herself.

Mary reminds us that God is not an idea to be debated or a concept to be discussed. God is a living personal presence who shows up and makes a claim on our life. This week we’ll listen to that claim. And more importantly we’ll listen to Mary’s answer.

Plans and Purposes

Proverbs 19:21 says “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” This wisdom invites us to ponder the relationship between our plans and God’s purposes. Plans are what we make, creating lists, keeping a calendar, managing various commitments. Purposes are greater than plans. Purposes are what our plans aim at, giving them meaning.

When we plan well, there’s a congruence between our plans and God’s purposes. What we see in Mary’s story, however, is that God’s purposes may at times change our plans. We really can’t live well without making plans. And we can’t live well by resisting or ignoring God’s purposes.     

What kind of plans are you making for the coming weeks?

What is the purpose beneath your plans?

What purposes do you think God might have for you in this Advent season? 


We invite you even now, O God, to show up in our plans according to your will and purposes. Keep us alert in this season of the year, ready to be surprised and perhaps even troubled at your claim on us. Make us ready and willing to answer you with trusting hearts, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Prayer You’ve Given Up On

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah,[a] of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years

How many times had Zechariah come home from his priestly work to be greeted yet again with a familiar question from his young son?

“Daddy, did you see Gabriel today?”

John wasn’t really seeking information when he asked this. He wasn’t interested in a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer from his father. The question really wasn’t a question at all. It was an invitation to tell a story. A story that John had heard before but never grew weary of hearing again. A story that defined the man he would become. A story that Zechariah never grew tired of telling.  

The Hiding Place of the Holy

With every telling the moment was as real and stunning as the day it happened. Zechariah would tell about the once in a lifetime chance to offer incense on behalf of the people; he would vividly describe the startling appearance of an angel next to the altar; he recount the angel’s announcement that Elizabeth would bear a child; he would confess again his reluctance to believe that such a thing was possible; he would remember the sudden absence of sound from his throat and lips, and the nine months of quiet watching that followed.

John relished every detail. Zechariah was the storyteller, but John always glanced toward his mother when it came to the part about how she had never been able to have a child. There was something about the way his mother smiled at that part. Her face was very old, but her delight in that piece of the drama made her seem so much younger than her age, almost girlish again.

With every telling of the story, John learned something about his parents. But most importantly, John learned something about God.  The story of his birth taught John that God shows up in unexpected ways in the most unexpected places. He learned that barren places are often the hiding place of the Holy, that wilderness places are the stage for divine drama.

And John learned something about prayer. He heard how there had been a time when his mom and dad prayed fervently for a baby. But with the passing of years the fervency of that prayer had waned until it eventually gave way to a quiet resignation to a child-less life.

No Wasted Prayers

Until that day in the temple. “Do not be afraid Zechariah; your prayer has been heard” (Lk. 1:13).  

With God there is no statute of limitations on a prayer.

God is perfectly willing to answer the prayer you’ve given up on.

Perhaps today there’s a prayer you’ve stopped praying.

We do that. We learn to move on and focus on more positive and promising aspects of our lives. Our prayers from time to time will wander back to that hardscrabble place, but the fervency and expectancy has leaked out of those prayers. They’ve become occasional reminders to God, nothing more. We learn to live with a certain amount of desolation: desolate career, desolate relationships, desolate dreams, desolate health. We are afraid to believe that the slightest sprig of life will ever emerge from those places.

But Zechariah’s story teaches us exactly what it taught John. No prayer is wasted, and God is at work in the barren places of our lives. What we need is courage to go to the desert. What desolate place in your life have you learned to ignore or tolerate?

God has a way of showing up in the places we’ve given up on. Grace Church folk, If you have your Luke journal (a Bible works too!) underline Luke 1:13. Make a note about a prayer that you’ve stopped praying or name the place where you’re asking to show up in a surprising way.

Where is that place for you today?


Once again, O Lord, I bring the barren places of my life before you.  Give me courage to wait on you there knowing that you delight to show up in surprising ways in the places I’ve given up on. Meet me in those places during this Advent season, I pray. Amen.