“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’” (Luke 2:13-14)
It’s these two verses from Luke’s narration of the events of the first Christmas on which I want to focus tonight.
The question raised by the angels' words recorded here is this: Who exactly are the people on whom God’s favor rests?
Ann and I have a friend who, when we were all in our late-twenties, seemed to have a favored life.
Her husband, it appeared, adored her.
Both she and her husband had good jobs that paid them well, allowing them to own a beautiful new home and to take nice vacations.
They had a healthy child, at that point, aged two.
Then it happened.
The husband who adored our friend announced that he wanted out of their marriage; he’d found someone else with whom he felt more compatible.
There was the custody to negotiate and a divorce to endure and a new way of life to establish.
Our friend said that the whole experience was like being on a flight for a planned trip to Italy only to learn once the plane landed that she was in Hungary instead.
The life she’d begun to experience and projected into the future was no more.
Had our friend lost favor with God?
There’s an idea that’s been popular in this world from the moment that Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden of Eden, an idea probably even more popular today that it’s ever been. The idea, put simply, is that the most favored people in life are those who enjoy success, happiness. We’re told that life’s most favored people get the best educations, have the best jobs, take the nicest vacations, make the biggest killings in the market.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with good educations, jobs, vacations, or even “making a killing” on Wall Street.
But are the people who have these things going on for them God’s most favored people?
Are they the ones about whom the angels, God’s messengers, told the shepherds, “peace to those on whom [God’s]” favor rests”?
A clue as to what the angels meant (and what God means) when speaking of people favored by God can be found in something another angel, Gabriel, said to Mary, the virgin chosen by God to become the earthly mother of God in the flesh, God the Son, Jesus.
When Gabriel met Mary to announce God’s plans for her, he said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” (Luke 1:28)
Luke, the gospel writer says that even Mary “wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29).
Understandably! Mary had none of the things that the world sees as indicators of being favored. From a worldly perspective, she would come to have even more reason to doubt the angels’ words once the angel told her that, a teenager and unmarried, she was going to give birth to a Son, the Savior of the world.
It seems that God’s idea of being favored doesn’t conform to our world’s ideas on the subject.
God’s favored ones aren’t necessarily those God picks to know this world’s wealth or good health or the applause of others. In fact, Jesus tells us, having it all can be an impediment to the everlasting life with God He came into the world to give: “...it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle [Jesus tells us] than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
God’s favored people, it turns out, are those who are obedient to God.
- They’re like Mary, who told Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant...May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38)
- God’s favored people are like the impoverished shepherds on whom the world looked down, people who were considered to be the low-life, riff-raff of society, who weren’t too busy with the rewards of the world to say to each other after the angels had told them of the Messiah’s, the Christ’s, birth, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:15)
The obedience of the shepherds, as with the obedience of Mary, had nothing to do with the world’s conception of what it means to be religious. As you may have noticed already, it's entirely possible to be scrupulously religious and completely unfaithful as a Christian!
Neither Mary nor the shepherds saw God as some cosmic Santa Claus, “making a list, checking it twice, [figuring] out who’s naughty and nice.”
While the disciple of Jesus Christ will seek to obey God’s will for his or her life and pay heed to God’s commands, true obedience to God, the obedience that gains us the favor of God, is all about trusting in Jesus Christ alone for life and hope and salvation from sin and death and futility.
Jesus tells us who God favors in a simple passage in John’s gospel: "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29)
God’s favored people are those who seek, however imperfectly, to welcome His Son, Jesus, with faith, whether the world considers them blessed or successful of favored or not.
Put another way: This work of God, the obedience of faith, of forsaking everything else in order to bet our lives on Jesus Christ each day through lifestyles of daily repentance and renewal is what brings us God's favor.
It’s what brings us the peace from God the angels proclaimed on the holy night of Jesus’ birth. It’s a peace that can’t be achieved or striven for, but a peace that simply must be believed and received. It’s what Saint Paul calls “the peace that passes all understanding,” the peace that God gives to those who daily trust in the Christ Who bore the shame of our sin on a cross and rose from the dead to give eternity to all who turn from their sin and trust in Him to be their Savior.
In the midst of her pain and uncertainty, our friend came, gradually, to turn to Jesus as her God and Savior. She moved from valuing the favor above all else of the world to valuing the favor of the God we meet in Jesus.
There are some people who would say, “She needed a crutch and that’s when she turned to Christ.” Exactly!
Listen: It’s a sign of maturity and self-awareness to realize that, in fact, we all desperately need the crutch that is Jesus Christ.
- Only Jesus gives us the power to face this life with joy and hope and peace.
- Only Jesus gives us the power to turn away from the world’s selfish ways and to embrace God’s command that we love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
- Only Jesus gives us the power to look death in the eye without fear, knowing that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love, God’s favor.
- Only Jesus gives us the confidence to see Him face to face, despite our imperfections and our sins and His perfection and sinlessness, knowing that this same Jesus, by grace through our faith in Him, covers us with His holiness and perfection, fitting us to live in His kingdom.
You see, Christmas tells us that God wants to favor people with His grace now, in the midst of this imperfect, sometimes painful, inexplicable world, and in eternity, a realm with no pain or tears, no regrets and no goodbyes, a world in which obedience is no grim obligation, but simple faith in the Christ Whose birth among us we celebrate tonight.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s favored ones, keep entrusting your lives to Jesus.
And then, like the shepherds long ago, “...spread the word concerning what [has been told you] about this child” (Luke 2:17) so that others will come to believe and know the life of God’s eternal favor you and I have in Christ tonight as bring worship to Jesus!
Merry Christmas! Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]