So in a matter of a few days this sanctuary will be filled to the brim with so much hope. Scores of people will clamor in the pews as the prelude draws to a close, catching up on family accomplishments over the past year. The beautiful poinsettias and all the candles lit will make the sanctuary feel so perfect that night. But deep down there will be a part of us that wishes it could happen more often than one night: maybe not the whole Christmas Eve thing, maybe not even the poinsettias, or the Advent wreath; but the people.
Couldn't they just show up a little more often than once, twice a year? Don't they realize how special the church is? Don't they see how wonderful this family of St. John's is? Do they not know all the good we do beyond worship on December 24th and a random Sunday in the spring? If only we could somehow convince them before the prelude stops that night or while the offering plates are passed or a little nudge walking up to Communion or before they walk out the doors after singing Silent Night. Maybe we should use Christmas Eve not simply to celebrate our dear Savior's birth but as our own little mini-church campaign to reel them in for countless Sunday's to come.
And yet we realize that's never the purpose behind worship or the church in general. We are not here to show off. We are not here to guilt-trip or to shame. As much as on Christmas Eve as any other service we are to, quite simply, get out of the way and allow God this space to come to all who show up; to allow God to speak through the living Word, through sustaining bread and wine, through the stillness of pure baptismal water.
And on Christmas Eve we all have the job to make sure that everyone realizes the story they hear that night is just as much for them as it is for all of us who show up more than twice a year. We are to ensure that everyone feels a little connection to Mary that night, to connect with Mary's experience we hear today: when the angel Gabriel proclaims to the young girl, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God."
How exactly did she pull that off anyway? How did she get on God's good side? Well, the Gospel writer doesn't exactly tell us that. Some would argue it isn't included because it isn't relevant to the main story line of the Good News of Jesus Christ. But I like to think exactly none of Mary's accomplishments were mentioned because she had absolutely nothing to do with "finding favor with God." After all, the Gospel writer doesn't say she fulfilled her chores through all hours of the night, or she faithfully followed every order of her parents and never questioned them, that she showed up to worship every Sabbath day, that she prayed so many hours each and every week, that she was just an all-around good girl. Nothing of the sorts is said of Mary, but still somehow she "found favor with God." How exactly did she pull that off? In reality, it could help us out in this lifetime to know such things. But this isn't about what Mary did or did not do. This is about what God is doing through Mary for the sake of the world, including Nazareth and Bethlehem long ago, and even Baroda, Bridgman, St. Joe's, Stevensville, Benton Harbor, and beyond, thousands of years later.
So when it comes to the people from all those places and beyond who will show up this Wednesday night for their annual visit to church, they too will be told in no uncertain terms, "you have found favor with God." It has nothing to do with the number of times you step inside the walls of a sanctuary, or how often you give to a charitable organization in general. It has nothing to do with what we have done. It has everything to do with what God has done, is doing, and will do even well beyond our generation. It has everything to do with God's utter humility in showing up as a vulnerable baby, and in due time, seek out the most vulnerable in Galilee, and then allowing His holy vulnerability to endure death on a cross. And still to this day we are completely dependent on what God did through Mary, for all of us undeniably vulnerable human beings, and yet, in a way, not so vulnerable anymore.
In the end, Mary is not favored by God because of anything she did, no matter how well she lived up to her parents' standards or that of the Nazareth community. Mary is favored by God because God showed up into her life. Holiness infiltrated her being, just like it has for us through our baptism, through each and every time we consume the sustaining bread and wine, and it will for all those who show up just this Wednesday night. We are all on God's good side! That is what grace is all about: nothing to do with us, just everything to do with God, starting in Bethlehem to Galilee to Calvary and beyond: the divine favor has overwhelmed the entire Creation through a birth, through a death, through a resurrection for life everlasting. Thanks be to God indeed. Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Nan Dehnke, Pastor
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon