What do we mean when we talk about the "favor of God"?
The house you've always wanted goes into foreclosure and you buy it for a steal. Your kids bring their report cards home and it's straight A's. You find out that a long lost relative left you a tidy sum of money.
Many people may think that God's favor is something like that. When life seems to break your way, it's easy to think, "God is really smiling down on me now. He must really love me."
When we turn to the New Testament, though, we get a splash of cold water. The favor of God doesn't always line up with great circumstances. Case in point: Mary.
When the angel Gabriel shows up to announce the first Christmas to Mary in Luke 1, he tells her twice that she has God's favor. But her situation sure doesn't look like it.
Gabriel has just told her she is going to be pregnant out of wedlock in a culture where this isn't just frowned upon but could have been punishable by death. The man she loves, Joseph, is probably not going to understand the situation or believe her bizarre explanation and might leave her. She's already poor, and if Joseph rejects her, she'll be destitute. She might have to beg for a living.
So here's Mary -- financially insolvent, with a ruined reputation, her most important relationship in tatters.
Maybe you can relate if you sense no joy or good cheer this Christmas season, but dread. Your life doesn't look like one "blessed and highly favored." For you, Christmas only reminds you of all the good you don't have in your life.
If that's you, then Mary's circumstances are particularly relevant, because she supposedly has the favor of God in the midst of all her mess. How?
Because a Son is being born to her -- a Son, the angel says, whose name will be "Jesus," meaning that He will save His people from their sins. Like all of us, Mary's main problem was a severed relationship with God. Jesus was coming to restore that.
But Jesus was coming to do more than merely save from sin. Gabriel points out that He'll also rule from the throne of David (Luke 1:32). It's easy to miss how big that promise is. David's throne symbolized the restoration of worldwide peace and blessing -- a condition called shalom.
Think of the promise in Joel where the prophet says, "I will restore the years that the swarming locusts have eaten." Not just forgive, but restore. Bodies destroyed by disease will leap and run in perfect health. Reputations that have been ruined will be exonerated. Relationships torn apart by death will be mended, as we see, in Tolkien's words, "all the sad things come untrue."
We know that God will do this because He did this with Jesus. At the cross, Jesus went through pain that looked like a defeat. But the Father used that pain for our good. He reversed it and turned the devil's strongest attack into an opportunity to redeem us and restore the world.
Mary isn't the only one with a miraculous birth in Luke 1. Her relative Elizabeth also gets a visit from Gabriel, and even though she's barren, she is promised a child. Barrenness has never been easy, but in those days it would have been devastating, the biggest disappointment a woman could imagine. The lead-up to Jesus' birth includes an elderly, barren woman getting pregnant because the birth of Jesus is God's promise to erase our deepest disappointments.
What that means is we don't have to be frantic if we don't get to everything on our "bucket list." Many of us live with such an urgency to experience everything that life becomes worthless if we don't. It's not the glib stuff, like not seeing the Grand Canyon, that really leads us to disappointment. It's not getting married, or having children, or being financially comfortable, or overcoming an illness. What we need to see is that in the resurrection, under the reign of the Son of David, every disappointment will be fulfilled.
We have pain; He will reverse it. We have disappointment; He will erase it. We yearn for justice; He will restore it. When we go through seasons of racial strife in our country, many people start to ask, "Will there ever be justice?" Or maybe the yearning for justice is more personal: You've been wronged and just can't get past it. You want to cry out like the psalmist, "Will the wicked go unpunished?"
Unless we look to God's perfect justice -- instead of our judicial system or our own efforts -- we'll always be bitter. Perfect justice will be restored but only when Jesus rules from David's throne. That truth gives us the hope to continue working for justice now while enduring the injustice in the world.
In the end, that's what God's favor is all about. It's what Christmas is all about -- hope. God's favor isn't always easy. Sometimes, as with Mary, it brings with it a lot of difficulties. But it's always good because it brings us a hope in God's promises and an assurance that His presence will be with us.
J.D. Greear is president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.