The Christmas story begins in a season of unrest. Shalom, the Hebrew concept of wholehearted rest that comes from peace and harmony with God, was first disrupted in the garden with Adam and Eve’s sin. The Israelites had an on again off again relationship with their faithful God. When the New Testament opens, God’s chosen people have been waiting for four hundred years to hear from him. In the midst of this silence, Gabriel, the daunting messenger angel, starts showing up and telling a select few that the Messiah is coming. Mary is one of the startled recipients of Gabriel’s message.
An Ordinary Girl
Mary, an ordinary young Jewish girl, was likely going about her business—fetching water, kneading bread, or tending a fire. In the middle of this everyday-ness, Gabriel shows up in her life with this troubling announcement:
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28, ESV). Boom! There goes Mary’s shalom, her state of rest that comes from a predictable life!
I’ve always thought that if a messenger from God came to me and told me I was “favored,” and that “the Lord was with me!” I would shout with joy! I mean, it’s super-good news! Mary is not so sure at first:
“But she was greatly troubled at the saying….” (Luke 1:29, ESV). The Greek word for “greatly troubled” includes the concept of “mentally disturbing, deeply agitated.” What troubles Mary? For starters, the Bible suggests angels were not really the blond-haired chubby cherubs depicted by kitschy Christmas ornaments. Gabriel’s glory-flashing presence probably has something to do with Mary’s agitation.
But what really troubles Mary is the saying, the message. Her shalom, her rest, is disrupted by God’s favor. What she does next makes Mary one of my favorite characters in the Bible:
She tries “to discern what sort of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29, ESV).
I wonder, did something like this play through her mind, “I’m young, I’m inexperienced: who am I to be favored by God? What does it mean that the Lord is with me?” (Remember, God has been silent for four hundred years).
She doesn’t get very far with her thoughts, though, before Gabriel
answers them with news he apparently realizes will be even more disruptive:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:30, ESV). Mary is a faithful Jewish girl, and she knows her Scriptures. She will recognize the name Jesus as the Savior’s name.
In case she still doesn’t understand his meaning, Gabriel continues, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:31, ESV). We may not grasp the meaning of these words as well as Mary would have, but we can think of it this way—Gabriel has just named all of the leading keywords for an Ancient Near Eastern Google search on the Messiah.
Now Mary has at least three reasons for her shalom to be disturbed.
- First, how can she be so highly favored by God, she, an ordinary young Jewish girl?
- Second, why would God choose her to give birth to the Messiah?
- Third, what’s Joseph, her betrothed, going to say about this?
Resting in God’s Grace
Despite these disruptions, Mary, amazing woman of faith that she is, reveals a heart of rest in what she asks next,
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:32, ESV).
This is not a fighting question; this is a query expressing awe and surrender.
Mary’s story forces me to ask, “Do I find the coming of Christ rest-full? Or am I disturbed by God’s favor?” I think the answer lies in the source of my shalom. Too often, I fail to rest because I’m so busy trying to create my own shalom. The Bible reveals a surprising truth: God’s grace always disturbs self-made shalom.
God’s favor disrupts our self-made shalom because we are too proud to receive it—we don’t want anything we didn’t earn. Weren’t we taught this principle in school, at work, even in friendships? We earn favor with the teacher by “being good” or “smart” or whatever that teacher wants. We know the hardest workers get the raise, and we think friendship comes by winning someone’s approval. This is what the world teaches, but God’s favor turns the world’s system on its head.
The surprising truth of this story, the truth Mary ultimately seems to grasp, is that God’s favor is never about something we do, have done, or will do. It is about God’s kindness, mercy, and love reaching into the hearts of sinful people living ordinary lives. This Christmas, will you, like Mary, receive this favor and rest in it?
Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from Elizabeth’s advent devotional and reflection guide. Use coupon code DISCADV at Apple Books through Dec. 15 to purchase this e-book for 2.99. (PS—this would make a great early Christmas present!). It is also available for purchase as a PDF at Elizabeth’s website: www.elizabethturnage.com.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Turnage is a writer, story coach, and teacher. She founded Living Story to help people learn, live, and love the gospel. The author of the Living Story Bible Study Series (P & R), she is currently writing a devotional for people in health crises. Elizabeth offers gospel-centered resources at her blog, www.elizabethturnage.com.
Elizabeth has been married to orthopedic surgeon Kip Turnage for 36 years. They enjoy spending time with their children, Kirby and Amy Anne Turnage, Jackie and Matt Roelofs, Mary Elizabeth and Caleb Blake, and Robert Turnage. When they are not working or visiting their kids, they enjoy doting on their golden doodle, Rosie, the “best-dog-ever”!