It is so good to gather on this special Christmas morning and welcome our Lord Jesus Christ into the world to celebrate his birth together. With so many things on our minds today I think it's wise to draw your attention to just one word: favor. It's written all over the Christmas story. What a beautiful word it is. Its sound reflects its beauty. Favor. We're going to hear that word on the lips of angels, on the lips of Mary, and on the lips of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Let me paint a scene for you. A young woman is sitting in her house. She is in an obscure town called Nazareth, and her family is poor. It is a forgotten place whose citizens are folks that couldn't find an opportunity to leave. In those days people said, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" This young woman's name is Mary.
Then one day God sent the angel Gabriel to her. The angel said to her, "Greetings, Mary, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you." In response to this, Mary was "troubled." She wondered what kind of greeting this might be. So the angel spoke to her a second time. "Do not be afraid, Mary," Gabriel said. "You have found favor with God."
I looked up the word "favor" in my dictionary and found quite a long list of definitions and descriptions, but one stood out to me: Favor is kindness beyond what is due or usual. Isn't that beautiful? I think that's the meaning from this text as well. The angel is saying, "God is going to show you kindness beyond what is due and kindness beyond what is usual." The angel goes on to explain this unusual kindness that God will show to Mary. "You will be with child and you will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, and he will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High."
When the angel says to Mary "you are highly favored," he is saying to the mother of our Lord, "You are uniquely privileged." It is marvelous, is it not? She carried the life of God within her. She was highly favored because she was the one by whom the Son of God was born into the world. You may say, "That is marvelous for Mary. But what in the world does it have to do with my life today?" What do you think a Christian is? People would give different answers to that question. Some people might say, "A Christian is a person who believes in Jesus." Someone else might say, "A Christian is someone who follows the teaching and the example of Jesus." Both these things are true. But neither of them cut to the core of what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian means that the life of Jesus is in you.
You find this theme throughout the Bible. The apostle Paul says, "It's Christ in you that is your hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). On another occasion he says, "I've been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). On one occasion writing to some Christians in a town called Galatia, he speaks to them as if they are his children. He says, "My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you …" (Gal. 4:19). The Christ who was formed in Mary by the flesh is formed in his people by the Spirit. And a Christian is a person with the life of Jesus in them. Jesus spoke about this himself. On one occasion he said, "I am the vine, and you are the branches" (John 15:1). You see the significance of that picture. The life of the vine is in the branches. It's what makes them the branches of the vine. If you are a Christian, you are highly favored. You carry this marvelous privilege. The life of God is in you.
The shepherds' favor
Let me paint a second scene for you. Some men were working at night. Their pay was low; their conditions were poor. These men were shepherds, and they were in the hills behind Bethlehem. Shepherds didn't have much prestige in society. Shepherds were held in such low opinion that their word was not admissible as evidence or testimony in a court of law. In his grace and mercy, God turned the tables in a spectacular way. God chose a group of people whose testimony would not be admissible in court to be the first witnesses of the birth of his Son, Jesus Christ.
An angel appeared to these men and "the glory of the Lord shone around them." Can you imagine what that must have been like? How bright is the glory of the Lord? It must have been as if all the Christmas lights in the history of the world were all switched on at once. Seeing this choir of angels, the shepherds heard these words: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth. Peace to men on whom his favor rests." God's favor rests on men and women. "Peace to men who are God's pleasure and God's delight." Favor is not only an outpouring of privilege; it is an outpouring of love and kindness beyond what is due and usual in the birth of God's Son in Bethlehem.
What image comes to your mind when you think about God? Do you think about a Father who delights in his children, one who is marked by kindness beyond what is due and beyond what is usual? Or do you think of a frowning face and an accusing finger and anger and an unrequited kind of condemnation? Do you see harshness or kindness?
One of the privileges of being a pastor is that I get the opportunity to hear many people say things that are deep in their hearts that wouldn't be said in other places. Not so long ago, a person said to me, "Pastor, I hate God." And I said to him, "Tell me about the God that you hate." When you see that the God of the Bible is the God of kindness beyond what is due and usual, the God who pours out his love in the sending of his Son born as a baby, it is very hard to hate him. All of you in the congregation who have had difficulties and struggles with God this year—difficult things have happened in your life and you didn't understand them and you still struggle with them—I want you to listen to what the angels are telling you this Christmas day. God is pouring out his love to you in his Son, Jesus Christ, and he sent his Son into the world to heal the estrangement that our sin has brought between us and him and to bring us back into the embrace of the Father's love. It's hard to hate a God like that. Where would you ever hope to see love and affection like this?
Here is one more scene, back in Nazareth. Thirty years had passed since the birth of Jesus. He had grown into full manhood. He had been working as a carpenter, and at the age of thirty he began the work for which he came into the world. Luke tells us about a Sabbath day in Nazareth where the people of the town were gathered in the synagogue, as usual. Jesus was handed the scroll with the words of the prophet Isaiah. Opening the scroll he chose this place to read on that particular Sabbath day: "The spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news for the poor." Then Jesus explained what the good news for the poor is, reading the words of Isaiah: "To proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:19). This is what Jesus came to do.
Everyone in the synagogue would have known exactly what Jesus meant by "the year of the Lord's favor." In the Old Testament God commended that every fifty years the trumpet should sound to introduce a special year in which three wonderful things would happen. First, all debts were completely cancelled. Second, all slaves were set free. Third, all land that had been mortgaged to someone else in order to pay a debt would come back to the family to which it originally belonged. You can see why the year of the Lord's favor was such a marvelous gift to the poor.
When God's people came into the Promised Land, each family line was given a portion of the land. But when people came into financial difficulties they could get out of that by leasing their land to someone to whom they owed money. But it couldn't happen forever. Every fifty years the land had to go back to the family line to which it had been entrusted and given by God. It was a wonderful break for the poor.
If the leasing out of the land couldn't pay off a person's debt, they could hire themselves out to work for someone to whom they owed money. But they couldn't be trapped in that forever. They had to be released from that after a time. If money to be paid off still remained, that also had to be cancelled. The year of the Lord's favor came around once in a lifetime.
Since this is in the Old Testament, don't you think this would be an excellent idea for credit card companies today? Instead of once every fifty years, we could make it a little more regular. One month a year, everyone's credit card bill could be reduced to zero. I would suggest January. Wouldn't that be marvelous? Don't hold your breath. It's not likely to happen for us today.
Do you know how often this happened in the history of the Old Testament? Never. God commanded it, but it wasn't obeyed a single time because the people with the power were the people with the money. They were the ones who had everything to lose. They were the ones who were owed. So they always found a way to postpone by saying something like, "It's just not the right time for it. We'll put it off for another couple of years." So the debts remained, and the slaves kept working, and the inheritances given to the many ended up in the hands of the few.
Does that sound familiar at all? No one would sound the trumpet to introduce the year of the Lord's favor. So Jesus read the prophecy and spoke of the great gift of God that had never actually been practiced among his people. In effect, Jesus was saying, "What you will not do for each other, God will do for you. God is ready to forgive all your debts to him. God is ready to set you free from the dark powers of sin and self that bind you. God is ready to restore to you the inheritance of everlasting life that was lost by your first father, Adam. I am here to blow the trumpet to bring this in. Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." Isn't that wonderful?
I'm so glad that Jesus came to bring the year of the Lord's favor and not the day of the Lord's justice. Justice is what we need when we are innocent. But when we have fallen short of all that God has commanded, justice doesn't help us. Justice is no use for any of us before God. We need favor. We need grace. We need mercy. We need kindness beyond what is due and usual. Kindness that you do not see in this world. Kindness that only comes from God's largeness. We need our debts to God canceled. We need to be set free from those powers that bind us. We need the lost inheritance of everlasting life restored. Jesus says it is for this reason precisely that he came.
When a debt is forgiven, the loss has to go somewhere. Every time a debt is written off, a loss is incurred. We're living in the middle of that. We're reading about this every day in our newspapers, and it is the focus of world attention. We hear about nations that can't pay their debts, and the markets are reeling because unpaid debt has to go somewhere. Where does the loss go when God forgives our debt? God absorbs it in himself. Jesus bore the debt on the cross; he paid the price; he absorbed the loss of our debt to God in himself. That's what it took to bring in the year of the Lord's favor. In all the world you will never see a kindness quite like this.
How should we respond to the Lord's favor? Christmas is about the favor of God in the birth of Jesus Christ. We can't do better than the words of Mary when the angel spoke to her about the favor of God. Mary said, "May it be to me according to your word." This means, "May everything you've said about the favor of God be a reality in my life." That's the essence of faith and obedience, embracing the very favor of God in Jesus Christ.
If you're a Christian today, I hope you see how rich you are in Jesus Christ. You live under the favor of God. What could be greater than this? His smile is upon you in Jesus Christ. Your sins are forgiven. The life of God is within you. You have been set free. An eternal inheritance has been restored to you and is waiting for you. You are privileged. You are loved. You are blessed. And you are surrounded by the kindness of God that is beyond what is due and usual. In Jesus Christ you have every reason to rejoice.
How great is the gain of those who have Christ? How great is the loss of those who spurn him? If you have never seen the supreme value of Jesus Christ, if you've never realized all that can be yours in him, I hope you will seek and find him and that the kindness of God will become yours now and for eternity.
Colin Smith is pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois.