December 24, 2017

What’s With You?


Text:  Luke 1:28: “And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’”

Pay attention to a somewhat unusual phrase in two of the readings today, because it may have more than a little bit to do with what links them together.

It is the phrase most familiar to us in the words of Gabriel’s greeting to Mary. This is one of the most familiar scenes in all the bible, and translators of the Bible mess around with it at their peril. Whichever version of this story you grew up with is likely the one that you still cherish somewhere as the right version— “Hail, thou that art highly favored,” which is the language that will be heard around the world just about now in the broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge; or “Hail, O favored one,” the way it comes out in the Revised Standard Version.

I have never quite been able to get my ears adjusted to “Greetings, favored one!” But it is a lot better than what you get in the Living Bible, which is maybe not the way we would choose to tell a young not-yet married woman the news we had to share with her: “Congratulations, favored lady!” And it’s better than the most recent contemporary translation I know of, a version called The Message Remix, which gives Gabriel’s greeting as “You are beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out.” Which sounds more than a little bit like a bad pick-up line.

All around the story the words and images change from translation to translation, but there is one small phrase that is absolutely fixed and unchanging from the first bibles in English down to the most trendy translation. It is these words: “The Lord is with you.”

Everything else changes, but those words are like the North Star. Everything else can change, but these words—these words change everything.

If you search through the entire bible, through many translations into English of the bible, it turns out that this simple little phrase, something you might think is just a common form of greeting, is quite rare. In all of the New Revised Standard Version, this phrase appears only four times—and two of them we heard this morning.

Sometimes things that don’t happen much aren’t worth paying attention to. But sometimes things that are rare are precious. This—these words—is perhaps one of those times.

In both cases, they appear in the midst of people with plans. And in both cases, they announce that those plans are going to change.

King David has a plan. After displacing Israel’s first king, he has consolidated his leadership and secured his borders, he is determined that he should build a dwelling for God—a temple. The way the story is related to us, there is no small amount of ambition in David’s plans. Like all good public leaders, he is a master of spin—he wants us to sense that he is troubled that he gets to live in a house while God has to live in a tent—the tent that the people of Israel have been carrying around with them since the earliest days of their covenant with God.

But of course he wouldn’t mind being known as the king who built a temple, you know? That’s, at least, his plan. But just as soon as Nathan sends him off with those words—the Lord is with you—plans change. God has a different idea about how he wants to dwell with his people. God is not interested in having a house to live in. God is going to do the building—God will build the House of David. And David is just going to have to like it. God is with him.

When Gabriel comes to say these the same words to Mary, Mary is a young woman with plans. Specifically, she is a woman with wedding plans. She’s engaged. She has things to do. She has a marriage to get ready for. She has a husband-to-be who has plans, too.

But God is with her. Those plans are going to change. The House of David needs to be expanded. It needs to be made big enough to contain the whole world. Mary is finding out that she is going to be God’s co-contractor in this project.

When someone asks you “what’s with you?” the question usually comes from a sense that there is something troubling you, something stirring the waters of your soul. When your close friends or your partner ask you that question—“what’s with you?”—you’re receiving a gentle hint that your simmering is showing.

But when God is with you—that is when you are about to do great things, whether you know it, or like it, or not. When God is with you, there is a question laid at your feet: Are you with God in it, or not? Do you accept the terrifying uncertainty of that God’s possibility—of your part, your indispensable part, in bringing it into being?

It is the last moment of our time of preparation. The angel is on our very threshold.

What’s with you?

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