My husband and I volunteer in the university ministry at our church. It has been an appropriate ministry for us; we have been in that transitional phase of life for many years as my husband trained to be a physician. It is an exciting life stage as students not only grow in their faith but also seek God’s will for their vocations and relationships. We’ve watched as many fervently seek God’s plan for their lives, and then celebrate as God reveals direction. As exciting as it is to watch God working in their lives and to hear their great plans, we are often reminded, as people significantly beyond college age, that God’s plans are usually revealed in small snippets and are often much different than we would ever imagine. The challenge, then, is to wholeheartedly seek God’s will, celebrating God’s participation in our lives when the journey takes an unexpected turn.
If ever there was a biblical character who personifies the unexpected nature of God’s will, it is Mary, the mother of Jesus. We often relegate her story to Christmas, somewhere between Elizabeth and the shepherds, but her story is a powerful example of one who sought God’s will and celebrated despite the unexpected nature of her journey.
Although the details are scarce, we learn primarily from Luke that Mary is a young woman betrothed to a man named Joseph. She is visited by an angel who reveals that she has found favor in the eyes of the Lord and will give birth to a child who is the Son of God. The scenario certainly seems unlikely to Mary, since she is a virgin, but she responds with obedience. After hearing the news that her elderly, barren cousin Elizabeth is also expecting a baby, she visits Elizabeth (perhaps witnessing Elizabeth’s miracle is a step in accepting her own). As Elizabeth’s unborn child responds to the Christ Child in Mary’s womb, the miracle of her role as the mother of the Christ is confirmed.
Perhaps the most significant part of this story is Mary’s reaction, found in Luke 1:46-55, as she praises God for the great things God has done for her. The reality is that as she speaks those words of praise, her life is taking a scary turn. She is pregnant and unmarried, a combination that could lead to her execution. Even if her life is spared, she is still unsure how her fiancé, Joseph, and her family will react to her news. Mary’s explanation of her pregnancy and the angel’s visit no doubt seem unlikely to those around her. Beyond the effect of her news on her life and reputation, as scary as having a new baby was to a young woman, the prospect of having a baby that would be the Savior of the world must have seemed beyond belief. Yet, unlike many who had gone before her, Mary does not hide, bargain, or even try to talk God out of her calling. Mary praises God, thanking God for the great things that are happening in her life and for the mercy God offers God’s people.
I am certain my reaction would have been different. In my own life, like the college students with whom I work, I spend a lot of time praying for God’s will. I pray for wisdom, purpose, and discernment. The reality, however, is that I am actually praying that God will bless the direction I have already chosen for myself. I am mindful that my five-year plan is nothing without God’s hand on it, but still not quite faithful enough to let go of the road map altogether and allow God to truly direct me. Perhaps saddest of all, when God throws me what I like to call a “curveball,” praise is not my first reaction.
Mary’s acceptance and thanksgiving of her own surprise calling produce a powerful example of just how we might embrace our own journey of faith. The reality is that God has a plan for each of us, just as God had a plan for Mary. In Jeremiah 29:11, God acknowledges that there is a providential plan for each of us. There will be times in our spiritual journeys when God’s plan seems the sensible next step. There will be other times, however, when God’s plan is surprising, even undesirable. Our challenge is to not only follow God into the unknown but also to praise God for every opportunity and blessing.
In this series, we are looking at great prayers in the Bible. Last week, we studied the Lord’s Prayer, the very model for prayer that Jesus gave. As you think about prayer in the Bible, Mary’s song, commonly called “the Magnificat,” may not come to mind. However, with her simple act of praise, Mary personifies the attitude with which we should each approach our lives. She praises God when she is scared and unsure of her next step. Although Mary is not mentioned much after the birth narrative, I imagine that she approached much of her life as the mother of Christ with that same attitude, even to the cross.
When we choose to praise God instead of bemoan or negotiate God’s will for our lives, we acknowledge our humanness and God’s wisdom. We acknowledge our dependence on the one who created us and knows us better than we know ourselves. We humbly allow God to work in our lives in the way that only God knows is best. In my own journey, God has demonstrated this again and again. God’s plan will take us in directions we never would have imagined . . . all we have to do is praise!