Modeling Mary: Switching Agendas with God

July 24th, 2012

Mary of Nazareth must have been very excited about her immediate plans. She was engaged to marry Joseph, a good man from a great family. Surely her mind was filled with wedding plans. Although neither her family nor Joseph’s was wealthy, a wedding was the one occasion when even peasant families threw a festive party. She must have been gratified to see that everything she had hoped for was unfolding according to her plan.

Mary’s agenda was good, healthy, and appropriate for her age and time. But God had a different mission for her. God’s design for Mary’s life was announced by the angel Gabriel, who said,

“Greetings, Mary. You have found favor with God. The Lord is with you. Now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. This child of yours will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.”

I can easily picture Mary saying, “Gabriel, what you describe is genuinely a tremendous opportunity, and I am happy to be considered for this wondrous honor. But you see, I can’t become the mother of a king right now. I’m still a virgin. There is no baby in my immediate future. Believe me, I think I would know. Why don’t you come back in a few years, and then we will talk. Your agenda for my life, as wonderful as it is, just doesn’t fit into my plan right now.”

But Gabriel plowed on through the message. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you. And the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child will be born, and he will be called the Son of God.”

Exchanging our plans for those of another is a stiff challenge for most of us. That’s precisely why we don’t always answer the phone when it rings. We know that if we answer it, we will have to exchange our agenda with that of the caller. If we are in the midst of eating dinner, watching TV, playing with our kids, or fixing a leaky faucet, we just let the phone ring because we are unwilling to allow our attention to be redirected to the caller’s priorities.

If Mary could have screened Gabriel’s call, she might not have picked up, but she didn’t have that luxury. Instead, she had to decide whether she was willing to exchange her well thought-out intentions for the surprising plan that God had for her life. The decision that faced Mary is the first decision confronted by all would-be disciples. God calls, and we have to decide whether we are going to ignore God’s prompting and stay with our own carefully conceived plans or whether we are willing to exchange what we thought we were going to do with our lives for the mission that God has for us.

Evangelists had a profound effect on my early spiritual development. Twice a year, an evangelist came to the church of my youth and conducted a seven-day revival. I liked all the services of the revival, but my favorite was always “youth night.” On “youth night” every teenager in the church was challenged to bring friends to the revival. We were promised pizza and games and prizes if we brought classmates and neighbors and kids from our baseball team to hear the great preacher speak a message “especially attuned to the needs of our youth.” This “especially attuned” message always involved the evangelist’s personal witness of how the Lord saved him.

The testimony invariably began with a prolonged narrative of all the rotten things the preacher had done before he met Jesus. This was the part of the sermon that captured our fertile minds. Tales of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, wild parties, dangerous activities, shady friendships, and reckless monetary expenditures ignited our imaginations of what it meant to promenade down the wide, winding avenue of sin rather than march along the straight and narrow road of Baptist devotion. Eventually, the evangelist would tell of his encounter with the Lord and how that experience helped him see the error of his ways and start his new life with Christ. I don’t think that the sincere preachers knew that many of us who were racing toward adolescence harbored secret desires to get started on the first part of our testimonies. We were convinced that someday we too would want to get saved from the ultimate consequences of our prodigal lives, but first we wanted to experience a little of the waywardness that the flashy evangelist seemed to know so well.

The dramatic conversion testimonies of these evangelists left me with a belief that “flashy sinners,” not “respectable normal people,” had to exchange agendas with Christ in order to become disciples. I used to think that folks who lied, cheated, partied, used profanity, skipped church, and ran around with others who did likewise needed to exchange agendas with Jesus. On the other hand, I was sure that folks who held down jobs, came home every night to their families, abstained from excesses of every kind, and used good manners in public were pretty much on the same page with Jesus already.

That’s why I find Mary’s call to discipleship so helpful. Mary was respectable in every way. Nothing in the biblical text gives us any hint that she was anything other than a devout young woman from an excellent family with a solid reputation. If Gabriel had visited the Samaritan woman at the well with the request to become the mother of Jesus, or the woman caught in adultery, or even Mary Magdalene, then we would have had another example of a person with an inappropriate pedigree or checkered past who was redeemed by the love of Christ. Such stories are important and transforming, but they are not the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her story is of one who was living about as well-managed a life as one could live. Nothing in her future plans was inappropriate or sinful. And yet even she had to exchange agendas with God in order to begin her life as a disciple of Christ.

Mary’s journey of discipleship teaches that each of us, regardless of whether we have destructive desires or noble goals for our lives, must defer those plans to the ways of Jesus if we are going to become disciples. For what makes these plans obstacles to discipleship is not so much their particulars as it is the process by which we make them. Before we answer the call of discipleship, we set our agenda based upon what seems best to us. We use the standards of wisdom that we have received from family, friends, and culture. Once we decide to become a disciple of Jesus, however, we have to turn over the management of this process to him. In other words, we have to ask Christ what he wants for our lives. For disciples, the agenda that Jesus has for our life takes precedence over anything that we plan for ourselves.

Unfortunately, we often try to claim discipleship to Jesus without making this exchange. Instead, we try to negotiate with God to get divine blessing on our own plans. Much of what is preached under the heading of “prosperity gospel” is simply encouragement to get God to help make our personal endeavors pay off. “Believe in God, and your bank account will grow.” “Seek God’s blessing, and your business will thrive.” These promises have nothing to do with discipleship. Discipleship does not even begin until we are willing to exchange our goals for the mission that God has for our lives. If Mary had been under the sway of modern “prosperity gospel” preachers, she might have responded to Gabriel’s invitation by saying, “I’m really not interested in getting on board with God’s mysterious will, but I could use a little divine help in planning my wedding. Lord, Joseph’s uncle Benjamin has a lot of money. Do you think you could get him to send a little of it our way? My figure has been expanding of late. Do you think you could help me trim down for the big day? The wedding will be outside. Do you think you could send us some pretty weather for the festivities?”

As silly as these sentiments sound, they are not all that far off from the prayers that we often take to God. We all fall into the trap of trying to get God to endorse our plans rather than yielding our agendas to the lordship of Christ. When Gabriel pronounced God’s plan for Mary, she had to decide whether she was willing to yield her right to orchestrate her own future to the lordship of Christ. What if she had responded by saying, “No, thank you for thinking of me, Lord, but I think I’ll pass. I have things all set just the way I want them.” We have the option to resist and even reject God’s plans for us; theologians call it “free will.” There are thousands of ways to live the one life we have. Discipleship is just one way. So why should we turn over the reins of our lives to God rather than continue with our well crafted strategies for success?

Why would any of us take this first step of discipleship? Why would any of us exchange the well-laid plans that we have for our lives for the plans drawn up in the heart of God? Because when we exchange our plans for the mission of God, we find that we too participate in giving birth to Christ in our own time.

As we begin to live out God’s intentions for our lives, people start seeing Jesus in us. We reveal the love of Christ in the way we care for our family, our neighbors, our workmates, and our friends.

We demonstrate the compassion of Christ as we respond to the needs of the hungry, homeless, estranged, and lonely. We incarnate the peace of Christ as we respond to insult with blessing, hatred with love, and violence with forgiveness. We bring forth the devotion of Christ as we worship, pray, meditate, and praise God. We exhibit the contentment of Christ as we turn away from rampant materialism and find deep joy in more modest lifestyles. We manifest the power of Christ as we confront racism, work for justice, witness for peace, cry out for integrity, and defy the destructive powers of our generation. We unleash the hope of Christ as we share the good news of salvation with the people of our lives.

The privilege of giving birth to the presence of Christ in our own times is a wondrous, beautiful, and profound experience. As Mary understood, to be involved in such a miracle is worth giving up anything else that we had planned to do with our lives.

comments powered by Disqus