The Star of Bethlehem, 1887-1891. Sir Edward Burne-Jones *Nativity scene. To the left, Joseph, Mary and the infant Christ to the right, the three kings, Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar. Commissioned by the Corporation of Birmingham, 1887, and purchased through the Art Gallery Purchase Fund, 1891.
Exchanging agendas with God: the beginning of discipleship
Every disciple has a moment in time when he or she accepts the call to follow Jesus. This moment of spiritual commitment may be preceded by weeks, months, even years of consideration. A person can be an admirer of Jesus without ever saying yes to the call, but not a disciple. One can be a good member of the community, a reliable employee, a loving family member, and even a decent neighbor without saying yes to the call, but not a disciple. At some point, if we are to become disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to make a holy decision to follow him. The precise details of how a disciple accepts the call of Christ and begins the journey of discipleship vary from person to person. But in every case the starting point involves an exchange of agendas between the disciple and Christ.
When I entered college, I had every intention of pursuing a degree in music and serving God as a church musician. There were a few hitches to my plan, however. The biggest hitch was that I wasn’t a musician. Trying not to let a small detail like that get in the way of my agenda, I entered Oklahoma Baptist University in the fall of 1974 as a music major. Since I couldn’t play any instrument well, I declared that I would focus my studies on vocal performance. I was assigned to a teacher who was to help train my voice to sing the praises of God. My instructor was an older woman nearing retirement. She sat in a chair, coached me, and sighed in frustration—a lot.
The next semester I was passed on to another vocal instructor. After only one lesson, my new professor sat down beside me and played a very complicated vocal piece on the piano. He asked me to sing the first line. I couldn’t sing the first note. He said, “John, if you continue pursuing a music degree, for the next two years you will be required to sing music like this. Is this really what you want to do?” God was changing my agenda.
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. Mary, no doubt, thought through what it was going to be like to share her life with this good man, to work as partners to build a life, to exchange love and affection, and one day to raise a family. 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.” Now! She must have thought, “No, not now! Down the road, after the proper engagement, after the wedding, after Joseph and I have settled into our home, then it will be time for a baby.” Mary’s plan called for a baby then, not now. Gabriel continued to speak of God’s plan, however. “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.”
“Mother of a king,” Mary might have said to herself. “Wow, that is really something. Much more than I ever expected, really. I always thought it would be enough just to have healthy children who showed me respect and affection. But a mother of a king— well, that would be quite a privilege. However, now is definitely not the time.”
Although we can’t know all that was going on inside Mary’s mind, we do know that she expressed understandable confusion at the timing of the angel’s message. “How can this be,” she inquired, “since I am still a virgin?” 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. 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.