The call of God comes into your life like…

Today was Leadership Formation Day at College. It turned out that it was also the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I’ve preached on the text before, but always in Advent. It seemed appropriate to revisit the theme in relation to “call” or “vocation”:


Luke 1:26-38

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.” (Luke 1:26-38)

Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus begins with the strange encounter between the girl Mary and an angel with the news that she is about to fall pregnant. It’s clear Mary was in no position to be pregnant. Although she isn’t exactly unmarried – she’s engaged to Joseph – she still has no business being pregnant before they’ve celebrated the wedding feast and she’s moved into Joseph’s house. It’s shameful. It implies unfaithfulness and the illegitimacy of the child. In the Deuteronomic Code it’s a capital offense Deuteronomy 22:23-24. It’s no wonder that Matthew’s Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). It’s a disaster!

And on this Leadership Formation Day we are reminded that the call of God comes into your life like an unwanted pregnancy.

Even today, what’s a thirteen year old girl supposed to feel as she watches the second blue line appear on her home pregnancy test? “Do not be afraid…for you have found favour with God”? I don’t think so. Angel or no angel it’s more likely to feel like the end of her world.

The theologian Ann Loades has said that even though the rate of pregnancy terminations “indicates that something is profoundly amiss” in our society, moralising won’t achieve much. She says that we have to face the reality that in societies like ours “the young and healthy finding themselves pregnant will (some of them) opt for abortion on the grounds that ‘having this baby will ruin my life’. … And the trouble is that in a sense, in our societies, they are right. That’s what needs changing.”

And on this Leadership Formation Day we are reminded that the call of God comes into your life like an unwanted pregnancy.

I have a friend who didn’t have an abortion. She was young, single, half way through getting qualified. The relationship with the father had ended before she knew she was pregnant. And when the doctor told her what was actually wrong with her, her immediate reaction was “I can’t have a baby! I can’t have a baby!” In Australia, of course, she didn’t have to have a baby either. But it was still very early in the pregnancy and the doctor insisted that she go away and think about it.

So why didn’t you have an abortion? I asked her, sitting in her kitchen with her nine month old daughter clambering hand over hand between the table legs and ours. It was a near thing, she told me. At first she was certain that an abortion was the only option for her. But her doctor gave her a week to think it through, and by the end of the week she wasn’t so sure.

She didn’t want a baby. But she didn’t want to have an abortion either. She did some sums, and found that although she’d be poor if she had the baby she could manage on the various social security benefits that she’d be entitled to as the child grew up (I fear that this calculation might come out differently now).

She thought about her family and friends and realized that even if they thought she’d been a goose, they wouldn’t reject her or be ashamed of her, and they could certainly be relied on to give practical and emotional support. She thought about herself too. She’d come from a big, interesting, precarious kind of family. Hand-me-downs, improvisation and budgets. She didn’t want to be poor again, but she still knew how to do it. And crucially, she realized that she wasn’t actually afraid of being poor.

So she started telling the people around her that she was pregnant. She had the baby. The life that she’d been making for herself came to an end, and a different life gradually took shape – a life she hadn’t chosen and wouldn’t have gone looking for.

And on this Leadership Formation Day we are reminded that the call of God comes into your life like an unwanted pregnancy.

Another friend, Teresa, sends us the best Christmas cards. One year it was a woman hanging out washing. The caption read: “URGENT SALE Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – unwanted gifts. Willing to swap for one month’s nappy service.” Another year it was a girl holding a baby, with a poem by Madeline l’Engle:

This is the irrational season

when love blooms bright and wild.

Had Mary been filled with reason

there’d never have been room for the child.

And then another year it was a card she called simply, “The Annunciation”. There are two young women. One shows only her back as she speaks to the other who faces us. The woman is very young, not much more than a girl. Her arms are crossed – making her look defensive, self-protective, or perhaps just self-possessed (you can’t really tell). But her head is tilted to one side showing that she’s listening. The look on her face. Sceptical? Critical? Certainly weighing up what’s being said to her. Making a judgement about it. Making a decision. Making up her mind. That’s the thing, this girl is actively considering the angel’s story and taking responsibility for what will happen to her.

The Annunciation_Teresa Jordan

Teresa’s “Mary” isn’t the model of passivity and submission that I’d tended to associate with the annunciation. This girl is a model of discernment, personal responsibility, courage. In the middle of a total disaster – the end of her world, possibly the end of her life, explosions, screams, sirens, everything – she has the presence of mind to listen for that quiet voice which says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.”

And on this Leadership Formation Day we are reminded that the call of God comes into your life like an unwanted pregnancy.

A research project I did several years ago gave me an excuse to speak to each of the 49 men and women who’d been selected as ordination candidates in the synod of SA between 1995 and 2005.  Among other things I was interested in their experiences of “call”.

I won’t bore you with all the details of what I found out now.  I’ll only report that for the vast majority of those men and women the call to ministry meant a major disruption to their lives and plans and ways of thinking about themselves.  Some left homes or businesses.  Some found key relationships strained to breaking point.  Some had to learn to think about themselves in a new way.  This was especially so for the women I spoke to.  Again and again I heard how they had to learn to read the Bible all over again, discovering that the Word of God didn’t exclude them from leadership just because of their sex.

Among the two thirds of the group who experienced God’s call as a divine intervention in their lives – a supernatural encounter – were many who were completely thrown by it.

  • “It was fairly terrifying.”
  • “A shock went through my body.”
  • “I rang my wife in tears.”
  • “It’s not the sort of thing I’d put on paper.”

Others experienced it as a gift of peace after years of struggle.

  • “I had asked God for a clear message.”
  • “I had gone there wanting to sort [my call] out.”
  • “It was like a word from the Lord.”

So my conversations with those men and women confirmed that Bonhoeffer had it right when he wrote:

“When Christ calls [you], he bids [you] come and die.  It may be a death like that  of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s , who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world.  But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old [person] at his call.”

Bonheoffer taught that “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. …Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it people will gladly go and sell all that they have. …Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs a person their life, and it is grace because it gives a person the only true life.”

It’s this kind of grace, costly grace, which is at the heart of today’s call story – the annunciation, when Mary is called to conceive and bear the baby who promises everything. On this Leadership Formation Day we are reminded that the call of God comes into your life like an unwanted pregnancy. Derailing your life, ruining your reputation, forcing you to make an awful choice. Is it any wonder that the call of God comes with the words, “Do not be afraid…”?

My friends, this is the good news for us:

Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid.

For you have found favour with God.

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