I confess that I enjoy a good meme now and again. The snarky quips pasted over engaging photos often make me guffaw with their cynical wisdom. This past Christmas, however, I kept seeing memes that irked me, perhaps because they critiqued one of my favorite Christmas songs, “Mary Did You Know?” For the unfamiliar, here is one of the verses:
Mary, did you know
that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know
that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know
that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby
You’ve kissed the face of God.
In response, the meme-makers have generated everything from “Of course she knew! Read Luke 1” to “Listen to the women! They told us they knew! Luke 1.” While I appreciate the Scripture reference, it’s pretty clear that Mary had no idea what she was getting herself into when she said yes to the angel Gabriel. Gabriel did give her a few juicy tidbits: “He will be great, and 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, and of his kingdom there will be no end’” (Lk. 1:32-33). Not to mention, Joseph surely explained to Mary that the angel told him that Jesus would save the people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).
But let’s keep in mind that ideas about the expected messiah were many and varied in those days. Sure, people understood that a descendant of David had been promised to restore the kingdom of David (2 Sam. 7:12-13). But how that restoration would take place was the object of speculation. For some, the messiah would be a warrior king, while others predicted a priest or teacher of righteousness would lead the people.
They did not expect God himself to arrive on the scene in the form of an infant. After all, “son of God” was a term that could refer to human beings, angels, or even to Israel. Jews also did not expect God’s anointed one to suffer and die on a criminal’s cross at the hands of the Romans. (The Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah were initially thought to refer to the nation of Israel, not a messianic figure.)
Even though Gabriel told Mary about her miraculous baby, she had no idea that shepherds would show up on her doorstep, or prophets in the Temple would laud her child, or Magi would visit and present luxurious gifts. She certainly wasn’t expecting to flee to Egypt with her child to avoid the murderous intent of a paranoid king.
Even the Gospels acknowledge that Mary and her other children misunderstood Jesus’ ministry. Mark 3:21 reports that they thought Jesus was out of his mind, and when they tried to see him (3:31), Jesus called his disciples his new family. Yet the sting of this rejection could not prepare Mary for the horrors of the cross or the miracle of the empty tomb. Mary, did you know? Of course, you didn’t.
But how often do we assume we know the plans of God? Since hindsight is 20/20, Christians can too quickly jump to the conclusion that if we had been there, we would have seen these things coming. How many of us shake our heads at the inability of the disciples to understand the parables of Jesus or to remain faithful to him in his darkest hour? Yet I doubt we would have fared any better. The disciples had heard Jesus predict that he would rise from the dead on the third day, but even then they didn’t believe the women who both saw the empty tomb and spoke with angels (Lk. 24:11). Some of the disciples even doubted after they saw Jesus (Matt. 28:17). They literally could not believe their eyes. These people had the benefit of walking with Jesus daily for three years, sharing stories around the campfire at night, seeing miracles, and eating the blessed and broken bread passed to 5,000 people. But they still didn’t know what was in store for them after they rolled the stone in front of the tomb.
If we consider many of the other leaders in the Bible, we will find that their calling was not everything they expected either. When God sent Samuel to anoint David as the next king of Israel, did David have any idea the difficult path that lay before him? Did he know that King Saul would try to kill him numerous times? Did he know that he would feign insanity in order to escape the Philistines (1 Sam. 21:10-15)? Did he know that he would marry several women, but his passions would lead to his downfall with Bathsheba? Did he know that his kingdom would be divided a few decades after his death? Did he know that it would take hundreds of years before one of his descendants came to free his people from their sins?
When God called the apostle Paul into service, could Paul have imagined how many churches he would start? Did he know the extent to which he would suffer beatings, imprisonments, and shipwrecks (2 Cor. 11:23-33)? Did he know how many of the letters that he wrote would be copied and read for 2,000 years? Did he know that his words, by the power of the Holy Spirit, would lead the likes of Augustine and Martin Luther and John Wesley to deeper faith and service?
So when God calls us, what do we know? Our vision is never 20/20. The problem with assuming we know the details is that often reality differs significantly. Then it becomes easy to question our calling. This conundrum is nothing new. Even prophets and apostles, when they felt discouraged, needed to hear that God was still calling them to kingdom service. Elijah ran into the wilderness and thought he was the only one left who was loyal to God; in the stillness, God corrected him. There remained 7,000 who had not bent their knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:1-18). Even the seer had not seen this.
Apostles, too, needed encouragement. When Paul was in Corinth and had been rejected by the Jews, the Lord told him in a vision not to be afraid and to continue to speak the Gospel; no one would harm him there (Acts 18:9-10). Yet at other times, the Holy Spirit’s message was not as comforting. When Paul headed to Jerusalem for the last time, he did not know what lay ahead “except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me” (Acts 20:22-23).
Scripture demonstrates that both great hardship and great blessing accompany service to God. Occasionally the Holy Spirit does give us specific direction and confirmation (“Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul”—Acts 9:11). But most often, we will not know exactly how God will work out the calling that God has assigned us. The humility of not knowing leads us to deeper faithfulness as we cling to God along the path.
Note from the Editor: The accompanying featured image is “Mother and Child” by Mary Cassatt, ca. 1900.