I love this painting! It’s titled The Annunciation. It was painted in 1898 by the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner. The first time I saw it in person, I wept. What triggered my emotions? I’ll tell you in a moment.
The painting depicts the moment when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. Initially, she was “confused and disturbed” (Luke 1:29, NLT). But the angel calmed her fears by assuring her she had “found favor with God.” Then he told her she had been chosen to deliver the Deliverer. Mary fully realized she would give birth to Jesus, the Promised Messiah, “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
I once heard Jack Hayford preach from this Christmas story. In the sermon, he explained that God often “works in prepositions” when calling someone. He said, “God’s redemptive promise was brought to Mary, to grow in her, to be delivered through her, to change the world around her.” And God’s methodology hasn’t changed. He still comes to people, growing His work in them, so His message is delivered through them, changing the world around them.
The word to is the first preposition in her storyline. When Gabriel came to Mary, she was flooded with contradictory thoughts and emotions. She was fearful, yet awestruck. She was joyful, yet doubtful. Mary initially questioned, “How will this be…?” (Luke 1:34). But ultimately, she embraced God’s call. Her emotional roller-coaster ride rested in assenting to God’s will. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she answered. “May your words to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). After Mary’s yes, “the angel left her” (Luke 1:38) and she was alone, filled with fear and wonder.
Then God’s verbal promise physically grew in Mary. What Scripture foretold—“The virgin will conceive”—came true (Matt. 1:22). Following conception, the divine zygote developed as any child would during gestation. And as the embryo grew in her womb, her aspirations for the Christ-child also grew. Upon meeting Elizabeth, she received a much-needed reassurance. Her older cousin exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (Luke 1:42). God was doing a work in Mary. And the work God was doing in Mary would be named Immanuel—meaning “God with us!” (Matthew 1:23).
Afterward, the Messiah was delivered through Mary to change the world around her. One of God’s highest angels told the lowliest of shepherds, “A Savior had been born to you” (Luke 2:11). They heard God’s redemptive promise! And this promise wasn’t limited to Jewish shepherds. It was for the world too. Jesus would be “a light of revelation for the Gentiles, and the glory of…Israel” (Luke 2:32). Both Jews and Gentiles were offered the promise of God’s redemption.
One time my wife Kim and I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. After hours of touring, I finally unfolded the museum’s brochure. Glancing through it, I realized The Annunciation was on display there. We quickly went to the gallery where it is housed. And when I saw the painting, I was overwhelmed. Visually it was stunning! But emotionally, I was moved to tears. Why? As I viewed Gabriel calling Mary, I recalled God calling me into the ministry. Paraphrasing Jack Hayford, it was when God’s redemptive promise was brought to me, to grow in me, to be delivered through me, to change the world around me.
When I was nineteen, God came to me and called me to be a pastor. The call was neither sudden, nor dazzling. There weren’t bright lights shining or choirs singing. Instead, His call was subtle, gradual, and unwavering. David Hansen writes, “Knowing the call takes time. It begins with inklings about a road we sense we are being asked to take and ends with a deep knowing of one’s self.”1
Mary’s initial response to God’s call was mine too. Both of us were frightened by the calling, yet honored to be asked. But God continued growing in me a faith strong enough to say yes. One evening at church, I mustered the courage to stand and say, “I believe God has called me to be a pastor.” Then I slumped back into the pew and wept. And that was the simple beginning of years of pastoral ministry.
So, why was I overcome with such emotions when I saw Henry Ossawa Tanner’s painting? I felt so humbled to be called and shocked I said yes. So, God called Mary to deliver Jesus. And God called me to deliver sermons through me about Jesus. And we’ve both been privileged to see God’s redemptive work change the world around us.
How what about you? Has God brought his redemptive purpose to you, to grow in you, to be delivered through you, to change the world around you? I believe He has.