Mystery Revealed!

(Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38) J G White
4th Sunday of Advent, Dec 24, 2017, UBC Digby

Here we are on the cusp of Christmas.  The excited anticipation is at its peak.  Even adults have been counting how many ‘sleeps’ until Christmas morning; I think this is about get-togethers, gifts and food; don’t you?  We are waiting for the mysteries to be revealed.  What’s in that big parcel, that long narrow gift, that decorated envelope.  

That first Christmas was quite different, but it was definitely about mysteries being revealed.  Good News!  Young Mary is to have a baby.  This is a big favour from God.  But it takes some time for Mary and her family to come to terms with this.  Well, they have nine months, we could say.  We retell this story because of its power.  

Christmas eve is just hours away for us, but this morning, we take up the story nine months before.  When the news is brand new to Mary.  Good News sometimes begins with just one person.  But then, you know of someone you can go to.  Someone who also will understand God is involved.

Sharon and I were at lunch on Friday at St. Pat’s Soup Kitchen.  And I thought about the weekly free meal on Thursdays at Windsor Baptist Church.  It has been going on for years, since Y2K, perhaps.  Each Thursday, a team of folks brings in food and prepares it for 20 or 30 or 40 people to share.  They all eat in the BIG kitchen together.  It’s called the House of Hospitality.  

It began in a small way, years ago.  A retired nurse named Betty and the associate Pastor named Marlene got talking.  They had a vision, just the two of them, a vision for this beautiful weekly luncheon.  It took time to get others on board to work with them.  It took time for people in the community to start coming to the lunch – years.  Now, the House of Hospitality has been a wonderful thing, for more than fifteen years.  

It takes time to come to terms with Big News.  Mary, at first, was perplexed.  Yes, she surely had many different feelings and thoughts as her pregnancy went along.

In the events as Luke tells them, the next part has Mary travel to visit her older relative, Elizabeth, who is also – unexpectedly – expecting!  Christy Thomas, who blogs as The Thoughtful Pastor, explored the many feelings of these women as she retells the story…

Mary, mother of Jesus, hears the words of the angel. She will bear a special child. Almost immediately she sets out to see her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, at least a five day and often dangerous, walk. Why? Because the angel also told her that Elizabeth was six months into a pregnancy.

One can only guess at Mary’s state of mind. Terror, certainly. A strange vision, an awareness that something was happening to her body, the horror of possibly being pregnant in a world where a non-married pregnant woman would likely be stoned to death . . . let us not turn our eyes away from her predicament.

Picture her arrival at Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. She would come unannounced, of course. No email or text zaps to prepare her hosts. She’d show up and seek entrance, only to hear that Elizabeth was in total seclusion, refusing all visitors.

Elizabeth, seriously past child-bearing age, carried the stigma of barrenness. Barrenness: the sign of God’s displeasure. When the land . . . or a woman . . . did not produce or reproduce, everyone suffered.

Now this elderly woman must cope with an unexpected pregnancy. She will take no chances. Will see no one. Her sole companions: her silenced husband and her private, quietly silenced fears that her pregnancy was not going well.

Mary insists that she be permitted to see Elizabeth. She quietly enters the dark room, only one tiny window offering light.

After her eyes adjust, she observes Elizabeth, sitting in utter stillness, her hands resting on her swollen belly. Signs of worry, perhaps even tears, emphasize her aged-lined features. The life inside her womb has stilled. She feels no movement. She fears an imminent stillbirth.

Mary softly greets her cousin. Suddenly, Elizabeth opens her eyes, her face alight with hope again. For upon hearing Mary’s voice, the child inside Elizabeth’s body begins to move with energetic vigor.

The old woman, face now awash in tears of joy, embraces her young, terrified cousin. Then, looking at her straight in the eyes, Elizabeth confirms Mary’s pregnancy and the hope that her baby will bring to the world.

Finally, Mary, fear temporarily set aside, rejoices in her own pregnancy.

‘Nothing will be impossible with God,’ said Gabriel to Mary.  And that is what we seek from God too, hoping against hope for the impossible, from time to time.  The physical or mental healing we want to see in someone dear.  That reconciliation with someone in the family.  A step in the right direction for the person we know who has been taking all the wrong steps.  We wait for a miracle, sometimes with great hope, sometimes with great fear that it just ain’t going to happen.  Jesus will come into the world, and what will he do?  We take time to be hopeful, doubtful, positive, confused, enthusiastic, depressed, and anything else.  The journey of faith takes time.  

Mary also decided to let it be.  Let herself be.  Be pregnant.  Be the mother of this chosen Child.  Be of service to God, whatever that would mean.  And when she has that visit with Elizabeth, Mary sings, her soul sings out!  She rejoices in God her Saviour.  The impossible does happen, at last.  Not just a young girl having a holy Child, not just an old woman expecting her first child, but for the whole people the long-awaited Messiah is finally arriving.  There will be a Saviour.

Sharon and I happened to go to a cinema this past week to see the newest Star Wars film.  Spectacular science fiction, and like so many action adventure stories, it is, what I call, “How many times can you escape certain death?”  You know, the heroes – and some of the villains – have not hope of survival… and they do survive, yet again.

Our Bible adventures are filled with suspense too.  Over and over, people get to the end of the rope.  But then there is a new hope.  And we see this in our living today.  We dream the impossible dream, fight the unbeatable foe, bear with unbearable sorrow, and go where the brave dare not go.  

A mystery is revealed.  There is more good at work in the world than we see.  The journey can be hard.  The Mystery is how God comes in and rescues, how God reunites with us.  How life wins over death, and good wins over evil.  This all gets revealed in a birth in Bethlehem, and a cross near Jerusalem.  

She Matters 3

(Joel 2:25-29; Romans 16:1-7) J G White

Sunday, May 14, 2017, UBC Digby

One evening last week, I happened to change my plans, spur of the moment, and go with Sharon to a community meeting not far from here, to discuss the challenges of patriarchy and misogyny in our society.  Patriarchy – the rule of males as the head of, well everything: families, societies, churches, governments, educators.  Misogyny – hatred and prejudice against women because they are women.  The meeting, of eight people, was a profound time of sharing: sharing experience and wisdom and hopes.

Today happens to be a day to celebrate women, in a variety of ways.  Motherhood is in the forefront, and every human has had a mother.  Personally, today, it just so happens that Sharon White is graduating from university, with a degree in Christian ministry – for women and men in ministry.  And, with Baptists across Canada this year, we here speak out and we act to help women become leaders, in the faith, and in their communities.  

Hundred of years before the days of Jesus, the prophet Joel proclaimed the word of God: I will repay you for the years that the swarming locust has eaten…  (Joel 2:25)  

There is repayment in God’s Kindom for women who have been put down, oppressed, abused, disadvantaged.  God’s word through Joel goes on to say:  I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophecy…  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (2:28a, 29)

Popular awareness of women’s issues was highlighted in recent years by Malala Yousafzai, of Pakistan, activist for education, beginning at age 11. Murder attempt on her life at age 15. Nobel Peace Prize laureate at age 17.  Now, at 19, made an honourary Canadian citizen.  

In our own way, we Christians, Baptist Christians, have a mission for the sake of women’s education and leadership.  Today, we focus upon our Canadian Baptist Ministries She Matters campaign:

In the first year, She Matters 1 improved access to education for girls. She Matters Too equipped women with vocational skills, business training and grants, to help her earn family income. Now it is her turn to lead!  She Matters 3 will provide enhanced learning and leadership opportunities to empower women who inspire, encourage and help others to develop their God-given potential.  

Funds and awareness in this year’s campaign will support important initiatives, including – Offering theological education scholarships to female church leaders in the Middle East and North Africa, a region in turmoil and in need of Christian witness.

We now know well, in our corner of the world, that women are called into ‘Christian ministry,’ so called.  By God’s will and grace, they go to divinity colleges, they become pastors and professors and chaplains.  Sharon White, along with other women, was just commissioned by our own Div School on Friday, and the students will graduate from Acadia this very afternoon! (That is why Sharon and I will leave this service early – to get to Wolfville on time!)

And we of Digby County are also coming ahead in terms of our understanding of Arabic speaking peoples, and all those of the Middle East.  The deeply rooted and damaging stereotypes of Ahab the A-rab, with a harem of women, or of Ahmed the [dead] terrorist, are being overcome – though it is slow progress.  

When we ponder women going to a Divinity College, do we think of those who speak Arabic, who are Christians praying to Allah, and even Baptize believers by immersion as we do?  If you read the colour leaflet in last week’s bulletin, you saw a photo of Samar, a theology student at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon.  Let that sink in again – the Arab, Baptist, theological school, in Lebanon.  Women are being trained for ministry there.

 We are part of this team across the world, and we can give to help their education. This is what She Matters 3 is about.  

It is also for – Empowering women in Rwanda by providing training on gender issues, women and children’s rights and entrepreneurship.  We have global field staff posted in nations such as this, to partner with churches and organizations there, to see that the work gets done. So, in Rwanda, Africa, we Canadian Baptists have Janice Mills, as well as Darrell and Laura Lee Bustin.  

One bit of work Janice and Laura Lee do together is to host short term mission teams.  For instance, back in January they hosted a group of eleven women from across Canada who travelled to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Among other things, they spent time with women there who had experienced serious trauma.  Through their loving presence, words of encouragement, and small acts of kindness, they showed these women that they truly matter.  She Matters!  (Tidings, May 2017, p.3)

You will notice that this Baptist mission campaign also is about – Supporting national female pastors so they are able to serve among the Chinese diaspora.  You know what a diaspora is, eh?  An ethnic group living away from their homeland.  You may well know that we Canadian Baptists have John and Ruth Chan as global field staff working with chinese young people – especially students – who are not in China.  Do you know where the Chans are serving?  In Germany.  Working with the ‘Chinese diaspora’ there.

In an update, John tells this story:

“Pastor Chan, I will be flying back to China tomorrow. Thank you and Mrs. Chan for helping me and caring for me while in Germany. I will have fond memories of the time spent here in Hannover. May God bless you two!”

The message is from a M.D. graduate. She arrived in Hannover two years before to pursue her M.D. degree. Amazingly, she graduated in only a little over two years. During her time here, she only attended Bible study meetings sporadically. But she attended every week after she finished her thesis. Not only did she attend Bible study meetings, she went to Chinese library operated by FMCD [Friends for the Mission among Chinese in Germany] to read books. She spent all her time reading different books and writing down notes fearing that she will miss some detail. She said that she was very grateful that she could spend her first Christmas (two years ago) in German at our home with a group of other new students. It made her feel welcomed into a big family.

She attended a Christmas celebration in our big family just before returning to China. When she received the goodbye gift from us, a 365-day devotions book, she was elated and said, “It is just what I need because the book includes background information on each Bible passage. It will help me to understand the Bible. I will use it every day!” We pray that the Word of God and the Love of Christ will be with her as she returns to China.  (Ministry Update Chans in Hanover, Q4 2016)

John and Ruth Chan are now about to finish their ministry there and take on new responsibilities.  It may be the Chans as well as others who will help support female pastors to Chinese people living in various other nations.

And this She Matters 3 campaign also supports – Other CBM programs which seek to educate, equip, and empower some of the world’s most marginalized women and girls.

Our quest for justice across the globe will shift our thinking about the women and girls of our own lives and neighbourhoods.  We will clear our eyes and know the better attitudes and actions we can take with our own mothers, sisters and daughters.  And with men.  Sometimes the chauvinistic ways of men can best be addressed by other men.  

The personal greetings at the end of the big letter we call Romans, included women: I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. 2 …she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.

3 Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. 4 They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.
6 Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you.
7 Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.

Let us consider the women (and men) for whom we are grateful – and why.  Make your own list today.  
Mom Joan, who bore me, and raised me to be whatever I wanted to be.
Nanna Daisy, who encouraged Faith in me.
Gramma Dorothy, who showed me I am special.
Friend Ruth, who allowed me to be a kindred spirit.
Gardener Marilyn, who exemplified enthusiasm.
Deacon Tracy, who challenged my ideas of leadership.
Wife Sharon, who shows me the deep path of love and inner healing.

Make your own list today.  For they have cared for us, nurtured our faith, challenged our assumptions, inspired our lives.  Let us strive for the freedom and good life of others, both near and far away.  She matters.  Let us act on the lessons we have learned, the love we have been filled with, the Spirit we’ve been given.  

For it is the Holy Spirit who will be poured out on all people; our sons and daughters shall have a word from God on their lips.  Even on males and females who do not get paid for anything, the Spirit will fall.  

Such is the grace of God!