Christmas: The Time Is… Now! (Isaiah 9:2-7)

Photo by Natesh Ramasamy, 2012, used by permission CreativeCommons.org.

Photo by Natesh Ramasamy, 2012, used by permission CreativeCommons.org.

By Virginia Holmstrom

Isaiah 9:2-7

On Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Messiah, whose birth made real God’s kingdom on earth. I ponder the Scripture’s mixture of tenses that describe the fullness of God’s reign on earth. Isaiah 9:2-7 is a good example of this. I read Isaiah 9 as a prophetic proclamation of the coming of God’s reign someday. But verse 6 tells me that a child has been born for us, and his authority brings justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. So, again I ask, “When is the Kingdom of God coming?” For those who heard Isaiah’s voice in 700 B.C., would it come with the birth of the Messiah? For Christians today, will it happen one day when Christ comes again? Has it already begun? My question is the same question asked by the Pharisee in Luke 17:20-21: “When is the kingdom of God coming?” Jesus answered him, “The kingdom of God is among you.” Now.

With Christ in my life, and in community with others who follow Christ, then what shall be my role as a citizen of God’s reign on earth? I am startled as my eyes instantly fill with tears. The promises associated with the coming of God’s reign on earth feel so distant from the reality of life today. In the kingdom of God there is endless peace. There is justice and righteousness. There is equity for the poor. And the list goes on; Jesus frequently talked about the kingdom of God in the stories recorded by the Gospel writers.

JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48387 [retrieved November 4, 2015].

JESUS MAFA. The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48387 [retrieved November 4, 2015].

I straddle an uneasy gap between a righteous and holy realm that has already come, but not yet come. I recall the words to a Christian song from the Taizé community: “The kingdom of God is justice and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Come, Lord, and open in me the gates of your kingdom.” There is a call in those words that I cannot ignore. I cannot turn away with resignation that God will rein on earth someday in the sweet by and by.

My ministry with women and girls is dedicated to empowering women and girls to live into God’s purpose for their lives. Can you visualize with me how God’s kingdom on earth will be when women and girls in our churches, our neighborhoods, our nation, and the world are encouraged and empowered to fully and freely exercise their gifts. . . of leadership? . . . contributing their voices at peace treaty tables? . . . preaching the Gospel of Christ? . . . serving God’s people in every capacity? The time is now. Unto you, this day, a child has been born! The kingdom of God is here. Now!

Oh, God, open in us the gates of your kingdom. Amen.

Virginia Holmstrom 2012 smVirginia Holmstrom serves as the executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

 

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Advent Week 4: In Community (Luke 1:39-45)

By Annette Pacheco

4thAdventVickyvSThis series of posts for Advent is based on the lectionary readings for each Sunday.

Luke 1:39-45

Nothing captures the terror, confusion of an unmarried teenage girl’s response to an unplanned, unbelievable pregnancy so much as this running away. And where did she go? To a Judean hill country town to visit her relative Elizabeth, the only other person who could understand what she is going through, the only person who could possibly wait with her as she sorted out the troubling news that she would bear God in her womb. Like Mary, Elizabeth was pregnant with a miraculous child, and like Mary, she was all alone, having gone into seclusion for the first two trimesters of her pregnancy.  So they meet, both bearing the scandalous news of their pregnancies, in isolation, in loneliness: one unconscionably old with a husband recently made mute and the other, scandalously young and engaged to a fiancé who did not even join her on this fast trip to the hillside. And there is a relief upon their meeting, like a cleansing exhale that comes when a burden lightens.

He, Qi. The Visitation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46125 [retrieved November 4, 2015]. Original source: heqigallery.com.

He, Qi. The Visitation, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46125 [retrieved November 4, 2015]. Original source: heqigallery.com.

Like so many before her, Mary had experienced the revelation of God in isolation, and it was disorienting and troubling. It is that disorienting revelation which sends Mary, like others before her, in search of community to make sense of her situation. Among the breaking-in of God into history are nine months of pregnancy’s wait, three months of waiting with a friend, meals to cook, dishes to clean, stories to share, neighbors to love. Where the Annunciation initially sent Mary into a flustered hurried to escape, the Magnificat roots her in place, in community and makes her to stay, to wait for the world to change, beginning with her own small, teenaged belly.

Perhaps this is the lesson we are to take away from the end of Advent: that it is only in community that we can realize the hope of the season. Only in community can the announcement that the Lord is with us be a blessing and not a curse. Only in community can we embrace the impossibility that the wait is finally over, but that it is also just beginning. Only in community can we gathering the courage to hope that while what happens next in the story of God might be anybody’s guess, something is actually happening. And that it is disturbingly good.

So perhaps, this Advent, God is not late after all.

Annette Pacheco Treasurer 14-17 cropAnnette Pacheco serves as national treasurer for American Baptist Women’s Ministries and does the accounting work in the finance office at the Academia Bautista de Yauco.

 

Advent Week 3: Welcoming the Stranger in Our Midst

By Gail M. Aita

3rdAdventFunchyeThis series of posts for Advent is based on the lectionary readings for each Sunday.

Leviticus 19:33-34, Isaiah 25:4, Zephaniah 3:14-15, Matthew 25:33-40, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:11

I must admit that I was having a very difficult time getting started writing this blog post. I really seemed to have a writer’s block and just couldn’t get going. Then I spoke with a dear friend named Annie and was telling her that I just couldn’t “jump into the pool” and get going. She very wisely told me, “When you are up on the diving board sometimes it is so difficult to just jump off. You may be afraid, it may be too high, and you may have difficulty swimming once you are in the pool. But, often it is more difficult and humiliating to turn around and climb off the board so you might as well jump in. It doesn’t matter if you do a swan dive, or a jack-knife, or even a belly-flop, just go for it. Jump into the pool of God’s amazing love. He is waiting to help you in whatever way you need.” And so, here I am, writing the post that God has put on my heart.

(c) 2008 Sandra Hasenauer

(c) 2008 Sandra Hasenauer

The title of this blog is “In Their Shoes;” I can’t help but be reminded of all the refugees and I wonder if we will ever be able to actually “walk in their shoes?” So much has been said about refugees these past months. However, I do not think that we will ever be able to stop dealing with the refugee situation both in our own country and around the world. Teaching in Myanmar and working with refugees from Myanmar here in the U.S. has changed my life. What makes someone a refugee? Fleeing persecution in one’s homeland because of the ravages of war, political persecution, ethnic persecution, or religious persecution qualifies someone for “refugee status” in the United States and in many other countries. People all over the world are fleeing their homes because they are being persecuted or are in fear of their lives. And yet many countries including the United States are closing their borders to the hungry, the lost, and the forgotten. They limit the number of foreigners allowed into their country when there are still millions who are waiting for a safe place—a refuge.

This week’s lectionary passages are all about the stranger. Leviticus 19:33-34 reminds us, “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” In today’s political scene, we hear so much about closing our borders, building a wall, keeping people out, taking care of our own first when, in reality, Isaiah 25:4 speaks to us today: “You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat.”

Zephaniah 3:14-15 states, “Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.” Refugees do rejoice because they have come to a land where they have heard there is religious freedom, where they can worship as they choose, where they are free to get an education, where they will not be persecuted because they are different. But it is sad to say that is not always the case. Sometimes there is a new enemy: those who do not welcome them, those who make fun of them and humiliate them because they are different. They need to find “someplace safe with somebody good.”* They need the protection of not only our laws but of loving, caring Christians, fellow believers.

Krohg, Christian, 1852-1925. Struggle for Survival, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56052 [retrieved November 19, 2015]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christian_Krohg_-_Struggle_for_Survival_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

Krohg, Christian, 1852-1925. Struggle for Survival, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56052 [retrieved November 19, 2015]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christian_Krohg_-_Struggle_for_Survival_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

Matthew 25:33-40 is the classic passage that reminds us also of our Christian responsibility towards the disadvantaged: feeding the poor, taking care of the sick…welcoming the stranger. Sometimes we forget that Jesus Christ and his family were also refugees. What better time than now, during the Advent season, to remember the plight of the Holy Family as they fled Bethlehem and traveled to Egypt to flee the revenge of King Herod? They traveled to a foreign country, not knowing the language, having only what they brought with them to Bethlehem for a short stay, very little money except the gifts the wise men gave them (God does provide), and a new baby too. What would have happened to the Christ child if they had not been welcomed in this foreign country? Luke 3:11 tells us “whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

Desmond Tutu once said “In the story of the sheep and the goats, Jesus declared that it ‘would be whether we fed or did not feed the hungry, whether we clothed or did not clothe the naked, whether we visited the imprisoned or not, which would say what our final destination will be.'” (Reformed Journal, Oct 1985, p. 13)

Some refugees today have waited 25-30 years to be able to return to their homeland. Many of their children have been born and raised in refugee camps, with no citizenship: children without a country. Where do they belong? Where are they welcomed? There are well over 15 million refugees around the world, unable to get jobs, without a permanent home, not belonging. They live in a country that does not speak their language, where the climate may be different, the food is different, and the culture is foreign. However, the reality of life as a Christian is that we are all refugees just waiting to go home to heaven.

It is the blessed Advent Season, we are called to “jump into the pool of God’s amazing love,” as my friend Annie had reminded me, and to share all that we have not only with those we love, but with the “foreigners” and with those who are in need. We are to teach our young women and girls the gift of sharing, the gift of giving, and God’s gift of Love. There is an old Jewish proverb that says, “Hospitality is a form of worship.” When we open our homes and hearts to the stranger, we are worshipping our God and King.

As we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I pray that we may be able to say to our sisters and brothers from other countries: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:4-7).

*With thanks to Jan Karon for her title Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good: The New Mitford Novel (Berkley, 2015).

Gail Aita Geo West 2014-2017 cropGail Aita serves as Coordinator of the Western Section of American Baptist Women’s Ministries. She and her husband Paul have spent six summers teaching at the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). 

Advent Week 2: Preparation (Luke 1:68-79)

2dAdventunderthesunBy Ellen Teague

This series of posts for Advent is based on the lectionary readings for each Sunday.

Luke 1:68-79

The second week of Advent is sometimes called the week of preparation–a time to reflect on the ways God prepared us for the coming of God’s son, Jesus. The Jewish people had been under the rule of other nations for many years; they had been separated from their land and each other but were promised that God would send a deliverer. Isaiah tells of a sign: “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and she shall call His name Immanuel,” (Isaiah 7:14). In Micah we read, “O Bethlehem, you are but a small Judean village, yet you will be the birthplace of my King who is alive from everlasting ages past,” (Micah 5:2).

21.08.2007: John the Baptist window, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Bourges

Elizabeth and Zechariah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54189 [retrieved November 4, 2015]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pelegrino/1356007875/.

Zacharias was a priest married to a woman named Elizabeth. Both were recognized as good people before God. One day the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharias and told him that Elizabeth, who was quite old, would bear a son. Further, the son should be named John and he would be filled with the Holy Spirit. When Zacharias questioned Gabriel, he was struck silent because of his disbelief. But, in time, Elizabeth gave birth to a son and her family rejoiced with her. When Zacharias affirmed Elizabeth’s decision to name the child John he regained his speech and praised God:

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them…And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace,” (Luke 1:68-29, NIV, excerpted).

John prepared the people for the one who was promised. He called the people to repentance and told them another would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He later baptized Jesus, saw the spirit of God descending as a dove and heard the voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” (Matthew 3:17, NRSV).

As you prepare for Christmas, are there women or girls in your neighborhood or your church who need to be included in your holiday plans? Instead of giving a gift that will be used and forgotten, have you considered making a contribution in their name to an organization that helps women and girls? Have you considered purchasing gifts from sources that provide needed income to women struggling to simply survive? Is this the year to include newcomers in your holiday plans? Some of my family’s most memorable holidays were those we spent with friends from other countries who shared their holiday traditions around the dinner table.

This Christmas, let’s not forget to focus on God’s gift of Jesus, to renew ourselves spiritually and to share our joy and hope with others.

Ellen TeagueEllen Teague serves as Coordinator of the Eastern Section for American Baptist Women’s Ministries and is executive director of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention (DCBC) Foundation.