“No one is on the periphery of God’s story”.
That’s how the pastor at the church I attended last Sunday started his very well delivered message. And what a great message it was! He went on to explain that no matter who you are, God wants to use you to spread the light of Jesus to the people around you.
He went on, “We’re going to be reading out of Luke chapter 2 this morning. Around Christmas time, most people stop in the middle of the chapter, but this morning we’re going to be reading out of the second part of Luke 2.” He’s going to tell the story of Anna, I thought.
I was excited. I have never heard a pastor tell the story of Anna from the pulpit.
Even around Christmas time when pastors preach out of the chapter she is found in, most stop before getting to her. I have even heard one pastor skip her story altogether, deeming the verses directly in front of and following her story as more important. But this Sunday would be different. This guy’s message was entitled “No One is on the Periphery of God’s Story” and he specifically said he was going to preach out of the second half of the chapter!
He preached about Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the temple. Then he preached about Simeon, the righteous man who was led by the Holy Spirit into the temple & recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. “Simeon met Jesus, took him into his arms, and recognized him as the precious gift he was.”
What a great image. Simeon, like Anna, is rarely talked about. And to have the image of him taking baby Jesus into his arms and cherishing him was beautiful. The pastor wanted us to see that when we encounter Jesus, we should hold him close and recognize him as the most precious of gifts. But then something strange happened. He stopped.
In the middle of the story about Jesus being dedicated in the temple, with 5 verses left in the story, he stopped.
He moved on to a passage in Ephesians and didn’t come back to the story in Luke 2 for the rest of the sermon. What’s so special about the next 5 verses? It’s the story of Anna. The weird part was that Anna’s story would have fit well with his sermon. He went on to talk about how God wants us not just to recognize Jesus, but to go out and spread the light of Jesus to everyone around us. He spent the whole last part of his sermon talking about how we should spread the message and be the light.
But this isn’t what Simeon did upon encountering the Messiah – it’s what Anna did.
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Anna saw Jesus, knew he was the messiah, and told everyone in the temple about him.
The pastor had a built-in, biblical example of the behavior he wanted his congregation to mimic, and he didn’t use it. Anna was right there in the passage he was teaching out of. She wasn’t out of place or off-topic. It would have been natural to use her as an illustration. His sermon would have been better if he had done so. And yet her name went unspoken.
Sunday after Sunday, sermon after sermon, we hear the stories of the men of the Bible – David, Abraham, Noah, Peter, Lazarus. It is rare to hear sermons about the women of the Bible – Rahab, Sarah, Deborah, Huldah, Mary of Bethany.
The teaching we receive on Sunday mornings tends to paint a one-sided picture, a mosaic with missing pieces, and it leads to us think that the Bible also teaches this male-centric message.
That’s why it is so incredibly powerful to open up the scriptures and read aloud the stories of women. Because we have to be reminded that they are there, and many times we find ourselves thinking I’ve never heard that story before! 2 Timothy teaches us that,
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”
All scripture. When we teach only about the men, we miss out on the inspired Word, the teaching, the reproof, the correction, and the training in righteousness that God intended for us. And when we teach about the women, we begin to see a fuller story. We can see the message more clearly, and we fill in the missing pieces of the mosaic.
Don’t get me wrong – I loved this guy’s preaching. I loved that he taught about Simeon, and he did it well. But we can’t just talk about the men. We need to talk about both the men and the women. We need both to fully understand the message. Teaching about both men and women shows us the full picture, and smooths out the rough edges that partial teaching leaves behind.
This pastor’s sermon was called “No One is on The Periphery of God’s Story” and yet he didn’t include the woman in the biblical narrative.
I was reminded that morning just how engrained our bias against women is. Did you know that it is a commonly held belief in the Christian world that John the Baptist was the first prophet Israel had seen in 400 years? Commentary after commentary, website after website teach that God did not raise up a prophet any time between Malachi and John the Baptist. As Bible.org puts it, “As a prophet, John the Baptist was a novelty in Israel at this time. For nearly 400 years God had not spoken through the prophets.”
And yet, right there in Luke chapter 2 – when John the Baptist was still a child – Anna was prophesying in the temple. Scripture calls her a prophet, yet commentaries deem her too unimportant to mention. No wonder pastors don’t think to mention her.
We have been so ingrained with a male bias that we skip the stories of the women of the Bible.
They are a built-in blind spot, even for those of us who are theologically trained. And so I am using this post to remind us: Preach the women!
Preaching the stories of women is a powerful act because when you preach the stories of the women, you are engaging not only in biblical teaching but in the reviving of a lost faith. You are awakening in the souls of your congregants something that’s long been dormant. You are telling the women before you, and the men too, that women are not on the periphery of God’s story. You are teaching the little girls, and the little boys too, that the girl characters are important too. When you preach the stories of women you are filling in the lost pieces of the mosaic, painting the true picture, telling the full story.
But it’s even more than that, isn’t it? When we refuse to gloss over stories of the women of the Bible, we are breaking the bondage that patriarchy has on God’s people. Your message may not have anything to do with equality or liberation, but when you preach the women of the Bible, you are pushing back against the dark forces that would have us believe that half of God’s creation doesn’t matter.