Gender bias is often in the news. We see this not just in the west but across the world. So when Sam and I were in India earlier this year we read in their papers how more and more people are speaking out about gender inequality. They understandably want girls to be given the same opportunities as boys, and that oppression of one gender by another should not be tolerated.
Gender discrimination is an important issue today and a genuine matter of social justice. Maya Angelou is right when she says, ‘How important it is for us to recognise and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!’ But travel back two millennia to the first Advent in ancient Israel and we discover a society very different to ours. It was more patriarchal and few questioned the fact that women had less rights and fewer opportunities than men. It wouldn’t surprise us then to find a gender bias towards men in the Advent stories of the bible. But look closely at the interaction of God with women and men in this world and we see something fascinating: there’s a good mix of genders in the stories but if there’s a bias at all, it’s towards the women!
Whilst both men and women are used by the Lord in all sorts of different ways in the stories, only two are described as ‘favoured‘ by God. One is Elizabeth (Lk 1:25), the wife of Zechariah, who conceives and gives birth to John the Baptist despite being elderly and past the age of childbearing. The other is Mary, the mother of Jesus, whom the angel describes as ‘highly favoured’ (Lk 1:28). So the favoured are the women!
Why is this? Is it because God doesn’t like men? Clearly not, because God uses all sorts of men in the Advent stories who are a great inspiration to us – men like Zechariah, Joseph, Simeon and of course Jesus himself! Rather, it seems that God doesn’t want to collude with the social patriarchy of the day and so brings a degree of rebalance by using and choosing people of both genders, whilst ‘favouring’ the women.
That means the bible, completed some 2,000 years ago, was a radical document way ahead of its time! Rather than being a means of social oppression of women (as some revisionist scholars have suggested) the bible actually had some radical things to say about gender that still speak prophetically into contemporary societies around the world. Many women in particular have found God’s word liberating and empowering, and rightly so.
When God sent a fresh wave of the Holy Spirit that first Advent it impacted women and men. It’s been the same throughout history and is no different today. As we work and pray for another outpouring of the Spirit in our region in our day, watch out for God calling and using both women and men for his purposes. That means it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman reading this. Whoever you are, you’re included! Man or woman, you’re invited! The Lord wants to use even you!
ACTION: Think of one woman and one man in society today whom you respect. Spend a few minutes looking them up online and finding out more about their lives. Be inspired by them and give thanks for their influence. Look out for an opportunity to tell someone else about their life and why they inspire you.
PRAY: For one girl and one boy known to you. Pray for God to bless them, to call them and that they’d know the favour of God as they respond in faithful service.