The 18th of November marks the beginning of Prisoner’s Week. We’re urged to pray for those in prison, whether they deserve to be there or not. It is also the day when the Church remembers Catherine Anderson Charteris, the woman who founded what was then known as the Women’s Guild, now simply the Guild.
She was an incredible woman, born in 1837. She was involved in campaigning for women’s rights and she set up clubs for working folks who were struggling. Her Edinburgh Club was among the first of such places, among prostitutes, down-and-outs and drug addicts. People for whom the word ‘hope’ and ‘promise’ are simply words and to whom faith has little relevance in their lives. Catherine Charteris was inspired by the promises of Jesus Christ and her work was born out of her faith and underpinned by a life of prayer. She was just one example of how faith in Jesus Christ and fellowship within the Church can (as the letter to the Hebrews puts it) ‘provoke one another to love and good deeds.’
Our readings today begin the approach to Advent and we start to look at God’s gift to the world of Jesus Christ and the fulfilment of the promise bound up in his birth. The birth of the Christian Church (more of that as we enter December in a couple of weeks’ time.) We think of the Christmas season as one that is filled with joy and promise, but the readings leading up to that wonderful time of year are anything but, and this one from Mark’s Gospel introduces our first kind of scary note as it tackles the question of Christ’s return. It is sometimes called ‘The Little Apocalypse’, and every time I read it or hear it read I can’t help thinking _’but that’s already happening!’_.
Wars and rumours of war are the order of the day on our news programmes. We look at Syria and now Palestine, Afghanistan and many other places. We hear of earthquakes and storms and floods. We know about famines across the globe. And so we pray for those people, we thank God for our own safety and security and we pray for release for the captives, for mercy for the sinners, for love for the loveless, for food for the hungry, for safety for those in danger and for peace in places of war. And sometimes we get fed up. We come Sunday by Sunday and the world doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Is it all just words? Is there any point? Do we believe that God’s Kingdom will ever come or is it all just the opium of the people, as Karl Marx said? Is religion in general, and the Christian religion in particular, just a way of keeping folks from cutting up rough about the state of the world? And what indeed do we need the Church for? It’s dying anyway, isn’t it? Our numbers are falling dramatically and we’re running out of money. Few people are being called to the ministry and the whole thing is out of date and out of time.
Well, let’s have a wee look at China, that huge and wonderful country and see what’s been happening there in recent years. This year the World Mission Council of the Church of Scotland is concentrating its efforts in China, a country that has been much in the news recently after the inauguration of its new leader. Scotland has always had a special place in its heart for China and sent a number of people there as missionaries in the late 19th and early 20th century. One of the best known was Eric Liddell. After success in the 1924 Olympics Games in Paris and after graduating from University in 1925 he returned to China where he had been born, the son of Scots missionaries the Rev James Liddell and his wife Mary. He taught near Beijing for many years and in 1941 joined his brother Rob, a doctor on a mission station serving the very poorest of people. By this time the world was beginning to exhibit many of the features mentioned in the Little Apocalypse! The Second World War was approaching and China was becoming an even more dangerous place for Missionaries. Eric Liddell was interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and died there of a brain tumour in February of 1945.
Since those early days through many difficulties and much anti-Christian persecution, the Church of Jesus Christ has continued to grow and is now one of the recognised religions in China alongside Buddhism, Daoism and Islam. Just recently the convenor of the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council was in China to witness the production of the 80 millionth Bible being printed. Many of these Bibles will be distributed within China for the use of official Chinese Churches. There is still a lot of work to do. Christians are still, in many ways, persecuted, particularly if they speak out against the Communist government’s poor record on human rights. Our own Church, in collaboration with other Christian denominations, continues to work for change. It’s been a dangerous and difficult journey and one that couldn’t have even been embarked on without the fellowship and support of the institutional Church. There are of course dissenting voices that say that proselytising (trying to woo people away from other religions) is wrong but if those other religions are not fighting for change and freedom and peace, for basic human rights, then we have a duty as Christian people to work for the coming of Christ’s kingdom here on earth.
There is still much to do and although the work of the missionaries since the arrival of the Jesuits in the 16th and 17th centuries was hampered by a disdain for traditional Chinese culture, there is now a significant move to develop a theology that respects and incorporates Chinese characteristics. There’s a wee booklet doing the rounds, I’ve sent for some more that you can have a look at and read for yourselves about what’s happening in China. So the Church in China is growing, against all odds. One pastor tells of aching arms the end of his day’s work because he had to baptise 100 people during his Sunday service!
There must have been many times when those early missionaries thought, as they read their Bibles, and passages like the one we’ve just heard from Mark’s Gospel:
>This is surely it, things are so bad here that the end must come soon and Jesus will return.
Maybe some of them even prayed that it might be so! But we’re told in Mark’s gospel not be alarmed, that ‘_this is just the beginning of the birth pangs_’. We’re told also that as children of the promise we must continue to pray, we must continue to encourage one another and that we must continue to meet together to foster that encouragement.
You know it’s hard to keep going sometimes when everything seems to be in decline but God’s timeline is not the same as ours and that timeline is a mystery to us. It’s important for us to realise that we are not alone, that although the Church is struggling in the affluent west it is booming in places where Jesus’s message of liberation is like an oasis in the desert. People are flocking against incredible odds to be able to worship God alongside other Christians and to hear read the words of the Bible. The hope for many is to be able to read their own Bible in their own language and here in Scotland the Scottish Bible Society is working hard to try to make that happen. Norma and Terry and I attended a wonderful seminar last Saturday in Brodick that told us all about the work that was happening in China and other places, and the dangers that Christians have to face even in these modern days.
So do not lose heart little flock, for your Father in heaven hears your prayers and will answer them.