Sermon based on Luke 1:39-55 and Matthew 11:2-6
About a year ago, I began working with Imagine No Malaria here in the Iowa Conference, and I have to tell you… since then, I can’t look at a pregnant woman the same way again.
In our scripture this morning, we actually have two pregnant women – Elizabeth and her cousin Mary… both unlikely mothers… both full of hopes and expectations about what that pregnancy will bring.
One of the first things I learned about malaria, however, is that it is a disease that overwhelmingly affects pregnant women and their new born babies. Women who are expecting produce more carbon dioxide than a typical person, which attracts mosquitos and makes them more likely to be bitten. Add that to the fact that they have a compromised immune system trying to protect and care for the new life growing inside of them and it’s a deadly combination.
Malaria is one of the leading causes of death in pregnant woman globally. In fact, 85% of the deaths from malaria are children under five and women who are expecting. A woman who has malaria while pregnant is likely to have a miscarriage or a child with low birth weight and other medical problems. And even if a baby is born healthy, children under five are not strong enough to fight the parasite that causes malaria if it attacks them. Eevery sixty seconds, we lose a life to malaria. Over half a million deaths every single year…
The joy… the hope… that comes with the promise of new life …
And the devastation of loss when a precious life is lost.
Expectations and reality…
They aren’t always the same thing, are they?
In our two gospel readings for today, as we encounter these pregnant women, we also experience the hopes of John the Baptist in relation to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Luke tells us that before they had even been born… while they were still in their mothers’ wombs… John was jumping for joy at the promise of what Jesus was bringing to the world. His expectation poured out through the words of his mother, “God has blessed you and the babe in your womb… why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me?”
But by the time the two are grown up and have gone their separate ways, John the Baptist starts to question the reality of the promise. In Matthew’s gospel, John finds himself in prison and sends word through his disciples… ‘ Are you the one to come? Or should we look for another?”
This is not the little baby leaping for joy. This is a man who is tired, who has worked long and hard for the Lord and right now is a little bit jaded. He doesn’t want to waste the time he has left on unfulfilled hopes. And right now… what he has seen and heard about Jesus hasn’t lived up to the expectations.
Expectations and reality…
In 2006, the United Methodist Church launched an extraordinary effort to help end death and suffering from malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Speaking of expectations… we expected Nothing but Nets to be a six month long project… but the reality is it has continued to this day. In fact, this past NBA season, Stephen Curry with the Golden State Warriors promised to donate nets for every three point shot he made… and then proceeded to set the NBA record for the most 3-pointers in a season!
But as United Methodists, we heard God asking us to do more. And in response, we expanded our work to include not only preventative efforts, but also a focus on treatment, education, and communications around malaria. There were such expectations built up around the beginning of this work and our dream to raise $75 million dollars to put our faith into action.
Bill Gates, Sr. was there as we kicked off our work at General Conference in 2008 and he claimed: “You are 12 million people armed with the conviction that all the world is your parish. That makes you the most powerful weapon there is against malaria.”
Five years later we are still engaged in this work. But here in Iowa, we are far away from where the real work is taking place. It is hard for us to see the reality on the ground in Africa. Like John the Baptist, we might be tired from our own ministry and struggles. We get a bit jaded sometimes. We wonder if maybe we shouldn’t have focused our time and energy and efforts somewhere else. Is this the program that is going to save lives and transform our church? Or are we still waiting?
Maybe the problem is that we just haven’t done a good enough job telling the story about what is really going on.
That’s what Jesus realizes as those disciples from John arrive. They just haven’t heard the stories yet. So Jesus responds by simply telling them what is really happening:
Healing abounds. Lives are being changed. Faith is poured out in action. I am bringing salvation in all of its forms – release from captivity, healing, new life. Go back and tell the good news. That the blind see, the deaf hear, and the wretched of the earth are learning God is on their side. The Kingdom of God is here! Go back and tell John the good news. Go and tell what you have seen and heard.
That is what my job is… to be a witness… to share with you the good news of what is happening through Imagine No Malaria. Because friends, God is doing amazing things out there. God is using the ordinary gifts of people like you and me to heal the sick and to transform lives. Our actions are a beacon of hope to those who struggle, our words a life-line to those who despair.
In just the past three years, we have distributed over 1.5 million bed nets. We are working to empower communities by training over 5,800 community health workers who are the hands and feet of Christ in this battle against malaria. And we have worked to improve the infrastructure for health in general by establishing health boards in 15 countries that will help provide treatment and accountability for the work we do.
I could probably share with you for hours about the lives that have been affected by this work… about Juliette in Zimbabwe who literally jumped on her bed for joy when the bed net was installed… or John, who carried his sick baby 15 miles to the rural health clinic and found life-saving medication for his little one. But frankly, we don’t have that much time today. So I’m going to tell you just one story about a woman named Muriel from Sierra Leone.
Muriel was already struggling to maintain her home and put food on the table for her family. I don’t know where her husband was… perhaps he died in the conflict a few years ago in Sierra Leone or from malaria… or maybe he had just taken off not to be heard from again. But Muriel was doing the best she could. Until her children all became sick with malaria at the same time. She had seen the symptoms… she knew what it was, but without the resources to afford a single dose of medication for herself or her children, she felt completely without hope. In desperation, she tried negotiating with a government health worker to purchase drugs on credit, but to no avail.
Can you imagine her situation? Can you imagine sitting there, trying to comfort your sick children and not being able to do anything to help them? She knew that without the medication they so desperately needed, it was simply a matter of time before they began to die in her arms. Her expectations were bleak.
It was then that one of our Community Health Volunteers, trained by the Saving Lives Sierra Leone/ Imagine No Malaria team at the UMC health center found Muriel.
Tiaima reached out to Muriel and took the family to the United Methodist Clinic. There, the staff welcomed them with open arms and before Muriel knew it, the children had been tested and were already receiving their first dose of medication. Tiaima sat down with Muriel at taught her about how to prevent malaria in the future, gave her a net and instructed her how to use it, and made sure that she knew the correct dosages and timing for the medications that needed to be taken at home.
All of this happened in a heartbeat, and as the family was being sent on their way, Muriel turned back and offered to come back with one of her goats in exchange for the care. A goat that might have been the only thing providing income for that little family… the promise of security in the future… The nurse assured her that the services for malaria were free. It was then that Muriel broke down in tears and asked again and again if it was true or if she were dreaming. She had been praying for someone to help her family.
Muriel’s family is now healthy because of the work of United Methodists in Sierra Leone.
But even more than that.
Surprised by the grace she found through our work, Muriel went back home to her community to tell the women there about how they can work to reduce malaria and she has signed up to become a Community Health Volunteer herself.
She has become a witness, inviting others to experience the reality of the joy of salvation she herself experienced.
No matter what our expectations, we have a God who can surpass them beyond our wildest dreams.
The very name, Imagine No Malaria, comes from Ephesians 3:20: “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us.”
Expectations… and reality.
John leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb because of the promises of God.
Mary was so overcome and filled with hope and praise that she couldn’t help but sing out the words we know as the Magnificat… words of longing for healing, for justice, for salvation.
Later, John’s disciples would rush back to tell him the good news that the Kingdom of God was becoming a reality.
Muriel did not hesitate to shout with joy as she experienced the healing power of God in her family’s life.
Friends… the Kingdom of God is breaking in all around us. What do you hope for? What do you expect? And are you ready to be surprised when God does far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams?
In my work with Imagine No Malaria, I have been blown away by what I have experienced. We are not simply handing out medicine and nets. Through the grace of God, we are welcoming people as our brothers and sisters, treating them with love, and building relationships with them. In the process, we empower them to be agents of change in their communities and the world. That is salvation in action. That is the kingdom of God springing forth!
I have to tell you, I have HUGE expectations about what the United Methodists here in Iowa are going to do to help in the fight against malaria. We have set a goal to raise at least $2 million dollars here in our state to help provide the vital resources needed as we live out our faith. And I have been wonderfully surprised and blessed by the generosity of my brothers and sisters. God is doing far beyond what I could ask or imagine.
You can be a part of this Kingdom work.
Just $10 is all it takes to put up a bed net in a home and save a child’s life. Just $10 can provide a full course of medical treatment for a pregnant woman who is ill. Just $10 can make a difference…
But think about what $100 could do. Or $1000. A gift to Imagine No Malaria means that you are putting resources into the hands of doctors and nurses, community health volunteers, and educators who are going to bring healing and hope to a whole continent.
I don’t have children myself. I have never been pregnant like Muriel, or Mary, or Elizabeth… but I do know about the joy of children.
I am the proud aunt of four nephews and a neice and they bring light to my life every single day. And so when I thought about how just $10 could be the difference between life and death for a precious child half a world away, I knew I had to help. I knew I could be the answer to a prayer of a mom or a dad or an aunt or a grandpa in Africa.
So I am giving $1/day for each of my nephews and my neice to help save lives in Africa. 100 lives for each of them. A gift of $5000 over three years. I know you hear these appeals from the pet associations and from the hunger organizations… but with Imagine No Malaria, a $1/a/day really does save lives. And EVERY dollar you give goes directly to those who need it.
You can answer that call, too, and commit to helping us save lives… whether it is $10 or $10,000 you can make a difference.
We have talked a lot today about our expectations and about how God realizes them… but I want you to talk for just a minute as we close about God’s expectations for us.
God has given us a song to sing and a story to tell. He has given us strong faith to live out and has blessed us with many, many things. Like Mary, we could declare that we are the most fortunate people on earth.
But God also expects us to take those gifts and those blessings and to share them with the world… to participate in the coming Kingdom of god. To witness to the good news when we see it. To feed to poor. To heal the sick. To bring hope to the hopeless.
Will we go and tell what we have seen today? And will we actively join God’s kingdom work with our hands and our hearts and our whole selves?
God of justice and joy, hope and healing,
we give thanks for all the ways you work for wholeness and right relationship in our own lives and throughout the world.
When suffering arises, let our hearts find joy in you, and fill us with courage to bear witness to what we have seen and heard.
May our lives always testify to the good news of your love, and may we lift up those who are bowed down so that your joy may spread throughout the earth.
We pray in the name of Jesus, who opened the eyes of the blind and proclaimed good news to the poor. Amen.