So, those were some interesting readings this morning, weren’t they? First, we have both the OT and Psalm readings from I Samuel: Hannah’s story; then the reading about Jesus being our high priest, and finally the Gospel reading about the destruction of the Temple. And actually, I think they all hang together pretty well.
Let’s start with Hannah’s story because that was certainly the biggest section of the Scripture we heard. Hannah’s story should give us so much hope, and also, can serve as a warning to us.
In the opening chapter to the book of first Samuel, we are introduced to a woman, Hannah, who is completely and utterly devastated.
In the opening chapter to the book of first Samuel, we are introduced to a woman, Hannah, who is completely and utterly devastated. She is waiting to have a son, and in these first verses, year after year after years pass, and Hannah doesn’t get pregnant. In Hannah’s culture, having a child was the primary way a woman could contribute to her family’s welfare. Without children a woman’s life had little value. So Hannah is desperate. She is waiting, waiting to have a child and it just never happens.
Some of you know only too well what this kind of waiting is like. It is not the happy, joyful anticipatory waiting for a vacation or holiday to begin. It is not the annoying waiting that we occasionally have to do in a grocery store check out line, or on the Thruway during rush hour. It is not waiting for a townhouse to get renovated. It’s not even like waiting for the Buffalo Bills to finally win a game, much less bring home a championship.
This is a waiting that goes to the very heart of who we are as a person. It is waiting for a child to come home from armed service in hostile territory. It is waiting for someone we love with an addiction to finally get the help they need. It is waiting for a spouse to turn and look at us with love in their eyes again. In this type of waiting we are at the end of our resources. We have nothing more we can do to fix our problem. It is waiting that feels like it guts us, hollows us out, makes it hard to actually going on living. We see this in Hannah’s waiting too, she uncontrollably weeps, she is downhearted, and can’t eat even the good food Elkanah, her husband provides for her. Hannah’s waiting can remind us of the waiting we have to do in our lives sometimes too.
The Lectionary timing of having us look at Hannah’s story this week also struck me as very appropriate. We are two short weeks away from the beginning of Advent, the Church year season of waiting. In Advent, we remember Israel’s waiting for release from captivity in the coming of their Messiah. We wait again for the birth of another boy, Jesus. We wait for the coming of our King in final victory as he sets all things right, and brings his kingdom rule finally and completely to earth. We wait.
Waiting can help us grow holy. Not always… sometimes in our waiting we can grow angry or bitter. But when our waiting forces us to acknowledge our own powerlessness and to throw ourselves on God’s care and provision for us, we grow in holiness. Every other hope is stripped away, and we are completely, irrevocably dependent on God.
We see this in Hannah. After her husband’s questions and the worship meal is completed, we read “Hannah stood up.” This is the hinge of the story, after this action on Hannah’s part everything is different. Hannah stood up, her husband can’t help her in her waiting, the priest Eli, (the representative for God in this culture) whom she passes on her way into the Lord’s house, can’t help her. Hannah goes directly to God. This is unprecedented, how does this woman dare approach God bypassing all the societal and religious structures of her time? How does Hannah know God will meet her?
In our reading from Hebrews this morning, we read that Jesus is not like the priest Eli, simply sitting on the sidelines as we struggle with our waiting, with our lives. Jesus as our high priest far surpasses Eli or any other priest.
By dying on the cross and rising again from the grave, Jesus has offered the sacrifice that makes us right with God and so we are “made perfect and are being made holy.” Jesus gives us the assurance that God does hear and answer all our prayers.
As Hannah comes to God, her prayer is simple and direct: “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”
And after the priest Eli mistakenly reprimands her for being drunk, Hannah replies,
“I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
And Eli says, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” And remarkably, that is the end of Hannah’s desolation. Hannah confesses her powerlessness, and her complete dependence of God’s action in her life, and she rises from her prayer a changed person.
It is the end of her waiting. “Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.” This is what Faith-filled holiness looks like! Where there was once desolate waiting, there is now hope-filled living.
Months later, Hannah has a son she names Samuel, who she gives back to God as she had promised, and who becomes a powerful prophet for the nation of Israel.
The Psalm we read this morning was her song of thanks to God when Samuel was born. What do you notice as you look at that song again? It is not a simple “thanks for giving me a baby boy!” is it? Hannah places her rescue into a larger narrative of vindication, of justice, of the powerful Creator God making things right in the world.
Her song of praise is another place I think our readings tie into our anticipation of Advent because the theme of her words are echoed in Jesus’ mother Mary’s song that has come to be known as the Magnificat. Listen to Mary’s words:
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
In the songs of both these mothers, there is a rejoicing in God’s deliverance, and a reversal of their previous humiliation. There is also a powerful warning that God’s work in this world involves “bringing down rulers from their thrones, but lifting up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich away empty,” as Mary sings. And Hannah says, “the bows of the warriors are broken, but those who stumbled are armed with strength. Those who were full hire themselves out for food, but those who were hungry are hungry no more. She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away. The Lord brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave and raises up. The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts. He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.”
In their songs Hannah and Mary put all worldly powers on notice. Their songs are a warning to all those with political power, economic power, even religious power that a new Kingdom is being ushered in. Both women are stunningly clear that God’s work in the world around us is not in the protection of the powerful, but rather in the rescue of those in need, a protector of the powerless, a help for the poor and disenfranchised.
This is such an easy thing to forget. We, like Jesus disciples, are bedazzled by the symbols of power and authority around us… “Look,” his disciples say to Jesus as they pass the Temple, “What a magnificent building.” And Jesus’ response is, “Not one stone will be left on another, every one will be thrown down.” It is not these structures of power that will last in the coming age.
Both women are stunningly clear that God’s work in the world around us is not in the protection of the powerful, but rather in the rescue of those in need, a protector of the powerless, a help for the poor and disenfranchised.
There is a warning for us in these words of Jesus, and in Hannah’s and Mary’s songs. As we hear these words about God being on the side of the weak and the humble, we most often identify ourselves as such a people and so we feel secure in God’s working on our behalf. But we live in one of the richest, most powerful nations on earth, and I believe we must take seriously God’s word as he says, “God is not at work in the world to protect the powerful, to protect those who have riches… but God’s heart, his work is on behalf of those who do not have what they need to live safe lives with their basic needs met. I think we need to ask ourselves are we living in such a way? Are we supporting legislation and policies that protect and help the needy ones in our world? Are we aligned with kingdom of God values, or are we like Jesus’ disciples bedazzled by power and power structures forgetting that there is no future other than the Kingdom of God future?
From Hannah’s and Mary’s songs we learn that God answers the prayers of those who wait. Often not in our timing. Sometimes in ways that are totally unexpected: a virgin conceives and bears a son, and calls his name, Immanuel, God with us. We are going into a season of waiting. Let us wait with anticipation and with hope. And in that waiting, let us become a holy people transformed by our faith in the power and nature of the God for whom we wait. Let us wait, living lives transformed by kingdom values; let us stand against the false gods of arrogance and power aligning ourselves with those who most need God to come to their help. When we live this way, we will see God at work within us too.