Now it's our turn

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November 14, 2021

Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus…let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.

Yesterday saw the conclusion of an international gathering in Glasgow that some claimed was quite simply the conference that either would – or would not – save the planet from destruction. You will all, I am sure, have read, watched or listened to various reports, and heard words from expert scientists, world leaders and activists, all with their own emphasis on what was being discussed. John Kerry, for instance, spoke of the world being “closer than we have ever been before to avoiding climate chaos and securing cleaner air, safer water and a healthier planet.”

But, of course, other voices were less calm. The Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, spoke of “our fragile planet…hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.” And a government minister for the Maldives when speaking about what had been agreed simply said, “It will be too late for the Maldives” – which, given that 80% of the country’s islands are just one meter above sea level and may well have disappeared into the ocean by the turn of the century, is probably no exaggeration.

For us, living on this vast American land mass, that is almost impossible to imagine – even as someone from Britain, I can barely get my head around such a situation. But for the Maldives’ minister, this mind-blowing sense of total destruction was very very real.

And Jesus said, “Do you see these great building? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

In the thirteenth chapter of Mark’s gospel, we find some of Jesus’ closest friends and followers having a similarly mind-blowing conversation with Jesus about catastrophic destruction of a different kind. Not, in this context, the kind of destruction that has been talked about in Glasgow these past two weeks, but destruction that will come through both war and natural disaster. And, as the last words of that gospel passage remind us, that’s merely the first sign of trouble – as Jesus puts it, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

Read on through this extraordinary and terrifying chapter of Mark’s gospel, and you will hear Jesus speak of deep division and hatred – “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” And that, perhaps, also has a contemporary resonance, for political division and extreme ideologies are a growth industry in the western world at present.

You can see that being acted out on the border between Poland and Belarus. In my mother country you can see the scars of deep divisions and hatreds that erupted over Brexit. And in a week which has seen Steve Bannon charged with contempt of Congress for failing to obey the subpoena which demanded he testify about the events of January 6th, we are reminded that such divisions have grown enormously in these States which feel, perhaps, not quite so United as they once did.

And Jesus is no doubt that division leads to deep suffering (“such as has not been from the beginning of the creation … and never will be”), compounded by no shortage of false Messiahs and false prophets – again, a phenomenon we might recognize in those who continue to claim that the result of last November’s election was fraudulent, or those who speak out against COVID vaccines for various highly dubious reasons.

All in all, says Jesus, there is a lot of bad news happening, and it isn’t going to stop any time soon. All in all, there are some very valid reasons for being really pretty miserable. Which is where the curtain rose on what you might call the first act of our trilogy of Bible readings this morning, when we encountered Hannah. A woman not facing global catastrophes, whether caused by humans or natural events – but a woman with good reason to be deeply miserable.

Hannah’s story was not – seemingly – a story of global or national importance. She was simply the ‘second wife’ in a polygamous household that was deemed perfectly acceptable in this period some thousand years before the birth of Jesus. But in a culture where children were seen as a blessing from God (something which is just as true today in the middle east), Hannah’s lot was far from happy.

Despite her husband’s bland hope that he might be more to her than ten sons, Hannah’s situation was miserable. Goaded and taunted by ‘the other woman’, Hannah has acquired what we would recognize today as an eating disorder and is clearly deeply depressed. Depressed because – apparently – ‘the Lord had closed her womb’. But while Hannah might have wept unconsolably and stopped eating, she was nevertheless determined to do something about her plight – to do something to make a difference.

As the text of First Samuel makes clear, in the era in which this story is set, it was believed that God had ‘closed her womb’. Not, I hope, a belief that you share. The God of love we see personified in Jesus is not, I believe, a God who delights in doing things which harm or hurt God’s children and creation. But Hannah lived in a world with a different mindset. And so she does something appropriate to her situation. Something that had not been done before, and which – in the culture in which she lived – was audacious in the extreme, especially for a woman.

Hannah does something which I hope all of us today would so take for granted that you may not immediately see the remarkable, radical nature of her actions. Put simply, and using our own contemporary terminology, Hannah went to church to say a prayer. But what you need to realize is that such a thing, at that point, was not the commonplace behavior that it would be today – which is why the corrupt and hopeless ‘priest of the Lord’ Eli is so bemused and so angry at her actions.

For a start, religion was really a male affair. That won’t surprise you, for even in a denomination of Christianity as liberal as the Episcopal Church, it is only comparatively very recently that women have been allowed to minister as priests and bishops. Jump back some 3000 years, and we are in an utterly patriarchal society. But Hannah’s actions are more than just an early example of female leadership.

Hannah turns up to the Temple of the Lord in Shiloh (this story being set well before David conquers Jerusalem and his son Solomon builds the Temple there), and not merely does she pray to God, she demands to make a deal with God – “give me a child, and I’ll give him back to you,” she bargains. And in that act of dialog with the Lord, she does something unprecedented in the religious history and practice of the Israelite people.

The Temple was a place of sacrifice. It was a place – it was the place – where one enacted out the Torah – the laws or rules that dictated how one could have a right relationship with the one God. But it was not a place to cross-question God or demand from the Lord what you happened to want. Intercessory prayer – so normal for us today – was not part of the formal religious landscape in the days of Elkanah, Hannah and Eli. So, if God had closed the womb of a woman, so be it. But not for Hannah.

Did Hannah have a belief in the love and goodness of God that had convinced her that God didn’t do bad things to people, or did Hannah simply think it was all down to argument and negotiation? We don’t really know, but what we do know is that, being a ‘woman deeply troubled’, Hannah turns up to the place believed to have the best access to the One God – sort of the place with the strongest religious WiFi of its age - and implores God to ‘look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant’.

Or, to use the language of the writer to the Hebrews which we heard in our second reading, Hannah possesses ‘confidence to enter the sanctuary’, and she does so ‘with a true heart in full assurance of faith’. In other words, many centuries before Jesus was conceived, Hannah, like Jesus, understands and acts out a belief in the nature of God’s goodness and love.

And thus Hannah comes to discover that the bad news that has surrounded her for years is not the final word, for God hears, and God acts, and God shows Hannah that, ultimately, where God is concerned there will be Good News. And, of course, if you read on to Chapter Two, Hannah sings a song of rejoicing that is the very clear inspiration for a remarkably similar song we find on the lips of a pregnant virgin some thousand years later – a song which has been glorifying God at the center of Christian worship ever since.

For in her Star Trek like approach of boldy going somewhere unprecedented, where no man let alone woman had boldly gone before, Hannah teaches not just Christians, but all children of the one God, an important lesson about perseverance in prayer and confidence in what we Christians call Good News. And that’s worthy of a sermon in its own right. But, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews understood very clearly, if you have confidence ‘to enter the sanctuary’, this has consequences, which is why he wrote:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds…

The one God was faithful to Hannah. And from the story of Hannah comes not just the roots of the Magnificat, but comes the prophetic ministry of Samuel, whose influence on the history of the Israelite people – and thus on us, the people of a new Covenant – was enormous. Hannah’s determined efforts to pray and to hold the one God accountable provoked ‘love and good deeds’, and in doing so sets an example for us – an example that is increasingly vital in a world which seems, in so many ways, to lack both love and good deeds, and revel, all too much, in hatred, in division, in violence, and in deeds that are bad, if not downright evil.

In this morning’s gospel, we hear a lot of bad news on Jesus’ lips. The Temple will be destroyed; there will be wars; there will be earthquakes; you will be flogged, imprisoned, put on trial, betrayed by your family, quite possibly executed; people will need to flee as they face literally unprecedented suffering; false prophets, Messiahs, teachers will arise and try and mislead everyone.

And to round it all off, when all that has happened, as if that weren’t more than enough, then

“…after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

It sounds like it’s game over. It sounds like after a whole lot of bad news, the climax is even worse news. Except, of course, it isn’t. You all know the bumper sticker. There are no guarantees – even from God – that this life will be a life of undiluted success and happiness. We live in a broken, fallen world where bad things happen.

Many of these bad deeds are of human origin, but some come from the natural order. This world is both complex and broken. But for all that, as Hannah knew, as the author of Hebrews knew, and as Jesus himself knew, God is faithful, and the end of the story will be Good News, for then – when people, presumably, will be at their point of greatest despair, we will be reminded that God does not desert God’s children.

For, as Jesus tells his closest disciples, then ‘they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory, gathering together his ‘chosen’ – which some Christians think is code for a holy huddle of like-minded people, but which I think simply means everyone God ever chose to create in God’s own image.

In other words, whatever awful things life throws at us, whether of human creation or nature’s creation, God will not desert those whom he has chosen to create and to love. For he who has promised is – indeed – faithful.

And in the mean time, if – like me – you think the world could do with better news than it so often gets, whether in terms of the climate emergency, the divisions of western society, the never-ceasing gun violence on the streets of this our city, or anything else – then learn from Hannah.

Turn up, pray, and then ‘consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds’. Don’t think you will always be thanked for it – as the Reverend Al Sharpton found on Friday, when one of the prosecutors in the trial around the killing of Ahmaud Arbery wanted him banned from the courtroom, stating, “We don’t want any more black pastors coming in here.”

But I’m sure that Pastor Sharpton knows full well the need to show this precious but broken world that the one who has promised is faithful. And because of that over-arching piece of Good News, we all need to play out our part of the bargain and make this world a better place, so that the Maldives do not disappear into the Indian Ocean, so that western society does not disintegrate into division and animosity, so that hate-fueled racist crimes do not go unpunished, so that some of the streets of Chicago cease to be in the grip of gang-related gun violence, and so that us and all of God’s children may understand and live out lives that provoke ‘love and good deeds’ which can turn bad news into good.

For that is Hannah’s world-changing legacy to us and to all the children of the one God – and now it’s our turn. Amen.