Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hannah and Hebrews...

(If you cannot yet tell, I dislike coming up with sermon titles.)

The Outlaw Preachers now have a Wikipedia page. It is, of course, a work in progress, and expect input from lots of folks, pro and con.

Now, on to the sermon. I include all three of the Lectionary readings, since I refer to each of them in the text of the sermon.

1 Samuel 1:4-20
On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, "Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?"
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: "O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head."
As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine." But Hannah answered, "No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time." Then Eli answered, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him." And she said, "Let your servant find favor in your sight." Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, "I have asked him of the LORD."

Hebrews 10:11-25

And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more." Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 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, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Mark 13:1-8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Hannah was trapped. There's no nice way to put it, she was stuck – stuck in a marriage to a husband shared with a spiteful, superior woman, stuck in a society which valued women only so far as they could bear offspring, trapped in a spiral of inadequacy and self-loathing. Her husband, Elkanah, loved her despite her barrenness, but he could not supply her with the one thing she needed: not a child, but love for herself.

They stood in the dusty street outside the temple, a group of traveling disciples and their Rabbi. None of them had been born when Herod began renovating and expanding the Temple, and work had been finished less than a decade ago. No one could resist the breathtaking joy or swelling pride as they approached the Temple Mount, its walls so white they almost glowed, the gold accents glittering in the sunlight, the air thick with the odor of sacrificed animals. At last, after five centuries, a Temple worthy of the God of Israel! Never mind the Roman soldiers who patrolled the streets, never mind the heavy taxes and the criminals who hung from crosses outside the city walls, rotting in the sun. For the Jewish people, this building was proof that their God was supreme, the smoke from the altars was proof that their sins were covered.

But well before this century was gone, the people would be left weeping with Hannah, their souls aching for that which could not be. For this Second Temple would join the first, a smoldering pile of ash and rocks.

The writer of the Book of Hebrews very likely addressed a people who had run from the Roman army as it slashed and burned its way through the Holy City, a people who could no longer depend on the flash of the priest's knife and the stench of the burning flesh on the altar. The words of the Savior in our Gospel reading had all come true in a horrible and all-too-permanent way: not one stone of the Temple stood on another after Titus and his army was done with it.

In her brokenness, Hannah had known instinctively that her hope was not in her husband or in the double portion he gave her as a token of his devotion. In her desperation, she turned to the only One who could in any way help her – she turned to God. There's no way to know if Eli's blessing was a sincere response to her pain or simply something he tossed out in hopes of getting this crazy woman out of his Temple, but his blessing: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” was enough for Hannah. Having put her faith in God, having found in God her sufficiency, the matter was settled.

For Jewish believers in the first century, the central doctrines of the faith where, in large part, still being grappled with, still in the early stages of comprehension and articulation. By 70AD, Jewish Christians had not only lost the Temple, they had been barred from worshiping in synagogues. They were thus left without a focal point for their understanding of forgiveness and salvation. Not only were the sacrifices gone, but they had lost access to the practices that were actively incorporating into worship in synagogues to replace much of what was lost for the Jewish people.

One can imagine an early Jewish convert to Christianity saying, “OK, I know Jesus is Lord, has risen from the dead, but what about my sins? Are they forgiven, and if so, how? I have no priest to make sacrifices on my behalf, I can't participate in Sabbath worship at my synagogue, all this love and grace stuff is great, but what do I do about atonement?”

Here we are in the third millennium, looking back at the first, with all our theological understanding and confessions and teachings and historical studies and general Biblical knowledge and we're really still asking the same question: “what must I do to get God's favor? God's blessing? God's grace? How can I obtain and maintain a right relationship with God?”

The pen that wrote the answer to those ancient Hebrew believers answers us as well: All the doing – the sacrificing, the atoning, the forgiving, the accepting, all of that has been done, once for all on the cross. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.”

Once Hannah got her answer from God – the blessing of Eli – she went back home, ate with her husband, and didn't worry about her barrenness any more. In an exactly similar way, Hebrews tells us to “... hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

For Hannah, her sufficiency, her hope, was in the God of Israel. For first-century Christians, it was no longer in the blood of sheep and goats, or in the intercession of an earthly priesthood, but in the blood of Christ, the highest of High Priests, shed once for all. For you and I in the third millennium, our sufficiency cannot be in our possessions or our portfolio or in the good things we say, pray, and do. We do those things the writer of Hebrews encourages, yes: “provok[ing] one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as [we] see the Day approaching.” But we do them not because of what we wish to attain, but because of who we are.

Let us pray.

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