The household of Elkanah and his wives Hannah and Penninah does not look promising at first. It looks instead like a figure for all Israel: Elkanah comes from a distinguished line, and he is pious according to the order of the day, but the household is marked by internal conflict. Penninah has children, but Hannah, whom Elkanah loves, has none. The LORD has “closed her womb.” For this Penninah “provoke[s] her severely,” year after year. Like Israel, the household is torn by rivalry. And like Israel, its future – at least through Hannah – is in doubt.
In this crisis, Hannah models a faithful response. She weeps. She rejects her share of sacrifices that have been handled by the sons of Eli. And she silently refuses her husband’s attempts to console her. Hannah will not accept the half-comforts of the present order. She goes instead to present herself “before the LORD”. Hannah weeps, prays, and makes a vow. She prays for God to see her. And she prays for God to remember her – as Israel might pray for God to remember the covenant. She prays within the frames of the old order of the judges, promising, like Samson’s mother, that she will dedicate the boy as a Nazirite. But her prayer also reaches beyond the present order. Hannah asks God to do a new thing.
Hannah’s prayer is heard by Eli, the aging priest who embodies whatever is left of the virtues of the old order. He rebukes her, thinking she is drunk – if Eli is not corrupt, like his sons, he still cannot quite recognize the new thing that is already emerging in Hannah’s prayer. But Hannah answers him sharply, “No, my lord…” . No! And Eli hears her. He can still recognize Hannah’s faith. He blesses her and adds his endorsement to her prayer. Hannah departs as if her prayer were already answered. She eats and drinks and shares the company of her husband. And, “in due time” – in God’s time – she conceives and bears a son. She names him Samuel. Samuel would end the time of the judges and usher in the monarchy. God was doing a new thing in Israel. Hannah’s name, which means “grace”, is fitting for someone who would essentially birth the beginning of the monarchy with a bold act of faith.
Now the notion of infertility is not new in the Bible—think of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, even, later, Elizabeth. But barrenness was a source of shame. And it was always thought to be the fault of the woman. So, taunted and rejected, Hannah enters a long line of women who suffered because of this. And, on top of it, Hannah was part of an unjust system that didn’t even acknowledge her pain. But rather than folding into it, she stood up and prayed. Her tears and her songs point to this injustice. It becomes a song of revolution. The mighty will fall and the poor will be raised. Over and over we are told that God “opens wombs”, birthing new life. But perhaps the story is not merely about God answering prayers but rather the story of one who yearned for God. Maybe her yearning, her way of “returning grace” to God, was the answer to the prayer itself. Our deepest longings themselves often reflect this “upside-down” kingdom that God envisions. And in those longings, God will open wombs and new life will come to be.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What does “returning grace” look like in your life?
- What does prayer mean for you in your life?
- What would it mean for us to yearn for something better?
NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 10: 11-14 (15-18) 19-25
An intimate and frank relationship with God, openness with one another, and bold public witness that perseveres in the face of opposition – these are the characteristics of the confident community portrayed in today’s Scripture reading. The text invites us to a frankness of speech that deals confidently with the barriers of guilt and shame that often divide communities, and with the barriers of timidity and fear that hinder our public witness to the transforming power of the gospel. Such boldness and confidence is grounded in what Christ has done, dealing with the condemning power of sin once-for-all, and what Christ will do, establishing justice on the earth. The word, parresia, (“confidence”), means being free to speak one’s mind, not being ashamed. It means boldness, courage, fearlessness, and joy. It is those things that belong to freedom. In Roman society, slaves did not exercise that boldness. But in the society of God, we are free to have confidence and to be assured of God’s presence with us.
Even if we do find its elaborate imagery of Jesus as high priest and sacrifice somewhat strange, we can affirm what it clearly intends: God’s Presence is enough. And even if we cannot join with the argument that such once and for all-ness came only with Jesus and was not present earlier, we can affirm that this is the truth which we celebrate in Jesus: his life poured out in compassion for others was indeed the pouring out of God’s life, the life we recognize as being active wherever people are attuned to it – in the church, in ancient Israel, in many and various ways throughout the world and throughout history where God has been before and beyond us.
In some ways, the Letter to the Hebrews is a treatise on organized religion. But it is not that religion of rules and memberships and those who are in and those who are out. It tells us how to be a community—a loving, encouraging community in the name of Jesus Christ. 20th century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said “the spiritual life is, for the most part, the obstacle to a life lived in the Spirit.” The writing does not tell us how to be religious; it doesn’t teach us how to be spiritual; it talks of how to live within the Spirit of God, within that “upside-down” Kingdom. It teaches us how to be the worshipping Kingdom of God together. It teaches us how to experience God’s Presence, speak in boldness, and encourage each other.
- How does this passage speak to you?
- What would a church that encourages each other look like?
- What does it mean to you to live within the Spirit of God?
- What does this boldness in Christ mean?
GOSPEL: Mark 13: 1-8
The disciples were apparently in awe of the temple. It was magnificent in structure. Supposedly it covered an area five football fields long and three football fields wide and was covered in white marble and gold, to put it in perspective. There is debate as to whether the Gospel according to Mark was written before the destruction of this great temple or just after. Regardless, it was a time of great political crisis and out of this apocalyptic literature began to flourish.
And Jesus is warning the disciples to hold their course, to be faithful, even in the face of suffering, even in the face of the cross. It is a reminder to be aware of what it is and who it is in which you put your trust. On what are you building your faith? What cost of discipleship are you willing to bear?
Elie Wiesel in his book Memoirs: All Rivers Lead to the Sea talks about his childhood in Eastern Europe and the suffering of the Jews even before the Nazis came. His rabbi used to say, “Abraham, the first of the patriarchs, was a better Jew than you. He was a thousand times better than all of us, but the Midrash tells us that he was cast into a burning furnace. So how do you expect to breeze through life without a scratch? Daniel was wiser than you and more pious, yet he was condemned to die in a lion’s den. And you dream of living your life without suffering?”
Here, Jesus was not merely proclaiming destruction. He was prodding those listening to him to change the script, to change that which gets their attention, that which gets their loyalty. He was reminding them to live their life but to yearn for something more. He was pushing them to look beyond what they saw, beyond the stones, beyond the buildings, beyond the beautiful paraments and the other articles of worship, beyond what people are wearing or where they were schooled or what they do for a living. None of that makes sense in God’s vision. It is meaningless. God’s vision is about us, all of us together. Jesus was telling them that “everything will be alright”, not in a trite, sappy sense where he pats his followers on the head and then walks away, but with a promise of something better just up ahead.
Like any apocalyptic writing, it is trying to make sense of that which really doesn’t make sense. It is trying to bring comfort to people who are suffering and scared. It should not be read as a way of “figuring out” when the world will end, or Jesus will return, or whatever you believe will mark the next phase of existence. It is, rather, about hope, about learning to live, as Hannah did, with that yearning for the new life that God holds. “Apocalypse” is the Greek word for “revelation”, for seeing. Jesus was trying to open the door to a vision of what could be. And, when you think about it, if these are the “birthpangs”, then the journey has only just begun.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- How do you think most people would read this in today’s world?
- What does the image of the “birthpangs” mean for you as it relates to this Scripture?
- What vision are we called to see that we are perhaps missing?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Countless writings underlie the urgency for our modern world, with all its bustle and noise, of rediscovering the value of meditation, of silence of prayer, of devotion. I preached it before I practiced it. If one is to help the world towards its rediscovery, one must practice it oneself. The religious life must be fed. We devote years to studying a trade or profession. Ought we show less perseverance in acquiring the presence of God? (Paul Tournier)
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn. (Henry David Thoreau)
Your life is something opaque, not transparent, as long as you look at it in an ordinary human way. But if you hold it up against the light of God’s goodness, it shines and turns transparent, radiant and bright. And then you ask yourself in amazement: Is this really my own life I see before me? (Albert Schweitzer)
O God, who out of nothing brought everything that is, out of what I am bring more of what I dream but haven’t dared; direct my power and passion to creating life where there is death, to putting flesh of action on bare-boned intentions, to lighting fires against the midnight of indifference, to throwing bridges of care across canyons of loneliness; so I can look on creation, together with you, and, behold, call it very good; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.
(“Bring More of What I Dream”, from Guerillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle, Ted Loder, p. 109)