I Samuel 1:4-20; Song of Hannah (I Samuel 2:1-10); Hebrews: 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8

Readings for Proper 28 (33) Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out this

Proper 28B/Ordinary 33B/Pentecost 24 November 19, 2006 Textweek


In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sometimes I think we need to spend more time with the readings - you know, you hear them and by the time you’ve got to the Gospel, it’s almost like you want to go back and say ‘what was that first one again’, because we hear echoes going backwards and forth. I also think that to appreciate and draw out the themes and the threads that we find in the readings then we need to have some appreciation of process theology, of the unfolding of God. We need to move beyond that mechanistic, orthodox view that we have of God – the supreme creator and us the fallen human creature – move beyond it and look to the dynamic relationship, that which is alive and which enlivens the divine in all, to actually be aware of movement of the divine, rather than the being of the divine. And it’s maybe difficult to do because our culture, our religious culture, constantly enforces a more static and more orthodox view.

But sometimes the readings themselves can almost give us that appreciation and two of the threads that I think are evident today - particularly in the Old Testament and the Gospel - is the thread of misunderstanding that is then found in clarity, so a misunderstanding that is then clarified; and the other thread that’s there is the symbol of birth - it’s quite subtle but it’s there.

In the second reading the reading, from Hebrews, even in there it’s as if by the time we get to the second reading there’s a development in thought and it also has a context of being church, and it’s almost as if Paul is maintaining those same threads and trying to clarify that misunderstanding between priest and Christ that the Church absolutely loves to keep alive. And once again the motif of birth is abstracted by Paul into the phrase, ‘the day approaching’. I wonder how many of us ever think when we talk about tomorrow, when you read the TV guide, are you conscious of birth? The chances are we’re not, because our culture has given us pretty static calendars – you can cross off the days, you can watch the boxes move and we’ve got a guide – the TV guide – it actually tells us, it’s modern prophecy, it tells us what will happen tomorrow, it’s amazing. Before all of that we would have been aware as soon as we heard the word ‘tomorrow’, we would have been aware that there is something being birthed in the present. There is something that can be brought to birth in the present. They’re the sort of language shifts that we have to contend with when we look at the scriptures.

The story of Hannah is the story of the birth of Samuel. In the passage that we have today, it’s almost like a four part harmony, the four parts being ‘barren’, ‘prayer’, ‘birth’ and ‘giving to God’. It’s almost as if they’re four stages that bring together this story – either the story of Hannah or the birth of Samuel. Maybe initially it’s just worth reflecting, which of those four motifs initially draws you – barren, prayer, birth or giving to God? Which one do you resonate with, what’s the point of entry into that story? Out of the seventeen verses that were in that narrative this morning, ten of them are given over to narrating the motif of prayer and perhaps we can glimpse in this story that prayer isn’t just an orientation toward God but also an orientation towards birth.

If we have a look at Hannah’s prayer, it says in verse 11, ‘she made this vow’; now the vow that she made is, ‘God if only you do this then I will do that’, which could or can be seen as a transaction or a proposition with God. Do we all pray that way at times? Maybe some all of the time. In verse 14 what we find is Eli saying, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?’ He didn’t understand; he really had no idea of the prayer of Hannah, so why should we? But in verse 15, Hannah explains her prayer and maybe in explaining her prayer she provides us with an insight into the process of prayer. She begins by acknowledging her place, her place of being deeply troubled. ‘No my lord I am a woman deeply troubled……’ She is pouring out her soul before the Lord. She’s not pouring out her soul to God, but before the Lord, it’s quite different, to pour out one’s soul before the Lord, in the presence of, rather than directed to or at, it is done in the presence of. In verse 16, she says to Eli, the priest ‘Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman’. She eliminates any power differential: ‘do not regard your servant as a worthless woman’, she sees herself and Eli as equal and as one; she claims for herself the power that she has and she asks of Eli that he does the same; and then she speaks out of her anxiety and her vexation. The amount of money and time that is spent on therapists in the modern world would suggest that modern humans have no idea what anxiety and vexation are, we actually need to go and pay someone to find out and be told: not so in the ancient days. It’s a pattern of prayer that has an integrity of prayer about it, and it’s an integrity that Eli recognises and acknowledges. After the initial misunderstanding the process of prayer is revealed. It is and it becomes an orientation for Hannah toward the creative activity of God.

Now with all of that, holding all of that, let’s have a look at the shorter and more developed reading that we have from Mark in the Gospel, which again is about birth. There’s that stunningly simple Monty Python line from the disciples – ‘Look teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.’ These disciples were men of great perception obviously – they could actually spot large stones and large buildings. But that stupid almost, that one line leads into that exposition of apocalyptic thought, a dialogue about the end times. And once we get into apocalyptic language and thinking we’re in that dangerously fertile ground that is loved by the evangelicals and the religious fundamentalists. The apocalypse or the escaton, they give religions a determination and a destination; they provide a conclusion to the story. The end times hold a primitive and a primal fascination for the whole of humanity, for I think they encompass our primal fear, the fear of death and dying. It’s the ultimate fear and maybe it’s also the first that we have. The end times provide a singularity and they provide a conclusion that somehow betrays the sensation of life. And so it takes us into the realm that is beyond comprehension, which is why it takes us into the realm of faith. If we want to look for the genesis of faith my guess is that we will always find it in death. Primitive humanity no matter where you want to pick it up, when it’s engaged in life, it reads the world through its senses, we read the world through our senses. Death is the fear because we have no senses with which to read it. In the modern world we have gained much by understanding and as we extend the boundaries of our understanding, the other thing that happens is we equally extend the realm that is beyond understanding – you know, the more you know the more you know what you don’t know …. However it goes. There is a sense that as soon as I grasp something, I realise that there is more to be grasped.

We’ve also in the modern world, lost that understanding of the symbolic, the language that is employed in apocalyptic thinking - the Book of Revelation, the stories of Daniel seem like wild dreams to us. Therefore we must be careful as we approach apocalyptic paradigms because the language of the mystic, the ancient language of the one who glimpsed into the realm that is beyond comprehension, is a different, quite different language from the language of the psychotic. The mystic speaks from a place without fear, a place without need, a place that knows the power of love. A psychotic is held in the grip of fear and is forever misplaced by the forces of unfulfilled need. The church, its teaching, its orientation is as much subject to misunderstanding, a misunderstanding generated from fear, as we as individuals. The end times therefore, have been given a primitive interpretation that gives us a sense of hope , but classically it’s a hope that’s based on the understanding of a few and of being counted one of those few. The classic story of the end times is that some of us, and it’s going to be the more religious ones of us, will make it through at the end. When the whole world caves in and the heavens open and the new Jerusalem comes down, 144,000 of us will be picked up and placed there and the rest will just burn in the fires and whatever.

Mark’s Gospel tells us something quite different, it actually points to something that is far more than that. For the end times in Mark’s gospel are seen in this way: ‘This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.’ It’s possible to read - remember this is old stuff, this wasn’t picked up off the Net, Mark didn’t write with access to Foxtel and CNN, he actually - this is old stuff. ‘When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.’ It is stunningly not hard for us to imagine what’s being described there, in fact most of us probably think, ‘Gosh that’s where we are now.’ If that is where we are now, in other words we’re seeing the signs of the end times, then just let’s hold on to the Gospel, for according to the Gospel of Mark, the signs of the apocalypse are signs of genesis.

We are called into an orientation towards birth, into the prayer of Hannah; the end times call us and ask of us to reveal ourselves more fully, ‘For the creation waits with eager longing’ for us to reveal the divine activity. And as we see any signs of the end, then see them as the birthpangs of what lies beyond that. We participate in the birth of tomorrow: not just in the day after today but in the birth of every tomorrow.

The Lord be with you.

Peter Humphris