Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25;
What liturgical season begins two weeks from today? Right, Advent. And our church seasons are not for fanciness sake or some feeble attempt to make us look or feel important. Advent reminds us of the holy rise and fall of the year, reaching near its peak at Christmas only to be surpassed by the joy of Easter. We are currently in a season that one of my favorite preachers and theologians, Fleming Rutledge likes to call, “Pre-Advent,” and our readings are pushing us into Advent before we are ready, even against our will.
We have been living in the tension of Advent for two thousand years, since the Ascension of Jesus Christ. Over two millennia, we have become more and more secularized and now, in the west particularly, we often view the 4 Sundays of Advent as preparation for Christmas and don’t understand why we can’t get to the Christmas carols already. Yet the tension of Advent is felt even in today’s readings, as God pushes us to look at the world as it is, not merely as we wish it to be. We are called to live into what Jesus’ coming meant and what it will mean, the tension of the now, but “not yetness” of Jesus Christ. Christmas is, for us, still a long way off.
Why does there always have to be tension in our faith? Well, let’s begin with Mark’s Gospel today and a little word called apocalypse. What does apocalypse mean? We generally think it means (and most definitions support it) cataclysm, ending of the world in a fiery or dramatic way, etc. But the Greek apokalpysis means “an uncovering, a revealing of that which has been hidden; the acquisition of new knowledge or truth.” The Advent season, which is nearly upon us, even our scripture today, points to the second coming of Christ as a final uncovering of that which God in Jesus would reveal. All things will come to light and nothing will be hidden. But in order to do that God would command us to look at things that are challenging and focus on those things that many would just as soon stay in the darkness. Advent, and our time leading up to it, are not about the Nativity of our Lord or a cute baby in a manger. We are approaching the time God commands us to uncover what ails us and to bring that suffering to God.
The story of Hannah is a wonderful one for the apocalyptic uncovering of injustice and how God breaks in, heals, and transforms our pain and challenge. Hannah is one of at least two wives of Elkanah. Women, in 11th/10th century Palestine had really two purposes: to please their husbands and to have babies, particularly male babies (which reinforced purpose number one). They had no real rights and typically had hard lives. To make matters worse for the woman Hannah, her “purpose” was subverted in that she could not have children and her rival, the other wife (talk about a bad idea) constantly made fun or her childlessness. Where could Hannah turn? Her husband didn’t get it! He asks, “Am I not more to you than 10 sons?!” No, Elkanah was clueless.
And so Hannah turns to God, as a woman of obvious, deep faith, and brings her anxiety, sadness, and all her hurt to God. And even as she prays, Eli the priest is accusing her of being drunk. The men in this story aren’t monsters, but they can sound like 21st century males who think the world still revolves around them. And so, Hannah brings her pain and the injustice of her situation to God. Not to her husband and, really, not to the priest but to God. And God, in Her mercy, hears Hannah.
And God would have us bring all to Him, all injustice. All of the isms of our day –nationalism (which undermines the very notion that we are all baptized brothers and sisters into the life of Jesus, not a country or region); sexism (which diminishes both men and women, by claiming that males, typically, are superior and should have the power); and racism (by maintaining and/or strengthening the institutional mandates that persons of European descent will prevail in the world and wield the preponderance of resources and power) – all of them will be brought into the light. The apocalypse of God is that all we attempt to uncover God, in His glory, mercy, and love, will uncover and all that we reveal and that he in us reveals, will be transformed and redeemed.
But Hannah’s story is not just about this one woman. As she brings her sorrow and pain to God, and God redeems it with his mercy, she glorifies God and makes much larger claims. “There is no rock like our God,” she declares. And Hannah continues, “He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” Because of what God in Christ has done, we are called by Hebrews “to hold fast to the confession of our hope…for he who has promised is faithful.” Movements of human origin can be powerful and effective but, without God at their center, they usually run out of steam and can actually divide rather than unite. We are not called to join every movement that comes along. We called to hold faith in Christ through His church and use that Church to bring those things that were hidden to light.
The world has tried, unsuccessfully in most ways, to excise God’s mercy out of the equation and do justice and transform the world without God. Mark Oppenheimer wrote in the New York Times, “Atheists and agnostics have long tried to re-bottle religion, to get the community and the good works without the supernatural stuff. It has worked about as well as nonalcoholic beer.” 2016, NYT. We are called, in our day, to hold the tension of working in a world where Christ has redeemed us with His body and blood, and the reality that the world is still not the way God intends for it to be. Christ must come again to reveal the new heaven and earth that will transform, if not replace, the tired old habits of a world that seems to want its own way. We need not shy away from the tension. We already know it is there. Understand that Advent presents us with a glorious opportunity to courageously look at the world, uncover the realities that need to be exposed, both the joys and the challenges, and to allow God to lead us in the in-between time, until Christ comes again.