Friday, October 23, 2009

Proper 28 Year B

Proper 28 B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

I Samuel 1:4-20; Song of Hannah (ISamuel2:1-10)


Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18),19-25; Mark 13:1-8

When Elkanah [perhaps a son of Korah who led the revolt against Moses] made sacrifice, he gave some portion to his wife, Penniah, but to his other wife, Hannah, he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had "closed her womb." For many years, Penniah taunted Hannah because she could not bear a child. After Elkanah attempted to console Hannah, she"rose and presented herself before the Lord." She poured out her soul with great agony and promised that if "You will give your servant a male child" she will raise him as a "nazarite," one who abstains from alcohol and does not cut his hair. A priest, Eli, has been observing Hannah. He is confused by her intense pleading "praying silently; only her lips moved." He concludes she must be drunk. Hannah assures Eli she is not "troubled," just some "worthless woman." She is just "speaking our of my anxiety and vexation...." Eli offers a blessing, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made...." She returned to Elkanah with a changed demeanor. They celebrated and the next morning, "Worshiped before the Lord." They returned home and Elkanah "knew his wife Hannah...." She gave birth to a son, whom she named Samuel, because "I have asked him of the Lord."

Inserted in the narrative just after Samuel's birth, this song "exults in you, O God" for a long list of reasons. "...[O]nly God is knowing and weighs all actions." God is "mighty" yet dotes on the hungry and childless women. God alone "destroys and brings life/casts down and raises up...." "The Almighty will judge the earth to its ends...."


No matter how fantastical they might become, biblical stories have concrete, specific purposes, including the extraordinary apocalypse of Daniel. Whatever the specific historical crisis, apocalyptic stories serve to acknowledge the enemies of God's people and the present threat they face as well as to assure them of God's imminent action that will save and protect them, in ways with God's past heroic actions. "At that time," this passage ominously begins, "Michael" --the greatest of the four archangels, the "Prince," Israel's grand protector-- "shall arise." His appearance will initiate a "time of anguish" such as no nation has ever endured. But God's people, everyone "who is found written in the book," "shall be delivered!..." Many of those "who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to share everlasting contempt." While "those who are wise" and "who lead many to righteousness" shall shine like the stars forever.

The psalmist acknowledges God as "my shelter" and "my Master" and rejects any other gods, whose names will not be on his lips. The Lord sustains me, the psalmist sings, even through those nights when my conscious "lashes" me. "I see that the Lord is always before me...." The confidence he feels is sensual: "So my heart rejoices and my pulse beats with joy/my whole body abides secure." (Robert Alter's translation)

The writer who has dedicated his "letter" to "Hebrews" now notes that after "Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, 'he sat down at the right hand of God'..." where his enemies become his "footstool." By his singular sacrifice "he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified." Echoing Jeremiah (31;33-34), Christ marks the movement of God's covenant-making activity into the "hearts" and "minds" of individuals. Due to this new work of God through Christ, "let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith...." We can "hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering...." Let all the faithful support and encourage one another "all the more as you see the Day approaching."

The tension in Mark's narrative has significantly increased with incidents of confrontation and violence and hints of impending crisis in the days Jesus spends around and in the Temple. Now the predictions of Jesus become more ominous. An innocuous comment by one of his disciples about the massive stones and impressive buildings in and around the Temple prompts Jesus to say, "Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." Subsequently, sitting on the Mt of Olives with a clear view of the Temple across the valley, Jesus is asked a question by the first four disciples Jesus invited to follow him: what will be"the sign" when the destruction will begin. Their question launches the longest monologue by Jesus in Mark's narrative. First, Jesus warns, there will be those who try to exploit the impending crisis. They will operate in his name and some will even say "I am he!" They will have some success. He continues to say that war among nations will continue unabated. Natural disasters, including earthquakes and famines, will not let up. However, "This is but the beginning of birth pangs."

Biblical narratives originate in crises: corporate crises -- slavery, threat or actual destruction, warfare, famine,--for the whole nation or gathering of God's people or personal crises-- the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah, self-destructive actions of David, Job's crisis of faith, the psalmists' dark nights of doubt and despair, the cowardice of the friends of Jesus. Even the story about Jesus builds to the crisis of his grueling trial and execution. For Hannah, her barrenness is exacerbated by rivalry with her husband's other wife. For the writer Daniel, another regional superpower threatens the very existence of Israel. Mark's narrative is driven by a series of crises culminating in what appears to be the complete collapse of Jesus' life's work. And, as seems more than likely, Mark's gospel was written in response to the crisis of the total destruction of the Temple by the relentless brutality of the Romans.

But the biblical narratives, no matter how dire and even hopeless the current corporate or personal crisis or threat,
always include somewhere in the course of the story they tell-- "And yet!"

Hannah's weeping and desperate pleading to God is met by Eli's benediction, "Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made." Even in "that time" of "anguish" like no people have ever known in human history, Daniel writes, God's "Prince," the protector, the Archangel, "shall arise." (Pause briefly over that picture!) Mark's story actually offers a complete alternative way to live with and through crises-- crises are the contractions of new birth, God's newest action on behalf of God's people, he writes that Jesus said.

The Hebrew scriptures record one crisis after the next always followed by God's decisive action on behalf of those who have been loyal and loved the Lord. These narratives build the case for trust. The followers of Jesus, the Christ, find in him the most compelling evidence of God's reliability. Crises are inevitable and unstoppable in this life, including those we bring on ourselves due to our own failures, but the promise of biblical narratives is that God will not allow the story to end with annihilation. When the writer who choose to address his "letter" to "Hebrews" stands back and looks at the big picture he sees evidence of God's assurances that settles the question of our fate once and for all. Through Christ humankind is exposed to evidence of a "single sacrifice," "for all time" which offers promise of God's abiding love never before imagined.

Friedrich Nietzsche in
The Genealogy of Morals captured the power of this realization succinctly. The "genius" of Christianity, he wrote, is "none other than God sacrificing himself for man's guilt, none other than God paying himself back. God as the only one able to redeem man from what, to man himself, has become irredeemable-- the creditor sacrificing himself for his debtor, out of love (would you credit it?)-- out of love for the debtor!..." (trans. Carol Diethe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.68)

Exposed to and accepting of this degree of God's love enables a "confession of our hope without wavering" because God, as reveled especially through Christ, "has promised to be faithful." Crises now become 'contractions' which, although excruciatingly painful and seemingly endless, always precede a new birth of God's latest new thing. Something we could not have imagined or anticipated, but continuing evidence of God's abiding love.

Just as fear can grip us viscerally, so can hope. The psalmist testifies after his tortuous night that his "pulse beats with joy/my whole body abides secure."