Second Sunday before Advent
Readings: 1 Sam 1, 4-20; Ps 16; Heb. 10, 11-14, 19-23;Mark 13,1-8
Hymns: Praise to the Lord; Lord we are blind; Taize chant ‘God is forgiveness’; Lift up your heads
It’s hard to get the balance right sometimes, isn’t it, between sympathy and encouragement or as the collect had it, between apathy and excess. Someone who has put on a little weight and thus gone up a clothes size doesn’t feel happy to be placated with being ‘well, you’re not as big as that person:’ it’s cold comfort if the person referred to is a clear ten sizes bigger. So was it with Elkanah. He didn’t get the balance right- or didn’t hear Hannah: how could he think the fact that he loved her made up for her childlessness? How could he think himself as satisfying as ten sons to a woman who yearned for babies? It was nice that he still cared for Hannah- but he alone was not enough, indeed his words of comfort made bad matters worse. He had children with his second wife Peninnah but not his beloved first wife Hannah who, being barren, was as is so often the case not even counted as fully adult by the community. Why didn’t he exercise his power and stop Penninah being relentlessly unkind? Hannah’s sadness was eating her up, taking over her life, colouring each day, and that’s a process which can happen to any of us, man, woman and child, who long for inner completion.
The writer of today’s psalm felt complete, contented and happy in their relationship to God, though it is important to understand that that says nothing about accepting the injustices of systems or indeed of daily life. Hannah accepted God as her light and her support and, rather than doing nothing, or like Sara did to Hagar sending Penninah away, she took her emptiness to God in prayer at the Temple. Eli, that same Eli who later supervised Samuel and knew him to be favoured by God who called him three times, eventually understood what she was feeling, heard her sincerity, and assured her God would grant whatever she asked.
This, then, is an important story for this pre-Advent time, a time when we reflect on the coming of Jesus to earth, enabled through the acceptance of a very surprised and initially not entirely happy Mary. Hannah’s child Samuel became a crucial figure in the evolution of Israel from a loose system of locally judges to a unified monarchy: Mary’s child was God come to earth. And both Mary and Hannah offered their first born to God. By the way, apocryphal gospels name Anna as the mother of Mary, Hannah and Anna meaning ‘favoured by God.’
It may seem as if the monarchical system which Samuel in a sense ushered in was not the best outcome for Israel, for while it unified it and made it strong, there was a worm in the apple in that the kings, and to an extent the priestly caste who were part of that rule, went down unhelpful paths of excessive greed, stupidity, and arrogance. But if the high priests were not always an asset to people’s faith, what does the paralleling of Jesus with High Priests, or Jesus being part of the heavenly tabernacle, do for our understanding of the text? Crucially, the difference is that while the priests repeat their offering of sacrifices time after time, Jesus came that we might ‘have life and have it abundantly,’ all of us for, as Hebrews makes clear, forgiveness is available for all, directly and individually, through Christ’s gifting of himself. Moreover, while sharing the body and blood of Christ in the breaking of break and taking of wine is a repeated action, which risks as do all repetitions becoming empty, it is not a sacrifice but a gifting by God and a receiving by a prayerfully penitent and therefore reconciled recipient. We worship collectively to offer each other support and love, to be reconciled to our inner self, to others, and therefore to God in our collective confession and reconciliation, and to show during this time our unity in Christ, to experience our understanding – varied, partial and uncertain though that is – and to go out from this time of worship to serve God in the way we live our lives.
Life may well be tough, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, topsy-turvy, confusing and demanding, but let us remember that the kingdom is within each of us. As Luke puts it, Christ is within us, and we need to take time from the business of our lives to know the Christ within. Knowing that Christ is in each person, irrespective of our feelings towards them, should make our desire to reconcile, to be at peace, with everyone in church, everyone in our family, everyone at our work or on our street, just that much more urgent.
As we prepare for this Eucharist today, this Thanksgiving, let our souls be stirred to remedy what has been and to pledge ourselves to live the life of the coming and the ever-present Christ in future.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg, 15th November 2016