Thrown Down & Raised Up - Sermon for November 14, 2021 (Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost)
Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 1:4–20 | 1 Samuel 2:1–10 | Hebrews 10:11–25 | Mark 13:1–8
Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. (1 Samuel 2:1)
This morning we spent some time attending to the story of Hannah, an oppressed and despairing woman who comes to the LORD in search of mercy. Like all of the people that we encounter within the pages of Scripture, Hannah’s story might seems small, but it is a part of a much greater movement… the Living God’s own mission to rescue and re-create our broken world. Through Hannah’s pain-filled prayer and triumphant song, we can catch a glimpse of that mission at work… and see how it has the power, not just to change the world, but change us too.
Her story takes place in the distant past before Israel was a kingdom. Back then the Israelite tribes relied solely on local leaders. The closest thing they had to a central government was their priesthood: descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother, from the tribe of Levi. And back then there was no Temple. No permanent structure dedicated to YWHW, the Living God. Instead, the presence of God among His people was marked by the Tabernacle,
the sacred Tent set up to house the Ark of the Covenant, which was like a portable throne where people would come and offer sacrifices and pray.
And this is where our reading today introduces us to Hannah, as she comes with her husband and his other wife and kids to worship, sacrifice, and pray.
Back then, it was not unheard of for Israelite men to have more than one wife, but to my knowledge in Scripture it’s never a recipe for marital bliss. And though Hannah’s husband loved her dearly, his other wife tormented her because Hannah was childless… seemingly unable to be a part of bringing about future generations for her family.
Many people have felt the sting of being unable to raise a child, though in her culture Hannah would have experienced deep shame as well. It was often believed that women who had no children were out of God’s favour. As if they must have done something wrong not to receive this blessing. Even the phrase used to describe Hannah’s situation points to God’s hand at work. “The LORD had closed her womb” we’re told… but never the reason why.
What we are told is what Hannah does one day in her despair. She goes alone to the Tabernacle, to draw near to the presence of God, and bares her heart to Him in tearful prayers, seeking heavenly mercy. She pleads for a miracle… for a son, and then promises to give him back… to dedicate him to the LORD all the days of his life.
It’s then that we’re introduced to Eli, the priest in charge of the Tabernacle, who assumes from her strange behaviour that Hannah’s had too much to drink. If we were to read on in the book of first Samuel, we’d find other reasons to suspect Eli’s competence as God’s High Priest. Eli’s own sons were blatantly abusing their role as priests, extorting those who came to worship, and treating God’s holy place with contempt. They were making themselves comfortable and powerful at the expense of those who stood in need of their spiritual guidance and care. Rather than bring an end to their shameful practices, Eli simply scolded them, allowing the priesthood to fall into compromise and corruption. All this is a much longer story, but for now it’s enough to understand that when Eli sends Hannah away, asking the LORD to grant her request, we are not meant to imagine him as an ideal spokesperson for God. It is through a weak and failing High Priest that Hannah receives these words of hope: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” (1 Samuel 1:17)
And as the story goes, the LORD does grant her petition… He remembers Hannah’s sufferings and prayers, and gives to her a child, a boy she names Samuel. And true to her word, she gives him back to God, entrusting him to Eli, who raises Samuel to serve in the Tabernacle as well. But unlike Eli’s own sons, Samuel will grow to be a devoted priest, and prophet, who faithfully leads Israel for many years, and one day is chosen by God to anoint David, a humble shepherd boy to be their king, and from David’s family would one day come a king God promised would reign forever.
In turning to the LORD in her moment of suffering, Hannah becomes an integral part of the story of God’s kingdom coming. To herself and those around her, Hannah had seemed like a nobody. But the LORD heard her cry, and lifted her up in ways nobody imagined. And so Hannah’s song which we read together today reminds us of the signs of God’s kingdom: the overturning of corrupt rulers; the lifting up of the lowly; the re-creation of all that is broken is what God’s reign will bring.
But as both the Scriptures and our own experience makes plain, there are lots of signs that God’s reign is not yet complete in the world. That compromised, self-seeking rulers still hold others under their thumbs. That many who are low remain in very desperate straits. That we’ve built a world for ourselves on broken foundations that still need to be remade.
This leads us to our reading today from the Gospel of Mark… to some cryptic words that Jesus our Lord says to His confused disciples.
Our Gospel text today takes place at another sacred site… not the tabernacle of old, but the Temple of God in Jerusalem. Actually, this was the second Temple in Jerusalem. The first was built by Solomon, the son of King David, but it had been destroyed several centuries earlier when the armies of Babylon had destroyed the kingdom of Judah. The Temple in Jesus’ day had been built by those who returned from Exile in Babylon, decades later, and was famously and fabulously restored by King Herod “the Great”. Herod was really a puppet-king of Judea, who served the Roman Emperor. This was the same Herod who met with the Magi when they came from the East searching for the newborn “King of the Jews”, and the same Herod who ended up slaying the children of Bethlehem in order to stop this promised King from coming. Murdering innocent children, his own subjects, to hold onto power… Herod was a twisted example rulers who ‘do whatever it takes to get things done’, and the rebuilding of the Temple was one of his ambitious achievements.
Centuries after the Exiles returned, the Temple had now fallen into disrepair, and stood in serious need of renovation. As a means of securing his legacy, and the loyalty of his subjects, Herod began a decades-long project to restore and expand it. But as grand and as wonderful as his legacy work with the Temple may have appeared, Jesus reminds His followers that one day all of Herod’s accomplishments would be overturned.
Mark 13:1-2 “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” All will be thrown down.
And He was right. 40 some years later, in 70 AD., after years of violent revolt by Judaean nationalists and would-be messiahs, the Roman armies would raze Jerusalem, and lay low Herod’s Temple for good.
Of course, Mark wants us to see that much more than a building was being spoken of. Echoing Hannah’s song, all those who were using this Temple to make themselves ‘great’ were being confronted as well… not only Herod, but the politically and spiritually compromised priesthood of Jesus’ day, the pillars of Jewish authority and power were being called into question too. As great as they all might seem, in God’s kingdom even these mighty institutions and rulers will be brought low, and the lowly will be raised to glory.
These kinds of words seem safe to us in the distant past, but what about in our own day? What are the mighty ‘buildings’ systems, or people that we can be so impressed with, even as they actually act to oppress others, and oppose God’s kingdom? How have we in the Christian Church become complicit ourselves? Siding with the powers of our day, instead of walking in our LORD’s ways, who teaches us to turn our eyes towards the lowly, whomever they may be, with eyes of mercy? How does God’s kingdom confront you and I?
But as important as these questions, and our response to them may be, Mark wants us to hear even more in Jesus’ words than that “all will be thrown down.” For Mark is telling the story of how God’s Son will be thrown down for us all on the cross. How He will endure great suffering and shame, and cry out in pain-filled prayer. How the One who is God’s own presence with us in the Temple of His body will be brought before and condemned by the corrupt kings and priest of His own people. How He will descend to be with and counted among the lowest of the lowly… to raise them up with Him, to share in His eternal Kingdom.
Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews today draws all this out: reminding us that the revolution of God’s good kingdom comes not through proudly building ourselves up, or violently tearing others down, as wicked or compromised, or corrupt as they may be, but through the grace of the Living God, re-creating our world, and us in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.
Our passage from Hebrews 10 proclaims that Christ is the true and supreme King, the conqueror of the powers of darkness and death, and that He is reigning even now at God’s right hand… a reign which has no end. It proclaims that Christ is the perfect priest and ultimate sacrifice… able to intercede, and offer forgiveness of sins once and for all by His own blood shed… so that God’s law of holy, self-giving love might be written upon our hearts. That we too might be transformed even now… that our failures might be set right… that all that needs to be brought low in us might be leveled, so that God might raise us up to take our own parts in His life-giving story.
We can catch a glimpse of what this looks like in our lives in our reading from Hebrews as well. Hebrews 10:19-25. “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
What role are we Christians called to play? We’re invited to come before the Living God with our sufferings and pain-filled prayers, along with the sufferings of our broken world with faith… with our lives purified from darkness and sin by what Jesus has done for us. We’re called to hold fast to the hope we confess, not just with our words, but provoking one another, to active love and good deeds. We are urged commit to gathering together so we can encourage each other, to come alongside and support each other as we walk in the ways of our Lord, anticipating the great Day when His Kingdom will be complete.
Intertwined with the story of Hannah long ago, all the way through to the story of St. Luke’s Gondola Point, today, our Christian hope and confidence for the future cannot based on our buildings or legacies. It cannot rest on seeking influence or power… or even in preserving our religious heritage. Our hope is, and always must be, built upon Jesus Christ: our Risen King of Kings and Perfect Priest, and on what the Living God has done through Him to raise us up. Amen.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School