Saturday, December 5, 2009
A Small Start to God's Huge New Thing
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Wadena, MN
Advent 2—December 6, 2009
Commissioning of Christie Meier, A.I.M.
I Samuel 1:1-2:10
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
This hauntingly beautiful story of Hannah plays itself out at a pivotal moment in the saga of ancient Israel.
Up to this point in the Old Testament the children of Israel have been delivered from slavery in Egypt by Moses….they’ve been granted God’s covenantal law at Mt. Sinai….and they’ve been led by Joshua to cross the Jordan River and conquer the land God had promised to them.
But when Moses and Joshua had both passed from the scene….after the people of Israel had occupied the promised land….they fell on hard times. Why? Because the former inhabitants kept trying to reclaim their territory, even as dissension arose among Israel’s twelve tribes.
This crucial time, a 200-year period, is described in the Book of Judges. Judges reads a lot like a Western—a tale of lawlessness on the frontier, punctuated by brief periods of peace when a new leader would be raised up. Israel’s judges were a little like sheriffs in the Old American West—Wyatt Earp characters who temporarily restored law and order, until the next band of outlaws came along.
The final verse in the Book of Judges sums up the sorry state of affairs that prevailed: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25).
This perpetually unsettled situation could not go on. Something had to give. The old order had to give way to a new order--lest the people of Israel dwindle and vanish from the scene.
It is in this moment--when threats from without and strife from within threatened to undo God’s people Israel….that God acted to do a new thing, to start afresh, in the most unexpected of ways.
And this new thing God was doing began with a pregnancy.
These pivotal first chapters in the book of I Samuel reveal God picking out about the most unlikely of places to begin again—in the household of a righteous man whose name was Elkanah.
The whole nation is in an uproar, and God singles out one man, his wife, and their offspring. Does that have a familiar ring to it? God starts small, in order to do a huge new thing.
But the family of Elkanah had its own share of problems. The man had two wives—Peninah, who was sort of a “baby factory,” and Hannah who couldn’t get pregnant for love nor money. Elkanah favored Hannah, and maybe that’s why the other wife Peninah was so hard on her, constantly throwing up into Hannah’s face the shame of her barrenness. Elkanah’s household mirrored the strife in the land of Israel—and yet God chose this household to give Israel a fresh start.
And it begins--the action is really driven here--not by the strong husband, but by the weary wife. This is Hannah’s story. And Hannah, we learn, is a special case.
She will settle for no consolation prizes. Elkanah, that old smooth-talker, asks her: “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (v. 8) But Hannah is not content with that.
She goes right to the top, pleading her case before the God of Israel, praying for the better part of a day in the holy place at Shiloh.
Hannah will accept no substitutes for what she desires the most—a child, a son (to be exact) whom she might bring into the world….so that she might return this same son to God, a fully-dedicated living sacrifice.
But as Hannah prays all day at Shiloh, another man gets into the act. Old Eli the doddering priest, whose two scallywag sons were making a mockery of the priesthood--Eli spies Hannah moving her lips, but saying nothing audible—and Eli assumes the worst.
“How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” (v. 14) he asks Hannah, accusingly. But Hannah does not back down. “No, my lord,(she responds) I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord…” (v. 15)
Then Eli, who in many respects represented the tired old order that was soon to pass away…then Eli blessed Hannah and came as close as anyone does in this story to proclaiming the gospel to her: “Go in peace, the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” (v. 17)
And that is what Hannah does.
She dries her teary eyes, heads home to the loving arms of her husband, conceives a child, bears him and names him Samuel. And eventually Hannah returns to Shiloh to make good on her promise to give back to God her first-born son.
That son, Samuel, would become God’s instrument in doing a new thing in Israel. God used Samuel to preserve his precious people, to anoint the first two kings of Israel—Saul and David—who brought stability and finally a measure of peace to God’s people.
Now, my dear friends, I ask: do you have a sense of déjà vu as you hear this story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel? Are there not echoes here—echoes of other similar tales in the Bible?
There are, actually, several such stories in our scriptures—tales of women longing to bear a child into the world. Strange, isn’t it—how many “problem pregnancies” there are in our Bible?
The world is in a horrible mess, the old is passing away, a new regime is dawning….and it starts so small, with a mother, and a cry in the night, as a baby is born. It happened to Sarah, to Hannah, to Elizabeth, and in the fullness of time—it happened to Mary, the mother of our Lord.
God starts small—in order to do a huge new thing, to usher in a new order, to make way for a new heaven and a new earth.
That’s what makes this such a wonderful Advent story. It’s a foreshadowing of the miracle that will happen in Bethlehem’s stable, when another cry in the night signals the greatest New Thing God has ever imagined—the Advent, the coming of God’s gracious and gentle reign over all things through the boy-child born to Mary.
God starts small—in order to do a huge new thing.
And that is still God’s way, God’s modus operandi among us, in our time and place.
Ever year, when Advent rolls around, I’m struck by how much the world still needs Jesus, how much you and I still need a Savior. Threats from without, strife from within--our world seems just as unsettled and uncertain as it was when Hannah prayed for a son at the shrine at Shiloh.
Think about the year just past.
We’ve weathered a global economic downturn, a recession from which we’re only now starting to recover.
Here in northwestern Minnesota we’ve dealt with record snowfalls, spring flooding, a less-than-ideal growing season, and now a difficult fall harvest.
And even in our churches we struggle with actions on sexuality at our ELCA churchwide assembly this past August in Minneapolis.
Do you ache for, long for, pine for God’s gracious intervention once again this Advent?
Here is how it will happen once again: God will start small to do a huge new thing in our midst. In the words of Hannah’s great song, God our Rock (I Sam. 2:2) will act once again, to kill in us whatever needs to die, so that God might make us alive again (v. 6)….alive not in our own strength, or in the rightness of our morality, or in our workaholic busyness--but alive solely in God’s mercy, showered down upon us most decisively in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We witness one small sign of this enlivening, animating mercy of God today as we celebrate with Christie Meier—and commission her for service as an Associate in Ministry of the ELCA.
Christie, you and Hannah are a lot alike. You are patient—and persistent. You don’t settle easily for anything less than what you pursue. You aren’t content with consolation prizes. You pray fervently, work passionately, confident that God will not disappoint you.
Most importantly, Christie, you know the Good News. The first time I met you, you were offering devotions at a conference gathering, and I said to myself: “Here’s somebody who ‘gets’ the gospel…someone who knows how to ‘deliver the goods.’”
Two billion Chinese and over a billion residents of India have no idea what will go on here this morning. It might seem like a small thing, this hour of worship, this commissioning rite for Christie.
But God’s speciality, God’s modus operandi is to begin in small ways to do a huge New Thing. And God insists that you and I get caught up in this New Thing.
Isn’t that amazing?
In the name of Jesus.