Desolation and Reordering
Given what happened in Paris Friday, we hear today’s scripture readings differently than we would have heard them earlier in the week. Before Friday I dwelt in this same Gospel reading from Mark with our Wednesday Eucharist group and the Vestry and all of us found it disturbing and puzzling. We tended to focus on predictions of the end times rather than what it feels like when life as you know it is turned on its head.
Our Gospel and Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel talk about desolation and reordering. Our Gospel from the 13th chapter of Mark contains Jesus’ prediction of the life and world-changing events that will take place before Jesus comes again: many false teachers will appear, there will be wars and rumors of wars, there will be earthquakes, and there will be famines. Some people have spent a lot of time trying to predict when these events will come. There are always a myriad of voices claiming to speak the truth, and there always seems to be an earthquake, famine, and war or three going on somewhere in the world.
What we need to pay attention to is the fact that right before this prediction, Jesus’ students or disciples are admiring the Jerusalem Temple. The temple is both a religious and a national building and a symbol for them and other Jews. If you combined the Capitol building and National Cathedral in Washington DC you might have some idea of what the Temple meant to Jews of Jesus’ day. The building was part of their identity including the assurance that God was with them and on their side.
So in Mark 13 Jesus’ disciples are admiring the Temple when Jesus tells them, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be throne down.” And then when Jesus later sits on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple, he tells them about the disturbing events to come that will upend the world as they know it. Jesus’ prediction is given right before his passion and death – the week when he is tried and killed as a common criminal. If Jesus’ prediction doesn’t unsettle his followers, the events to come definitely will. The disciples’ world, life, faith, and sense of security is about to change forever. If Jesus’ disciples didn’t get that sinking, panicked feeling on the Mount of Olives, they were about to.
While the local and world events Jesus predicted were about to impact the disciples everyday lives, Hannah, mentioned in the first chapter of 1 Samuel, was going through her own period of personal desolation. Hannah, wife of Elkannah, was unable to have a child. In her day and age, having a child was what gave a woman her worth and identity. Not being able to have a child was understood as a sign that you were cursed by God.
Hannah is inconsolable. She wants a child more than anything. And to add insult to injury, her husband’s other wife Peninnah, who has many sons and daughters, taunts her. Hannah’s husband Elkannah loves her and tries to make her feel better, including asking her “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” While his intentions were good, he clearly failed marriage counseling 101. Elkannah was unable to sit with Hannah in her grief and pain without trying to make her feel better.
Now Hannah not only continued to suffer from not being able to have a child and being taunted by Elkannah’s fertile other wife. When Hannah went to the temple at Shiloh to pray and share her pain with God, the priest there, Eli, thought she was drunk.
Hannah’s desolation caused her to call out to God, to weep and to lament. Her ability to be real before God, to show the depths of her suffering, to reveal her anger and frustration, was part of her prayer and healing. Hannah was so desperate to have a child that she made God a promise. If God would give her a male child, then she would set him apart as a Nazirite. A Nazirite was a person dedicated to the service of God. Their vow included: abstinence from alcohol, not cutting their hair, and not being defiled including touching a corpse. Usually the person taking such a vow did so for a limited amount of time. Hannah’s promise is extraordinary and a sign of her desperation and desire, offering her son as a Nazirite until the day of his death. How poignant to want a child more than anything, and then to offer that child to the community, in God’s service
Hannah’s grief is similar to the disciples’ grief to come, and our grief today. There is a lot of suffering and loss in these scripture texts, and there is a lot of suffering and loss in our lives and world. We are living in an era of anxiety and ambiguity in which the stories by which we live our lives are changing. A vast reordering is taking place. Narratives that once worked in our country, narratives of human and technological progress, community cohesion, American unity, and the triumph of universal values of equality and peace no longer seem plausible.
I do not want to gloss over the pain and loss in our scripture stories or in our lives, but I believe with all my heart that God was present in the pain and loss Hannah and the disciples felt, and that God was weeping Friday night as bodies were removed from the concert venue and restaurants.
Events like those this past Friday also remind us of what people around the world live with daily, events we have become numb too because they happen all the time – bombings, shootings, hostage-taking, fear about going out into public spaces. Lives forever reshaped by violence.
In 1 Samuel Hannah is not just a woman, she is a symbol for Israel, a people who are lamenting their brokenness, hoping against hope that God will remember them and bring healing and new life. The people of Israel, like Hannah, are putting their trust in the stories of their tradition, stories that tell them repeatedly that God is not a God who ignores barrenness and pain, but a God who visits barren people and places, reversing the course of the sorrowful, the marginalized, the overwhelmed, and the forgotten.
In this respect, Hannah and her song, which we sang in place of the Psalm today, point us toward another woman, this one a Palestinian on the margins of the Roman empire, pregnant outside of marriage, who is used by God to bring forth the new life that will change a people and the world. Samuel and Jesus are not private wonders for their mothers alone, but gifts of possibility for Israel and the world.
What do we take from these texts today? First, in the face of desolation, lament—crying out to God from the depths of our hearts—is the only sane response. The Bible is full of people wailing to God, shaking their fists in anger at the brokenness of the world. God welcomes this. Second: God joins us in this lament. Finally, disruption, desolation, destruction, fear are realities God’s people have always faced. But even and especially in the midst of them God can bring forth a different future. The One who brought forth new life from Hannah, who brought forth new life for Jesus’s followers when the Temple was destroyed, who raised Jesus from the dead, is even yet at work in our midst.