Sunday November 18th 2018

1 Samuel 1:4-20

Mark 13:1-13

The Rev’d Jenny Wilson


This morning in our readings from the scriptures we find ourselves witnesses at two scenes which take place in and around the Jewish temple. The temple is the place of worship for those who loved and knew God as Jesus loved and knew God.  We will reflect this morning on the temple, the church, our cathedral, as a place of welcome, God’s welcome; we will reflect on God’s longing to welcome and, perhaps on our longing to welcome, our need to be welcomed. We reflect knowing that in our cathedral this morning we will participate in the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament that shines a light into God’s welcome of Eva, Thomas and William into the life of Christ.

In the first scene that our readings have placed before us, we see a woman named Hannah.

Hannah is the wife of a man named Elkanah, one of this man’s two wives. His other wife Peninnah has children, but Hannah has no children.

A devout man, Elkanah goes up year by year from his town to worship at the temple and to sacrifice, to offer thanks, to the Lord there.  On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give food to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gives a double portion of food, because he loves her, even though the Lord has not blessed her with children.

After she and her husband have eaten, Hannah rises and presents herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest is sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. Hannah is deeply distressed and prays to the Lord, weeping bitterly, pouring out to the Lord her longing for a child, promising the Lord that she will dedicate her child to a life of worship if the Lord but blesses her with a child.  As Hannah prays, the priest, Eli, observes her and as she is praying silently, as only her lips are moving, Eli believes her drunk. Distress, seen so clearly by God, can be so easily misinterpreted, even in a place of God, it seems. Eli says to Hannah, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.’ But Hannah answers, ‘No, my lord, 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. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’ Then Eli answers, ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.’

Hannah longs to welcome a child, to provide a home, a place of nurture and refuge, a place of thriving, and a place from which her child might step out into the world to bring love and thriving to others, through a life of prayer.

In the temple she prays. This is the first and most important vocation of a temple, a church, a cathedral. A place to pray. Prayer is about telling God our truth and listening, listening to hear God’s voice in response. Offering our gratitude for blessings received, pouring out our longing for blessings we hope might come, pouring out the truth of our struggles, some of which we know will never go away. For Hannah, in the prayer we witnessed this morning, her truth is deep and full of pain. Her truth is one of barrenness, for a woman in her time and place a truth not only of grief and longing, but of shame. She expresses this so clearly.

‘I am a woman deeply troubled; …I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. …I am speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.’

Pouring out our souls before the Lord … prayer in the temple, our prayers this morning in this Cathedral.

Hannah’s prayer is answered. She is given a son. Samuel, her son, knows about prayer. As he is growing, he hears God’s voice, and, with the guidance of the same priest Eli, Samuel responds to that voice. Samuel is one of the great prophets of the Hebrew people, the people who worshipped God, as Jesus worshipped God, in the temple.

Hannah prayed, poured out her longing for a child and her prayers were graciously answered. Is this what happens? Are prayers graciously answered? If we tell God the truth about our lives, will God answer our prayers? We might feel quite clear about this until we reflect on our gospel reading.

The second scene on which we have been invited to gaze this morning is troubling.

What are we to make of the strange story that we heard as our Gospel reading from the 13th Chapter of Mark’s Gospel? This chapter is known as the Little Apocalypse and it comes just before the story of Jesus’ passion and death.

Jesus has been teaching in the temple, watching the things that have gone on there. Jesus has just seen a poor widow put all she has as an offering for the work of the temple.

“Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Jesus says as he steps out of the temple with his disciples. (Mark 13:1-2)

What is he saying in this chapter near the end of Mark’s Gospel, this chapter that heralds his passion and death? And why is this chapter known as the Little Apocalypse?

One writer puts it this way:

The Temple was the center of everything: worship, culture, sacrifice, salvation, tradition, family gatherings – the power grid of a people, and the holy dwelling place of God.

Apocalypse, although associated with the sun going dark, the moon not giving it’s light, the stars falling, earthquakes, and fire and destruction, literally means “unveiling.” The lifting of the veil, opening the curtain. Revealing. Revelation.

When the actual building is “unveiled” – not one stone will be left here upon another. – what is it that we see? What is being revealed in these events?

Vulnerability, for sure.

And that nothing, absolutely nothing, is a sure thing.[1]

We see that even the temple, the place of prayer, the house of God, will fall apart. That not even that is sure. We have seen this haven’t we? When a man in Pittsburgh entered a synagogue shooting eleven people dead just a few weeks ago, innocent people at worship gunned down, the life of that community broken apart,… When the earth heaved in New Zealand a number of years ago and the cathedral in Christchurch was so broken by earthquake that it must be demolished, it fell apart, …And just a few months ago an earthquake struck in the Philippines and following the earthquake a tsunami struck Palu, sweeping shore-lying houses and buildings on its way. The combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami led to the deaths of over 2000 people. …So it’s not just buildings about which Jesus is speaking. Things fall apart. Lives fall apart. We know they do. In our own lives, things fall apart. Where is God then? Where is the one who hears our prayers when the place of prayer is in ruins?

Jesus seems to be telling his disciples, and telling us, that he knows about these things, in his passion and death will embrace these things. That though the place of prayer may one day become a pile of stones and rubble, God will still be with us; that even if the place of prayer is demolished the one to whom we pray will be just across the way watching, waiting us for us to lift our heads and find the words to begin praying again even when the world looks bleak and we are not sure the words to use.

That God will make us welcome even when the place in which we are accustomed to hear God’s voice has changed, or we have changed, or those we love have been taken from us.

The temple, our cathedral, is the place of God’s welcome, the place of prayer for all the times of our lives. While it is standing, may we know ourselves always welcome here, may we work together that all who approach this building might find an open door and know themselves welcome here … and may we gather into the life of God Eva, Thomas and William as they are baptised here this morning.