Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sermon on 1 Samuel 2:1-10: "For some unexplainable reason, my heart rejoices in the Lord"

Children’s Message:  “Hannah:  A Woman Who Kept Her Promise to God”, from Great Men and Women of the Bible.  (If you're playing along at home, any version of the story of Hannah will do.  It can be found in 1 Samuel 1.)

Scripture: 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Hannah prayed and said,

My heart rejoices in the Lord;
   my strength is exalted in my God.
I'm laughing at those who mock me,
   because I rejoice in my salvation.
Nothing and no one is holy like God,
    no rock mountain like our God.
Don’t dare talk pretentiously—
    not a word of boasting, ever!
For God knows what’s going on.
    He takes the measure of everything that happens.
The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces,
    while the weak are infused with fresh strength.
The well-fed are out begging in the streets for crusts,
    while the hungry are getting second helpings.
The barren woman has a houseful of children,
    while the mother of many is bereft.
God brings death and God brings life,
    brings down to the grave and raises up.
God brings poverty and God brings wealth;
    he lowers, he also lifts up.
He puts poor people on their feet again;
    he rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope,
Restoring dignity and respect to their lives—
    a place in the sun!
For the very structures of earth are God’s;
    he has laid out his operations on a firm foundation.
He protectively cares for his faithful friends, step by step,
    but leaves the wicked to stumble in the dark.
    No one makes it in this life by sheer muscle!
God’s enemies will be blasted out of the sky,
    crashed in a heap and burned.
God will set things right all over the earth,
    he’ll give strength to his king,
    he’ll set his anointed on top of the world!

-------------------  Sermon  -------------------

Last week I told you all that we would be working through the gospel of Luke this summer.  I told you that we would be reading through the “special stories” of Luke, the stories that can only be found in Luke’s gospel.  I told you we would be exploring these “special stories” to learn more about who Jesus is and what that means for us.

Well, I lied.  [Laughter]  Because today we are reading a story from First Samuel, one of the books of the Old Testament, long before the gospel of Luke was written.  So we are not reading from the gospel of Luke today.  But I promise there is a reason!

Last week we read the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, how they were discussing Jesus’ death and the rumors of his resurrection, and how Jesus appeared as a stranger and walked with them.  They puzzled, and argued, and grieved, and wondered, and he said:  “‘Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

The explanation of who Jesus is, and what he has done for us, doesn’t start in the gospel of Luke.  Promises and prophecies of the Messiah, the Anointed One, go far back in the Old Testament.  So just like Jesus, we begin with Moses and all the prophets.

This especially makes sense when we read the gospel of Luke.  We will spend the rest of June reading stories from the first two chapters in Luke.  And these first two chapters act a little bit like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz:  they point both forward [cross right arm to point left] and backward [crossing left arm to point right].  Luke writes these first two chapters both to pick up on themes from the Old Testament, and to point us towards who Jesus is going to be.

And the first two chapters of Luke are like the scarecrow in another way:  they sing.  This is the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of the gospels.  In the next few weeks we will hear about Jesus presented in the temple, how a righteous and devout man named Simeon takes him into his arms and sings, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word.”  This is a song that the church for centuries has used in evening services and at funerals, at the close of the day:  [sung]  “O Lord, now let your servant depart in heav’nly peace, For I have seen the glory of your redeeming grace.

In the next few weeks we will hear the song of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, an how at his son’s birth he sings:  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.”  This is a song that the church has picked up and used in Advent, in the time of preparing for the birth of Jesus and the proclamations of John the Baptist:  [sung]  “Blessed be the God of Israel, who comes to set us free; who raises up new hope for us, a branch from David’s tree.

And today we hear Hannah’s song:  “My heart rejoices in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.”  Does it sound familiar?  It’s a song we sing in Advent, too:  “An angel went from God to a town called Nazareth, to a woman whose name was Mary.  The angel said to her, ‘Rejoice, O highly favored, for God is with you.  You shall bear a child, and his name shall be Jesus, the chosen one of God most high.’ And Mary said, ‘I am the servant of my God; I live to do your will.  [sung] My soul proclaims your greatness, O God, and my spirit rejoices in you...’”  Hannah’s song and Mary’s song begin with the same words.

See, Luke is a musician.  By writing down the songs of Simeon and Zechariah and Mary, he plays on music that reverberate throughout the Old Testament.  The people of God have been singing for a long, long time.  Mary’s song is not an original -- it’s a reprise.  It’s the musical Wicked playing to an audience that has all see the Wizard of Oz.  Luke is playing on themes that echo through the Old Testament:  that when something particularly miraculous has happened, we sing.

Of course there are plenty of miracles in the gospel of Luke.  There are miracles everywhere when Jesus is around.  There will be a miraculous catch of fish when Jesus calls the first disciples.  There is a miraculous raising of a dead young man.  There will be a woman, crippled and bent over for eighteen years, freed from her ailment by Jesus’ touch and words.  These are the miracles we are used to.  They are unexplainable, almost unbelievable.  Something has happened that cannot be scientifically or physically or chemically explained.  Food multiplies, illness is healed, death turns to resurrection.  The impossible takes place.  This is what happens when the power of God comes to earth:  suddenly the rules do not apply.

Luke writes down these miracles.  He promises, in the first chapter of his gospel, to give an “orderly account” of everything, after he has investigated and considered all the stories from the very beginning.  But Luke isn’t only interested in recording the physical miracles, the unexplainable healings, the miraculous multiplying of fish and of loaves.  What Luke makes sure to put before us is the miraculous healing of the heart.

See what Hannah sings:  “God brings death and God brings life, brings down to the grave and raises up.  God brings poverty and God brings wealth; he lowers, he also lifts up.  He puts poor people on their feet again; he rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope, restoring dignity and respect to their lives—a place in the sun!”

And hear Mary’s song:  “God knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled victims out of the mud.  The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold.  He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.”

Is this a miracle?  We could say it depends on who you ask.  But I don’t think a single person who has known what it is like to be hungry -- or downtrodden, or hurting, or broken, or in need of mercy piled high -- none of us would say that it is anything less.

Luke paints for us a Jesus who has come to turn the world around.  Who has come, as Hannah sang, to infuse the weak with fresh strength.  Jesus declares it himself, when he appears in Nazareth and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus comes to restore the broken.  To lift up the lowly.  To fill what is empty.  To free those who are bound up in slavery or in oppression or trapped by life in a hundred different ways.  To find what is longing for healing and wholeness and to mend it, with words of love and forgiveness and hope.   Jesus has come because God is like a woman searching her house for a lost coin, like a shepherd tracking down one lost sheep.  Is this anything less than a miracle?  See what Hannah sings:  “God will set things right all over the earth.”

And see where Hannah sings.  Unlike Simeon, she does not sing when a baby is placed in her arms.  Unlike Zechariah, she does not sing at the birth of her son.  Unlike Mary, she does not sing when her child is first conceived.  Hannah sings as she is walking away from the temple.  She made a promise to God, that if God gave her a son, that she would give him back -- that he would be consecrated to God, and serve God in the temple all his days.  And so she has come, bringing the three-year-old Samuel, and left him, for the rest of his life, in the temple of the Lord, to belong to another family and to serve God.

And as she walks away from her little boy, her only child, she sings:  “My heart rejoices in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.”

This is so, so not me.

In the face of her worst grief, she sings praise.  And this is the irritating thing, about starting with Moses and all the prophets.  It is irritating and annoying and downright hard that right when we are at our breaking point is when God likes to show up.  That right at the narrowest and darkest part of rock bottom can be where we find peace.  That today’s psalm, praising God for turning our mourning into dancing -- it is called a psalm of David.  David.  The boy who slays the giant Goliath by the power of God.  David the mighty king.  But also David the adulterer, and David the murderer.  David the anointed, who flees before his rival King Saul, whose corrupt son Absalom usurps the throne.  When David says “Weeping may linger for the night,” he knows exactly how long that tearful night is.

The story says that Hannah had been crying her heart out to God.  And without knowing what she’d asked for, the priest Eli knelt beside her and said, “Lord God of heaven and earth, fill this woman’s heart with Your peace.”

Hannah has no way of knowing that in a year she’ll have baby Samuel in her arms.  And no way of knowing that, in the years after she has given Samuel back to God, she will have three more sons and two daughters.  All Hannah has is the tears running down her face and Eli’s benediction that she might go in peace.  And that was enough.

If God is all about turning the world around, this is one of the hardest turns.  That things can hurt this much and yet God shows up.  Instead of God protecting us from all the pain of life, God shows up and offers abundant mercy and grace and peace instead of just fixing it.  [Laughter]

This is a radical turn.  To give us peace.  To give us strength and courage and comfort to face whatever is empty in us.  And to give us a way through instead of a way out.  To mend our brokenness not with a touch or a word but with the miraculous, world-turning, life-changing act of forgiveness and grace.

That is the only reason that Hannah can sing.  That is the only reason that Hannah can walk away from her three-year-old son, never to take him home again, and sing:  “My heart rejoices in the Lord.”  Because there is a miracle going on here that is greater than a barren woman finally conceiving.  There is the radical miracle of peace.  An unexplainable belief that everything is actually going to be okay, despite all past experiences and present circumstances.  A crazy sense that God is actually here, actually present, offering piles of mercy and overabundant love, rekindling burnt-out lives with fresh hope.  For me.  For you.  For all of us.


-------------------  Canticle of the Turning, Rory Cooney  -------------------

1. My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight on your servant's plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn!

2. Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me,
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and to those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.

3. From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
ev'ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev'ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn.

4. Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God's mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror's crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise which holds us bound,
'Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.

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