Audio transcript available at https://youtu.be/u7eVvasTP7k.
Pentecost 25 B 15th November 2015
Song of Hannah
On the face of it we are confronted with four very different texts this morning but there is a common thread and that is about power, I think.
The OT passage from 1 Samuel is about a powerless woman. Hannah, childless as she is, wields no power at all in her society- she is worthless because her primary function, that is to be the mother of sons is denied her and Elkanah’s well meaning comfort is about as helpful as Job’s comforters. Hannah might have said, “No Elkanah, you are not more to me than ten sons, I am worthless until I produce children”. The barren woman is a trope all the way through the OT and each time a barren woman conceives it is the triumph of God over nature and it fulfils God’s purposes. Here the child that is born, through this powerless woman, goes on to be the last of the Judges, a mighty prophet, who heralds the new system of kingship, which ultimately leads to the Messiah, Jesus.
And Hannah recognises her powerlessness and prays. It is easy when the babies are conceived without any trouble to forget God’s hand in it all, but this child, like many today, is a special gift from God. Hannah herself says that her “strength is exalted in [her] God,” and she links her motherhood to the power structure in words that will be echoed by Mary later, “the bows of the mighty are broken but the feeble gird on strength,” …”He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap… to make them sit with princes”. This is fairly incredible stuff she is claiming and proclaiming just because she now has a son. And yet it is just what Mary claims as well, when her son is born. And all the way through these books of the bible from Judges, throughout Ruth and into Samuel you have the power of the weak and forgotten women that ensures the line that leads eventually to Jesus. It is through the powerless that the ultimate power comes into the world. So when Jesus talks about the first being last and the last being first he is reiterating teaching that lies, sometimes hidden, in the OT.
In Jesus’ own day, power is represented by the temple, with all its priestly system. The priests, and scribes, that Jesus condemned in last week’s reading, have the power because they control the sacramental system that buys a respite from the disruption of sin. They hold the religious power but also the legal and financial power in their hands, because the three things are all bound together in their system. And Jesus, when confronted by the display of the power, is not impressed. He has just finished trying to warn the disciples about the scribes when they walk outside and the disciples say to Jesus, “well you might not be very impressed by the scribes but hey… look at the temple itself- now that’s impressive!” And it was, the temple was huge and the stones, those that are left even now, are gigantic. It was splendid, and majestic and the disciples, hick town boys, are really impressed. Jesus tells them that it isn’t going to last and sure enough somewhere between thirty and forty years later it is all gone, apart from the foundations. That is because, powerful and all as the temple is, wealthy and controlling, the might of the Roman Empire is greater still and the temple mount is razed. But what about the religious power that it wielded? Well Jesus has already changed all that, long before the rebellion and the desecration of the temple.
In the temple system, sacrifices were made for the propitiation of sins. There were sin offerings and grain offerings and scapegoats- blood and death continually offered because as quick as you did away with one sin, another would be committed. Do you remember when the woman is taken in adultery and the mob is getting ready to stone her and Jesus says to them, “let him who is without sin, throw the first stone”? Jesus confronted those humans with their own sin. Nobody could stay sinless for very long, so the system was not a great success. Of course sacrificial systems existed in every culture, not just in the Jewish faith. And in some religions in was human sacrifice, as indeed it had been at some stage of the Jewish system. But blood sacrifice never worked, and neither did the scapegoat mechanism, the system that every society turns to, to solve the problem of conflict. We choose someone to die, either literally or figuratively, to be the sacrifice for the society. We place the blame for what ever it is, it doesn’t actually matter what its about, and then we assassinate, either with a knife or with words and our lust for blood is assuaged for a little while, until the next time in boils up in us and we choose a new person to sacrifice.
And just as in the case of the woman about to be stoned for adultery, who was the scapegoat at that moment, Jesus disrupts and demolishes the system.
Jesus changes the sacrificial system for ever and the letter to the Hebrews makes this absolutely clear. Over these weeks we have been reading about the end of sacrifices. “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God….for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” Jesus, in laying down his power and allowing himself to be the final scapegoat, has taken all the power to himself. The exercise of earthly power has no effect on the outcome, the priestly system is over, and Jesus “has opened a new and living way, through the curtain, through his body”. Jesus chooses powerlessness, and vindicates all the powerless. Jesus loves the powerless, like Hannah, like the woman taken in adultery. Those who are lost in the system, or impoverished, like the widow we read about last week, and they are all sinners, like us. Not perfect and sinless, but people who know and admit their need. Instead of mercy being shown to the rich and powerful who can buy it, mercy is shown to the poor and needy- in fact to all those, anybody who can lay down the perception of power and admit their need. Jesus has broken the system completely.
Jesus warns us about our expectation that having finished the system the end will come quickly. No he says, there will be a lot more suffering to come. We can be, however, free of the preoccupations that governed those who went before us. We don’t have to worry about making sacrifices for sin. We don’t need to try to gain power for ourselves, we don’t need to accumulate wealth to ensure that we will be OK. Jesus has turned all that on it’s head. What Jesus wants us to do, is to echo Hannah, listen to Mary and love the poor and needy. Work for those who are oppressed. Love the unlovely, including our enemies. Sadly the scapegoating system that is now completely unnecessary continues on in our world and it is up to us to dismantle it, to love instead of to blame, to offer our own need which is covered by Jesus’ sacrifice.
The letter to the Hebrews exhorts us like this, “and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together,…but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching”. It is our job to bring the kingdom in, to do on earth what God has willed. It is our job to care for the powerless, and bring them the knowledge of God’s mercy while helping them with the things they need here and now. We can see the powerless all around us, the Hannahs of our world, the homeless and the beggars, the widows of very slender means, the refugees, the impoverished poor of our island neighbours-we are spoiled for choice in terms of people needing our help. We must never forget that Jesus himself took on our poverty, our powerlessness to give us the incredible gift of relationship with God, undisturbed by the power of sin.
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful”.