Nov 18 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Psalm 113; Mark 13:1-8
Recently I’ve had an old Johnny Mercer song in my head, “Autumn Leaves.” It’s not one of his songs that he wrote for Judy Garland, like most of his best lyrics were, but it still invokes bittersweet feelings of love and loss. Sad words indeed, but at the same time they make life seem richer and more meaningful. Funny how some tough memories make us feel more alive. The song goes:
The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold
I see your lips, the summer kisses
The sun-burned hands I used to hold
Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I'll hear old winter's song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall
Now this song doesn’t remind me of anyone, in case you were wondering, but it does sum up my feelings at this time of year, as the East wind is beginning to blow and the leaves are starting to lose their brilliant fall colors. The street I lived on as a kid in Richland was lined with sycamore trees, now mostly gone, which didn’t really turn a different color in the fall. But I loved those big leaves while still on the tree: I used to ride my bike down the street trying to avoid the bits of sunlight sneaking through the shade. Once they fell, they were the best for jumping into after raking them up. But they weren’t particularly pretty. I lived in Phoenix for ten years, and the leaves didn’t change color there, either. It seemed like you just went out one day, and all of the trees had decided to up and drop their leaves all at once. So I just marvel at the autumn leaves here, which are so colorful, but on their way out. The leaves are beautiful now, but cold, gloomy weather is starting. We need to lose the leaves first, endure some foul weather for a while, but we look forward to new growth and new beauty in the Spring.
The Bible has many bittersweet stories, we know that sometimes “bad” things happen in order for new things to take place. The Bible is full of reversals: Christ rises from death; from the rubble of Jerusalem will arise a new, holy city; there will be beauty from ashes; from evil, good; from death, new life. These are not just metaphors, not mere poetry, but true stories of recovery. Each of us has stories of God’s grace bringing us out of bad places into new life, and the Bible has such stories, also. Today we are looking at the story of Hannah, a story similar to that of Sarah but not as well-known, of a faithful woman spending her later years in sorrow because she is childless, but God then gives her a son who plays a crucial role in the unfolding of God’s plan for our salvation.
Another story of a man’s two wives, one who is loved but barren, the other wife determined to put the unfortunate one in her place. Hannah is a story we often read on Mother’s Day, for she seems willing to do anything for her child, even if that means dedicating that long-expected child to God. Hannah is also an example for us on how to accomplish something seemingly impossible: she teaches us to take our problems to God. She prays and cries before him, worshipping him too, expecting him to answer. Now she also tries to make a bargain with God, and this is something we should avoid, but we do it too, don’t we? We promise God we will do something or give up something if only he will answer our prayer the way we want him to. I’m not the only one who has done this, am I? Just let me win the lottery, God, or get that higher-paying job, and I will give you part of the prize. Has that actually worked for any of you? It hasn’t worked for me. But it seems to work for Hannah, although the text doesn’t really say that: we aren’t told if God agreed to the bargain. In fact, it seems like Eli is the one who agrees to allow it to happen, "Then go in peace” he says, “And may the God of Israel give you what you've asked from him." (1Sa 1:17 CEB) And even before anything else happens, Hannah’s sadness goes away, and she soon conceives of a son, Samuel. As a result, Hannah keeps her promise, and dedicates her son to God. How difficult this must have been for her, after waiting for so long to have a child.
She also goes so far as to dedicate Samuel as a Nazarite, a vow usually a man made for himself, but Samuel apparently kept the vow. What was involved here was separating oneself for God, usually for a certain period of time, but sometimes for life. The main aspects of the vow were to refrain from grape products, especially wine, not cutting one’s hair during the duration of the vow, or cutting it once a year for those who made a permanent vow, and the avoiding of dead bodies, even of family members. The other Nazarite we read about in the Old Testament was…Samson. In the New Testament, Jesus was most likely a Nazarite, certainly John the Baptist was, as was Paul, although his vow was only of the temporary kind.
So what does this all mean for us today? As we seek to be obedient to God, we too want to sometimes keep ourselves separated from the world in order to draw closer to God, such as during Lent and possibly Advent. We do this to recommit ourselves to God, taking a time of abstinence perhaps to rededicate ourselves to Him, making ourselves holy and acceptable to him. As in Hannah’s case, we might do this in expectation of God providing something new and momentous for us, hopefully without us groveling or trying to be manipulative, as if that would ever work! But as we seek to grow as a church, both in new folks and in increasing our influence into our community, Advent is a good time to approach God with prayer and worship, seeking his guidance, wisdom, and for opportunities for new connections with our neighbors. As we prayerfully await the return of our Lord, remembering his first coming as we celebrate Christmas, we also pray for new beginnings for our church, and for each one of us.
Eli also gives us a lesson, reminding us that sometimes we act as God’s representative. Even though he may have been mistaken about Hannah’s sobriety, he was still there to help her in her time of need. He was present for her, listened in his way, and gave her a blessing as she went on her way. He too played his part in God’s plan.
Strategy #5 in the book Growing Young is “Prioritize Young People (and Families) Everywhere: From Rhetoric to Reality.” One question the book asks is: what would you and your church give up if it meant young people would feel more welcomed and accepted here, and become part of our family? If we answer: “whatever it takes,” then we are probably on the right track. Would we have to give up our identity as a church? That may not be something you think about much, but we do have a certain identity, are we willing to change? Another way to ask this might be: where are we willing to put our time and money to get young people here, even if it is for something we may not particularly appreciate ourselves? When we are planning things out, whether it be in worship, outreach, budgeting, or whatever, are we intentionally leaving room for young people and families? That may seem hard to do since we don’t currently have any, but what would we do if we did? Why not start now so that they will feel welcome when they come? In past weeks, we have talked about empathizing with young people, and providing a warm church family, here we are talking about our institutional commitment to allocate resources and attention across the life of the church, directed towards young people and families. We keep in mind that when we prioritize young people, that will also mean we prioritize young families, too. We will want to partner with young parents in taking care of their kids.
We are not really talking about programs here, although hopefully someday we will, but about what we need to do to make young people feel at home here, like provide fun things for kids to do during the service, adding more modern touches to the music, and providing a safe place for them to share their problems and get the support they need, and the celebrations and affirmation they need. As we look around this room, observe the kindness, the wisdom, and the experience each of us represents. How rewarding it will be to share that treasure with young people seeking to live fruitful lives and raise great families!
Churches everywhere are struggling, shrinking and even closing, but we know that it is all part of God’s plan, we just wish we knew what he was up to. We know that as the leaves are falling now, new growth will come soon, but there will be dark times. For now, we work towards that day when our church has been transformed into whatever it will be once all of us have passed into glory. Some say that the Church has fallen off of a cliff onto the rocks below, but perhaps it has just needs to escape the sinking sand, and we need to once again stand upon the solid rock of Christ. We do our part now to lay the foundation for the next generations, as churches everywhere seek to morph into whatever it will take to grow into the church of tomorrow. God only knows what that will be, but we can trust him to get us there.