Perhaps the Pope said it best - what was on everyone’s mind—after the terrorist attack Friday night in Paris left 128 dead and 352 wounded. After a Beirut suicide bombing left 43 dead. This coming just two weeks after a terrorist bomb brought down a Russian airplane, killing 224 civilians – all alleged traced back to the same group -- The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS for short. Pope Francis declared: "This is a piece [of the Third World War being fought at piecemeal, for which there is no human or religious justification.
In today’s gospel’s readings, the disciples are admiring and gawking at one of the greatest wonders of the ancient world, Herod’s remodeling of the Jewish Temple, which went on for 46 years. The largest measuring stones were 44.6 feet by 11 feet and weighing 628 tons, while most were in the range of 2.5 by 3.5 by 15 feet, all handled by duly qualified priests. It was huge and magnificent. Yet, as Jesus predicted, the Romans would reduce it to rumble during the rebellion in 70 AD in state-sponsored terrorism.
What took painstaking years to build could be demolished in a matter of months.
This Gospel reading is famously known as the “little apocalypse” – the problem is, the disciples ask for specifics, Jesus when is this going to happen, and Jesus seems to give vague responses that could and do fit every age and era: “”when you hear of wars and rumors of wars.. nations shall rise up against nations, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes and famines..this is just the beginning of the birthpangs.”
The apocalypse has been a mega business, and many a preacher, even today, has built a fear-based career promoting preparedness for the end times, which seem to be happening at every time. Even now, someone is preaching, about getting ready, the end is near.
In our Hebrew Lesson reading, we hear of a building project, birthpangs, of a different sort.
Hannah, the wife of Elkanah, has been barren for years. She prayed a mountain of prayers, begging for a child. Her co-wife, Peninnah, severely abuses her and mocks her for her barrenness and for the attention that Elkanah still gives her. Peninnah is jealous that Elkannah still loves the barren Hannah, gives her a double portion despite the fact she has produced no offspring. Peninnah and Hannah were not happy sister-wives that we typically see on reality TV.
Hannah’s desire for a child is as great and deep and pervasive as Herod’s for a new Temple. Where Herod has the money, power and political savvy to get what he wants, well, Hannah, as a barren woman can only rely on herself, the wily advice of the wise women around her, good relationships with her husband, and most of all turning to God.
Now once more Hannah finds herself at the shrine at Shiloh. She ate and drank, she got up and presented herself. How many times had she stood before the Lord and failed? How many years had she prayed for a child and come away empty handed? Yet once more, she got up, and she presented herself in prayer. This was not easy.
The text says, she was deeply distressed. Depressed. Crushed in soul. Filled with bitterness and shame borne of the taint of a being a barren woman in a patriarchal culture. Yet still she presented herself to God once more, distressed, weeping, she made a vow: that if God would grant her a male child she would raise him a nazirite, one consecrated to the Lord as a priest. Hannah prays so intensely that Eli the Priest thinks that she is drunk.
Only twice in the Bible are so intensely praying that people mistake them as drunk: the disciples at Pentecost, and Hannah, here, at the shrine at Shiloh. Hannah explains that, no she is not drunk, she is pouring her soul out to the Lord, speaking out of her great anxiety and vexation. She is in total prayer. Hannah is praying for a child. She’s praying from the very depths of her longing. Standing there only steps away from the Ark of the Covenant.
No, she was pouring out her very being. Her heart. She was communicating to a God she knew and loved, yet was angry and impatient at and felt overlooked Don’t forget me God she said. And, she was bearing a heavy burden, and she was unloading that burden on her Lord.
And, you know what? When you communicate with someone that you know and love, you do so with exuberance and passion. With anger and rage. With tears of joy and tears of loss.
So Hannah left after Eli’s blessing and returned to her husband, and was sad, no longer.
The couple returned home to Ramah and as the text says, Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered Hannah. Hannah conceived and bore a son and she named him Samuel – I have asked him of the Lord.
Samuel would go on to be one of the first great prophets of Israel. Hannah’s prayer changed the course of a nation. Not bad for a women mistaken as drunk.
What an odd juxtaposition of texts we have. We have disciples who take Jesus aside, eager to know when the end is going to happen. I’m sure there are sermons somewhere in this world who are pointing to the tragedy in Paris, the refugee crisis in Syria, the bombing in Baghdad and Beirut and shouting to their congregation, the “end is near.” We have a world hurling itself toward destruction.
Cold-hearted people killing innocent civilians, taking advantage of terrorized, war-torn victims, stealing what little they have, trafficking their young if that’s all they have left. At the other end we have the institutionalized violence of income inequality, racism and other forms of violence that make peaceful and just change difficult, even as college students are attempting to organize across the nation.
Is the “end near?” Yet – on the other hand, we are presented with Hannah, the prayer, who presents herself, year after year, frustrated, bitter, depressed, yet determined not to give up. She goes to the shrine, she does all the things, and tricks barren women are supposed to do to become pregnant.
She prays constantly. She prays and prepares. That’s the same attitude Jesus wanted in his disciples. He didn’t really give them or us a date. The world has always been filled with the birthpangs of the end times. Our task is to present ourselves in prayer, with the same longing, with same preparededness and demands as Hannah.
Like Hannah, like the apostles, we like in a world that’s missing something. It’s broken. We’ve grown up with wars and rumors of wars so long it’s old news. We wonder were the next bombing will be – the next mass shooting – heaven forbid – Like Hannah, it takes it out of you. The stress of it all. But our faith calls us to live into these times and bring life into them. So we must pray, in the face of it all. We must pour out our soul. We must pray like we are drunk.
“Prayer,” says Presbyterian author Anne Lamott, “is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. In fact The opposite may be true. God loves us where we are and loves us into who we are. Anne Lamott has written in her no nonsense way that there are only two essential prayers. She says they are “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Lamott has added a third essential prayer discovered since becoming a grandmother. The third essential prayer of the Christian life, she says along with “Help and Thanks, is Wow!” It may all sound trite, but Lamott packs a lot of theology in a few words. Read her books. You’ll not only learn a lot about spirituality and life, but you’ll laugh a lot in the process. Not a bad combination.
Hannah’s determined prayer to God to remember her and her request changed a course of a nation. Samuel became the priest-prophet that anointed Saul then David. Today, as we grieve, as we rage, as we are bone weary from the violence in our world, but maybe we need to learn from faithful Hannah. To go to God, with all our emotions. The bitterness. Rage. Weeping. Sorrow. Pouring out our soul. The Vexation and anxiety. Hannah never let go of her dream, and never let God forget it either.
In all the weariness, misery and doubt we sometimes feel, may we remember Hannah, who still rose up once more and presented herself in prayer before the Lord. At the heart of all our prayers should be the one simple prayer, “Remember us,” “ and do not forget us.”
Perhaps we are at the heart of it, the need we all have, to know that we will not be forgotten, that somehow we are not alone in this life that our deepest hopes for peace, justice and greatest needs are heard. Our passion for justice, righteousness, truth, peace, honesty can leave us barren people like Hannah. So she is our model for prayer and action. We must pray with our entire being, and we must decide to act as the Holy Spirit guides us. We must not be afraid to pray, even in our anger in tears.
So pray like our life depends on it. Pray as if someone is there on the other end of the line. Pray like we expect something to happen. Pray like a fool, like Hannah prayed and count on God’s promise. God will remember, God will not forget. Pray, because our world depends on it. Amen.