A sermon delievered on Sunday Nov. 15 at St.Paul’s (Southampton) and St. John’s (Port Elgin).
Texts: 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2.1-10; Hebrews 10.11-25; Mark 13.1-8
Christians maintain that Holy Scripture is a unified whole. Of course, we also know that the writing of Scripture took place over hundreds of years and the compilation of what we now know as the canon of the Bible was not settled until the 5th century A.D. However, none of this diminishes the fact that Holy Scripture is a central element in “the drama of God’s redeeming and communicative self-giving”.
If revelation is God making himself spiritually present, and if God reveals himself to us through Scripture, then it is through attending to the words of Scripture as a unified whole that we, the Church, are brought into fellowship with God and come to “know, love, and fear [God] above all things”. The various genres within the Bible and the different time periods in which they were originally written, find their unity and coherence in God’s decision to reveal himself to his people.
This means that the Church must carefully attend to Scripture every time we are gathered, putting ourselves under its authority and, in so doing, putting ourselves under God’s authority. Now, putting ourselves under someone else’s authority is something which we modern Western folks tend to resist; after all, aren’t I the master of my destiny, the captain of my fate? Don’t I get to decide what is best for me, what I like and dislike?
This is part of the problem that modern Christians face when we assume that we have the final say about Scripture and its meaning: I don’t like the text, so I am going to ignore it; this text seems culturally backwards, so let’s skip it. The truth is that the modern church, indeed the modern Anglican Church, seems to have forgotten how to read Scripture, unable to allow Scripture to both comfort and challenge us. At most, we seem tolerate Scripture as part of our tradition, however, we don’t necessarily assume that God reveals Godself to his people through Scripture.
We assume that this leaves us stuck to choose between two extremes: of fundamentalism, which obsesses over the Bible to such an extent that the Bible becomes an idol, and progressivism, which insists that Scripture is a purely human construction that merely reflects the beliefs of ancient cultures and therefore has little value for us today. Both poles fail to account for the breadth and depth of Scripture as God’s self-revelation to his people and cannot account for the thematic echoes and figures that reverberate throughout. Consequently, both fundamental and progressive views of the Bible fail to see the underlying unity of Scripture as it testifies to Jesus Christ.
Indeed, the overarching unity and final meaning of the Bible is Jesus Christ. This conclusion is essential to the church’s careful attention to the text; we read Scripture as a whole, unified by and pointing to Christ. We read Scripture not first and foremost as a spiritual or ethical guidebook, but as God’s self-revelation in Christ; Christ comes to meet us in and through Scripture. In some texts, this Christological focus is easier to discern, in others, it is more difficult. This week’s lectionary readings, I think, offer us a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the unity and coherence of Scripture.
Because God reveals Godself through the entirety of Scripture, the themes and figures in Scripture echo and reverberate. This is why the Church reads from the Old and New Testaments alike; in reading the Bible as a whole, we get a clearer picture of who God is and how God acts in the world, culminating in the life and ongoing ministry of Jesus Christ. There are a number of interrelated themes in today’s appointed scripture readings that reverberate with each other that I would like to briefly explore.
Hannah is a woman who is dedicated to God. She is also a woman who longs for God to deliver Israel. While 1 Samuel immediately follows the book of Ruth, the context of 1 Samuel is the conclusion of Judges, a book that ends in chaos, summarized in its concluding verse: “in those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21.25). From her song in chapter 2, it is clear that Hannah is longing for God to deliver Israel, longing to deliver the world from chaos.
So, Hannah praises God; however, she does not sing when her son is conceived, but when she hands over her long-awaited son to the temple. It seems rather odd for a woman who was desperate to have a child to sing praises to God when she entrusts him to the care of Eli, the priest, only to see her son once a year. He song is born of hope and trust in God’s faithfulness, even in the low-points of life. Hannah sings “my heart exults in the Lord…the Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exults. He raises up the poor from the dust” (1 Sam. 2.1b, 7-8a). Her song is a forward look in hopeful anticipation of God’s deliverance of his people, caught as they in the machinations of power and living under the shadow of sin and death.
Mary, like Hannah, is a woman who is dedicated to God, as evidenced by her song. Mary’s song, known as The Magnificat, directly echoes Hannah’s song. Listen: “my soul magnifies the Lord…for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant….he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he was filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Lk. 1.47-48a, 52-53). Do you hear the echoes between Hannah and Mary’s song?
In the stories of Hannah and Mary, we see God bringing life so that his people can live. Moreover, these women stand, as “a type of the church”; their singular dependence on God, especially during the turmoil of life, anticipates the faith of the church. The worship and the witness of the Church stands in direct continuity with Hannah and Mary, indeed with Israel itself, people chosen by God to play integral roles in God’s deliverance of his people. [PAUSE]
Both Hannah and Mary’s sons, Samuel and Jesus were children born of God’s promise. Each one also had intimate relationships with the temple. Although the temple in Samuel’s time predated the great temple in Jerusalem built by King Herod in Jesus time, the function of the temple remained the same: the temple was a microcosm of the entire created order and it was the place where priests offered sacrifices in order to atone for the sins of the people.
Hannah dedicates her son’s life to serving as a priest in the temple. God calls Samuel to be the new high priest. Samuel serves God as both priest and prophet and, as chapter 3 describes: “the Lord was with [Samuel] and let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3.18). Through his life, Samuel served God’s people, prophetically speaking God’s truth, even when it meant confronting kings. In many ways, the life and ministry of Samuel stands as a figure of and in anticipation of Jesus’ life and ministry. In other words, Samuel points to Jesus.
Throughout his earthly ministry, Jesus prophetically spoke and enacted God’s truth. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus remarks that the temple will be destroyed. Earlier in Mark, Jesus cleansed the temple of the money changers and in last week’s Gospel reading, we heard of how Jesus called the teachers of the Torah hypocrites for their exploitation of the weak. Now, Jesus says the whole temple system, including its very centre of gravity, will come crashing to the ground.
Jesus himself is the end of the sacrificial system that the Temple represents. The curtain of the temple tearing in half while Jesus hung on the cross is a symbol of the end of this system and the opening of a new way (cf. Heb. 10.20); Christ himself is the “single sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10.12) who ascended to sit at the right hand of God the Father where he serves as our heavenly high priest, offering himself to us through Scripture and sacrament. Christ’s death and resurrection are birth pangs that reverberate with those of Mary and Hannah; Christ’s death and resurrection are the birth pangs of the renewal of creation and the nativity of the church.
The church is the new temple created by God (cf. 1 Cor. 3.16), a people chosen by God and dedicated to participating in Christ’s priestly ministry, serving as agents of God’s reconciling love. Therefore, the church is rightly called a royal priesthood, a priesthood whose origins can be traced back into the Old Testament, through Samuel, culminating in Jesus Christ; the church is a priesthood baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and liberated from the bondage of sin and death.
So liberated, the Church meets every week to remember Christ’s death and resurrection and to sing praises to the same God praised by Hannah and Mary for his promised deliverance of his people and of all creation. Because God is faithful, from beginning to end, we have hope and assurance that the future is firmly in God’s hands. However, we so easily forget this amidst the turmoil of life, amidst “wars and rumors of wars” (Mk. 13.7), which is why the author of Hebrews enjoins his readers to continue to gather to be reminded through word and sacrament. The life of the gathered and worshipping church is non-negotiable for the life of the sent and witnessing church; we worship and we witness to the God who is faithful to his promises, the God who has power over life and death.
Therefore, the church also meets to “provoke one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10.24). What a great phrase – “provoke one another to love and good deeds”! Not politely remind or gently cajole or passive aggressively guilt-trip, but provoke. Because our faith is rooted in God’s faithfulness, we are free to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. This is not the drudgery of religion or the vacuousness of ‘spirituality’, but life lived in the presence of God in community and as a community that shows Christ’s love to others and tells of what God is doing in and through Jesus Christ. This is part of our priestly and prophetic vocation: provoking others, both inside and outside the church, to worship the faithful God of Hannah and Mary and to follow Christ’s way of love.
Provoking others to worship and to Christ’s way of love is risky business because it means that we move out of our comfort zones. It also requires that we are continually nourished by Christ’s self-giving love in Scripture and Sacrament. It also requires that we do not get caught up in building temples or kingdoms of our own glory, but that we encourage and provoke one another to fix our eyes on Christ alone. So, let us together faithfully read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Scripture so that we may hear, know, and meet Christ on every page and provoke each other to love. Amen.
 John Webster, Holy Scripture, 42.
 Webster, 13.
 St. Cyprian of Carthage, as cited in Francesca Aran Murphy, 1 Samuel, 21.