The Reverend Kathleen Killian
1 Samuel 1: 4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
According to Mark, Jesus’ disciples are the new kids on the block—it’s their first time in the big city Jerusalem—and they are amazed at the immense proportions of the temple. With its soaring bronze doors flashing in the sun, shining marble and glittering gold, the building is nearly blinding to behold! Treasured and innumerable gifts lay in offering amidst the sounds of trumpets and tambours, cymbals and lyres, the fragrance of frankincense and myrrh, spikenard and saffron filling the air as psalms and prayers waft on high.
The descriptors which we have just heard about the temple are from the works of the Judea-Roman historian Josephus; indeed, according to all sources, the second temple in ancient Jerusalem was an architectural marvel that was awe-inspiring. But when the star-struck disciple said to Jesus, look, what did Jesus see? His disciples still have little clue that his public ministry has come to its end, so looking at the temple, Jesus says to them: not one stone of the temple will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.
Though the sensuous magnificence of the temple was meant to provoke religious certainty, what Jesus sees is destruction, ruin and rubble, a coming end that is yet a beginning. He prophesies wars and insurrections, earthquakes and famine, and dreadful portents from heaven—the signs that will usher in the triumphant kingdom of God—but he does so not with anxiety for he knows that to birth new life something must end. Jesus’ heart is true in full assurance of his faith. Surely too, at that moment, he must have been remembering what he said at the beginning of his ministry, that the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near (Mark 1:15).
Our gospel this morning is also a signal that we have come to the end of the liturgical year, the new church year and season of Advent soon to begin a time of waiting and expectation of the birth of Jesus and final coming of Christ. We set out on the path of salvation last November 2020 with these words from Jesus, which are the end of the gospel we have just heard this morning: what I say to you I say to all: keep awake (Mark 13: 24-27). And so we must ask: have we kept awake in our full circle walk with Jesus and one another?
Markan scholar Lamar Williamson reminds us that every gospel writer leaves the church with a challenge: John calls the church to love one another; Matthew and Luke call the church to engage mission to the Gentiles or the other. Mark calls us to keep awake and to watch for the coming of the Son of Man especially amid the cacophony of the world and our own personal discord.
Our Epistle Hebrews offers us, as it did the early and fledging Christian community, great encouragement to stay awake and hold fast against wavering hope. We are exhorted to provoke and encourage one another to love and good deeds, and all the more, as you see the Day approaching; the day of our end, the end of loved one or the end of the church as we know it, the day of the end of time; the day of loss, the day of plenty, the day like no other but an ordinary day that is yet holy, sacred, and full of promise. We can approach whatever day it is with confidence and assurance of faith because a new and living way of life has been opened for us through the body and blood of Jesus. We remember the “approaching day” on the Lord’s day, Sunday, when we gather and are called into the fullness of love and into the fullness of time.
The fullness of time is like a braid woven of three strands: linear clock time, God’s divine time, and cosmic end time. Time is so central to our gospel passage, as it is to the whole of the gospel, that the disciple’s first response to Jesus’ emphatic assertion that the temple will be destroyed is a question about time: when, they ask their teacher, when will the temple be thrown down? Not why or how will it happen, but when? Jesus answers that this “when”—this convergence and fullness of time—is but the beginning of birth pangs, a beginning that is yet an end, an end that is yet a beginning.
And it is here that I’d like us to turn to our Old Testament, and the story and song of Hannah. Hannah is a barren and bereft woman, for the Lord has closed her womb. She endures not only her own pain but the cruel taunts of her husbands second wife who is abundantly fertile and has born many children. She lived within a complex and coded system in which a woman’s meaning was very much tied to her ability to give birth. If a woman could not bear a child, it was assumed that God was displeased, and the woman’s already low worth was further diminished.
Yet despite her powerlessness, and perhaps hopelessness, Hannah is awake and alert to something else, to something new. She does not come to God with formal petition or traditional sacrifice, but with herself, as she is, a woman deeply troubled. Hannah opens, empties, and pours out her soul to Yahweh, her faith passionately embodied and candidly expressed. Her agency and strength is not found from within her prescribed and restricted circumstances but in her awareness of the living God who is fully and freely receptive and responsive to her—to a woman deeply troubled, a body suffering, a soul yearning.
In effect, Hannah disrupts and reconstructs time by giving voice to an unknown future that was coming to eclipse and dispute what had so squarely been—her barrenness. What is our barrenness? Can we name it? For God breaks into the world through our desire, need, faith, and hope and sufferings, and through our witness to the great power of love and to the great and revelatory reversals of God’s kingdom.
It’s often said children are our hope because they are our future; and in the story of Hannah, and of Ruth which we recently heard, there is some truth to this: both women gave birth to sons who significantly shaped the future of their world, and thus ours. But at another level our scriptures reveal that our hope lies not in our future, wherever that may be, but in our wakefulness to God’s future of which our bodies are receptacles.
As the blessed Mary labored to birth Jesus into her world, so we labor to bring Christ into ours, even though we do not know the when of the birth. There is suffering and hope in our birth pangs because the Word was made flesh and time has been transformed. We labor in the very real fields of the world, and in a sacramental dimension. Time on earth is a pilgrimage towards an end that is uniquely ours and God’s alone.
Though we do not know the “when” of when the temple of the self and the world will be thrown down and the time is fulfilled, let us proclaim in unambiguous terms that the incarnation of God’s Word, through whom all things came into being, has woven even the smallest event of human and personal history into the deep time of God; that is, every moment has been, is, and will be a sacred opportunity to be led deeper into the heart of Christ (Henri Nouwen, paraphrased and adapted).
Jesus is leading us, this very moment, out of the shallows of finitude into the depths of God’s heart, into a new land of freedom and peace. Let us rejoice to labor and birth the new life and deep time of God’s salvation. Let us be a transformative community together and with joy.
Let us approach the altar of these mysteries with a true heart in full assurance of faith, for as Hannah sings, there is no Rock like our God.