Sunday, December 13, 2015

Nativity Stories: The Prophet and Priest

Now we're three Sundays deep in Advent, an Advent where we've been hearing how the Bible's nativity stories highlight the importance of the Nativity Story we're waiting for. The nativity of Cain and Abel reminds us that the natural bent of our heart in a fallen world is greedily grab for all we can get, but that nothing around us lasts. The nativity of Seth reminds us that the only way out is for God to appoint new life, a new creation, by his grace. 

The nativity of Noah reminds us that God in his grace wants to give us rest from our weary labor on the cursed ground. The nativity of Isaac reminds us that, although we're prone to mock what God offers us, faith in the Son of Promise has the power to turn our sour skepticism into light joy that lets us soar on eagle's wings. The nativity of Moses reminds us that, in a fallen world dominated by tyrants who thirst to maintain control at all costs, even the tyrannies of our own desires, God has plans to deliver us – not through mighty armies, but through the power of faithful nativity, birth snatching victory out of the jaws of death. 

In the years since Moses led his people, Joshua led them into the Promised Land and subdued it; but then came the days of the judges. Some of the most perplexing heroes of the Old Testament come from those days of troubled times – men and women strong and mighty, who led and guided the tribes of Israel. They were troubled times, because “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). And on the heels of those days, the Bible introduces us now to a certain man named Elkanah, “God owns him.” 

Elkanah isn't from a powerful family. He's a Levite, but from an obscure branch of that family tree (1 Chronicles 6:27). Elkanah doesn't come from an important city. He doesn't live in Jerusalem, he doesn't live in Jericho, he doesn't live in Bethel. He lives in Ramathaim, a small and obscure village up in the hill country of the Ephraimites. It doesn't get more backwoods than Elkanah. 

And did he do any great feats in the course of his life? Was he a general in the army? Was he a great prophet of the Lord? No – in fact, when one of the books of the Bible begins with him, it's not immediately obvious why anyone is meant to care. He's a small-town Levite, a servant of God with no land of his own, living as salt and light in his tiny village.

But Elkanah has two wives to support. The first one is named Hannah, the second one is Peninnah. And Hannah has a problem: she's childless, a big social problem for a woman in the ancient world. That may have been the whole reason why Elkanah married Peninnah: to give him children (1 Samuel 1:2). And the Bible tells us that this disparity in nativities – plenty through Peninnah, none through Hannah – was the occasion for a lot of family discord. 

Year in and year out, Peninnah would go out of her way to make Hannah feel worse and worse about her situation. Penninah would “provoke her severely” over it, persistently reducing Hannah to tears, even in times of feasting (1 Samuel 1:6-7). In days of celebration, the annual feast at Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:3; cf. Judges 21:19), Hannah's holiday cheer was perpetually ruined by the pain of her loss, made worse by the constant cruel reminders of her rival for her husband's affections.

I think all of us can more or less relate to Hannah, in a way. We may not all have the same condition she had. Many (though not all) of us have children. But we're living in a Cain-and-Abel world all around us, a world where things don't function the way they're meant to, a world where blessings come and go like a breath in the wind. And living in that kind of world hurts. None of us are perfectly healthy. All of us carry some kind of injury, some sort of pain. Each and every one of us is wounded. Maybe in our youth, we didn't get adequate love and care from one or both of our parents. Maybe we never quite felt good enough, always felt a sense of insecurity in some area of our life. Maybe there's something we longed to achieve and never did, or maybe we made a mistake we haven't forgotten and live with a sense of regret. Or maybe something or someone was taken from us, and we live in sorrow and suffering because we feel that hole, that ache, that nothing else can really fill. 

And what's worse, with the holiday season upon us, that sense of woundedness gets more and more apparent – the absence is clearer, or our inward doubts and questions are louder, or we have to face a relative with a tendency to poke us in that sore spot. Truth be told, Christmas isn't always a joyous time for everyone; and the fact that the rest of us seem to be in unabated bliss only makes the especially wounded among us feel even more isolated and alone. It's easy to forget that others are wounded too, just in different ways. But Hannah knows how you feel. Every year, her holiday was ruined when Peninnah played with her pain of loss, her insecurities, her feelings of failure.

Hannah was in a familiar position: she couldn't understand why things had turned out this way, why she couldn't have the life that everyone else seemed to have. Hadn't the Law said that if Israel obeyed God's commandments, then one of his blessings would make them “the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock” (Deuteronomy 7:14). 

Israel wasn't obedient – but she was, so why was she suffering? And her name meant “Favored with Grace” – but she didn't feel favored. She felt excluded, abandoned, and forgotten in all the hustle and bustle of the holidays and of ordinary life. Sure, her husband Elkanah tried to console her – he loved her dearly, he was more fair to her than most men in his culture; he tried to balance her loss by making sure she was treated fairly and included in the family celebration. But still she wept. Still she couldn't eat. Still she couldn't enjoy the holiday dinner (1 Samuel 1:4-8).

It would have been easy for Hannah to just give up and wallow in despair. Maybe for a while, that's exactly what she did. It would have been easy for Hannah to withdraw – maybe run away, maybe stay home when the family went to Shiloh. It would have been easy for Hannah to get angry and lash out, become bitter and full of hate – maybe make sure Peninnah has what looks like an accident a week before the family vacation. But that's not what Hannah does. 

Hannah's instinct this holiday season is to pray. I doubt this was the first time in all her years that she'd prayed about her situation. She likely prayed day after day – and saw no results. But Hannah was persistent in prayer. With tears flowing from her face, she prayed that the LORD would see her affliction – would look at her and behold a woman in the same condition as the Hebrews in slavery to Pharaoh, and that the LORD would be the Exodus God to her

She didn't demand that God do something. She didn't try to threaten him, nor did she draw a line in the sand or give him an ultimatum. She consistently described herself as God's “servant.” She knew she was talking to the Master, and her prayer reflects that humility. She asked for a specific result – a son – and she described how she planned to follow up on God's blessing: she would raise the boy as a lifelong Nazirite, dedicated to God's service in an extraordinary way. This wasn't a bribe, wasn't an attempt to barter with God: “You give me this, I'll give you that.” Hannah isn't trying to strike a deal. She's making a specific request and committing in advance to a specific way to show her gratitude and use God's blessing to bless others (1 Samuel 1:9-11).

Now, the priest at Shiloh is an older man named Eli – not the best example of a priest, but at least not as awful as his sons. He's watching this strange woman pray, watching her ask God for something – but she's praying silently, and her lips are moving (1 Samuel 1:12-13). Eli misunderstands: he's not a perceptive fellow, doesn't have much discernment. Like the mocking crowds at Pentecost, he can't tell the difference between devotion and drunkenness, between prayer and alcoholism (cf. Acts 2:13). On the one hand, it's a bit easy to understand: after all, everyone was feasting, and you know how some people get embarrassingly tipsy at some holiday parties. Eli makes a snap judgment without all the facts. He's so quick to rebuke sin that he doesn't bother investigating. “Judge first, ask questions never” is Eli's motto (1 Samuel 1:14). Hannah has to correct this leading priest (1 Samuel 1:15-16).

Was Eli mortified by his mistake? Maybe – the Bible doesn't tell us how he felt, what expression came over his face. But it tells us that he blessed her to receive her heart's desire from God and sent her away in peace (1 Samuel 1:17). And when she went her way, she ate, she drank, she was happy. God hadn't answered her prayer yet, but with Eli's blessing, she had faith to believe God was going to do exactly that. Hannah's faith gave her joy in advance! That's another thing that makes Hannah such a great model of prayer: her faith to believe before she receives, all because she sees an indication that God's going to act. Hannah's filled with joyful anticipation of what God will do (1 Samuel 1:18).

What kind of a God did Hannah believe in? Her later thanksgiving song spells it out for us. She believes in a God who is really holy – “there is no Holy One like the LORD” – a God who can't be reduced or restricted to the commonplace, a God who demands that we rise above the muck and the mire of a Cain-and-Abel world and all our baser urges and impulses, a special God who loves it when people act like they're his and his alone. 

This God isn't like others: he has no peers, no equals; and what's more, this God is sturdy, reliable, consistent: “There is no Rock like our God” (1 Samuel 2:2). He's a God who knows what we don't – “the LORD is a God of knowledge” – and that means that all Peninnah's taunts are sure to backfire, all her proud talk and arrogance, because Peninnah doesn't know how things will play out. She might think she does. Peninnah judges on what she sees. Hannah trusts in a God who is the unseen factor that outweighs all Peninnah can see.

Most importantly, Hannah trusts in a God who is sovereign, a God who has control of all things in this out-of-control world: “The LORD brings death and brings to life; he brings down to the grave and he raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts” (1 Samuel 2:6-7). The idea of God being really sovereign can be an uncomfortable one for a lot of us. Calvinists like our Presbyterian friends around the corner talk about God as sovereign more than we're prone to. But while they might stretch the notion beyond where it's meant to go, still it's the biblical truth, and we needn't be allergic to it. Hannah's God is an active God who has a handle on things. Nothing happens that catches him by surprise. Whether we're weak or strong, barren or fertile, poor or rich, low or high, dead or alive – God holds that in his hand.

That's important to Hannah because her God is the Judge – “by him, actions are weighed … the LORD will judge the ends of the earth” (1 Samuel 2:3, 10). And he judges by turning the world upside-down. That's what Hannah has been looking for. She was barren – she wants God to turn that upside-down. Some are hungry, but God will turn that upside-down and make them “fat with spoil” (1 Samuel 2:5). Those in poverty may wallow in the ash heap, the garbage dump, in the filthy back alleys, but God will turn that upside-down and “make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” He owns the pillars of the earth on which the whole world sits, and he can sure turn 'em topsy-turvy (1 Samuel 2:8)! Amen?

And if God is ready and willing to turn the world on its head, put it all upside-down, that means that God's sovereignty isn't a resignation to fate. It doesn't weaken prayer; it empowers prayer! If God's in charge of it, he can change it! The Author of the Universe may edit as he sees fit! If God's in charge of life and death, then he can turn death to life! If God's in charge of high and low, then he can raise me up when I'm down! If God's in charge of barrenness and fertility, then he can give Hannah a son at last! That's the kind of God Hannah knows and loves – a God who might just flip her pain and sorrow into something new, a God who might hold her the wrong way up so her tear-stained frown curves into a joyful smile.

So Hannah eats, she drinks, she worships, and they go back to Ramah, and there the LORD remembered her (1 Samuel 1:19). She wasn't the forgotten one. She isn't neglected by God. She never was. She was always on his mind – just like you, just like me. And in time, Hannah brings her first bouncing baby boy onto the world's stage. God has been faithful to what she asked. That's how Hannah explains his name: “I have asked him from the LORD (1 Samuel 1:20). To hear just that, and her later pledge to entrust him to the LORD (1 Samuel 1:28), you'd expect his name to be Saul, whose name means “asked” – it's very clever foreshadowing. 

But his name isn't Saul. His name is Samuel – “heard by God.” Earlier, when Hannah prayed, “her voice was not heard” – by Eli (1 Samuel 1:13). Hannah asked, but her voice wasn't heard. Her voice wasn't heard, but her heart was heard by the God who “looks on the heart,” and listens to it, too (1 Samuel 16:7). Her silent prayer made no sound waves propagate through the atmosphere to reach Eli's mortal ears. But the immortal God hears at zero Hertz just as well as on any other frequency, so long as our heart is on the wavelength of God's will. Because Hannah asked in faith, therefore God heard. Throughout the Bible, God is a God who hears – once his people ask!

Too often, we don't bother asking. We say, “I'll pray for you,” and we don't. Or we think, “Wouldn't it be nice if...” this or that, but we neglect to take it to the Lord. “Ask, and ye shall receive” – Hannah really believed that (John 16:24)! Do we? Of course, it isn't unconditional. We receive only when we “ask in prayer with faith” (Matthew 21:22). A prayer without faith falls to the dirt and never flies away to God's presence. If we have no trust in him, it's no surprise if we don't receive. 

We receive also only when we ask for something good for us – if we ask God for rocks and snakes instead of bread and fish, God is too good to curse us in our foolishness (Matthew 7:9-10). We receive only when we ask for something that's in God's will – even Jesus was denied his petition for a solution that didn't involve drinking the cup of God's wrath on the cross (cf. Luke 22:42). But even so, God may go beyond what we ask for and give us something better: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the One who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7). 

We receive when we “obey his commandments and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:22). And we receive when God knows we've asked in faith for something good that he wills, and that we'll be faithful with it. God knew that Hannah would be faithful to her promise – and she was. As soon as little Samuel was weaned, she took him to Shiloh, brought him to Eli, and because God had granted what she asked, so she dedicated him to God and left him there with Eli at the tabernacle (1 Samuel 1:24-28).

Every year after that, Eli blessed Elkanah and Hannah and prayed that God would reward them (1 Samuel 2:20). And God did, giving Hannah three more sons and two daughters (1 Samuel 2:21). Her faithfulness led to more nativities. Samuel himself went on to have at least two sons, Joel and Abijah; and Joel's son Heman, one of the chief song-leaders in Solomon's Temple, wasn't just a great seer like his grandfather Samuel, but he also wrote Psalm 88 and even had seventeen children of his own. God was gracious: when Hannah asked in faith, when Eli blessed in faith, God heard faithfully and was gracious beyond anyone's wildest imagination.

We're here this morning to worship Hannah's God – holy, sturdy, attentive, sovereign, gracious, faithful. His gifts didn't stop with Samuel. Hannah's bouncing baby boy wasn't the be-all and end-all of God's work in the world. Throughout the pages of the Old Testament, we read that priests and prophets like Samuel had faith to ask the LORD to send a greater gift, the gift of ultimate redemption. They waited and waited, year in and year out, as other nations mocked them like Peninnah mocked Hannah: “As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'” (Psalm 42:10). “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, 'Where is your God?'” (Psalm 42:3). But “why should the nations say, 'Where is their God?' Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115:2-3). And in Bethlehem, it pleased our God to step down from the heavens into a manger – because God had heard what his people asked. They asked for salvation. He gave them himself as Mary's child.

We live between the advents of the Lord's Anointed – we've already seen his first coming in the manger, and we're waiting for “the blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13) again with thousands of angels – and in this time, we have advantages in prayer that Hannah never had. We have a clearer picture of salvation-history: we know what God has done in Jesus Christ, we know where history is going, we know where we are in the unfolding of God's story better than Hannah could have known where she was. We pray in greater light than she prayed. 

What's more, “we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens: Jesus, the Son of God” (Hebrews 4:14), and this Heavenly High Priest is enthroned at God's right hand, in his very presence, and “always lives to make intercession” for “those who approach God through him” (Hebrews 7:25). High Priest Jesus is always praying for us, speaking right to the Father's face in the throne room of all creation, with no distance between them! 

And if that weren't enough, even though we don't know how to pray the way we should, God's very own Spirit dwells in our lives and “intercedes” – prays for us – “with sighs too deep from words” but which are perfectly understood by God; and “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). Hannah never had that! But we do. What's stopping us from praying prayers she could have never dreamed?

In the season of Advent that's now upon us, we remember those centuries and centuries when God's people, prophets, and priests cried out to heaven for their Redeemer to come – and then God heard, and Jesus came. Advent commemorates centuries of asking. That's what Advent is all about: a focused season of asking in faith, as we await the Christmas Gift that comes from the Father's side – the strengthened King, the exalted Messiah (1 Samuel 2:10). As we review the nativity stories that lead up to the Nativity Story that shows us how God heard his people, what better way to spend Advent than in asking?

We worship Hannah's God – or at least, Hannah's God is the God we meet in Jesus Christ, and whoever sees him has beheld the Father through him (John 14:9). If we really believe in that God, then we know that he is all the hope we ever need or could ever want. There's no decrease that the sovereign God of Hannah can't turn into an increase. There's no weakness that the sovereign God of Hannah can't turn into power. There's no hunger that the Giver of Samuel and of Jesus can't fulfill. Bring all your woundedness and all your needs to him.

As a church, we know that we have needs. What's more, we know that the community around us has needs. I'm not just talking about things like Uncle Fred's flu or Aunt Cathy's colonoscopy. I mean that we are here in this time and place for a reason: to reach our appointed field with Jesus, to reap a harvest in his name, to see the community be transformed by the kingdom of heaven come to earth. That is why we are here. If we aren't seeking that, then we're just taking up real estate and sucking our thumbs each Sunday morning. 

No, that can't be all we're about. We have to be seeking God's kingdom first and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). We have to be faithful to the Great Commission and the Great Commandment – to love God and love our neighbors so radically that we'll train every nation in the life-changing art of Jesus-imitation and teach them everything he's taught us. But “it's not by strength that one prevails” (1 Samuel 2:9). Victory in our mission requires a movement of God – expected faithfully, implored faithfully, answered faithfully!

This Advent season, if we will dare to have faith, if we are ready to sign on to God's agenda, if we we'll pray heartfelt prayers, if we approach God humbly as his sons and daughters in Christ, if we'll pray with specifics, if we'll pray for God's kingdom come and God's will be done, if we'll pray persistently for days or months or years with unrelenting holy patience, if we seek to bless others and not just to profit ourselves, if we're obedient to his commandments and faithful to follow through and be good stewards of what he gives us – then what are we waiting for? If we'll pray as Hannah prayed, with the Spirit that overshadowed Mary dwelling in our hearts and in our life together, then let us pray for the sovereign God of Hannah, the God of Nativity and of Resurrection, to turn our church and our community upside-down and make them abundantly alive!

O LORD of Hosts, God of Israel, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, hear the voice of your sons and daughters in their afflictions. We groan, yearning for the redemption of the world by your Son's return; and we groan for your continued work in our hearts, in our lives, in our relationships, in our assembly, and in our neighborhoods and world. Remember us, and do not forget your children! Our hearts exult in you, the God who conquers death with limitless life. Send down the Spirit of your Son, and set us on fire. Let us lead the souls of many to you. Where our prayers are feeble, make them strong, and give us wisdom to pray rightly. Make us salt and light in our day and in our place. Let the gospel you thunder from heaven be found always on our lips. Give us kingdom health, and we will set everything we have before you, specially dedicated to loving you and loving our neighbors. If our hearts shy away from obeying you, give us new and faithful hearts! Make our hearts desire what you desire, and then give us the desire of your heart and ours – your kingdom and your righteousness. Make us a church devoted to being the demonstration of Jesus Christ, present in the world around us, and to discipling Lancaster and Chester Counties in the good news of your salvation. Our strength can't make us prevail; only your grace does that. But we vow a vow of faithfulness to you. Hold us to it, turn us upside-down, and hear this prayer we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

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