Sermon given at St. Andrew’s Ealing, 18th November by Revd Sue McCoan
1 Samuel 1:4-20; Mark 13:1-8
The other week, some friends invited us to spend the day with them on their canal boat. We had a lovely time – pootled up the canal, had a bit of lunch, turned round. We were just admiring the lovely autumn colours, catching the low sun, when all of a sudden the low sun became the setting sun; the temperature dropped, and the light faded remarkable quickly. It was the first time they’d been on the boat since the clocks had changed the week before, and they had not quite thought through the timing. Fortunately they had a headlamp, but I have to say I’m glad it wasn’t me that was steering in the gathering gloom. I was in the cabin, making sure the dog was safe.
We’re are something of a similar place in the church’s year. We’ve been trundling through the summer with stories of Jesus healing and teaching, bringing good news and showing the kingdom of God. We’ve celebrated the harvest and the goodness of creation. Then last week was Remembrance Sunday – more a national event than a religious one, but still one we honour in church, and rightly so. Remembering the fallen, and all the other sacrifices of war, casts a shadow, brings a chill to the back of the neck. It is a sobering reminder that our faith is lived out, not in the cosiness of a church sanctuary but in a fallen and sometimes brutal world. And this sobering up, facing the shadows, is part of our preparation for Advent, which starts in 2 weeks’ time, when we begin to look forward to the light that is to come.
Our reading from Mark’s gospel casts the same sort of shadow. Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem, ready for the Passover. Jesus has been teaching and debating in the Temple, including some awkward encounters with scribes and Pharisees. On their way out, maybe to lighten the atmosphere, one of the disciples makes an innocent remark about the scenery. Look at those huge stones! Amazing buildings! Galilee boys hit the big city. They have literally not seen anything like this before.
But Jesus is in no mood to admire the architecture. He sees the stones, sees the vast edifice of the Temple, and sees the destruction that is to come. One day, however impressive this is, it will all be in ruins. Troubles will come, so be on your guard – and when the four disciples ask him later about this, he goes into some detail about what they can expect: national troubles, and personal persecution. It’s not a pretty picture. But it’s as well to know, so that when these things happen, you will know it’s all in the plan.
Shadows are falling. There are shadows, too, in our first reading, from 1 Samuel. This tells of a time of spiritual darkness. We are in the declining years of the elderly priest Eli. His two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, have been trained a priests to succeed him, but they are not fit for the task: they are described in chapter 2 as ‘scoundrels with little regard for the Lord’. In chapter 3 we are told that Eli’s eyesight is failing, and that in those days the word of the Lord was rarely heard, and there was no outpouring of vision. It looks as if things are dying out, fading away.
But here we see a turning point. Because it is into this darkness that the prophet Samuel is born.
Samuel’s birth is told as a story of the personal anguish of his mother, Hannah. Hannah is childless: dreadful enough for any woman at that time, but made so much worse for Hannah by the fact that her husband’s other wife has several children, and makes no bones about flinging it all in Hannah’s face. For years. No wonder Hannah weeps bitterly, mouthing her heartache to God, past caring who sees her. Eli, whose eyes are failing, sees her mouth move but not her tears and thinks she is drunk. This is rock bottom for Hannah; things can’t get worse. Yet through all her grief, she retains her faith that God will hear her prayers. When Eli realises his mistake, he is kind and offers a blessing. The miracle happens; Hannah conceives her child.
It is an intensely human story. But it is through this human story, of Hannah’s transformation from shame and despair to hope and joy, that we can grasp what is happening to the nation as a whole. Eli trains up the young Samuel in God’s service; Samuel becomes the prophet who will bring new hope and new vision, who will anoint the first kings and open up a new chapter of the people of God. As Eli’s light fades, in the country that was slipping into darkness, the new light of the prophets is kindled and nurtured.
The idea of a human story to give us insight into a much larger picture is again something we saw around Remembrance Sunday, and the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the end of the first World War. Radio 4 broadcast some letters, written between a soldier and his sweetheart back home. She was making him socks, and nearly had to finish them with pink wool as she’d run out of khaki; he was losing comrades every day but looking forward to his next leave. He dared to hope of a future they might have together. He sent that letter, and was killed the next day. Five minutes of air time, that told so much.
The human story points to, and illustrates, the bigger picture.
And the best example of this, of course, is Jesus. Jesus, the human being, who so completely embodies God that there is no part of him that is not God. So everything in the life of Jesus points to, and illustrates, the truth of God that is beyond our understanding.
We see a baby in a stable, and we know how helpless and vulnerable babies are; so we see how much God was prepared to risk for us, to enter into our humanity. We might not have seen that so clearly if we had only heard of Jesus as an adult.
We see Jesus leaving home and the reaction of his family, ranging from concern to embarrassment and shame; so we see that leaving home like this was not normal, and again what it cost Jesus to get his message across.
We see Jesus treating as equals the people society didn’t want, healing people whom society had written off, giving dignity to a disgraced woman and a greedy little man; so we understand just how much God cares for each one of us, regardless of our status or our achievements or even how nice we are.
In today’s reading, we see Jesus preparing his disciples for the hard times ahead, and we understand the tremendous responsibility he took on for them and for us. He had called them from their routine and their safety, and set them on a path of discipleship and faith, and he knew, in a way that they did not yet know, that this would be a path of sorrows. It’s hard to be responsible for someone else’s suffering. And in this, in this warning, we see that to be a follower of Jesus is a big and serious matter and that we are both privileged and tested by being part of it.
We also see, though, and this is perhaps the one thing to take away from these readings for today: we also see that, whatever we are going through, we are in God’s hands. Jesus says these things to his disciples not to frighten them, but to give them courage: When the dark times come, you will be able to trust that it hasn’t all gone wrong, and that God is still with you.
There are shadows around us in life today. This week, the United Nations special rapporteur has been investigating poverty in the UK. It’s terrible to think that should even be needed, but clearly it was. His remit was, again, to listen to personal stories – to the people whom society apparently doesn’t want or has written off. From these personal stories, he has built a big and shocking picture of poverty: families facing homelessness, people too scared to eat, people on benefits contemplating suicide. Actually it’s not shocking, because charities and food bank organisers and Citizens Advice Bureaux have been warning about this for some time. It’s scandalous. For those directly affected it’s disastrous. For those who are not, it is an ugly shadow on this country.
The government doesn’t want to face it. The first reaction to the report was to dismiss it. But Jesus calls us to face the shadows.
There may be shadows, too, in our own lives. Illness, bereavement, family worries, job prospects. Uncertainty – plenty of that around. Jesus calls us to face those shadows too, to take a good clear look at exactly where we are and what is going on. It’s often very uncomfortable to do that.
But when we face the shadows, with the help of Jesus, then we can also find in him the courage to move forward even into the darkness.
You may know these lines, from Minnie Louise Haskins.
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown’. And he replied: Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.
As we move into Advent, in the shadows of the world, may we know the hand of God, leading us through the darkness, until we begin to see the distant light coming once more at Christmas.