Monday, 11 March 2013

"Take up Your Cross," the Saviour Said

This morning, for the Mothering Sunday sermon, I read the story of Samuel’s birth and dedication from 1 Samuel 1, with a few comments along the way.
One congregation was mostly adults (the children having gone out to Junior Church) whilst the other was mixed, with ages right down to babes-in-arms. With this congregation, I got the younger ones to come and sit in the front pews, so I could speak directly to them.
We engaged in some interesting dialogue at the beginning. Trying to make the point that the genealogy in v1 establishes Elkanah as a real person, I asked, “Who knows the name of their daddy?”
And who knows the name of their granddad?
Actually this wasn’t the trickiest contribution I had to deal with. That prize goes to, “I’ve got pink tights on,” which even I couldn’t turn into a reference to the text.
All in all, it didn’t go too badly however, and despite running over time, I had the attention of most of the kids most of the time.
It did strike me, however, that God demands a lot of his servants. In v 5 we read that when the family was feasting on the sacrifice, Elkanah gave a double portion to Hannah “because he loved her, and the Lord had closed her womb.”
Childlessness can be a terrible burden to bear, though it can come about for a variety of reasons. Yet the text tells us in this case that this was God’s doing.
Why would God put someone through this?
And what about the outcome? Hannah makes a deal with God. We’ve probably all done that at some time, telling God if he does something for us, we won’t forget.
“What usually happens when we make a deal with God like this?” I asked my front row.
Up went an older child’s hand: “We don’t keep it.” Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings indeed.
But Hannah’s deal goes deeper than many. “Give me what I most want,” she says, “and I will give you what I most treasure.” And she keeps it.
Now imagine (unless you think the story was imaginary) what the effect on this woman’s life might have been. Yet after she has heard Eli’s good wishes for her (“May the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him” is hardly a promise) she shows total faith.
How so? This woman, who normally didn’t eat at the feast and wept all the time, “went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.” She wasn’t yet pregnant. She hadn’t even had a chance to lie with Elkanah, but she acted on the basis that God was going to come through on her request. (Although as one of our adult women said to me afterwards, it may also have helped her get pregnant — which is a fair point. The issue, however, is not the mechanics of how these things happened but God’s hand at work.)
Then, come the great day, she handed over this most treasured thing.
Again we may only imagine the cost. This wasn’t like sending an older child to boarding school. This was a semi-permanent parting of mother and child. And as if the trauma for the mother weren’t bad enough, imagine Samuel’s feelings as she walked away, leaving him in the care, such as it was, of the ageing Eli.
But this is what it means to be part of God’s plans and purposes. If you want a happy life, go somewhere else. God is not interested in our happiness — not at this stage, anyway. He is interested in the salvation of the world from the grip of evil.
Samuel is vital to that plan, but for there to be a Samuel there has to be a Hannah — a woman driven by the grief of her childlessness to pray for a child on the condition that she will make a sacrifice of her love.
Like Churchill in 1940, God offers us blood, toil, tears and sweat. If we can understand that, we can make more sense of the present as we look to the future.
By the way, the vicar’s daughter said to me tonight, “Thank you for that talk this morning.” That absolutely made my day.
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  1. John,
    I was also talking about that passage on Sunday morning, and mostly to the front seats which were full of Cubs, Rainbows and Brownies. I had taken the precaution of writing a simplified paraphrase of the reading, because it should have been read by the Brownies, but was actually read by two of their leaders.

    However, the Brownie leader had taken issue with my paraphrase, particularly the bit about Elkana having two wives. Personally, I'm not sure how many 8 year olds worry themselves about bigamy, but we agreed on a small adjustment to the wording to explain that it was often the practice of the times.

    Then the fun started. A small quiz about the facts of the story followed, answered very well by all of them, apart for the fact that nobody remembered the name of the man who had two wives, the least important fact of all. But they did remember what Samuel’s name means and what happened as a result of Hannah’s prayer. And they also remembered what they were supposed to do in Lent.

    But Mothering Sunday is the one day in Lent when you can eat cake, and thus its alternative names – Lataere (‘Rejoice’) Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, Simnel Sunday. And it’s also an opportunity to reflect on the fact that you are not celebrating Mothers’ Day (a commercial opportunity), but you are celebrating that the God-Man relationship can be exactly like the Mother-Child relationship.

    That’s where we went. The complex and often trying relationship between parents and children can be an exact metaphor for our own prayer life and walk with Christ. And finally a short gospel presentation, always necessary on the occasions when we get a full turnout of uniformed organisations and their mums and dads. We had wandered a long way from Elkana and his two wives, but Samuel would have understood.

  2. Anything made of the fact Samuel wasn't raised in the arms of his family, but dumped on the church door step and raised by priests? Samuel seemed to turn out okay...

  3. Adoption experience shows good early bonding is crucial to the ability to develop relationships, such as attachment, and resilience. Samuel had that. He also had God in spades (as it were).

  4. Richard,
    I'm from a Church that doesn't do Lent in a big way (ahem, at all). But isn't it the case that in the Eastern Church Lent runs, start to finish, 40 days. But in the West Sundays are "off" as feast days. So cake every Sunday please (it would appear that cake is central to our tradition). If that's the case, then the whole Lentern stripping the "altar" doesn't make much sense, presumably it needs re-laying every Sunday morning.

    I may have missed the point and that's slightly tongue in cheek. Also, will not set any more hares off of the "take up the cross" theme.

    ON SUBJECT: Has modern Christianity become, "take up your comfort blanket" - ?

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