October 16, 2016 Sermon
1st Scripture Reading – 1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20
9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite[d] until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants,[e] and no razor shall touch his head.”
19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
2nd Scripture Reading – 1 Samuel 2:1-10
2 Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.[a]
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my[b] victory.
2 “There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
3 Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
4 The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
6 The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
8 He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.[c]
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High[d] will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.”
The Kingdom of Heaven is like…
I imagine if I asked all of you to finish that sentence, and then I asked each of you to share your finished sentence, we’d discover that our sentences would mostly be very different and, indeed, our ideas about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like would be very different.
Some sentences might include:
- Something about street paved with gold;
- Something about angels;
- Something about everyone having enough and no one being in need;
- Something about feeling only positive emotions, like joy and love, and never feeling negative emotions, like anger and hate;
Even though Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven – also known as the Kingdom of God, depending on which of the four gospels you’re reading – (even though Jesus talked about the Kingdom of Heaven) more than any other thing, Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a bunch of different things:
- A mustard seed that someone sowed in a field;
- Yeast that a woman mixed with flour until the flour was leavened;
- A treasure hidden in a field;
- A merchant in search of fine pearls;
- A net thrown into the sea that caught fish of every kind;
- A landowner who went out to hire laborers;
- And many, many more;
With all these comparisons and metaphors about what this amazing kingdom is like, and with the result that we followers of Christ have so many different notions about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, it’s easy to get frustrated and wonder how we’re supposed to know what this Kingdom of Heaven things is really supposed to be like.
It turns out, God was revealing the nature of God’s kingdom, the place where people let God rule and live as if God is in charge, also known as the Kingdom of Heaven, God was revealing the nature of God’s kingdom to God’s people long before Jesus walked the earth and shared these parables and comparisons. And there are some very consistent things about what God revealed about God’s kingdom. And one of the most consistent things God revealed can be found in our readings from 1 Samuel this morning.
But before we talk about it, let’s catch up with where we are in the story of the Bible.
Last week, God was delivering God’s commandments to God’s people, Israel, through Moses. The people got restless and rebelled by building a golden calf and worshipping it. God wanted to destroy them and start over, but God relented. Much has happened since then.
God’s people wandered for forty years in the wilderness until a new generation rose up, a new generation that might be more inclined to trust in God instead of long for the days of Egyptian slavery. God led this new generation into the Promised Land. The people settled in the Promised Land, and at God’s command, the people divided the land among the twelve tribes of Israel. For hundreds of years, God’s people lived in the Promised Land as tribal people, separated by tribal loyalties but united by their belief in God and their practices of observing God’s commandments that separated them from everyone else. They were also united by having a cultic system that revolved around one central place of worship – the tabernacle containing the Ark of the Covenant; after arriving in the Promised Land, this central place of worship was first located in Gilgal and then was moved to Shiloh. The practices of the cultic system, these practices that were commanded by God, were administered by the priests, the descendants of Aaron, Moses’ brother.
But even though their observation of God’s commandments is the thing that united them, God’s people strayed from God’s desires often, which weakened them and left them vulnerable to attack. But each time they cried out to God, God lifted up a leader called a judge to bring them back to God and to rescue them from their oppressors. Our reading from 1 Samuel takes place toward the end of this period of the judges. Our reading from 1 Samuel takes place during the last generation before God would grant Israel a king. Our reading from 1 Samuel foretells the birth of the person who would become a prophet and anoint Israel’s first king. This prophet’s name was Samuel. But the story isn’t about Samuel. You could make the case that the story is about Hannah, Samuel’s mother, but the story is really about God…and God’s kingdom.
Hannah, who was childless and so believed herself to be barren, prayed to God for a son, and she promised to dedicate her son’s life to God if God granted her request. And after God did grant her request, and Hannah gave birth to Samuel, Hannah rejoiced and prayed a prayer of joy that reveals a TON about God and God’s kingdom. And what is revealed about God’s kingdom turned out to be repeated over and over again through the scriptures. What was revealed about God’s kingdom in Hannah’s prayer could be summed up with one word: reversals.
What Hannah discovered about God is that God desires a series of things that look like reversals from the perspective of the kingdom of this world, the kingdom of people, reversals from certain cultural norms and desires of just about every human society ever known.
Where people rule, certain things are true:
- Strength is based on muscle, physical might; people can produce strength;
- Like they can produce physical strength, people can produce political power and influence;
- Like they can produce physical strength and political power, people can produce material wealth;
- As a result, there will be strong people and weak people, powerful people and powerless people, wealthy people and poor people;
- In the kingdom of people, these things will be true.
But Hannah looked beyond the kingdom of people to see something different in the kingdom of God, in the places where people yield to God and allow God to reign;
- God can give strength to the physically weak, so the definition of strength is reversed, turned upside down;
- God can give power and influence to people who appeared to be powerless, so there is a real reversal of power;
- God can give wealth to the poor, so there is a real reversal of wealth;
- In the kingdom of God, it is truly possible for there to be none who are exalted above others…except, of course, God…because there is “no one holy like God”.
These reversals mentioned by Hannah, they’re mentioned again by King David; they’re mentioned again in the Psalms; they’re mentioned again by the prophets; they’re mentioned again by Jesus’ mother; and they’re mentioned over and again by Jesus, himself. So…I’m thinking we should pay attention.
And yet, as I look around, I wonder sometimes if we in the Church hear God’s clearly communicated desire for a kingdom that has such reversals from the human way of things as good news. I look around and see so many Christians:
- Working hard to achieve physical strength;
- Working hard to achieve power and influence;
- Working hard to achieve material wealth and success;
- Clinging so tightly to all they have as if the physical blessings of their lives are for them, alone to enjoy, instead of to be shared…and even coming up with an infinite number of excuses and rationalizations and justifications for why living more in accordance with the kingdom of this world instead of living in accordance with the kingdom of God is at the very least ACCEPTABLE, if not downright good and just and even ordained by God.
- In other words, so many Christians miss the point that it is not by might that one prevails; rather, it is by following the desires of God.
So…where’s the good news in that?
Actually, it’s all over the place.
- If you’ve been doing everything you can to gain power and influence in the world;
- If you’ve been doing everything you can do to gain material success, material wealth;
- If you’ve been doing everything you can to make yourself stronger;
- If you’ve been focusing on you, you, you and following the ways of the ever-increasing selfishness of human society;
- But you call yourself Christian because you proclaim a belief that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God;
- And you’re wondering WHY you don’t experience the JOY and CONTENTMENT that you thought Christianity is supposed to bring;
I would suggest it’s time for you to get more involved in the reversals of God’s ways. I would suggest it is time for you to follow God’s lead instead of society’s lead or even YOUR lead. Because, folks, here’s the thing, when it comes to God’s kingdom versus the world’s kingdom….you can’t be living in both at the same time. You either live under the illusion that the world’s ways are better…or you live into the reality that God’s way is better.
I’ll say this another way that will hopefully resonate with some of you. If you’re living your life expecting everybody else to do what YOU want…if you even approach Church and faith by proclaiming that God’s vision for you and even this congregation is everyone doing what YOU want…you are totally missing the amazing place that is the kingdom of God. And that’s why you’re frustrated and angry and even sad more than you should be.
Which brings me back to the way I began this sermon.
The kingdom of heaven is like….
Y’all, the kingdom of heaven is like what happens when everyone follows God’s will instead of some human will…whether that human will be the will of the government, the will of our friends, the will of our families, or even the will of ourselves.
Which means, the kingdom of heaven is like…the opposite of what we see around us in the kingdom of humanity. The kingdom of heaven is like:
- No pain, no suffering, inflicted by people;
- No one hoarding or having too much of anything;
- But everyone having enough;
- Everyone using their God-given gifts for the common good – HELPING people instead of expecting to be helped;
- Amazing miracles of abundance happening all the time and being recognized all the time because everyone is focused on what God is doing;
- Everyone cooperating to bring God’s vision to fruition.
That’s a lot of description…but maybe not any picture, any image. I’ll leave the image, the picture, up to you. If everything could be exactly the way God wants it to be…what do you think that would look like?
Whatever that is, I can tell you that it won’t happen, the world won’t LOOK like that, until every single person chooses to follow God instead of someone or something else…with every decision…all the time. And while I get that you can’t necessarily persuade every person to be a part of this, you can persuade ONE person…and that’s you. How will you respond?