Our message in church today was taken from the scripture of I Samuel 1:4-20, Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25 and Mark 13:1-8. The title was: “Barrenness to Birth Pangs.”
Our title today points us to the Old Testament, I Samuel scriptures, but I want to open by sharing a reading that I found in our library of Minister’s Annual Manuals. I am not even sure they are printed any more, but I will tell you I appreciate them, and today I would like to start by sharing part of a story from this one dated 194-1995. It deals more with what we read in the Hebrews and Mark, scriptures which point to the end times. Read it… (pgs. 146-147). This was a story about a Rev. Miller, who lived in the 1800’s. He was part of the major revival movement in the USA and believed that the world would end in 1843. He later adjusted his findings to 1844, and finally was sent out of the church and died excommunicated. It was an interesting story.
Reading this made me think back to some times in our life-time when we have had predictions that the end is near. I remember reading a book called 666 when I was in high school. It was a story about the end of the world, and was geared towards young people to make them think that it was going to happen in the near future.
Then I remember the Jim Jones cult in South America, or what about the group in California who thought they would be taken up in a space ship? How many of us remember all the hype of the turn of the century. Everything was going to shut down because nothing would work when the clocks turned over, and all of the money spent on that was for naught, and most recently all the predictions of the Mayan calendar pointing to the end of the world. We don’t know when it will happen.
Jesus taught his disciples that the time was at hand. He wanted them to be at work as if the coming were in their lifetime. Some commentaries suggest that Jesus really believed the time was near, and perhaps that is the right answer. It could also be that he wanted them to be vigilant and busy, and spreading the Good News as quickly as if they had no time to delay. We too need to think that way. Not that we need to stock up piles of food or supplies or prepare our physical mind set for the idea that the end is near.
But instead we need to prepare our spiritual lives for the idea that the end is near. We do not know the day or the hour. We don’t know it collectively for the whole world, and we don’t know it individually for ourselves. There are those who say that as we age, we should take stock of our lives and be ready for the end, for death. But seriously, death is not just for the aged; we have seen all too often in this community, recently, that death is not prejudice, it takes anyone at anytime.
An interesting remark was made by the minister of the funeral we were at yesterday. He said death is the one thing that we are all going to experience, guaranteed, unless of course we live to the end days. But his point was that death is coming for everyone, and no one will have to be jealous that they were left out. This is one thing that everyone will be sure of experiencing. But my intent was not to turn to a morbid topic. I simply want to point out that as Jesus was telling his disciples the end is at hand, we see the urgency of sharing the good news, the gospel and the love of Jesus with others around us.
Our story in I Samuel today is the story of Hannah. She may seem like just another wife in the scriptures who turns out to be barren. We read that story of barrenness from Sarah through Rachel all the way to Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and Hannah is there in the midst. Hannah like Rachel is not the only wife and so her husband is not at all upset, he has other children. He loves her very much and is not concerned that she is without children to raise. But for Hannah this is a terrible – almost a curse that she is childless, in fact she is constantly ridiculed and harassed by the other wife. Now days, she could probably call bully and find justice.
We might look at this story and see it as a bargaining with God story, and when we interpret it that way, it should give us problems. Hannah prays fervently, and in those prayers we do hear a form of bargaining. She prays for a child, but says if her wish be granted, she would give the child to be raised in the temple to be God’s servant. We could look at it that way, and if we did, we might see that God can be manipulated, and that we are able to bargain with God to get our way. I will be honest that I don’t really like that interpretation.
We might also see a barren woman coming before God and offering herself to his service. She is a woman with nothing, or so she believes, who says to God that she is willing to conceive and give birth to a child that she will raise briefly, train up for a short time, and then return that child to God’s temple to do God’s work. Hannah rather than bargaining in her barrenness, offered herself to God’s will, to God’s service. If you read the rest of this story, you know that those intended to lead the temple, those intended to do God’s work at prophet for the people were evil, and God needed to remove them, but there was no one to fill the position until Hannah, beloved, barren Hannah, came to the temple and offered herself as God’s faithful servant.
Jesus suggested that the signs of the end times were not really the end of the world, but the birth pangs of the new and better world to come. Hannah’s offering changed her barrenness to birth pangs. And by the way, she didn’t bargain that let me have children and I will give you the first one. No she offered to bear a child that would grow up to live and serve in the temple. She never mentioned any future children, though she was blessed with more children later.
I would like us to look at today’s scripture in light of two things. First off: Next week we are at the end of the lectionary year. We are at the end of the church year. We are at the end times. Second: Next week is our Mission Fest celebration. What does all of that mean for us, to us, collectively and individually? How close are we to end times? Where are we on the scale from barrenness to birth pangs? What does barrenness mean to us? Is it numbers, is it finances? Is it projects? At what point do we consider ourselves too barren to exist?
On the other hand, have we reached the birth pangs of something new, something more, something different? What can we be that is different from what we were? I don’t have that answer alone, and I have been asking this question for a time now. Or, it has recently occurred to me that maybe we already are something different. Maybe we already are in the birth pangs of something new, and we just haven’t realized it yet.
Today’s scripture could easily lead us to forget about our day to day life and make us focus solely on prayer and worship and meditation about the second coming. And it is good that we spend time in prayer and scripture reading, but life as we know it, does go on. Jesus said that it is not ours to know when the world ends or even when our time in this world ends. He told the disciples that only God knows the day and the hour. As we wait, as we prepare, it should not be with a defeatist or end all attitude. There is still much work to be done to spread the news of God’s love and grace.
The Upper Room on Friday had a neat little adage in the boxed up part. It said, “When you give your heart to God, your hands will follow.” We need to remember that. We need to remember that for worship and for the days we spend outside of these doors between our Sunday morning stops to worship. When we give our hearts to God, our hands will follow. What we do on the everyday, how we treat others, the words that come from our mouths, the generosity we extend to others whether it be in a tangible or financial way, or simply in the kindnesses we show is related to how much we truly love God. It is related to how much we are willing to give to share God’s love with others. Let’s be extra generous in offering ourselves both this week and next Sunday when we come to worship at Mission Fest. Amen.