Sunday, 18 November 2018

‘Through all the changing scenes of life’

‘Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’ (Mark 13: 2) … classical remains in the Forum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, Rome, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 18 November 2018,

The Second Sunday before Advent (Proper 28).

9.30 a.m.
: Morning Prayer, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick..

Readings: I Samuel 1: 4-20; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10: 11-14, (15-18), 19-25; Mark 13: 1-8.

‘Through all the changing scenes of life’ (Hymn 372) (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, Wexford)

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning’s readings raise a number of questions and pose a number of challenges:

● What can we pray for?

● Who can we ask to pray for us?

● Do we only pray for people and causes we regard as worthy and deserving?

● Are there some things we should not ask for in prayer?

● How do we respond when prayers are answered?

● How do we respond when prayers do not seem to be answered?

● How do we respond to those who seem to pray against us?

● Should prayer include an offering or a promise of an offering?

● How does prayer relate to our hopes for the future … for ourselves, our families, our communities, our future?

● How do we pray in times of doubt, in times of fear?

● How do we respond if others seem to have led us astray in our prayers and in our religious hopes?

● What if the way they have led us astray is related in negative or destructive ways not only to our futures, but to the future of the world?

As the Collect of the Day reminds us, prayer is about shaping us in Christ’s image rather than bringing a shopping list to God.

But, on the other hand, if we cannot bring everything to Christ in prayer, how can we possibly be prepared then to celebrate him next Sunday as Christ the King?

In the Old Testament reading (I Samuel 1: 4-20), Elkanah is visiting the Temple at Shiloh for one of the great Jewish festivals. He takes with him his two wives, Hannah and Peninnah, and the children of his younger wife, Peninnah.

At Shiloh, Elkanah takes part in a sacrificial meal. We are told that God has made Hannah childless. In spite of this, Elkanah loves her and he gives Hannah a double portion of food and drink.

This festival is a special time for rejoicing, when sadness is prohibited (Deuteronomy 12: 17-18). But Hannah is sad. For many years, Peninnah taunts Hannah about having no children, and despite her husband’s love, Hannah has reached the point where she can take it no longer.

At the entrance of the temple, she meets Eli, the priest.

Hannah prays to God and makes a vow: if God will grant her a son, she will see to it that he is dedicated or consecrated to God, refrains from strong drink, and is not allowed to have his head shaved – all signs at the time of a holy man.

She is praying out loud, and, knowing that everyone has been drinking at the festival, Eli thinks Hannah’s silent prayer means she is drunk. When she answers back, Eli realises he has misjudged her, and prays to God on her behalf.

Hannah trusts in God, Samuel is born, and Hannah now knows her prayer has been answered.

In the Gospel reading (Mark 13: 1-8), we find ourselves at the end of this year’s lectionary readings from Saint Mark’s Gospel, and at the end of reading Christ’s instructions to his disciples.

Christ has indicated to the disciples that the poor widow who gave all that she has in the Temple is a good example of discipleship. Now he predicts the destruction of the Temple, as the prophets Micah and Jeremiah had done earlier. His words were later used against him.

Then Christ and his first four disciples, Peter, James, John and Andrew, visit the Mount of Olives – a place mentioned in the Old Testament (see Zechariah 14: 4) in connection with events at the end of the era. There they ask him when will the Temple be destroyed.

How will we know that the end of the era is near? Christ gives them three indicators:

● Many will come in Chris’s name claiming, ‘I am he!’ (verse 6) – the phrase he uses here (ἐγώ εἰμι, ego eimi) is the same as the great ‘I AM’ sayings in Saint John’s Gospel.

● major international political conflicts will erupt (verse 8).

● natural disasters and famines will erupt (verse 8).

● And there shall be other signs too (see verses 14-25 later).

The reference to ‘birth pangs’ or a woman in labour (verse 8) might remind us of God’s answer to the prayers of Hannah, but is also an image used by prophets like Jeremiah, Hosea and Micah.

This passage is known as the Marcan Apocalypse, and we are warned that many apocalyptic messengers are deceitful, while those who are discerning will wait for the real end. We are to resist false prophets of doom, yet we must be ready for the true events that are to unfold.

In the meantime, we are charged to continue the mission of the Church: ‘And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations’ (verse 10).

‘Beware that no one leads you astray’ (Mark 13: 5) … confusing signs leading into the sea at the beach at Bettystown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The plight of a woman unable to conceive the much-wanted heir was one of the themes running through Downton Abbey some years ago. But this is also a private and silent source of grief for many women, and for many men too.

In the past, we have not been very good, like the old priest in our Old Testament reading, in recognising in the Church that there are times when it is appropriate to be sad before God in our public worship.

As we approach Advent, it might be worth thinking about the following connections:

● between the promise to Hannah and the promises to Elizabeth and Mary;

● between the lifestyle of Samuel and the lifestyle of John the Baptist;

● between the Temple at Siloh and the destruction of the Temple discussed in the Gospel reading;

● between Hannah’s suffering and the reminder in the psalm that God can be present at the very breaking point of our suffering;

● between Hannah’s weakness and the way God’s power is demonstrated so often at the point of our weaknesses;

● between the Kings of Israel, whose story is about to begin with the story of Samuel, and Christ the Great High King whose story is about to begin in Advent;

● between how we prayed the last Sunday about remembrance and peace and Christ’s warnings this Sunday about ‘wars and rumours of wars’ and of nation rising up against nation;

● between these themes and the theme next Sunday, when we celebrate the Kingship of Christ.

In the past week, I have been very conscious of the great upheavals and political and social crises we face in the world today. Many of us must be concerned about what the combined impact of Brexit and the Trump presidency means not only for Britain and the US, but for the whole world.

Many people will find resonances this morning with the words of Jesus, ‘Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’ … or ‘nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.’

And yet Christ tells us, ‘do not be alarmed.’ Like Hannah, we can bring all our fears and all our hopes, for ourselves and for our world, to God in prayer, for Christ is King.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed’ (Mark 13: 7) … an anti-war protest outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 13: 1-8:

1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2 Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’

‘Look, Teacher, what large stone and what large buildings!’ (Mark 13: 1) … classical remains in the Forum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, Rome, 2017)

Liturgical Colour: Green

The Collect:

Heavenly Father,
whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil
and to make us the children of God and heirs of eternal life:
Grant that we, having this hope,
may purify ourselves even as he is pure;
that when he shall appear in power and great glory,
we may be made like him
in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Gracious Lord,
in this holy sacrament you give substance to our hope.
Bring us at the last to that pure life for which we long,
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

Hymns:

466, Here from all nations (CD 27);

327, Christ is our corner-stone (CD 20);

372, Through all the changing scenes of life (CD 20).

‘My heart teaches me, night after night’ (Psalm 16: 7) … alone at night on Bird Street in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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