Tag Archives: faith

Hoping Against Hope – Sermon on Romans 4:13-25 Lent 2B

March 1, 2015

Out of the blue, we land in the middle of one of the Apostle Paul’s thickest chunks of writing this morning. If you were around during the summer, you might remember that we spent several weeks in the book of Romans, but please don’t feel guilty if that doesn’t ring a bell for you. Summer seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? For me, last Sunday seems like a lifetime ago! So here’s a little refresher course in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.

This was not a church that Paul had started, and he did not personally know the people who would receive the letter. At the time he wrote to the Romans, Paul had not yet been to Rome. His letter was a kind of introduction to prepare the Roman Christians for a visit Paul was eagerly planning to make.

He had heard rumors about the church in Rome, however. He knew that the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians there were not in agreement, and he wanted to help them be reconciled to one another. Mostly, he wanted the Jewish Christians to recognize that faith in Jesus Christ did not require conversion to Judaism first.

In the passage we are about to read, Paul explains that becoming a member of God’s covenant group depends on one thing and one thing only: faith. And to prove his point, Paul holds up as an example the greatest patriarch of them all, good old Father Abraham.

 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:13-25, NRSV)

In the passage we heard earlier from Genesis, the Lord appeared to Abram, and changed his name from Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, or “Father of a Multitude.” The promise that he will be the “father of a multitude of nations” is only part of God’s covenant with Abraham, but it is the part Paul wants us to notice in this fourth chapter.

Paul wants his readers to recognize that God’s promise was to make Abraham the father of many nations, not just one great nation. And to drive home his point, Paul reminds us that even Abraham wasn’t a Jew. He was a Gentile, a pagan Gentile at that. Continue reading

Ten Per Cent Return – Sermon on Luke 17:11-19 (October 13, 2013)

Would you consider ten percent to be a good return on an investment?  Of course, it depends a lot on the investment doesn’t it? Investing in a fast food franchise will look different from a certificate of deposit at the local bank. In any case, if you put something in, it’s usually with the expectation that you will get back something more.

By now, you have read the sermon title, and you may be thinking that you’re in for the annual stewardship sermon, that sermon you never like to hear because it makes you feel guilty about the amount of money you contribute – or don’t – to the church budget. If you’re looking for an easy way to sneak out of the sanctuary about now, you can relax. I already preached the stewardship sermon for today.  It’s sitting over there in that apple core. No, in today’s gospel lesson, Luke tells us of a kind of investment that goes beyond money. Luke isn’t talking about finances here, but about faith. While it might seem that Jesus sees only a ten per cent return on his investment in an outcast’s life, the actual return cannot be measured as easily as a savings account balance. Let us hear the Good News, as recorded in the 17th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, verses 11-19.

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.  Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean.  Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.  He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.  And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they?  Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?  Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

Luke reminds us that Jesus is on the march toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. But there’s a slight problem with Luke’s geography: The boundary between Galilee and Samaria actually runs east-west: it isn’t “on the way” to Jerusalem. Maybe Luke isn’t talking about geography as much as he’s giving us a time frame for this story. Though Jesus has been traveling to Jerusalem for several chapters, he’s still nearer the beginning of his journey than the end. Luke doesn’t want us to lose sight of the final destination, however. Jesus may be taking the scenic route, but Jerusalem is where he will eventually go.

We have our first hint that something unusual is about to happen when Luke tells us that these ten lepers approached Jesus. By law, they were supposed to maintain a safe distance from others, warning people away with shouts of “Unclean!  Unclean!” But the lepers draw near to Jesus, at least near enough to call out to him and get his attention. Leprosy could mean any of a number of skin diseases, but whatever the disease, being “unclean” meant being an outcast, unable to participate in normal society.

So here we have ten lepers outside a village. But instead of warning Jesus to stay away, the lepers do something that is highly remarkable. Not only do they call out to Jesus to have mercy on them, they call him “Master” – a title that no one else uses to address Jesus in all the gospel accounts, except for the twelve disciples. It’s worth pondering how these ten outcasts, who have been excluded from social interaction with the general population, could possibly know who Jesus was, or that he had the authority to help them. But they readily appeal to that authority.  Instead of warning Jesus to keep his distance, they put themselves at his mercy.

This particular healing story appears only here, in Luke’s gospel. These ten lepers don’t get as much publicity as the one in chapter 5, whose story also gets told by Mark and Matthew. But this is a much more dramatic healing, because Jesus doesn’t even have to touch these lepers in order for them to be cleansed. He simply sees them.

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man passed right by Lazarus, day after day, and never saw him until it was too late. His wealth and his self-centeredness did not allow him to really see Lazarus. It is so easy to ignore the needs around us as we go through our daily routines. When I lived in the Twin Cities, it was easy for me to look the other way whenever I saw a beggar on the street corner as I drove through town. How often do we turn away from people who make us uncomfortable, only because they are different from us?

But Jesus sees these ten lepers, and immediately tells them to go show themselves to the priests. This must have sounded a little strange to these lepers. Showing yourself to the priest was something you did after your skin disease had run its course and you were well again. Jesus was acknowledging the faith these lepers had shown when they called him “Master.” The lepers had already demonstrated their willingness to submit to Jesus’ spiritual authority. When he sends them off to the priests, they don’t ask questions. They just go.

And as they went, they were made clean. Jesus didn’t need to touch them for them to believe that he could heal them. His word alone was enough to send them on their way. They obeyed without question, because they had faith in him. As they acted on their faith, they were made clean. Their leprosy was gone.

But only one of them seems to notice what has happened. Only one of them saw that he had been healed, just as Jesus saw him to heal his disease. Only this one turned back toward Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. The same loud voice that, moments before, should have been yelling “Unclean!  Unclean!” had called out “Have mercy!” instead. Now, this very same loud voice was whooping and hollering in praise to God. He knew that it wasn’t some magic trick or the number of steps he had taken toward the priests that had healed him. He knew it was God’s work, accomplished through Jesus. The leper saw. And the leper’s awareness is, quite literally, the turning point in the story.

The leper turned back. What a beautiful picture of repentance Luke paints for us here! The leper turned away from mindless obedience to empty rules, as he turned toward the Source and Giver of Life. The leper’s response was spontaneous and authentic. The leper praised God, but he also prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. The leper’s faith had shown itself in action as he headed for the priests, but the glory he gave to God showed itself in humility and thanksgiving.
Then we get to the punchline.

And he was a Samaritan. Luke loves to remind his readers that Jesus came to reverse the status quo, and one of his favorite ways of doing this is to call attention to Gentiles whose faith brings them into the family of God. First century Jews thought they had exclusive rights to God’s love and goodness. Luke, who was Greek and addressed his writing to a Gentile audience, delighted in pointing out that God had promised salvation to all nations, that God loved all people, and that Israel had no more claim to God’s grace than any other nation.

But there is more at work here than the theme of reversal that threads its way throughout Luke’s writing. Luke carefully sets up the story so that one might assume all ten lepers, though they may be outcasts, are acceptable outcasts. Their leprosy at least has the potential of disappearing after a time of quarantine, and they therefore have the potential to become acceptable again, welcomed back into society. But to a first-century Jew, Samaritans were a particularly distasteful type of outcast. Samaritans were un-redeemable because they refused to acknowledge the Temple in Jerusalem as the only appropriate place to worship God. No Jew in his right mind would ever welcome a Samaritan into fellowship.

Like a good mystery writer, Luke has planted a tiny detail at the beginning of his story that seems unimportant at first. Jesus was passing through the region between Samaria and Galilee. We don’t know exactly where the village is located. We don’t know if the lepers are Jewish or Samaritan, or some unusual combination of outcasts from both nations. When they head for the priests, we don’t know which direction they go. But this tiny detail sets the scene for Luke to shock his readers with the punch line: oh by the way, the guy that showed the right response to God’s grace? The only one who came back to glorify God and give thanks? That guy? Yeah, HE was a Samaritan! He was someone you would avoid at all costs on at least two counts: a leper and a Samaritan. A double outcast! And yet, Jesus saw him and healed him. What’s more, this Samaritan leper was the only one of ten who saw Jesus for who he really was, the only one who returned to thank Jesus and give glory to God.

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 

For the first time, we get a hint that Jesus is not traveling alone. The disciples have not been mentioned in this story. But now Jesus begins to teach by asking a series of questions, so we get the feeling that the disciples have been nearby all along, watching the story unfold before them. Interestingly, the word given to us in the New Revised Standard Version as “asked” really means “answered” in the Greek. Jesus is answering, or responding to, what has just happened, and he grabs this teachable moment to show his disciples again that the Kingdom of God is not what they expect it to be.

All ten of the lepers had faith enough to call on Jesus, submit to his authority, and ask for his mercy. All ten responded to Jesus in obedience, and all ten received physical healing. But where are the other nine? The obvious answer is that they are still headed toward the priests. Whether this is because of their blind obedience to the Law, or simply their eagerness to be restored to society, they are still going the other way. They may have recognized Jesus’ power to heal, but they have missed the point. They have not seen, as the Samaritan has seen, that faith means more than blind obedience.

Jesus asks, “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” The word “foreigner” is used only in this one instance in the New Testament. Jesus calls attention to the fact that this one, born outside the people of God, is the only one who behaves in a manner appropriate to a true child of Abraham. Only this foreigner, who could not enter the inner courts of the Jewish temple, has shown the kind of faith that responds in gratitude to God’s grace.

Jesus restores the one at his feet by telling him to get up. As he has done before, and will do again before he finally reaches Jerusalem, Jesus announces, “Your faith has made you well.” Jesus is talking about more than leprosy here. He is proclaiming the Samaritan’s salvation as well as his physical health. Another pastor friend once commented, “All ten lepers were saved from leprosy, but only one is saved from despair.” Only the one who came back to give thanks, praising and glorifying God, showed the kind of faith that leads to salvation.

The lesson Jesus teaches is clear: The only authentic response to God’s saving grace is faith shown in action, and gratitude that erupts in praise, giving glory to God. So what keeps us from showing our faith by acting on it? What prevents us from being so grateful we can’t help but praise God?

I find that I’m a lot like the nine lepers who disappear down the road: it’s a lot easier for me to simply act on my faith than it is for me to praise God out loud for all the world to hear. I’d like to think I remember to be grateful for God’s goodness to me. I do say prayers of thanksgiving every day, but, if I’m honest, I also know that I’m a little embarrassed when I hear someone praising God for the traffic light staying green until they are through the intersection, or for the price on the gas pump going up just after they’ve pumped a tank-full of gasoline. “How nice for you” I think. “What about the person right behind you?” But the truth is that, while I am judging others for being self-centered in their gratitude, I’m not giving God very much glory in my day-to-day life. I can’t honestly say that praise erupts from my lips whenever I notice how good God has been to me. I’m a little embarrassed, to tell you the truth. What kind of weirdo would people think I am?

Luke gives us Jesus’ answer over and over: the kind of weirdo who turns away from the status quo and worships shamelessly at Jesus’ feet. It is no accident that the one who gets it right in this story is the Samaritan, the double outcast. The truth is that we don’t like to identify ourselves as outcasts, as undesirables. But that is what Jesus does time and again throughout the gospel story. He not only reaches out to the dregs of society, he identifies with them, eats with them, walks with them.

Luke often describes society’s “undesirable” people as models of faith and examples of Kingdom living, and the Samaritan leper is a prime example. Luke forces us, along with his first century readers, to recognize that God loves every single person ever born, and God wants every single person ever born to participate in Kingdom joy and fellowship. Luke reminds us that everyone is eligible to participate in the Kingdom of God. Luke uses the theme of reversal to keep us on our toes, to keep us from falling into the trap of thinking we’ve made it into the “desirable” club. The truth is that God doesn’t care how “desirable” we are by the world’s standards. In fact, if we take Scripture seriously, God loves the ones we consider ‘undesirable’ at least as much as He loves anyone else. And he calls us to love them, too. Not judge them. Not scold them. Not ignore them. Love them.

God wants each of us to become the full person we were created to be, so that we can enjoy God’s fellowship. That transformation can only take place when we put our complete trust in God, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so, just as the ten lepers started walking toward the priests before there was any evidence that their leprosy was gone.

To be fully transformed, however, means that we not only let our faith show in what we do, we express our thanks in ways that give glory to God. As we repent of our sin and turn toward Christ, God continues to transform us and we become people who, like the Samaritan leper, spontaneously give glory to God. Through the power of his Holy Spirit, God changes us into the more and more perfect image of God we were created to be. And it is this image that God uses to attract others – outcasts like us – into the Kingdom of God.

So how does this fit with our Sowing Seeds of Faith stewardship drive that begins today? It’s simple, really. As God continues to work in us, and as we continue to trust him, we become more and more like Christ. As we see with the eyes of Jesus, our hearts are moved to compassion just has Christ’s heart is moved. We may not have the gift of healing that let’s us say, “Go your way, your faith has made you well.” But we do have gifts we can share. Trusting God to use them for his glory, we offer them as our own act of worship. When we begin to see the other outcasts around us, and we admit that we are outcasts, too, we become free. We’re free to give God thanks and praise for the work he is doing here. And God calls us to be part of that work, sharing our gifts, meeting the needs we see, contributing whatever we can to the ministry God has given us to do in this time and place. Sowing Seeds of Faith is just one way to do that. But it’s a start.

How Big Is Your Faith? – Sermon on Luke 17:5-10 (October 6, 2013)

When Bruce and I first moved to Minnesota, we became acquainted with an invasive plant called buckthorn. European Buckthorn was introduced to Minnesota by landscapers who liked its appealing look. It often came under other names, such as black dogwood, alder dogwood, arrow wood, or Persian berries.Though it is sometimes called a dogwood tree, it is not related to North American dogwood species. Buckthorn has become an invasive nuisance in North America, partly because it blocks the sun from native plants, but also because it spreads quickly. Buckthorn bark and berries have a medicinal use: they are very effective laxatives, and the berries provide the harshest laxative effect. That’s the problem with buckthorn: birds like the berries, but they can’t digest the seeds. Buckthorn propagates through bird droppings.

As I considered today’s scripture passage, I was reminded of buckthorn. Like buckthorn, mustard weed also propagates through bird droppings, because birds cannot digest the seeds. Mustard weed was ancient Palestine’s version of buckthorn: a nuisance plant that was difficult to get rid of. Mustard plants grew rapidly, and could easily be more than six feet tall. They sprang up in the middle of wheat fields, and blocked the sunshine from the growing grain. It didn’t do much good to pull up the weeds, because birds would just drop seeds somewhere else in the field. Mustard seeds are tiny, but their impact on Palestine’s agriculture was huge.

In today’s passage, Jesus begins by comparing faith to a tiny mustard seed, but he goes on to explain that it isn’t how much faith you have that matters. It’s how you use it.

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of amustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” – Luke 17:5-10

If you’re thinking this saying about faith and mustard seeds sounds familiar, you’re right. We also hear Jesus make this statement in the Gospel of Matthew. But Matthew puts Jesus in a different setting than Luke does for this teaching.  In Matthew 17, Jesus has just cast out a demon that the disciples couldn’t get to budge. When they ask him why they couldn’t get rid of the demon, he tells them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”[1]

But here in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is answering the disciples’ request for increased faith. Jesus had just been teaching them about forgiveness, and the importance of forgiving. Perhaps they realized that the kind of forgiveness Jesus was asking them to offer required more faith than they had. At least the disciples understood that faith wasn’t something they could manufacture on their own. They had figured out that it doesn’t develop by following a “Greater Faith in Thirty Days Plan.” They knew that faith is a gift from God.

Jesus says it doesn’t take much faith to do great things. The tiniest amount of faith can plant a tree in the ocean, or move a mountain from one place to another. In Matthew’s version, it sounds like Jesus is chiding the disciples for having so little faith, but here in Luke, we get a little different slant.

Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples how to get more faith. He doesn’t give the disciples a discipleship plan, or assign them each a faith journey partner, or ask them to write in their faith building journals. They might have been expecting a miracle, but they don’t get that, either. Instead of waving a magic wand and saying, “Poof, have more faith,” Jesus says, “It doesn’t take much faith to do what you need to do.”  In other words, “You have plenty right now.”

You have enough faith. It doesn’t take much. God has already given you all the faith you need.

Have you ever noticed how Jesus often manages to avoid answering questions that are put to him, by answering a different question altogether? This used to annoy me, particularly when I really wanted to know the answer to a question myself. Wouldn’t it be great, on those days when you feel like you need a little more faith, to look up Luke 17:5-6 and have the instruction manual right there in front of you? But instead of answering the question, Jesus goes off on some tangent that doesn’t even seem related to the current topic of discussion! It took me a long time to figure out why Jesus does this so often throughout the gospels. This passage is just one more example of Jesus telling the disciples they are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking for more faith, or bigger faith, the disciples should have been finding opportunities to act on the faith they already had. Instead of treating God like a short order cook who could be expected to slap a scoop of faith onto a plate, they needed to be living into the faith they’d already been given. To show the disciples how they’d gotten it backwards, Jesus tells a parable. And to understand the parable, we need to understand what slavery meant to the disciples who heard the story first.

Even though it was against Jewish law to own another Jew as a slave, slavery as an institution was quite common throughout the first century world. Slavery was the most common means available to get out of debt in that time. It was like taking out a loan with yourself as the collateral. You could sell yourself to another, to be that person’s servant for a contracted period of time, and use the money to pay off your debts. Once your agreed period of service was done, you were free again. Slavery was an institution that was taken for granted, and it apparently crossed common boundaries between social and economic classes. But the distinction between slavery and freedom remained clear. As a slave, you were bound to obey the authority of your master. And as a master, you were not beholden to your slave for the service that slave provided to you. As Jesus tells the story, he draws on the social construct of the day, assuming a small landowner with only one slave who works in the field as well as in the house (jobs that would be divided among several servants in a larger estate), a slave who does his duty, and expects nothing from his master in return for his labor. Jesus says, “Would you tell your slave to eat first, before serving you? Of course not. Wouldn’t you be more likely to say, ‘Serve my dinner, and then you can go eat yours?”

Then Jesus does something between verses nine and ten that we might miss if we aren’t careful. Up to this point in the story, Jesus has had his listeners identifying with the master of the house. Suddenly, he changes the viewpoint of his listeners to that of the slave. “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” In other words, being faithful and obedient to God doesn’t make God owe us anything. It’s what we are supposed to do. We need to be more faithful, serving with no expectation of praise or recognition, in true humility. Our obedience is by no means a way to gain honor, and good works aren’t something we do in order to receive a reward. We obey and serve because Christ calls us to follow him in obedient service. He gives us plenty of faith to do this, but it’s up to us to be faithful followers.

Not only does Jesus switch us from “master” viewpoint to “servant” viewpoint, asking us to identify with the humble servant who does what he’s asked to do without expecting any special reward, Jesus makes an even bigger shift. Notice how the pronoun changes from “I” to “we”? Once again, we are reminded that we can be believers in isolation, but to become true and faithful disciples, we must live out our faith in community.

Faith depends on this idea of community, because, when you get right down to it, faith is bigger than believing. The Heidelberg Catechism characterizes true faith not only as certain knowledge, but also as a “wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit create in me through the gospel.” Faith is trust, and trust requires relationship. As we put our trust in Jesus, we give up any illusions of depending on ourselves only, and we recognize that faith cannot be measured; it can only be lived.

We don’t need more faith; we need to be faithful. And it’s also possible that we need a different kind of faith. Maybe what we need is the kind of faith that, like mustard weed, spreads contagiously wherever it is dropped, grows persistently, and cannot be easily destroyed. Maybe what we need is the kind of faith that is willing to enter the process of Christian character formation with humility, spiritual discipline, and patient trust. When we understand that faith is trusting God, we can begin to live out that trust through discipline and humility, becoming true servants of God who do the work God gives us to do.

What work is that?  How can we be faithful servants who trust our Master?

Next Sunday, we will receive new members to this congregation. As we do so, we will promise to uphold one another through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.

We promise to pray for one another, and with one another. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of us decided to meet together regularly to pray with each other for the needs of this congregation, this town, and Christ’s ministry among us?

We promise our presence. There’s a popular quote that floats around the internet. The percentages vary, but the most common version goes like this: “Ninety per cent of success is showing up.” No one seems to know who said it first. Most people ascribe the original quote to Mark Twain, but Woody Allen’s version, “Eighty percent of life is showing up” comes pretty close, too. The point is simple. You have to be present to participate in the full life of the Body of Christ. It isn’t something you can do via e-mail or text. It isn’t something you can pencil into your calendar, and erase when other events crowd into your time. Your presence among the people of God is not only important for you, it’s important for the rest of us.

We promise our gifts. Not only our tithes and offerings, but our spiritual gifts help to build up the Body of Christ. We have each been given a variety of gifts, and using them is part of our discipleship. It’s how we follow Jesus.

We promise our service. Not to be thanked, not to be recognized, not to receive honor, but because God calls us to serve.

And we promise our witness. This promise was added to the membership vows just a few years ago, to remind us that we are called to be witnesses to God’s work among us in the person of Jesus Christ, and his continued work among us through the power of the Holy Spirit. No one is asking you to stand on the street corner and preach. But as followers of Jesus, we are called to tell others the good news that God loves us so much he sent his own Son, that whoever believes on him will have eternal life.

Trust God. Be faithful. Have a contagious kind of faith that can’t help but share the good news. This is discipleship.

Recently, someone interviewed Christian author, educator and pastor, Eugene Peterson, who is probably most famous for his version of the Bible called The Message. Peterson is now eighty-one years old, and he shared his opinions about what it takes to become a devoted follower of Jesus. He was asked, “As you enter your final season of life, what would you like to say to younger Christians who are itchy for a deeper and more authentic discipleship?” Peterson answered, ”Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place.”[2]

Go to the nearest, smallest church, and stick it out for six months. Here we are, smack dab in the middle of New Ulm, Minnesota. We have plenty of faith. It only takes faith the size of a mustard seed, dropped where it can take root, to do what God is calling us to do. God is calling us to be faith-ful, to trust him, to do the work he has given us, as obedient servants. God is calling us to promise our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness as we live out our faith together in this community we call ‘church.’ As we do that, we may discover that our faith does, indeed, grow – not because of anything we do, but because of the One we trust and obey. Amen.

Hannah’s Song (Sermon on 1 Samuel 2:1-10)

You can hear an audio recording of this sermon here.

Hannah’s Song

As I read Hannah’s story, I was reminded of Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies. Have you read it?  Anne Lamott claims the two best prayers she knows are: “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  Anne Lamott’s newest book will be available in November, and you can pre-order it now at any online bookseller.  The title identifies Lamott’s spiritual growth since Traveling Mercies was published in 1999.  This new book is all about prayer.  Over the years, Lamott has refined “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and added a third kind of prayer that she sees as essential to a healthy prayer life.

The new book is titled, “Help.  Thanks.  Wow.”

            In the story we just heard about Hannah, it is clear that Hannah knew how to pray all three of these prayers.  As she poured out her heart to the Lord, Hannah asked for God’s help, and her thanksgiving when God answered her prayer erupted in the song we will read together in a few minutes.  Through it all, Hannah’s complete dependence on God gave witness to the “Wow” of God’s power at work in her life.  Let’s take a closer look at the drama of Hannah’s story.

First, let’s set the stage, and introduce the important characters.  In the Hebrew Bible, 1st Samuel follows immediately after the book of Judges.  In this context, Hannah’s story becomes part of the continuing story of a people’s life with God.  The tension we find at the beginning of chapter one was not merely Hannah’s unhappy childlessness.  A greater tension is also carried forward from the book of Judges.  Its final verse reads: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 21:25).”  Life was chaos, and there was no spiritual leadership among God’s people.  The spiritual landscape of Israel was as barren as Hannah’s womb.  In the passage that follows today’s story, it’s clear that the practice of worship at Shiloh had deteriorated into meaningless ritual.  The two sons of Eli were anything but righteous priests.  Their version of performing sacrificial duties was marked by greed and oppression, and Eli did nothing to prevent them from abusing their authority.

All the people did what was right in their own eyes, but this was a far cry from what was right in God’s eyes.  The time had come for God to do a new thing in Israel, just as the time had come for God to do a new thing in Hannah’s life.

And Hannah’s life was pretty miserable.  Her husband, Elkanah, came from an important family.  We can tell this from verse one, where his family connections are noted in detail.  He was apparently wealthy enough to take a second wife when Hannah did not conceive an heir for his fortune.  Peninnah gave him the children he needed to perpetuate his family line, but his first and greatest love was for Hannah.  No matter how much he loved her, however, Elkanah could not make her pregnant, and that was what she longed for more than anything.

Childlessness was not only a practical difficulty, leaving no heir; it was also a moral issue, seen as a punishment from God for sinfulness.  Everywhere Hannah went, she felt the stares of women who wondered – perhaps even aloud, so Hannah could hear their suspicions – what had she done to deserve this?  Why had God closed her womb?  The stigma of childlessness was a double blow to Hannah, for she trusted God faithfully, and her faith must have been tested every time someone hinted that maybe her life wasn’t as pure and blameless as it seemed.

In our own time, couples who struggle with infertility may ask the same questions that troubled Hannah: “What are we doing wrong?  Why is it so easy for other couples to have babies, while we can’t?”  Even with advances in medical science that promise amazing possibilities, some couples simply never conceive.  There’s a website  – Hannah.org  – which offers encouragement and resources to those who struggle with fertility.  This ministry is founded in Hannah’s story, as it  “attempts to help meet the emotional and spiritual needs of married couples experiencing fertility-related difficulties through prayer, understanding, friendship, shared information, and biblical counsel.”

But, other families struggle with a different kind of childlessness.  Tomorrow, October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.  This observance is designed to bring awareness to the pain that comes with miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death.  This pain is real, and often misunderstood.  There are even websites dedicated to the task of educating us about what NOT to say when someone near to us experiences such loss or barrenness.

One theologian suggests that Elkanah might have benefited from some of this advice.  Instead of asking Hannah, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he might have done better to assure her that she was worth more to him than any number of children.  But even that assurance may not have eased her pain.  She was suffering, and her rival, Peninnah didn’t make things any better.  As they went up to worship at Shiloh every year, second helpings for Hannah still seemed small in comparison to the amount of sacrificial food it took to feed Peninnah and all her sons and daughters.  Peninnah made sure to add insult to injury by taunting Hannah as they feasted.  It was too much for Hannah.  She left the feast, and took her despair straight to God.

But Hannah’s barrenness was not without hope.  “In spite of – or perhaps because of  – her infertility, Hannah was a woman of faith.  In fact, Hannah is portrayed as the most pious woman in the Old Testament.  Here she is shown going up to the Lord’ house; no other woman in the Old Testament is mentioned doing this.  In addition, Hannah is the only woman shown making and fulfilling a vow to the Lord; she is also the only woman who is specifically said to pray (Hb. pll; 1:10, 12, 26-27, 2:1); her prayer is also among the longest recorded in the Old Testament.  Furthermore, her prayer includes the most recorded utterances of Yahweh’s name by a woman (eighteen).”[1]

“Hannah’s prayer was specifically addressed to the omnipotent deliverer of those in distress, “The LORD Almighty” … – no character in Scripture prior to Hannah had ever used this term to address the Lord.”[2]   As Hannah poured out her heart to The Lord Almighty, she introduced a new way to think of the God of Israel. God was about to do a new thing among his people, and it seems fitting that Hannah should call upon him using a new name.

We could end the lesson right here, and focus on Hannah as an example to follow when we are in distress.  Pouring her heart out to God and depending on his faithfulness, Hannah might offer us plenty to consider as we think of our own unwillingness to truly trust God in all things.  Her willingness to give back to God the very child she so deeply desired is a model of sacrificial living that we might think we could never come close to imitating.  But the story does not end here.

As Hannah pours out her heart to God, barely moving her lips as she prays, Eli assumes she must be drunk.  Here is a woman who barely avoids being an outcast because of her barrenness, and the priest who should recognize true piety when it’s right in front of him, gets it completely wrong.  This is how bad things are in Israel.  The one person who should be able to distinguish between drunken gibberish and heartfelt prayer cannot do so.  But Hannah is bold in her own defense, and when she tells Eli of her distress, he realizes his mistake, and offers her a blessing.

It isn’t much of a blessing, really.  It sounds rather formulaic.  But Hannah accepts it as a word from the man of God, and everything about her changes.  Her sorrow disappears, she rejoins her family, and returns to her home in joyful expectation.

In God’s good time, a son is born to Hannah and Elkanah, and she makes good on her promise to return him to God.  Just as Hannah’s barrenness is not without hope, the answer to her prayer does not come without sacrifice.  After she has weaned the child, which might have taken about three years, she brings him to Shiloh and presents him to Eli.  “Remember me?” she asks the old priest.  “I’m the one you thought was drunk, and here is the child, the answer to my prayers.  I give him into your care.  I dedicate him to God.”

And then Hannah does a remarkable thing.  She prays again, but this time her lips are not moving silently as she pours our her heart before the Lord.  This time, she lifts her voice in song, and sings of God’s victory, not only for herself, but for the whole nation of Israel, for all the people of God. The Lord God Almighty is about to do a new thing among his people, and Hannah’s song gives us a glimpse of what that new thing is to be.

Turn with me to 1 Samuel 2, verses 1-10, and let us hear Hannah’s song together.

1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.
“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
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.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
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.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
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.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
“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.
The Lord!
His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High 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.”

Hannah’s song is more than a personal prayer of thanksgiving; it is a victory song for the whole nation of Israel.  And did you hear that part at the end of her prayer about a king?  This is new!  Israel had never had a king.  But Hannah’s own son will play a very important part in establishing God’s king on the throne of Israel.  The time of chaos, when all the people do whatever is good in their own eyes, is about to end.  The time of barrenness and frustration will soon be replaced with order and peace.

Here is the story so far: God created the world and everything in it.  People messed it up.  God wanted to reconcile the people of the world to himself, so he chose one man, Abraham, to become the father of many, and those many would become God’s own people.  Abraham believed God’s promise.  Abraham’s descendents, the nation of Israel, grew while slaves in Egypt, but God brought them out of slavery, into a land of their own.  They were not always faithful to God, but God was always faithful to his people.

Hannah’s story is but a short episode in the bigger story of God and his Kingdom.  Her faithfulness mirrors God’s faithfulness.  It also sets the stage for the transition from the time of the judges, when everyone did as they saw fit in their own eyes, to the anointing of Israel’s first king, Saul, and the subsequent reign of Israel’s greatest king, David.  Samuel, the child of Hannah’s fervent prayer, is the last of the judges, the prophet who identifies David as God’s chosen ruler over his people.  It is from David’s line that another son will be born under miraculous circumstances, and that child’s mother will echo Hannah’s song in her own, singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary’s song will also remind us that God raises up the lowly and brings down the mighty.  God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.  God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  God’s timeline may not meet our expectations, but God’s timing always meets our deepest need.  Like Hannah, we need to trust that truth.

The connection to Mary’s song reminds me of that theme of reversal that threads its way throughout the gospel of Luke.  It’s an important theme, not only because it describes how the person of Jesus turns the expectation for a Messiah upside down, but also because that theme runs throughout the entire story of God and his people.  God almost never does what we would expect him to do, certainly not what we as humans would do if we were the ones in power.  God is always choosing the younger son, the weaker nation – the wrong answer, by human standards.  And it is precisely in this overturned reality that the Kingdom of God comes closest to us, shakes us up a bit, and calls our attention to the fact that God is doing a new thing in our midst.

So where do we fit in this great, amazing story of God and his love for his people?  How do we respond to such love?  What new thing is God about to work in our midst?  What are we waiting and hoping for, as Hannah waited and hoped for a son?  What are we willing to give up, as Hannah gave up Samuel to God, as soon as her cherished child was weaned?

Are we like Peninnah, proud of our status and arrogant toward those around us who don’t have it as good as we do?  Who might not be as righteous-looking as we are? If I’m honest, I have to admit that I sometimes fall into this category.  Like the Pharisee who passed by the poor man who had been beaten and robbed, I don’t want to get my hands dirty.  I’m on my way to an important meeting at church.  I don’t have time to stop and help someone I don’t know, whose need is obviously beyond my ability to meet it.

Or are we like Elkanah, eager to do the right thing, but unsure of the right way to do it?  So we follow the familiar rituals and say the things we think others want to hear from us, and never really get close enough to God to bare our souls?

Or maybe we are like Eli, the priest who is no longer effective because he has lost touch with God.  We once knew what it was like to follow obediently where God led us, but those days are gone, and now we stumble along and can’t tell the difference between drunken revelry and heartfelt prayer.  When God calls someone in our midst, it takes three attempts to get our attention.

Can we be like Hannah?  It seems so hard.  But here is the key to Hannah’s faithfulness, I think.  This is what made it possible for her to promise God she would give back to him her son, if God would only let her have one.  She poured out her distress to the Lord, fully believing that God would do the impossible.  She knew it was just a matter of time – God’s time – before her prayer would be answered.  But Hannah’s answered prayer was the result of more than persistence.  She fully trusted God to do the impossible because she knew that God does not act out of our strength, but shows his greatness in our weakness.

I am reminded of Paul’s experiences, as described in 2 Corinthians 12 as I consider Hannah’s suffering and her resulting song.  Paul writes:

7b . . .there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me– to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (Corinthians 12:7b-10).

God’s power is demonstrated at the point of our weaknesses.  That is grace.  God’s grace does not seek out our strong points and enhance them, so much as His grace seeks out our weakest points so that it may be absolutely clear to all that it is God who accomplishes great things through us.  Those things that cause Hannah the greatest sorrow, the greatest pain, are the very things God uses to produce her greatest joys.[3]

This is the good news of the gospel.  …  Those who joyfully embrace the good news of the gospel know they are helplessly and hopelessly lost in their sins, just as Hannah was helpless before God.  They rejoice in the fact that what they cannot do to earn God’s salvation, Christ has done for them by His death, burial, and resurrection.  They gratefully receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of righteousness as divine grace.  And they come to learn that the same grace which saves them is the grace by which God continues to work in their lives. 

I pray that you have received the gift of God’s salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.  If you have not yet accepted this grace, I pray that you will do so today.  And as you trust in Jesus, following him as a true disciple, give him your weakness, give him your sorrow, give him your distress. Pour out your heart before the Lord, and know, as Hannah knew, that God is about to do a new thing in you.  Amen.


[1] Robert Bergen, New American Commentary on 1 Samuel, 67.

[2] Ibid, 68.

[3] The Son and the Psalm of Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1–2:10) Study By: Bob Deffinbaugh

What Waiting Is Not

Waiting may look like a passive activity, but I have news for you: waiting takes every fiber of my being. Waiting is not sitting around, lazily doing nothing. Waiting is the hard work of self-restraint. I may look serene to the casual observer who sees me motionless, apparently fixed in space and time, but I am no such thing. I am waiting on hyper-alert, expecting who-knows-what. That low-frequency hum you hear is me, waiting.

Waiting is not giving up control – how can I explain this? – it is not the abdication of responsibility that I always find so annoying in a “let go and let God” approach to life. Waiting is a conscious decision to trust God to keep his promises, even when there is no evidence to support that belief.

Waiting is faith.

Waiting is deciding to stop doing and start being.

Start being more aware.

Start being more compassionate.

Start being more humble.

Start being less anxious.

Start being less self-absorbed.

Start being less indifferent.

Waiting is knowing with certainty that what I offer to God will not come back empty.

Waiting is trusting God to let me know when it’s time to get out of the chair.

How do you wait for God? What keeps you from trusting him to do what he promises?