I Samuel 1:4-20; I Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25; Mark 13:1-8.
Prayers and songs of the faithful and routine priestly services anticipate the world changes expected of God’s Anointed One.
I Samuel 1:4-20.
(The Alternate reading is Daniel 12:1-3, the resurrection of the righteous.)
As this year of the Lectionary winds down, anticipations of Advent begin to appear. The story of Ruth, told in the readings of the last two Sundays, is now followed by that of her younger contemporary Hannah, in the reading from I Samuel.
The Hannah story tells of a nearly-miraculous birth and of joyful expectations concerning a coming king.
Hannah is the much-loved but barren wife who is taunted and ridiculed by the less-loved but more fertile co-wife, Peninnah. The focus of the reading is on Hannah’s desperate prayer to become a mother. At the time of the feast, when the family brings offerings to the temple sanctuary in Shiloh, Hannah prays to the Lord fervently but silently, leading the priest Eli to think she has had too much wine. We hear both the words of Hannah’s prayer and the dialogue with Eli, in which Hannah convinces the priest that she is a faithful but grieving woman. Eli adds the weight of his prayer to hers, and shortly after Hannah goes home she conceives and bears a son.
In her prayer Hannah had vowed to dedicate her son to God as a “nazirite,” a kind of religious warrior who abstained from intoxicating drink and from cutting of hair (verse 11). (The birth of the hero Samson was also announced to a barren woman and he too was required to be a nazirite, Judges 13:3-5.) Hannah’s vow prepares for the later dedication of the boy Samuel to the service of the priests at Shiloh (carried out in verses 24-28, beyond our reading). This dedication of Samuel to God leads on, later in the book of Samuel, to Samuel’s role as king-maker in Israel.
The statements about the naming of Samuel (verses 20 and 27-28) reveal a curious twist that has occurred in the history of the tradition. There is a complex word-play in the Hebrew of the following statements: “I have asked him of the Lord” (verse 20), “…the Lord has granted me the asking that I asked of him” (literal translation of verse 27), and “I have lent him to the Lord; …he is given to the Lord” (verse 28). All of the italicized words are from the same Hebrew root, Sh-’-L, and the word translated given in verse 28 (perhaps better translated asked-one) is the Hebrew name of Israel’s first king, Saul (shā’ūl).
In other words, these verses explain why Hannah’s son was named Saul! Thus, at an earlier stage of tradition Hannah’s son was Saul – the king to be – or else a Saul birth story was taken over and re-told about Samuel. This covert link between Hannah and the birth of a king is even more explicit in the Song of Hannah, which is now the climax of her story.
I Samuel 2:1-10.
(The alternate reading is Psalm 16.)
This Song of Hannah, sung when Hannah fulfilled her vow by depositing Samuel at the temple, is the psalm reading for this Sunday. The reference to the barren woman (verse 5) is the only link to Hannah within the psalm, but the larger setting of Hannah’s story in the book of Samuel makes her a prophetess, one who speaks of great things yet far off.
The Song as a whole is a hymn to the power of God who overthrows the old power relations of the social world.
The mighty are defeated and the weak gain strength; the fat ones become day-laborers while the hungry gain great spoil; the barren woman has seven children, the mother of many is lonely. God “raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap” (verse 8, NRSV).
In the climax of the hymn (verse 10), the royal, even “messianic,” character of the Song is clear:
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 [messiah]. (NRSV.)
This royal aspect of the Song anticipates the rest of I Samuel. In this book, the struggle against the Philistines is the ever-present background to the stories of Samuel, Saul, and the rise of David. The Song is prophetic: Ultimately God will put down the Philistines and bring the Israelites to independent power – through God’s Anointed One.
Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25.
The Epistle reading is the final selection this year from the Letter to the Hebrews, the final word about the great priestly work of Jesus before the Letter moves on to describe the Christian pilgrimage by faith.
This reading emphasizes the once-for-all nature of Jesus’ sacrifice for sin. Jesus’ work is in contrast to the everyday grunt work of an ordinary priest. The privileged but routine work of the Aaronite priests in the Jerusalem temple is presented as a repetitious daily activity, not very effective for sin because it has to be continuously repeated. “Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never [permanently] take away sins” (10:11, NRSV).
By contrast to this routine of the earthly priesthood, Jesus as priest-king has been exalted to heaven, where he is also poised to exercise dominion over earthly destructive powers (his “enemies”) promised in Psalm 110:1. (That is the psalm that speaks of the Messiah as “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” verse 4.) In this reading too the triumph of God’s faithful people is anticipated, now in terms of the foreshadowing rituals of the Tabernacle of God rather than liberation from the Philistines by an Anointed One.
This priestly form of triumph will cross the boundary between the earthly and the heavenly – and in the process give the chosen ones who belong to the Messiah access to God’s presence. They will come before God “with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (verse 22).
The accomplished heavenly sacrifice prepares for a whole new orientation to the world. Given this new orientation, the Jesus follower is now called to make pilgrimage.
The Gospel reading makes explicit what the Letter to the Hebrews only implies, that an End is coming to the earthly temple and its sacrificial practice in Jerusalem.
At the moment of leaving the glorious Jerusalem temple for the last time, Jesus announces to the disciples the coming total destruction of this great sanctuary. Clearly the work of this priestly center for all of Judaism is going to be replaced by something else.
The disciples – or at least the inner circle of the first four – are urgent to know what will follow. This leads to Jesus’ longest discourse in the Gospel According to Mark, the so-called “Markan Apocalypse.” Reading the opening of this discourse prepares for the first theme of the impending season of Advent – the anticipation of the Final Judgment.
This discourse of Jesus is delivered as they sit on the Mount of Olives looking west across the KidronValley into the temple complex. This is a dramatic place in the sacred stories of Israel as well as in the memories of early Jesus followers. This was the location of the solemn departure of David from the holy city when he was betrayed by his own son and plotted against by enemies (II Samuel 15:13-16:14). This was also the site from which the triumphal entry began on Palm Sunday, moving from the Mount of Olives down through the valley and up into the temple (a route reflected in the great liturgical psalm quoted by the accompanying people, the “Hosanna” psalm, 118). And this was the location of the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus, like David before him, was betrayed and abandoned by his own followers.
The Mount of Olives is also the special scene of one of the great apocalyptic prophecies of God’s Final Judgment, Zechariah 14:1-5. There, when Jerusalem is in the throes of occupation and defeat, God will stand on the Mount on the east and provide an escape from the devastated holy city. This passage about the destruction of and escape from the doomed city undoubtedly reverberated in the minds of the hearers of Mark’s Gospel, and perhaps in the minds of the disciples who may have heard this discourse from Jesus.
The early stages of the time of Judgment include the appearance of false messiahs, or of false Jesuses (verse 6). How will the faithful waiting ones tell the difference? How can false messiahs be recognized?
Presumably one of the purposes of Mark’s Gospel is to make clear what Jesus is like, to enable followers to know the true returning Jesus when the great times of crisis arise. All of Mark makes clear that it is easy to misunderstand who Jesus is and what is his work. It is easy to misunderstand that message about the first being last, the wealthy becoming the poor, and the real leaders being those who serve. When sitting on the Mount of Olives, contemplating the end of the world as we know it, such a message could seem really remote.
Therefore, future followers of Jesus needed to be warned that not everyone who looked like a savior really is one. This warning is the prologue to Advent!