Saturday, November 17, 2012

Praying to the God of the Angel Armies

1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 13:1-8

During the years that I was in Chicago for seminary, I occasionally went downtown. The size of the buildings and the variety of architectural styles never ceased to amaze me. I took a commuter train from the south side to the loop, and watched the buildings grow taller and taller. I walked along the streets of the Loop. I took a lake cruise as the lights of the city came on. I explored the city from a tour boat on the Chicago River. Being in the city was always exciting and invigorating. But, I never wanted to live there.
Touring Jerusalem had a similar effect on me. The newer parts of the city look much like any modern city around the world. When we got into the oldest parts of the city, we stood next to the enormous stones that formed the ancient buildings. I found myself saying, as the disciples once did, “What large stones, and what large buildings!”
The disciples knew it was possible, but never imagined that the temple they admired would be destroyed in just a few years. Thirty-some years after the disciples were in Jerusalem with Jesus, the Jewish people rose up against their Roman enemies. Mark was writing his story of Jesus as this revolt was happening. Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be torn down, stone from stone, was about to come true.
As the war within Jerusalem went on, I’m sure the people were praying for success for the revolt, and for safety, and for simple things like food and water during the siege. As the Romans invaded the city and tore the city apart, they fought, they died, they cried, they fled, and they prayed. But their prayers were not answered as they wanted. The destruction of the temple led the people to focus their worship in local synagogues, and the sacrifice of prayer instead of animals.
We know from our recent history that the largest, most well-built buildings are capable of being destroyed. We never imagined that someone would attack us on our own soil, but the terrorists did just that. We prayed that day, as a nation. We prayed hard. We prayed first that all would be safe; then we prayed that there would be few deaths; then we prayed for survivors; then we prayed that God would receive those who died. And then we prayed for the families of those who died and who lost jobs, and we prayed for God to tell us how to respond. Our prayers were not all answered in the way we wanted. 
Hannah prayed, too. She prayed for something quite simple – for many of us. She prayed for a baby. Today, there are all sorts of fertility treatments, but in the ancient world, there was little a couple could do except keep trying.
Hannah also prayed for an end to the abuse she endured as a childless woman. The other wife in the household teased her, bragging about her own ability to bear children. The women in town wondered what sin she or her parents had committed to make God prevent her from having children.
Even Elkanah, her husband, was amazed to realize that he wasn’t enough for her. It probably never occurred to him that if he died, she would have no home, no children to care for her. No man would want her, since she could not give him children. She would be out on the streets, begging, in no time.
Hannah prayed, probably every day, for God to give her a child. One day, when she went with Elkanah to the temple in Shiloh – this is before King David, and before the temple in Jerusalem – Hannah prayed really hard. She prayed alone, and silently as she sat in the temple. She received more abuse from the priest Eli, who thought she was drunk. Rather than slink away in shame, Hannah boldly spoke up and told Eli that she had been praying. Eli promised her that whatever she had been praying for would be granted. And soon, Hannah was pregnant, and gave birth to Samuel. Samuel went as a youth to live with Eli, and became the prophet and advisor to King Saul and later anointed David, the shepherd.
In our study group last Monday we were struck by the many ways in which God was named in our different translations. Some of us remembered singing as part of the communion liturgy, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabbaoth,” using the Hebrew word, sabbaoth. This is the term Hannah uses. The NRSV we read on Sunday mornings uses “Lord of hosts.” Other translations say, “Lord Almighty,” “Lord All-Powerful,” “Lord of Heavenly Forces.” The translation we liked the best was from the Message, which reads, “Lord of the Angel Armies.”
Hannah prayed to God using this name, Lord of the angel armies. She was praying to the most powerful image of God, to the God who could help her in her time of need. She poured out her heart to God, and her prayer was heard and answered.
We wonder why did her prayer work this time, when so many times before it hadn’t. Perhaps because God had a special plan for this child, and the timing was right. We don’t know, but we do know that the God of the Angel Armies, whom we also today call Father, heard her prayer and opened her womb so she could have a child.
When we pray, sometimes we wonder if our prayers are heard. Sometimes we wonder if our prayers will be answered. Sometimes we wonder what the answer to our prayers will be.
We pray with faith; with faith that our prayers will be heard and answered in the way we hope. We pray that someone – including ourselves – will be healed. We pray that God will intervene and prevent a natural disaster from impacting us. We pray for safety as we travel, especially as we travel far from home. We pray that God will receive our loved ones as their lives on earth come to an end. We pray for peace, especially in the Middle East, and wherever our soldier-loved ones happen to be.
We pray for many things. We pray to a God powerful enough to make happen whatever we pray for. Like Hannah, we pray to the God of the Angel Armies. God does not always answer our prayers, at least not in the ways we look for, the ways we hope for. Buildings fall, loved ones die, storms destroy our homes and businesses, babies never come, children make poor choices. Yet, we pray to a God who just might make something different happen.
Please pray with me. Almighty God, we rely on your power and your mercy to help us, no matter what is going on in our lives. Hear the prayers of our hearts, and answer us. We pray in Jesus’ powerful name, Amen