Today the Old Testament asks us to journey with a sister in the faith named Hannah. Like many other women in Scripture, Hannah is mentioned by name only because she is the mother of Samuel, a great and powerful prophet, who we know will help establish Israel’s monarchy. But where we first meet Hannah is not at the moment of birth, or even the joyous conception of Samuel-but in the midst of her anguish: when she cannot do the one thing that her family, all of society, expects her to do: conceive a son, continue the line. Her womb is barren.
Barrenness. Infertility. These are by no means hardships unique to the women of the Old Testament. Struggling to conceive and bear children is still an issue that many women-and men, and families-face today. And these are burdens that the church often fails to talk about. Perhaps this is because they seem too hard to share-too hard because they have to do with the most fragile, the most vulnerable, the most human part of every one of us: OUR BODIES.
Today you have used your body in a most likely new and different way in worship, or even prayer, than you have before-and it may have felt a little weird, rather uncomfortable, or even scary. You may have felt pretty self-conscious: Are other people looking at me? Am I doing this right? I look ridiculous. This is ridiculous.
In using your body to pray, you took a risk before God and other people, to look perhaps, a little foolish. Maybe using your body to pray today also served as reminder of where you are in your life:
Maybe your body is tired-you are a first year law student, a medical resident-and you just can’t get enough sleep.
Maybe your body has changed, less flexible, stiff in unexpected places-you are getting a little bit older these days.
Your body? You haven’t thought about your own body in you don’t even know how long! You are the parent of a young child-you have been too busy caring for another small, needy body.
Maybe you are sick, have an injury, or what the world might call a "disability," and you realize that your body can’t do all the things you used to do, or might want to do.
Praying with our bodies demands all of us; it makes us honest; our bodies are the place where we have the least amount of control, where we become truly aware of our humanity before God: [CROSS ARMS] How we are struggling, where we have failed, where we are living a lie-because the body doesn’t lie; it speaks a reality and a truth that our words, as eloquent and articulate as they are, cannot always express.
Another reason the church often fails to talk about bodies, and about barrenness and infertility, is because they have to do with our greatest fears-and also our greatest hopes. Our children are what give us hope for the future, give us hope that life goes on, that there is a future beyond ourselves. In Hannah’s days, Israel was desperate for a new leader; one that might bring order, make some sense of the chaos that had been going on since Israel did not yet have a king. Everyone was asking these questions: How will our nation live on? What will our future hold?
These questions are nothing new for us, are they? After the tension of election season, we can certainly relate to the anxiety that Israel felt. But we must remember that this story today is not about Samuel, or Mitt Romney, or Barack Obama. This story is about a regular gal named Hannah.
But even Hannah’s story is nothing new to us. And if you feel like you’ve heard it before, it’s because you have. The story of Mary’s conception of Jesus mirrors this Old Testament tale of Hannah-the story of the Incarnation. Mary birthed a baby, Jesus, who became not only Israel’s hope, but the hope of the world.
In Luke’s Gospel, much like Hannah, Mary sings a song of jubilation after the angel has visited her and told her that she will be the mother of the Messiah. In these songs, Mary and Hannah tell of all God’s wondrous works:
Those who were once hungry are fat with spoil!
The barren woman is the one who has now borne seven children!
Justice has been done, and the world finally is as it should be.
It is tempting, as we enter the season of Advent, a season of waiting, to fast forward to this scene-to the jubilant song of joy, to the happy ending. But before we get there, Hannah’s story asks us to linger in the space before the song, before her hope was realized, when she had no idea what would become of her. Where she throws herself deep into the deafening silence of the unknown, yet determined to trust in the promises of God. Where she can only mouth the words she knows to be true, but have yet to fully come into being.
Imagine for a moment how you felt that time when all of life was at stake:
Your child was sick or in trouble.
Your spouse had to have serious surgery.
After years of faithful work, you lost your job.
Despite all your best efforts, you didn’t make the cut, didn’t pass the test.
What did your prayers look like then?
What I love about Hannah, is when she prays, she gets real with God. "Look God, I believe in who you are, and all that you promise, but I’m going to give it to you straight: Life looks pretty scary right now." She lays it all out there-her whole soul and whole body laid bare. And it doesn’t look pretty! She is moving her body, feverishly mouthing words, but no sound is coming out! And she must look pretty ridiculous because Eli the priest has to ask her: Um, ma’am, are you drunk? Because this is not how we behave in the temple… in church…
No Eli, says Hannah. No matter what anyone else says: I am not ridiculous. I am not a worthless woman. This is what it looks like when I pour out my whole life before the grace and the mercy of my God.
Hannah lays out her life-and offers it up, even in the midst of what seemed like a hopeless situation. Does that remind you of anyone? Perhaps a prophet whose body hung on a cross, who gave his life for his friends, even after they betrayed him, and their ministry had surely failed, just at the moment when the whole thing seemed worthless.
Hannah’s prayer is a tremendous act of faithfulness. She plants herself in this middle ground, straddled between what she knows that God can do, and the reality that surrounds her.
It is this same space that Advent-and perhaps the whole of the Christian life!-calls us to: to celebrate that God has come to us in flesh, in a body; that our longed-for king has come; but also to get real with God; and to acknowledge that things aren’t as they should be in this world, and that we are desperate for our king to come again.
What does it mean to be a Christian in such times? To get real with God and lay our hearts and our bodies before a God who we believe will fulfill God’s promises? What does it mean to mouth the words, and believe that God will one day make them song?
One of my favorite movies is called Lars and the Real Girl. Lars, the main character, played by Ryan Gosling, is an interesting fellow-sort of a loner type. He lives with his brother and sister in law in the guest house behind their home. They live in a small town where everyone knows everyone and its impossible to hide-but Lars tries to. His family is very worried about Lars; he keeps to himself and hardly speaks to anyone. Until one day Lars informs them that he has a girlfriend. At first his family is overjoyed, that is until they realize that what Lars believes is his girlfriend is really a life-size doll that Lars has ordered off the internet.
Now, these sorts of dolls are typically not purchased for very virtuous purposes-but the charm of the movie is that Lars sincerely loves Bianca, who he genuinely believes to be real. Bianca and Lars go everywhere together: they eat dinner with his family, they take romantic strolls through the park. Lars even takes Bianca to church-where Bianca sits in her wheelchair because she can’t walk, and Lars gingerly opens her hymnal and closes it for her at the conclusion of each hymn.
Lars’ psychologist tells his family that he is suffering from a sort of delusion after the tragic death of their parents. But if they play along, he might eventually come to his senses.
Well, it’s not just his family that plays along, but the whole community, his whole church community. They take Bianca to get a haircut; to do her "volunteer" hours at the hospital; they bathe her plastic body; and they worship with her. All because they love Lars.
Their acts of love are utter foolishness; they are completely absurd… ridiculous!!-and they are profoundly embodied. What is real for Lars, is real for them.
Eventually Lars does come to his senses, if that’s what we want to call it. He tells everyone that Bianca is very sick, and that she is probably going to die. When that day comes, the church has a funeral for Bianca. And after a while, Lars begins to date again – and this time, it really is a real girl.
All because his church, his brothers and sisters. They laid down their bodies. And they mouthed the words with him, until he could sing again.
What utterly foolish ways can we hope with one another this Advent season?
Let us together lay it all out there-heart and soul, and even body-before God and one another and before all the world… that this hope that we have is not worthless-but takes on flesh; and is in fact very, very real.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.