When I was a kid, one of my favorite things to do was make “bricks.” My brother, two of my cousins, and I would meet at my grandparents’ house, and we would raid their kitchen of little paper Dixie cups. (You know, the kind with a waxy inside?) I don’t know if we were inspired by the biblical story of the Hebrew people making bricks out of mud, or if we were just bored kids with nothing to do except use our imaginations, but we were convinced we could make real bricks with mud and Dixie cups.
The four of us would take our pilfered cups into the backyard, and we would dig up dirt, mix it with water, and pack some of our muddy mixture into each cup. Then, we would dig holes, place our cups in the holes, and cover them up with dirt. We thought that the pressure and heat of being underground would “cure” our creations until they hardened and could be used to build things. There were multiple things wrong with our brick-making endeavors, but even though we never made a successful brick, nothing stopped us from continuing to try. Maybe we need to dig deeper holes, we wondered to ourselves. Or, maybe we used too much or not enough water. We even tried throwing in some dry grass clippings in the hopes that it would help the mixture stick together and become something stronger.
We tried to make bricks so many times, but the reality was, we were not going to make anything that would last. We were missing many key steps and ingredients from the process of brickmaking. And, even if we had mastered the technique, even the strongest bricks and stones weather away over time. See the erosion of natural landscapes over time, and the decay of untended properties that sit and succumb to the elements.
In the Gospel lesson from Mark this morning, we hear the delight of the disciples as they recognize the marvelous architectural achievement of the temple: “What large stones and what large buildings!” But Jesus tells the people around him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Jesus was foretelling the destruction of the temple. He was also foreshadowing his own death and the radical change that would mean for how his disciples would worship and understand God.
This week as we continue our series “Fill My Cup Lord,” we are focusing on this prayer: help us build structures that last. Unlike the bricks I tried to make as a kid, we were longing for something that will stand the test of time, something that will endure no matter what difficulties may come to pass. To that end, let’s take a look at the story in 1 Samuel 1. It may seem strange to move backward from the story of Jesus and the disciples at the Temple to the story of the birth of Samuel, but I hope it will make sense as we explore it together.
The story in 1 Samuel 1 begins with a struggle between Elkanah’s two wives Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah was able to have children, and she delighted in pointing out Hannah’s infertility. Here’s how the story describes Peninnah: “Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb.” Peninnah sounds like a delight, doesn’t she? Hannah was devastated. She wept and refused to eat, and her husband was concerned. He would give her a double portion because he loved her, and I’m guessing he hoped that his love and gifts would heal Hannah’s broken heart.
In Hannah’s time, barrenness meant that Hannah would have no one to care for her as she got older. It meant there would be no one to carry on the family line. Hannah was desperate, not just to have a child, but to have a son who would be evidence of God’s blessing in her family. She wanted an heir for the family. And I’m guessing she wanted the mocking and insults from Peninnah to stop.
This is a difficult story because in the end, Hannah prays for a child and she receives from God what she asked for. Many who have experienced the pain of infertility have prayed and shed countless tears and asked God to give them a child, just like Hannah did. We have to be careful not to use the story of Hannah as a weapon against anyone who did not receive the same outcome to their prayers. This story isn’t intended to promote the idea that if we pray a certain way we will always get what we long for. Instead, this story is about the lengths God went to keep human beings close to him. This is a story about God taking care of God’s people before the people even knew they were in trouble. This story is about building a structure that would endure.
After one too many times of Elkanah offering sacrifices to the Lord and Peninnah reminding Hannah that Hannah doesn’t have any children, Hannah decides to take matters into her own hands. She stands up and she presents herself before God. She prays so passionately that as Eli the priest watches her, he assumes that she is drunk. Eli may have been a priest, but he failed to see God at work in Hannah – and in many other situations as well. In fact, when Eli is an old man, we read in 1 Samuel 3 that the word of the Lord was scarce and visions were uncommon. Even the priests didn’t know how to recognize the presence of God, and they didn’t know how to listen for God’s voice.
Hannah responds to the priest: “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” Eli the priest gives her a word of blessing, and as she leaves the temple grounds, she is no longer sad. And, when enough time had passed, Hannah gave birth to a son and named him Samuel, which means “God hears.”
God did hear. God heard the cries of Hannah, and God also heard the cries (though they hadn’t been cried out just yet) of the people who would be asking God just a few chapters later to give them a king. In the birth of Samuel, God was establishing a structure that would endure – a tangible, physical way to connect with God.
Into a time when no one heard the voice of the Lord, a baby was born who would listen to God’s voice and remind the people of God’s ways.
Into a time when the people of Israel would no longer be satisfied with God as their king, a baby was born who would become a prophet who would remind the earthly king what it means to govern with justice and goodness.
Hannah’s prayers, her faithfulness, and her bravery led to the birth of Samuel, the man who ended the age of the judges for Israel and initiated the time of the prophets. I often tell study groups that whenever you learn about a king in Israel’s history, you should ask who the prophet was at that time. The prophets were sent to remind kings about seeking after God. The prophets reminded both the kings and the people that God was present with them, even if kings deserted God’s ways or other armies threatened to rule over them. God was never going to abandon God’s people.
I knew a man who played the Native American flute more beautifully than anyone I had ever heard before. Prior to playing the flute, he worked in landscaping and tree trimming. One day, he had a terrible accident at work. He fell many feet down and broke his back. His injury was so extensive that he could no longer do the work he used to do. After his accident, he faced chronic pain and difficulty walking.
The thing that amazed me the most about him was not his music – though his music was astounding in itself. What most amazed me was his perspective on what had happened. He could’ve been angry or bitter, but he wasn’t. Instead, he told me that when he had his accident, he had a vision. In the vision, he heard a voice telling him to take a branch of the tree he had been trimming and to begin carving it. The voice told him to make something he could play. So, he did. In the vision, he played his flute, and the hummingbirds danced around him to the melody of the music.
There was something about that vision that was compelling for him. It was so real for him that he clung to it, even when he was first learning how to make flutes and play them. It sustained him when he was struggling to make ends meet. It inspired him to write new songs, to record them, and to share them with others. I first heard him tell his story in the grocery store, and it led to spending many afternoons at his house with his whole family.
Hannah had a vision. She was courageous. She presented herself, took a risk, and she prayed. And her faithful courage ushered in a new age. In some ways, her prayers were answered as she expected them to be. But in other ways, her prayers gave birth to something she never could’ve imagined. Her son would hear the voice of the Lord, would walk faithfully as a judge and a prophet, would anoint the first king of Israel, and was the first in a long line of prophets.
But even this structure did not endure. Kingdoms rose and fell. Kings came and went. In the New Testament, the people were crying out for a king again, only this time they were looking for the one who would come in and conquer the Romans. God heard their cries, but instead of sending one who did what they expected, he sent Jesus who offered his own life. He gave himself for us, and through his sacrifice, God ushered in a reign that would endure, a structure that would last and would never be torn down – the kingdom of God, and the presence of the Holy Spirit with each of us.
As we approach God today – with cups that have been filled back up, or with dry cups in need of refreshing – we are being invited to listen for the voice of the Lord. We are being called to pray with faithfulness, trusting that God will bring new things to life through those prayers, even if the answers we receive are not necessarily the answers we were looking for. As we pray to God, “Help us build structures that endure,” may we be reminded of what it says in 1 Peter 2: “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
“See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Let us seek God with faithfulness, making space to listen for his voice. May we approach God with courage and pray with faithfulness, even if we aren’t always sure what to pray for. And, may we remain open to what God might do through our prayers. God is building a structure right now that will endure, and we are its living stones.