The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year W) | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin |18 December 2022 | 1 Samuel 1:19-28 | 1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Titus 3:4-7 | Matthew 1:18-25

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who is with us in hearing and speaking and naming and incarnation.

Good morning, friends. Today is our last Sunday of Advent, of preparing for Christ’s birth together. And for now it’s our last Sunday of hearing scripture with the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s Women’s Lectionary. Our readings these four weeks have explored Advent as a season of Annunciation, these birth stories. That means it’s been a season of conversations with God. Hagar, and Mary, and Abraham, Samson’s mother, Elizabeth, and today Hannah and Joseph, talk with God or God’s messengers about coming births.

So today we’ll look at how God meets these saints and sages in holy conversation, in hearing and speaking and naming, and how we might meet God there too.

Today we hear part of the story of Hannah. Like Sarah and Elizabeth, Hannah is a woman who did not think she could have children. She and her husband faithfully worship at the temple every year, and there she prays to God for a child. When she’s praying intensely, her lips are moving even though she isn’t speaking aloud; the priest at the temple thinks that she’s drunk and calls her out. Hannah defends herself and shares her prayer, and the priest blesses her.

And as today’s story tells us, Hannah has a child the next year. Samuel, who will become a prophet; someone who helps God’s people hear God’s voice for their times, someone who facilitates this conversation between God and human beings. Hannah names her child Samuel because it means “God hears,” and God has heard her prayer.

This naming of Samuel echoes the first conversation with God we read this Advent—when Hagar meets God in the desert, and she’s the first person in scripture to give God a name. Hagar names God “The One Who Sees.”

Hagar names God for the way that God sees her praying. And Hannah names her son Samuel for the way God hears her praying. These names are part of the holy conversation between God people that’s still going on; they’re a form of prayer; they’re a kind of testimony to God’s presence with us. Naming and being named are part of how people in the Bible learned how to be present to God and welcome God’s presence among them.

Dr. Gafney’s lectionary gets at the importance of naming in scripture; she uses many names for God. In the Hebrew text of the Bible, there is a Name for God that’s written but not spoken. When reading aloud or translating into another language, we substitute another word. Our Jewish siblings sometimes say “HaShem,” (which means “The Name”) for this. English translations often use “Lord” in small capitals. And there’s also a movement in translation that when this holy Name appears, we can use a descriptive name for God in place of what can’t be spoken.

This is what Dr. Gafney does. The ways she names God are rooted in the stories of God in scripture, the ways God has been present with God’s people. She invites us to use these names in prayer and worship and see where they might take us. Here are some of the names for God we’ve seen so far in Advent:

Inscrutable God

Wellspring of Life

Ever-Living God

Faithful One

Living God

Worthy One

She Who Speaks Life

Holy One of Old

Generous One

Ageless One

God Who Hears

Creator of All

Gracious One

Fount of Justice

Since Hagar, God’s people have given God many names. It’s part of how we pray. It’s part of how we take our part in the conversation God is having with this world.

And in today’s Gospel, God claims the name Jesus, which means “God saves” and the name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” In our final divine conversation for this season, God’s messenger visits Joseph to announce Jesus’ birth. The angel tells Joseph that Mary hasn’t betrayed his trust, that her pregnancy is from the Holy Spirit. And Joseph is called to care for Mary and name the child Jesus.

As many readers have pointed out, Joseph does not say anything back to the angel in this story. The end of the scene says Joseph “does as the angel of the Lord commanded him,” but he we don’t get to hear what he thinks about it the way we do with most of the other people we’ve seen in dialogue with God or angels this season.

Maybe Joseph’s part of the conversation just wasn’t written down, or maybe Joseph was too busy listening to be talking in this moment. The only place it’s even implied Joseph speaks is to name the child Jesus, as the angel has told him to do.

When God becomes human and takes on a human name, Joseph gets to be part of the naming. Joseph gets to be part of that same legacy of naming God that goes back to Hagar, but in a new way. Jesus is a form of the name Joshua, and it means “God is help” or “God is salvation.”

Matthew also gives us another name for the child to be born—the name Immanuel, which means “God with us.” This name is taken from a story back in Isaiah when the timing of a child’s birth symbolized God’s presence with God’s people in a difficult time. It takes on new meaning in Matthew’s gospel as a name for God incarnate, God in the flesh, God walking with us as a human being. 

In her commentary on this gospel, Gafney points out that annunciation stories are common in the ancient world—heroes and demigods are often born to unlikely mothers and heralded by prophecy. But for the child to be “God with us,” Emmanuel, “the fullness of God in the frailty of flesh,” for God to be a human being with us—that’s something new.

The incarnation is the mystery of God becoming radically with us; God claims the name Immanuel for Godself in this moment, and God grows in a woman’s body and is born as a human infant and is named by his parents and learns to speak a human language. It is a continuation of the divine conversations we heard with Hagar and Hannah, with everyone who ever answered God’s call or cried out to God in prayer or dared to give God a new name.

Dr. Gafney says: “God’s saving work did not begin with Jesus; we see it borne witness to throughout the scriptures as Hannah sings of it in her time and in the days to come as would Mary, echoing [Hannah’s] song. Jesus is the continuation and embodiment of that salvation, himself an annunciation, of good news.”

And friends, this is the good news for which we prepare in Advent. This is the love that saves us. This is the holy mystery we welcome. This is the divine conversation in which we speak and listen and name and are named.

And this divine conversation can look a lot of different ways and still be faithful and good. Hagar in the desert demands to be seen and lays out her troubles before God. Hannah answers back when a priest tries to shame her for how she’s praying to God. Abraham and Sarah both laugh, and their child is named for their laughter.

Mary says yes to God’s call. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and strengthens her friend with joy and wisdom. Hannah and Mary both sing songs of praise for God’s revolutionary love. And Joseph hears what the angel says and doesn’t speak at all, but he acts to answer the call.

God is with all of these people, and all of these people are with God. All of these conversations are honest and faithful. All of these conversations are holy moments of presence where God and God’s people are in relationship. Some of these moments end up as lovely Christmas card art, and some are too messy for that, but they are all part of the holy conversation. They are all beautiful.

Some of us have a reflex to evaluate and rank things unnecessarily. (It’s me, I do.) And so we might want to figure out which conversations with God are the best kind, or judge how we should talk to God and how we shouldn’t. But scripture doesn’t do that in the stories we’ve just read. It turns out that the correct way to have a conversation with God is to have a conversation with God, and we grow as we go.

Joseph’s silent obedience is faithful. Hagar’s bold naming is faithful. Arguing can be faithful. Songs of praise can be faithful. Complaining can be faithful, and so can peaceful acceptance. There is no single template for how we relate God’s call or how we pray to God.

Conversations with God will look different for different people; they’ll look different for the same people in different seasons of life. The point is that we listen for God’s voice, and we speak to God honestly, and we practice a life of being present and active and fully ourselves in God’s continual conversation with our world.

And the real point is that God is with us. No matter how quiet or loud or distracted or wise we might or might not be, God chooses to be present with us. If we have had an Advent season of contemplation and reading scripture and lighting candles, God is with us. If we have had a season of rushing around taking care of a thousand things, God is with us. God is with us anywhere in between—Immanuel is God’s name.

And if our prayers this season have deepened into fathomless wells of silence from which we draw pure peace, God is with us. If the only prayer we can manage is “Oh God help,” God is with us too. God sees us, and God hears us.

So friends, let us take our part in the holy conversation that we have followed through scripture—whatever shape it takes for us as we come to the end of this Advent season. Let us listen for God’s voice among us and offer to God whatever words or silence or names or cries or laughter we might have in us today.

And in that holy conversation, in the mystery of God with us in speaking and hearing and naming, let us prepare our hearts and minds and bodies to welcome the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery Mary’s holy child born among us, Emmanuel, God with us.


Kelly Latimore’s beautiful icon of St. Joseph. Latimore reflects: “St. Joseph has shown us that even the quietest ordinary acts can be signs of hope in the world.”

The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 13 | St. Paul’s, Evansville

Joanna Benskin | 31 July 2022 |Hosea 11:1-11 | Psalm 107:1-9, 43 | Colossians 3:1-11 | Luke 12:13-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, the Holy One in our midst.

Okay friends, we’re doing this—it’s time to talk about the prophet Hosea. You might remember that last week’s reading from Hosea featured the word “whoredom” repeated a very uncomfortable number of times.

And a lot of things about the book of Hosea are deeply uncomfortable. So we’re going to go carefully. But if we can work with our discomfort, we’ll get through to a good word here for us about ourselves and about who God is.

Last week we talked about naming God in prayer. In Hosea, we see both our glorious potential to imagine to God, and also the limits of our ability to say who really God is. And the really good news is that God is in our midst, always loving us, and God breaks through no matter how messy it gets.

And Hosea is really messy, folks. Hosea was a prophet in Israel in the 8th Century B.C.E. The setup of the book is that he and his family become a dramatization of God’s relationship with the people. We read this last week.

Hosea is supposed to marry a woman whom he knows will be unfaithful to him, and this is supposed to show how God’s people have been unfaithful to God by worshipping idols and disobeying the commandments.

Hosea has children with this woman, Gomer, and he gives the children names that tell the story of the rift between God and God’s people—names that literally mean “Not Loved” and “Not My People” in Hebrew. The narrative is a little messy too, but it seems Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea as expected, maybe more than once, but then they eventually reconcile. The children are renamed “Beloved” and “My People” to signify that God will claim God’s people again. That’s the first two chapters, and the rest is prophetic poetry where God’s voice and the prophet’s voice interweave.

The first chapter of that prophetic poetry is closely connected to the Hosea and Gomer story. It might be spoken by Hosea to his wife Gomer, or by God to Israel, or maybe both at the same time. And in that poetry, we find professions of love all mixed up with some really scary threats of punishment. The plot arc is that after a time of estrangement, God will forgive God’s people and reconcile with them, and their love will be deeper than ever before.  

I think there is a lot here in the story of Hosea and his family that’s truly disturbing. First off, the children definitely did not sign up to be in this play about divine forgiveness, and maybe Gomer didn’t either.

There are also a lot of really tricky things going on with gender and power in this drama. It’s a problem for women when a woman happens to play the role of unfaithfulness who needs to be gotten back into line, and a man happens to play the role of… an all-knowing God whose decisions are always justified.  

The structure of the drama in Hosea plays into social problems we already have—problems about gender and power and virtue, and who gets to make decisions, and who we consider good and trustworthy. Metaphors like this feed into a system that already makes it harder for women to be free in the world.

And what’s maybe even more troubling, the story of Gomer and Hosea and their children sounds a lot like real life stories we might know of abusive relationships and even domestic violence. Feminist and womanist scholars like Renita J. Weems have pointed out this connection.

God/Hosea threatens Israel/Gomer with violence, and he claims that the punishment is justified by her behavior. He deprives her of resources, he keeps her from leaving the house, and he even brings the children into the conflict. He has lots of different ways to control her behavior. She tries to escape, but he ultimately wins her back with a mix of gifts and threats and promises of even greater love.

If you’ve walked with a survivor of domestic abuse, or you are one, or you’ve heard someone’s story who has been through this, then chapters 2 and 3 of Hosea might seem horrifyingly familiar. And if hearing this story now is bringing up things you’d like to talk about, Holly and I are here for you. And if surviving abuse is part of your past or your present, we can help you find other resources.

Womanist and feminist Bible scholars have read these first few chapters of Hosea with survivors in mind, from Gomer’s perspective. They’ve unpacked the connections with real life patterns of abuse, and they’ve named the need for the church to be clear: we don’t believe that God is like this.

Even though this story is in scripture, the God we worship loves us unconditionally. The God we worship is not about control at all costs. The God we worship is not on the abuser’s side in situations of domestic violence. The God we worship stands with survivors, and the church does too. We can be clear about that.

Because the story in the beginning Hosea isn’t the whole picture of who God is; it’s one attempt to tell the story of God’s love. Depending on our view of scripture, we might handle the presence of this story differently.

If you are just learning that the Bible has stories that imagine God in this way, it is okay to be disturbed and confused and upset right now. Working through that kind of disturbance and confusion can lead toward growth and maturity in faith. And you also don’t have to work through it alone—we can talk and pray and study about these things together and see what makes sense to you.  

Some of us have a view of Biblical inspiration where everything in the Bible is perfectly good and true in itself (even if it can be interpreted badly). From that perspective, we might say that this story is ok because it’s one metaphor; it’s God and not an actual controlling husband. In this view, the story itself is good and revelatory, but maybe it has the potential to be misused, and so we need to be careful with it.

Some of us believe that there’s room for flaws in the inspiration of the Bible, that God reveals Godself truly and powerfully in the midst of our human mess, and not separate from it in the Bible. That’s where I am. And from this perspective, we can say that maybe the story at the beginning of Hosea is a flawed attempt to understand God’s love.

We can recognize that the prophet Hosea was telling the story of God’s love as best he could, with the resources that he had. We might cringe when we have to read about whoredom in church, and that’s fine. We might choose not to spend much or any time with this story if it stirs up hurts for us, and that’s fine too.

But maybe we can understand that in some ways, we’re right there with Hosea, doing our best to tell the story of God’s love with what we’ve got, making a lot of mistakes, but still keeping the conversation going. And there is faithfulness in keeping the conversation going, as messy as it is. There is holiness and beauty in the struggle to name God.

And today we’ve stuck with that struggle. We’ve been through a lot of rough stuff so far in our conversation with Hosea. Thank you for coming across this difficult terrain with me so far; it’s been hard work.

And now it’s time for some really good news. I am ready for some good news now.

The really good news is that even when we tell the story of God’s love in a flawed way, God breaks through with that love in all its glory and power anyway. The really good news is that when we keep the conversation going, even in a messy way, God is part of that conversation too, and God talks back. God names Godself in our midst.    

The really good news is here in today’s reading from Hosea chapter 11. It’s that God’s love can’t be shaken, no matter what we’ve done. It’s that God cares for us with tenderness and compassion. The really good news is that God is God, far beyond any metaphor we could use. And in Hosea 11, God comes right out and says so.

By this point in the book, the conversation has gone beyond the metaphor of a husband and a wife. God has shown up in many voices—not just as an aggrieved spouse but as a mourner, as a plaintiff in the courtroom, and even as a lion chasing its prey. And in chapter 11, we start a new voice for God with this parent-child metaphor. God cares for God’s people like a parent who can’t stop loving their child, and God turns away from wrath to endless compassion.

Some scholars read this as specifically a mother and child metaphor because women were usually the caretakers in early childhood, and because when it says “I bent down to them and fed them,” that sounds like God is scooping up a child to breastfeed. So Hosea likely imagines God as a mother here, caring for her child and choosing compassion.

In the early chapters of Hosea, God threatens to give God’s people up to punishment if they won’t change their ways. But here, God turns away from that judgment; God knows that she can’t abandon her children.

One metaphor—the contentious marriage—worked for the prophet Hosea (whether or not it works for us) to tell some truths about God’s relationship with God’s people. But even for Hosea, that one metaphor wasn’t enough. The image of the parent and child tells the story of God’s love in a different way. It’s a way of naming God that shifts things.

And then something even more stunning happens. The first part of the book was like a play where Hosea and Gomer act out the relationship between God and the people. But now it’s like God takes the stage and breaks the fourth wall. “I will not execute my fierce anger,” God says, “for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

The voice of God here says that mercy, and not destruction, will be the way forward. And what’s more, the reason for that mercy is that God is God. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst.” The Holy One is in our midst, and unlike us mortals, the Holy One chooses mercy.

The reason that our human images are not enough to describe God truly is that God is always even more compassionate than even the best people we know, never less. And so here in Hosea, the voice of God pushes back against images that were not deep enough to hold the depth of God’s compassion for God’s people.

And if we look at the Hebrew text here, that pushback becomes even more direct. Our New Revised Standard translation says “I am God and no mortal.” And that’s because this translation tries to be gender-neutral when it can, which I usually appreciate.

But I think the specific word here makes a difference in this case. Because we have a Hebrew word for person in general, and we have a different word for man as in male person in particular, and Hosea uses that last one here. So how it reads in Hebrew is “I am God and not a man.” Or even “I am God and not a husband” (because husband is the same word).

It’s this same word that Hosea uses several times in the early chapters talking his relationship with Gomer and God’s relationship with God’s people when he says they’re husband and wife.

But now God says, “I am God, and not a man. I am God, and not a human husband.” Or maybe even “I’m not really that person we were talking about earlier. I’m better than that, because I am the Holy One and not a mortal.” The book of Hosea holds this tension. We have the dramatized metaphor of God as a man in a particular relationship having mercy in a limited way in the first chapters, and then here we have God saying God is not a man at all, God is beyond that, and God’s love is more than what we could imagine.

The book of Hosea itself questions its own central metaphor in this moment. I am grateful to 20th– and 21st-century feminist scholars for unpacking the complexity and violence of that metaphor so well.

But we didn’t actually have to wait for this movement of scholarship to arrive in order to question the metaphor of God as a punishing spouse. That questioning was already happening about the 8th Century B.C.E. That pushback is already here in the text in God’s voice in chapter 11.

And I believe that’s because God really was there with the prophet Hosea, breaking through the mess of it all to be God, in all of God’s glory and faithfulness and love. Because God has always been breaking through the mess to be God. And that is good news.

And God really is here with us too, in all of our messes, in all of our misunderstandings, in all of our best efforts and all of our epic failures. The Holy One is in our midst. God is God, and not a mortal, and God does not come in wrath. And that is such good news, friends.

And we carry that good news with us. We try to tell the story of God’s love as best we can. We keep on naming God in the dark. We use the images we have.

We use the best we know of human love to try to imagine God’s love. Sometimes we get it really wrong, and we cause harm, and we have to try again. Sometimes we find a new insight into who God is that changes everything for us.

We trust that God is present in the stories we tell about God, and we trust that God is beyond the stories we tell. While we take care with our stories and our naming because they matter, we also rejoice that it’s not up to us to get it right for God to be God. And that is such good news.

The Holy One is in our midst. And God is actively breaking free of any story that would make God less than God. And God is actively breaking us free of anything that would make us less than the holy people God made us to be.

So friends, let us walk in faith, believing that God is God, beyond the best that we could imagine. Let us walk in hope, expecting God’s holy revelations in our midst. And let us walk in love, holding fast to God’s boundless compassion for us and for all.


a medieval illustration of a man and a woman holding hands, inside an illuminated letter with geometric patterns
A Bible manuscript illumination of Gomer and Hosea from the 1340s (Public Domain, accessed through the Art Institute of Chicago).