1 Samuel 1:9-11 & 19-20, & 2:1-10
Pastor Todd Buegler
October 13 & 14, 2012
Lord of Life
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the Son of God who is the Christ. Amen.
This week we continue our narrative journey through the Old Testament by looking at the story of Hannah, and the birth of Samuel, the man who united the Jewish people.
But first a little context might be helpful, to place the story in its proper perspective.
When we last left the Israelites in the book of Exodus, they were with Moses in the wilderness. God had punished them for their idol worship by forcing them to wander for 40 years before they eventually entered the promised land. The book of Joshua tells the story of the Israelites after they entered the land, the challenges they faced, and their establishment as a nation.
Then the book of Judges tells the story of how leadership emerged among the Israelites as they became a nation. At this point in the story, the Israelites had divided into fractured tribal structures, each tribe with its own leader, called a judge.
Then we move to the book of 1 Samuel, where we meet Elkanah and his two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Together the 3 of them create family drama worthy of their own reality TV show.
Elkanah had multiple children with Peninnah. But Hannah was, the Bible described, “barren;” unable to bear children.
For Hannah, this brought emotional pain and anguish multiple levels. During Old Testament times, for a number of reasons, women who could not have children became second-class citizens.
First, children played an important role in guaranteeing the future well-being of the parents. I came across an article not too long ago where economists estimate that today, it costs somewhere in the vicinity of $227,000 for a parent to raise one child from birth through high school. Children these days can be listed in the category of financial liability.
However, at the time of Hannah, children were considered to be financial assets. They could provide labor. They could help with the farm…with the household work. And most importantly, when the parents would age, the children would take care of them. The Jewish people had no social security; they had children.
So Hannah’s inability to produce children reflected an inability to fulfill her responsibilities as a wife.
Second, fertility was Biblically seen as a sign of divine favor. Conversely, infertility was seen as a sign of divine judgment. And the neighbors, well they certainly would have noticed which wife in the household was blessed, and which was not.
Finally, Hannah had strong maternal instincts. Quite simply, she deeply wanted a child, and she wanted to be a mother.
As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, in public, Peninnah would regularly criticize and scold Hannah for being barren. Hannah would be driven to tears by the constant belittling, until she could not take it anymore. It was a sad and painful existence for her.
Elkanah loved Hannah very much. But he had the emotional sensitivity of Homer Simpson. He would try and comfort her, but he was, how shall we say it? Clueless.
He just couldn’t understand Hannah’s deep, deep sorrow. Once he went to her, and asked: “Why, Hannah, is your heart so sad? Am I not worth more to you than ten sons?” Clueless.
Hannah experienced the pain of unfulfilled hope. Her whole sense of self-worth was in tatters. She felt so alone.
Some of you have felt this way. I have spoken with couples who experience infertility. I have heard these emotions and have seen this sorrow. It is real, and it is painful.
Finally, Hannah had hit her breaking point. Once, when the whole dysfunctional family went to the temple for worship, Hannah “presented herself before the Lord.” And in a moment of powerful honesty, she prays, she weeps, and she makes promises. It is a bold and tenacious prayer that she prays.
She says “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but give to your servant a child, then I will set him before you as a priest until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” In other words, “God, if you give me a son, I will give him back to you in service.”
She was so rocked by emotion while she prayed this that the priest in the temple thought she was drunk, and scoffed at her prayer. But God; God remembered. And shortly after her return home, Hannah had her son, and named him Samuel, which means “God has heard.” And Hannah kept her vow. Samuel was raised in the faith, and went on to become a prophet, and a leader of the people, and was the man who anointed the first two Kings of Israel, Saul and then David.
So we need to ask ourselves “what does this story tell us about our God?” I think there is much that we can learn from Hannah about our own relationship with God, and about how we live that out.
We believe that prayer is important. I think most of us would probably agree that we should pray more. But we can be easily distracted and our resolution can evaporate. But when we extreme crisis, things come into focus for us, and it is easier for us to pray.
Hannah is experiencing a crisis when she prays. And her prayer is deep and honest, out of the depths of the heart.
When I think back on the various stages and seasons of my life, I know I prayed the best when things were hardest and scariest:
- After my Dad died.
- Before performing my grandmother’s funeral.
- When my son was in the hospital.
At moments like this, I pray my best. And, by the “best,” I don’t mean high quality poetic prayers in Elizabethan English.
- By “best”, I mean, most consistent.
- By “best”, I mean, most honest.
- By “best”, I mean that, at those times, my prayer life was my relationship, my connection with God.
It is at times like this that I am reminded of what I have missed when my prayer life wasn’t so strong. Prayer is funny that way. We often don’t realize we have missed it until we start it again.
We forget that prayer is always a relationship. And all relationships thrive on consistency and honesty. It can be a simple thing to be honest when you are in pain, or are afraid, or are desperate.
And God asks for our honesty. God asks for our questions and our doubts. God asks for our limitations. God asks us to pray things like:
- Are you really there? Or;
- I’m not sure what to do. Or;
- I’m so tired I could cry. Or,
- I’m so sad I can’t take it.
Let’s remind ourselves of something: God already knows these things we pray for. God is already here, waiting for us to be willing to join in the conversation. So, if God already knows it all—the anger, or the confusion, or the questioning, or for that matter the joy and the love…if God already knows it all, we have nothing to fear in articulating it. We have nothing to fear in pouring out the content of our hearts. We have nothing to fear, but much to gain: We can experience a real, live, fully connected relationship with God. God is already speaking, and in honest prayer we have an opportunity to turn a monologue into a relationship.
I recently heard a story of a man who really had some struggles. This man was deep in addiction, and his addiction had led to things like drunk driving arrests and jail time and abandoning his family and finally, under threat of real hard time in prison, rehab. When he came out of rehab, he felt fragile, like a newborn baby. Some of his old friends—the ones with whom he had indulged in his addiction—were having a party. He didn’t know what to do. He tried to call one of his new clean and sober friends for support, but couldn’t get through to them. Finally, he went home and went in his bedroom, and closed the door, and sat on his bed shaking. He looked up at the ceiling and said, “Well, Buddy, I guess it’s just you and me.” And that prayer—that honest, inarticulate, heartfelt prayer—changed everything. He says, “Believe it or not, it worked: those simple little words worked. Something happened: a little peace came over me.”
Hannah presented herself to the Lord. In agony, she prayed and wept bitterly. She was honest. She poured out her soul. She engaged in real conversation with God, a prayer from the heart. And, like her, when we are in pain, or like the man who was trying not to act on his addiction, when we are really frightened, we can pray. At these times, God wants us to pray.
But God also wants us to pray at other times:
- When things are going well, or;
- When we’re bored
- When we’re just tired
- When we don’t really feel like praying because we aren’t sure we will get anything out of it.
The challenge for us is to engage in the conversation when fifteen thousand other things are screaming for our attention—that little bit of work we want to finish, the laundry that needs folding, or the latest episode of “The Voice.” The challenge for us is to engage in honest prayer when we don’t even know what we want to say, but we do it anyway, because that’s what you do when you’re in a relationship.
It has been said that prayer doesn’t change God, but it does change us. That is the promise of prayer: transformation. The answer to Hannah’s prayer is powerful and dramatic: God sends her the son she is longing for. For most of us, we do not experience such dramatic answers to our prayer. Or, we experience what feels like a painful, wrenching “No.” But remember that even when God says no, or “not yet,” or perhaps “yes, but not in the way you want”, to our requests, it is not a judgment on us, or our faith. And it isn’t because we didn’t pray hard enough, or often enough. The point of our story this morning is not that Hannah “got” something she asked for. Rather the point of the story is that Hannah came to God in prayer, and entered into the relationship that God offered.
And so as people of faith, we pray. We pray for God to say “yes” to something; but more than that, we pray to be in relationship with the One who hears our prayers, the one who sent us his Son, and the redemption that we long for. Jesus wants to be in relationship with us, in the heights of our joys, in the depths of our sorrows, and in mundane, daily life. God wants to be in relationship with us, whether our prayer is “Thank you,” or “Help,” or even just “Hi there.” God wants to be in relationship with you, and while you may, or may not find what you ask for, God promises that you will find transformation that you really need.
Thanks be to God.