Narrative Lectionary passage for this week: 1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10
I’d love to just dive right into this story, but I really think it’s worth the few minutes it’s going to take to get a sense where today’s story about Hannah fits into the larger story of our God, as well as the promises God made to our spiritual ancestors.
Partly because of one of the frustrating things I find true about my own recollection of the Biblical canon- I grew up hearing the stories of Gideon and Paul, John the Baptist and Esther, Noah and Joshua, Peter and David…. All mixed in with plenty of Jesus… and rarely in order… and generally without any of the begat sections that might have helped get them closer to the proper order.
But I also want to help you see that Hannah is both a continuation of and kind of a hinge point in the history of God’s chosen people.
Just like Moses and the people that he and Aaron led through the desert, Hannah was a part of the promise made to Abraham all those many generations ago. After the first generation of the wandering Israelites had died, Joshua finally led the next generation into the land that had been promised. That story is in the book of Joshua, which is followed by the book of Judges.
The judges are series of leaders that included Samson, Deborah, Gideon and others who took on the work of helping the people to establish themselves, to protect their new homeland and to follow God’s law. Like much of human history, this part of the Hebrew’s narrative is filled with sin, as well as repentance. But even as Israel grows in number and prosperity, the book does not end well…
The final chapters describe a brutal rape, followed by murder, and dismemberment. The people fall into Intertribal warfare and finally the book of Judges ends with these words:
21: 25 In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.
The book of Ruth comes next, then the two volumes dedicated to Samuel with their companions called 1st and 2nd Kings. 1 Samuel is where we are first introduced to Elkanah and his two wives: Hannah (the first) and Peninnah (the second wife). Peninnah had children; Hannah did not.
Now – every year Elkanah left his hometown and went to Shiloh to worship and offer a sacrifice. Eli and his two sons served as priests there. When Elkanah sacrificed, he gave portions of the sacrificial meal to his wife Peninnah and all her children, but he always gave an especially generous helping to Hannah because he loved her so much, and because God had not given her children.
Year after year, Peninnah taunted Hannah cruelly, never letting her forget that God had not given her children. Every time she went to the sanctuary of God Hannah tried to steel herself for the abuse she would face, but she was reduced to tears and one year, she just couldn’t eat. Elkanah noticed, and he even asked her what was wrong, wishing she were satisfied with what he provided her.
And here we’ll pick up the reading for today… (1 Samuel 9:9)
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
It turns out that Eli was watching her as she prayed, silently. He could see her lips moving, even though she didn’t speak… somehow he decided she must be drunk, so he walked up and told her she was making a scene. She needed to sober up. When Hannah told Eli how she had been mocked, he understood that she truly was pouring out her heart to God in sorrow and pain. He said to Hannah, “Go in Peace and may the God of Israel give you what you have asked. “Hannah’s heart was lighter as she asked Eli to remember her and pray for her. And finally, she could eat.
They [Elkanah and Hannah] rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, [yes, that kind of knowing] and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
The next time Elkanah took the family to Shiloh to worship God, Hannah didn’t go. She told her husband, “Once the child is weaned, I’ll bring him myself and present him before God—and that’s where he’ll stay, for good.” Elkanah said to his wife, “Do what you think is best.
So she did. She stayed home and nursed her son until she had weaned him. Then she took him up to Shiloh, along with the makings of a generous sacrificial meal—a prize bull, flour, and wine.
First, they butchered the bull, then brought the child to Eli. Hannah introduced herself to Eli, saying “Would you believe that I’m the very woman who was standing before you at this very spot, praying to God? The one you thought was drunk… I prayed for this child, and God gave me what I asked for. And now I have dedicated him to God. He’s dedicated to God for life.”
Right then and there, they began to worship God.
Hannah prayed and she sang,
“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.
“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”
Hannah’s prayer for a child came from a place of deep sadness, deep pain. She knew she was loved. She was the first of Elkanah’s wives, The favored one… even though Peninah was the one able to provide him with children.
Hannah did all the things wives are meant to do. She would have run the household, helping Elkanah assure that all of the people associated with his land were fed and cared for. And every time Peninah bore another child, especially another son, the absence of children from her own womb….
When I think about the way our text describes Peninnah’s taunts, I can’t help but picture a couple of scenes in the 1958 movie adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Not the plot so much as the tension that is so visible between the childless Maggie (played by Elizabeth Taylor) and Mae with her clan of noisy children… all representing a legacy, a continuation of the family name. All representing something that Maggie apparently can’t have. And Mae, like Peninnah, is fertile which it comes to producing children and inflicting pain.
Hannah was faithful to Elkanah, was faithful to God. She was a good woman. There was no obvious reason for her not to be fruitful. She had heard from childhood the story of Abraham and Sarah.
The story of a woman who believed and tried to believe in her moments of doubt that God would bring her a child, even in her old age.
The story of the promise itself: that through Abraham and his children, there would be a great nation of people, a nation whose people outnumber the stars in the night sky.
From childhood, Hannah would have imagined herself adding to that number. Because both Abraham and Sarah were blessed to be a blessing…
She knew that God remembered Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, blessing them and giving them life and land. But Tamar was not the mother God had called to bring the first child of promise. It was Sarah. Sarah who laughed at God at the idea and then laughed with joy at Isaac’s birth.
And so Hannah, even in her sorrow, had hope.
Because her God – our God- is the God who keeps promises and brings life. Even out of barrenness, even in the wilderness.
Even though we live outside the garden, beyond the promise of good without the knowledge of evil, the Earth we till can produce more than enough food for all…
Through the womb of the red sea, God brought Moses and the children of Israel into a life of freedom from the bonds of slavery.
All those years outside the land of promise, God continued to bring life, in daily manna and quail, in the sound of newborns wailing and toddlers giggling.
Hannah remembers the stories, remembers God’s promise to bless the children of Israel, remembers the ways that even in her barrenness, God and Elkanah have cared for her, and so she prays for a way to honor and thank them.
Remember me, she prays. Remember me..
Year after year, every time they go to Shiloh,
Remember me, she prays. Remember me..
and all the days between
Remember me, she prays. Remember me..
And finally, yes.
Oh the joy!
God hears and remembers me (just as God heard Tamar)
God hears and remembers me (just as God heard the people’s cries in Egypt)
God hears and remembers and pours out a blessing on me!
A blessing of grace, of life, of transformation… with every passing day as her belly swelled…
God’s blessing was so very real.. So very present.
What a glorious beautiful yes. Finally.
Hannah keeps her promise as well, bringing Samuel to Eli, where he is dedicated to service to the Lord. And it is in this moment that Hannah sings.
She joins Miriam and Deborah as a singers of songs of joy. She sings over the gift of her child who will ,in time, annoint another singer of songs, David. And from the house of David will come another child of promise through another singer of songs, another woman of faith, the most favored of ladies – Mary.
The people of Israel are favored by God, and historically, God is their king. But look carefully at what she sings… God is incomparable, there is no God like this God. Human strength comes from God and is exalted in God. God is in the business of reversing what we understand as might
The strong become weak and the weak become strong
The mighty become powerless,
The dead come to life
The poor become rich
But not because they are able to do so in human power…
God raises up, brings down, kills and brings to life
God lifts the needy from the ash heap so they might join those in seats of power
Not by might does one prevail
All the ways we exert power as humans fall short in comparison with God’s power to change the course of human circumstances.
God made good from Joseph’s plight, using a passing band of Ishmaelites to save Egypt and the people of many nations (including Israel) from famine.
Generations later, God brought the people out of Egypt with displays of the power in plagues and the parting of the sea.
Joshua and Gideon never won a battles through strategy or armies so large they overwhelmed their foes, it was always God’s strength on display in human weakness, in their willingness, by faith, to do the illogical.
There is something beautiful and poignant about this story. And while it seems to be so very distant from us, it is very timely. Hannah had nothing… and when God provided her most fervent desire, she kept her promise to give it away. Entrusting her child to the future – a future of service to God, and by extension a future of service to the people
Hannah sings a prayer that speaks to her own joy, even as she rejoices for her people. Her fortunes have been reversed. She had nothing to contribute, no legacy to offer her people, but now God has blessed her to be a blessing to them and to God.
Her long-awaited child was given by God, with no promises that another would follow. Even so, Hannah returns Samuel to God in gratitude.
The open-handedness of her gift is astounding. Partly because we live in a culture that offers cry rooms to parents dropping their children for the first half day of preschool… and partly because we have become so accustomed to abundance that we are terrified of scarcity
Many of us have been in seats of power and influence long enough that a song about God’s power to reverse fortunes should make us uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable enough to look at what we are grasping too tightly.
Uncomfortable enough to loosen our grip before God loosens it for us.
We should be uncomfortable because it doesn’t take a lot of squinting to read the teachings of the prophets and the words of Jesus as stark reminders that God favors the poor. God favors the powerless and the oppressed
And my friends, in case you’re wondering… that is not us.
Contrary to what those who are striving for power would tell you, we remain the strongest, richest nation in the world. We have access to more resources than anyone else. We have the biggest arsenal of weapons. The only thing we don’t have the most of… people. But the places with more people don’t have our technology.
We in this room right here are not poor- especially those of us with a roof over our heads, a car in the driveway and a bank account in the black.
We are not oppressed – especially those of us who are Anglo, who are Christian, who are native speakers of English.
Yes, we have our struggles. And yes, some of us do struggle against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation Yes, we all experience illness and loss.
But we have been blessed… so, so very blessed.
As we think about our own homes and this congregation, As we choose leaders for the communities we represent and for our nation…
We ought to be asking ourselves this question… After we’ve counted our blessings, after we’ve given thanks, what would God have us do with that inventory?
Are we going to use those blessings to bless others? Or are we going to wait for God to force our hand?
Are we -each of us – seeking out opportunities
to give away our wealth?
to advocate for those whose voices have been silenced?
to give up a seat at the table so that someone else might join?
to cry out for peace?
Are we mourning with those who mourn…
Especially with those mourning loved ones taken unjustly through gun violence
Or because public health spending has been cut to dangerous levels
Or because access to insurance and prescription medicine Is still not universal
Because people die from all of those, you know.
Are we seeking peace in our cities…
By working to assure that all citizens have equal access to education and training, transportation and recreation, jobs and housing?
Because the church of Jesus Christ, the One who embodied not just the love and mercy of God but is also the King of Kings and will sit as our judge…. His church has been blessed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
It’s time to stop storing up our blessings for a rainy day… because our world is already flooded with pain and sorrow and injustice, And we, my friends, are part of God’s disaster recovery plan.
The church of Jesus Christ… This church…. This Body…
has been blessed…
and commanded to be about the business of being a blessing in the world
joyfully singing God’s praises…
sacrificially feeding others and giving ourselves away …
obediently listening and following God’s ways.…
Day by day… hour by hour… moment by moment.
May we count our blessings, give thanks and open our hands to release those blessings to the glory of God.
Day by day…
Hour by hour… Moment by moment…
Until teh very end of the age.