Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on November 15 2009.
1 Samuel 1:4-20; Hebrews 10:11-14
I wonder what time of the day it was, when the old priest Eli spied Hannah praying in the temple. The only thing we are told is that Hannah went to the temple after she, her husband Elkanah, and the rest of the family had had their meal at
They were on pilgrimage together at an appointed festival time, and had come to
Bethel where the Hebrews worshiped collectively as the people of God. After the meal was over, Hannah went to the temple for prayers. And as she prayed, her lips were moving so that Eli, who was sitting in his usual place near the doorpost, thought she was drunk. Again, I wonder what time of the day it was, for Eli to think such a thing.
If it was evening, then the temple would have been lit by lamps or candles. That might explain Eli’s mistake. Eli’s not getting any younger, you know, and his vision wasn’t as sharp as it once had been. We are told that Eli had lost the vigor of his youth. His senses, not to mention his reflexes, were not what they used to be. That and the fact that if one was going to drink, the evening was generally the time to do it. To be honest, though, that’s a bit of a stretch. And besides, the writer of the story doesn’t cut Eli any slack, so why should we?
And it wasn’t as if he had never laid eyes on Hannah. According to the way the story is told in the chronicles of Samuel, Hannah was a regular at the temple. That doesn’t mean she chaired any committees or was the president of the women’s auxiliary or anything like that, but we are told that she had been to the temple before. And always for the same reason: to pray to her God to give her a child. A child would solve all of Hannah’s problems. And boy, did Hannah have problems.
This story originated a long time ago, when the Hebrew marriage culture was not monogamous. So Hannah had to share her husband Elkanah with his other wife, Peninnah… Peninnah, that hateful, irritating woman who had been successful in giving Elkanah a quiver full of children and used every opportunity she could find to rub it in Hannah’s face that Hannah was childless. Every time Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, Peninnah – that dreadful, awful Peninnah – would pick at her and provoke her. “Severely,” we are told, “severely.” If this was a Disney movie, Peninnah would be the ugly step-sister and the mean old witch with the poisoned apple all rolled into one.
Still, how could the priest Eli get it so wrong, to think that Hannah had been dipping into the sauce? Maybe Eli had seen it before, not from Hannah, but from others who had ventured into the temple while under the influence.
Not only that, but he had lost control of his sons. They too were temple priests and they used their positions unethically and immorally, to the point that if this were a Disney movie they would be the evil henchmen. Or would that be more appropriate for the James Bond genre? Regardless, when you’ve lost control and things have gotten out of hand, you can’t help but become suspicious of others. You can’t help but look for the bad in others, consider the negative rather than the positive, look for a devil behind every bush. It’s really no wonder that Eli thought Hannah was inebriated. Though we are not told this, maybe he was just a bit tipsy himself.
Eli teaches us one thing, however. Quick judgments are, more often than not, bad judgments. You just never know what is going on in a person’s life, and when you are quick to judge you usually get it wrong.
Stephen Covey tells of the time he was in a
New York subway. A man and his two young children were sharing the car with him and a few others, and according to the way Covey tells the story, the children were just running wild, driving all the other passengers crazy with their antics. And all the while, the father just sat their motionless, not providing any discipline whatsoever. Finally, it got so bad that Covey spoke to him and asked if he would mind trying to control his children.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” the man said to him. “I didn’t even notice. You see, my wife just died at a local hospital and I’m just numb right now. I hope you will forgive me.”
Covey responded by telling the young man that he, Covey, was the one who needed to be forgiven. He didn’t know.
Neither did Eli. He could not possibly know what was in Hannah’s heart as she poured her heart out to God. So he just thought she was drunk.
We, however, know she wasn’t. We know that once again, in great faith and with a hope that never dies, Hannah has come to the temple to plead her case with the Lord. It just so happens that when she prays the fervent and honest prayer of a desperate woman, Hannah’s lips move as she talks to God.
Hannah wanted to have children and she could not. Hannah was barren. And in those days, barrenness was not just a physical condition, it was viewed as punishment from God. There was a reason Hannah had not had children, and it wasn’t a physiological issue… it was theological. Somewhere, somehow, along the way, Hannah had ticked God off, pure and simple. At least that’s the way Peninnah looked at it. It’s probably the way the other women in the village thought about it too, and just about everybody else.
But interestingly, Hannah’s husband Elkanah did not look at it that way. Out of respect, and perhaps some pity, when it came time to offer their sacrifices at the temple, Elkanah would give out portions to his other wife Peninnah and their children. But to Hannah he gave a double portion. Why? Because he loved her, we are told, even though the Lord, we are told, closed her womb.
You see? It can’t just be that Hannah was childless because of a physical issue. It had to be God’s doing. Even the writer of this story acknowledges that. It had to be a God thing.
Let’s take a moment to establish the context for the story of Hannah praying in the temple to the God who has left her barren. By this time we’re starting to get the idea that there may be more to this than just what we’re reading, that there may be a larger backdrop to what is going on. And if you have those suspicions, I think they might just be right on target. So let’s pull back, zoom out if you will, from this story and consider the bigger picture.
At this particular time in
Israel’s history, the Hebrew nation had evolved into a pathetic, loosely-connected group of tribes lacking a true moral compass. There were those, like Elkanah and his family, who still held to the religious traditions of their people, but they were fast becoming the minority. There was chaos at every turn, a lot of it self-inflicted, as was the case with Eli’s treacherous sons. There was inept and limited leadership, as we see in Eli himself. The neighboring Philistines are watching all this with a greedy eye, and are using every opportunity they can to raid and pillage and take advantage of the situation.
Elkanah and his family lived in perilous and uncertain times.
Bottom line, Israel is in a royal mess and things don’t look too good. They don’t look good at all.
So what does this have to do with Hannah and her situation? Look at the scriptures. The theme of barrenness is not new. Sarah, you will recall, was barren, as was her daughter-in-law Rebekah. And what happened with them? God intervened, and every time that happens in scripture the child who emerges as a gift from God turns out be an important figure in Israel’s history.1 No doubt there were other childless women in that day, but the ones whose stories are told in scripture, according to scripture, are barren because that’s the way God wanted it. God had something to prove, and he chose these women as instruments of his will.
Like it or not, that’s the way the Bible – at least the Old Testament part of the Bible – tells the story.
What does that mean? It means that, when it comes to Hannah and her story, God is preparing once again, ever so slowly but with great diligence and patience, to restore his children to their rightful place in the world. The God, to whom Hannah is praying so fervently that her lips move when she speaks, has a plan in mind. This is, when all is said and done, a story of redemption. In this scriptural drama God uses a barren woman, a spiteful “other” wife, a sympathetic if not naive husband, and an inept priest (what a cast of actors!) to make right that which is wrong… which is, after all, what redemption is all about.
But before we get to the moment of redemption, there is this woman who, it appears, will be childless the remainder of her life because God has a grudge against her. What do you do in a situation like that? Well, if you’re Hannah, you make a deal with the Almighty. In Hannah’s case, redemption comes about because she is willing to barter with God and God is not above taking her up on her offer.
If God will give her a son, Hannah promises, she will attach to her child a Nazirite vow. That means he will drink no wine and no razor will be put to his hair. He will be given, consecrated, to the Lord. In other words, if God will give her a son, she will give her son right back to God.
By this time, Eli is catching on to what is happening. The woman is not drunk, she’s simply desperate… desperate to rid herself of the awful position of being childless, of not being accepted by anyone but her understanding husband. You have to give old Eli this much… he still has the spiritual insight to let Hannah know that what she has requested of God will be done for her.
And we know that is exactly what happens. Hannah gives birth to a boy and names him Samuel, and as soon as he is weaned she takes him to Bethel, to the temple, and places her son in the custody of the old priest Eli who, at first, thought she was drunk when she prayed to the Lord.
It was quite a sacrifice on her part, wasn’t it? Do you think you could have done what Hannah did?
Before you jump to answer that question, whether your answer would be affirmative or negative, try to put yourself in Hannah’s place. She had no way of knowing that God was planning to use her situation to bring into the life of Israel the leader Samuel who would serve out his life as a prophet and priest of God. All Hannah could possibly know was that she was childless and was desperate enough to have a son that she would make such a bargain with God.
She had no guarantee – indeed, she had no idea whatsoever – that her child would grow up to become a leader of their people. She had no way of knowing that her son would change the very destiny of this struggling nation called
Israel. She couldn’t possibly have known.
But this is what she did. She trusted that God would hear her prayers, spoken with moving lips, and would respond in a redemptive way. She trusted in the Lord.
Are we willing to do the same? I don’t know if God is still willing to respond to a bargain, as God did with Hannah. I’m not sure I would encourage you to do that sort of thing. But I do believe this… the Lord will take that which is barren and empty and make it rich and good. If that sounds good to you just about now, I would encourage you to sit down and have a talk with God. Whether your lips move or not, trust that God will hear you and respond. And then, don’t be surprised if God doesn’t bless you with a double portion.
Lord, visit us with your redemptive Spirit and grant us, not necessarily what we ask, but certainly what we need. Then, give us, we pray, the willingness to accept your will and use it as your divine gift to us. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.