A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on November 18, 2012.
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 1:4-20
When the curtain rises on the Book of 1 Samuel it rises on a man standing all alone at center stage. His name is Elkanah, a Zuphite from the little town of Ramathaim in the hill country of Ephraim, on the western slopes of Israel. On the wall behind him are four framed portraits of his ancestors: there is his father, Jeroham; his grandfather, Elihu; his great-grandfather, Tohu; and his great-great-grandfather, Zuph, for whom his tribe is named. While he is still standing there Elkanah’s wife Hannah enters from stage right to stand beside him. And then his other wife, Peninnah, enters from stage left. And then Peninnah’s children come on stage to join her. And then we wait for Hannah’s children to join her. And we wait, and wait, and wait. And it is in that long, awkward moment before the drama even begins that we see the problem—there is Elkanah, with his forefathers, and his two wives, but at that point the perfect symmetry of the picture collapses: “Peninnah had children,” the writer of 1 Samuel informs us, “but Hannah had no children.”
In that long ago time and in that patriarchal culture a woman’s value was derived from her ability to cook and to clean and above all to bear children—male children—who could carry on the family name. The fact that Hannah had no children was more than a misfortune; under those circumstances it would have been the worst kind of tragedy. I have tried to think about a comparable tragedy in our own time, but it hasn’t been easy. Women these days derive their value from so many different sources. We seem to expect them to cook and clean and bear children and be educated and have a career and make a professional salary and do it all without chipping a nail on their manicured hands. Is the tragic woman in our time the one who can only manage a career, or only manage a household, and who finds herself constantly torn between her desire for both? Or is it the woman who does both but doesn’t do either particularly well—the woman who is constantly reminded of her failure? It’s a complicated culture we live in. It may have been simpler in Hannah’s time, but it wasn’t easier. Any woman who has ever wanted children but couldn’t have them will tell you that. Any woman who has ever known the peculiar and persistent ache of an empty womb will tell you about tragedy. It wasn’t just Hannah’s value as a person that was at stake; it was her whole life.
So when the action gets underway in this drama we find our eyes fixed on Hannah as she makes her way up the hill from Ramathaim to Shiloh for the annual religious festival. The whole family travels together, Elkanah leading the way, bringing along behind him the young bull that will be their sacrifice; Penninah following along behind him, wearing a maternity dress, with a baby strapped on her back and six or eight children running around her knees like chicks around a mother hen; and then, ten paces back, Hannah—all alone, trudging up the hill with her hands behind her back and her head down, wondering why she has to go at all. When they get to Shiloh they pitch their tent and make their sacrifice, and then boil up what is left of the meat for their own meal. When it comes time to dole it out Elkanah gives portions to Peninnah and to her children, but he gives a double portion to Hannah because he loves her. And here is the first ray of light in this bleak story: although Hannah doesn’t have any children she has the love of her husband, and surely that is something. But is it enough?
You see, she also has the endless antagonism of her rival. Peninnah, perhaps because she is not loved by her husband, loves to make Hannah’s life miserable. Can’t you just see her as she smoothes her dress over the swell of her belly and sighs in Hannah’s presence? As she staggers out of the tent in the morning complaining that “the baby” has kept her awake all night? As she pulls her children in close to her—her countless children—and casts a smug, sideways glance in Hannah’s direction? Every reminder that she doesn’t have children and Peninnah does is like a sharp kick to Hannah’s stomach. She feels the ache of that empty womb, and those empty arms. And when Elkanah comes to her, professing his love and bringing her the choicest portions of meat, she turns away in tears.
“Hannah, why do you weep?” he asks, as perplexed as any man has ever been about the behavior of a woman. “And why won’t you eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” And though she doesn’t say so, he isn’t. It’s a different kind of love a woman has for her husband than she has for her children, and one can never completely replace the other. She pushes her plate away, gets up from the table, and walks the short distance up the hill to the tabernacle that serves as the temple of the Lord. And there she begins weeping, pouring out her heart through her tears, pleading with God to give her what she most wants. “O Lord,” she whispers, “if you will only look on my misery, and answer my prayer, and give me a son, I will…I will give him back to you.”
Eli, the old priest, is sitting there near the door. He watches her pray and comes to the conclusion—through watching her—that she is drunk. It wasn’t all that unusual at Shiloh. People would come to offer their sacrifices and then follow sacrifice with celebration. It was like Thanksgiving, Old Testament style. They would eat and drink until they had had too much of both, until they were groaning from all the food, and staggering from all the drink. You’ve seen drunk people before. You know how they lose control of their motor functions, how they begin to weave from side to side when they walk and how their heads wobble like those little dogs you sometimes see in the rear windows of people’s cars. And it’s not only their motor functions they lose control of: it is also their inhibitions, those God-given safety features that keep us from making complete fools of ourselves. People who are drunk lose their capacity for embarrassment. They can laugh out loud at the least little thing and then burst into tears as if their best friend had died. They don’t care who is watching. They just let the emotions flow.
This was Hannah: praying in the temple with her head wobbling and her lips moving and the tears streaming down her cheeks. When Eli saw her he was as offended as you or I would be if someone wobbled down the aisle of the sanctuary this morning singing, “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” He gets up from his place by the door, goes over to where Hannah is praying, and hisses at her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself. Put away your wine!” But Hannah answers, “Oh, no, my lord! I am not drunk! I am a woman deeply troubled! I haven’t been pouring the wine in, I have been pouring my soul out!” And then Eli sees that it is true, and without even asking her what she is praying for he says, “Go in peace. May the God of Israel grant what you have asked of him.”
And let me just insert a footnote at this point: earlier in this story the author of 1 Samuel has told us that Hannah had no children “because the Lord had closed her womb.” In fact, he says it twice. And it makes us wonder: what did Hannah do? Why had the Lord closed her womb? But we need to remember that in those days people believed that the Lord was responsible for everything, both good and bad. And so, if a woman had a child they would say, “The Lord has done this.” And if a woman was barren they would say, “The Lord has done this.” But surely Hannah must have wondered why the Lord had done this? What had she done? And in the absence of any answer from the Lord her mind must have filled in the blank; she must have thought of something for which the Lord was punishing her. And so she bargains with God: “If you will just give me a son I will give him back to you; that’s how I will do my penance.”
And apparently God heard her, because he sends his priest to reassure her. It reminds me of something that happened to me at one of my former churches. I was going to visit a family that lived way out in the country and I invited my neighbor to go with me, an elderly woman who knew the family well. It was a long way to their house, and on the way this woman began to tell me something she had never told anyone before. My car became a confession booth. But when she finished I realized I couldn’t give her the kind of advice I would usually give: I couldn’t tell her to go to the one she had sinned against and ask for forgiveness. That person had died years before. And so I did the only thing I could: I said, “I forgive you.” And when I did she gasped, as if she had been carrying that secret guilt around for years and had just been given permission to let it go. Maybe that’s what happened for Hannah—maybe when Eli told her to go in peace she was able to do exactly that, for the first time in years—to go in peace, to let out a gasp and leave her secret grief at the altar. Because the writer of 1 Samuel tells us that she went back to her tent, she ate and drank with her husband, and “her countenance was sad no longer.” She must have believed even in that moment what eventually came to pass: the Lord remembered her, she conceived in her womb, and in due time she gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. As she held him in her arms, as she savored the fullness of this miracle, she decided to name him Samuel, which means something like, “Gift of God.”
It’s a good story, and although it is not technically a teaching story, I think there are some lessons that can be learned.
- First of all, we learn from this story that it’s OK to cry in church. It’s OK to be “deeply troubled,” to pour out both heart and soul before the Lord in the hope that he will help you. There are some of you in this room right now who know all about that kind of prayer, and who have been praying such prayers for years. You may be praying for the same thing Hannah was praying for. Or perhaps there is another emptiness in your life you are asking God to fill. You pray without inhibition, with your head wobbling and your lips moving and the tears running down your cheeks. From this story take comfort, and hear again the words of Eli the priest: “Go in peace. May the God of Israel grant what you have asked of him.”
- Secondly, we learn that there are times when God hears our prayers and answers them. Not every prayer. Not every time. But if we take the trouble to consider how many times God has heard and answered we may be surprised. How many things in your own life could you name “Samuel: Gift of God”? Your home, your health, your husband, your wife, your child, your children, your job, your joy, your laughter, your love, your losses, your gains? In this week of Thanksgiving take some time to walk through the rooms of your life and pick up those things God has given you as gifts. Look through the photo albums of your memory and take time to appreciate every smiling moment, every God-blessed day.
- Thirdly, we learn that sometimes the things we want are also what God wants. This child who was born to Hannah, this son—Samuel—grew up to be priest and prophet over all Israel, and the one who anointed Israel’s first, and later her best, king. You get the idea that God had put into Hannah’s heart the desire of his own heart: someone who would love and serve him faithfully. It makes me wonder how things would be at this church if what we wanted and what God wanted were one and the same. Would we stagger drunkenly into this place, weeping without inhibition, littering the sanctuary with crumpled tissues and filling the air with our sobs? Would we become a people “deeply troubled” by the very things that trouble the Lord? And would we find that our concern paired with his concern, our efforts paired with his efforts, would be enough to get the job done? Would we go in peace to love and serve the Lord?
- Fourthly, and finally, we learn from this story what may be the most troubling truth of all—that what God gives us isn’t ours in any real sense of the word, but only on loan to us from above. After Hannah had weaned that beautiful baby boy she took him to Shiloh and handed him over to Eli. In my Bible the last sentence on the page where this story is found is this one: “She left him there for the Lord.” And we can hardly believe it. Do you mean that after all her anguished prayers for a son Hannah was willing to give him up?! Yes. This is what she had said to God: “If you give him to me I will give him to you.” And in verse 28 of chapter 1 she says that because the Lord has answered her prayer she has “lent” her son to the Lord. “As long as he lives,” she says, “he is given to the Lord.”
In this week of Thanksgiving, we might want to remember that from God’s perspective it is the other way around. The earth is his, and all that is in it. Anything we have is a gift from him, and on loan from him. And like the books check out from the library, we may get an overdue notice at any time. In the meantime:
We thank God for every good gift that has come from his hand to ours.
We pray for the gifts we are still waiting to receive.
We join our hearts with his in praying for the things he wants most.
And we offer back to him, gratefully, the gifts he has given.
It may not be our way, but it is Hannah’s way, a woman who went from being “deeply troubled” to being deeply grateful.
In this week of Thanksgiving, may we learn that lesson, too.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.