1 Samuel 1:4-18 July 14, 2019
Rev. David J. Clark
I want to talk about lessons you can apply to your life from the biblical story of Hannah–especially about what you can do at those lowest moments when everything seems turned against you. Hannah’s story is not easy. In the Jewish tradition she is often referred to as, “the mother of sorrows.” I don’t think I’ve ever preached on her story. I’ve just known too many couples who’ve had the heartbreak of wanting to conceive but they couldn’t. There wasn’t any miracle, no say-a-prayer-get-a-baby outcome for them. My heart has broken with theirs and it always seemed insensitive to go on and on about how things worked out for Hannah when there would be women in the congregation who have prayed and prayed and prayed and gone through all sorts of medical interventions only to feel empty.
So I enter this sermon mindful of them, as I hope we all will. May our compassion and empathy flow to them and know our love even as they are reminded of their loss. There is much to be gained from the story of Hannah, that can apply to all people of faith. The story was written some 3,000 years ago in a much different time and culture and understanding how our bodies and the world works. Even so, there is no evidence anyone ever read it as saying prayer and having enough faith are the formula for curing infertility. Even 3,000 years ago, people were smart enough not to think the problem was too little faith or not enough prayer. No Hannah’s story is told to reveal much larger truths that can apply to the walk of faith for all of us.
So, who was this remarkable woman, one of the true models of faith? Hannah felt the pressure that all women felt–the pressure to have a child. It’s not just about her longing to have a baby, to start a family. But there were also social and economic factors. A woman’s worth was especially tied to ability to bear children–especially sons. Only if she had a son would she be guaranteed to have a future, especially if she became widowed. Childless widows were often forced to the margins and to live in poverty. Unfortunately, that’s still a reality in some cultures today. In some cultures, women continue to only be as valuable as the sons they birth.
Hannah would feel especially vulnerable because there is this disturbing little fact that her husband also had another wife. And any of the property of the husband would have gone to the sons of the other wife and she’d be left out in the cold.
And you are wondering, what’s up with the other wife. Isn’t this the Bible? Yup. There is some messed up stuff in there that is talked about so matter-of-factly. When people say, “We’ve got to get back to good old Biblical family values,” I always think, “What Bible are you reading?” It’s particularly annoying when they use the same Old Testament to judge other people’s families but conveniently leave out what happened in stories like this.
So…this other wife tortured Hannah over her infertility, making fun of her, bullying her. Hannah’s despair grew so thick that she could not eat. She could not sleep. She could not stop herself from weeping.
Her clueless husband tries to intervene. In the midst of her anguish he manages to make it all about himself, “Am I not more to you than ten sons? Why are you so upset?”
I’ve seen a couple of commentators suggest that he might have shown more empathy if he had said, “Hannah, I’m sorry you are so upset. But you are worth more to me than ten sons.” Maybe. But it’s hard to make that line stick when the other wife is sitting in the next room. Anyway, the point is that her husband didn’t give her the emotional support she needed.
And so Hannah’s deep distress went on year after year after year. And it always worsened on the high holy days. Every year, as Hannah and her husband and his other wife and her children went to the holy place at Shiloh for the time of sacrifice, Hannah was bitterly reminded of what she did not have: a son, a promise of a future, a name, a sense of hope.
Hannah, mother of sorrows.
But there is this incredible action that she takes. If it were not for this action, no parent would have ever named their child Hannah. In the middle of her despair, in the middle of her physical, emotional, and spiritual barrenness, in the middle of her deep distress, Hannah rose. Hannah rose.
One might have expected some other word, something other than rose. Hannah broke. Hannah took a knife… Hannah lashed out… But Hannah rose.
In the middle of all that soul-crushing experience, one morning at the temple, Hannah rose. She got up. She stood up. She pushed through her pain, through her hopelessness, through her barrenness, and did something women did not do without their husbands. She marched right up to the sacred space, and she poured out her soul. And she prayed out her soul in order to remind God of God’s promise to watch out over the least and lost, the most vulnerable.
The temple priest, an aging clergyman, Eli, saw her—this woman without a husband anywhere nearby, this woman whom he had observed year after year unable to stop weeping—he saw her and noticed she was crying her eyes out and moving her mouth nonsensically. “You’re drunk!” Eli, said. “You are making a spectacle of yourself. Put away your wine.”
“No, I’m not drunk. I’m pouring out my soul to God,” she clarified.
“Go in peace. May God grant your petition,” said the priest.
Hannah believed God would answer her prayer in God’s time and in God’s way. She even promised that if God looked upon her and gave her a son, she would give him back as a servant for God’s purposes. She was even willing to let go of the child.
After the prayer, she rose again, returned to her husband, ate and drank until she was satisfied. It says her countenance lifted, it was no longer sad.
Something happens when you just let it go. When you trust God to work it out in God’s own time and in God’s own way. To trust that God looks upon the brokenhearted, the despised, the culturally outcast and gives us what we need.
Hannah’s son was Samuel, and Samuel was the beginning of the monarchy of Israel, the one who eventually anointed King David, the beginning of a new life and a new time for God’s chosen people. Again, when we take the long view of all of this, we find it to be stunning. This sad outcast is the one at a pivotal point that signifies a turning of a new era toward trust.
When she delivered Samuel, she sang a song that Jesus mother referenced when she was carrying Jesus. We hear it every year in the Magnificat. Luke 1. The songs sing about God still being active to respond to the needs of the people—especially those at the margins, those who struggle.
Here is what I’m so mindful of today. Each and every one of you is going through something right now. We all are. And yet, you rose this morning and made your way to this holy place. You rose. And you can take your burden, your stuff and lay it on God and say, “I trust you to take care of this in your time, and in your way and you will give me what I really need.” You even have an aging clergyman saying, “Be at peace. May God grant your petition. Trust in the one who brings new life and hope to all who sorrow.” Amen.