1 Samuel 1:4-20
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Few things evoke more joy and gratitude than the birth of a baby. This is true of ourselves, certainly, and of all the generations that have gone before. This morning, just a few weeks before we begin to focus our thoughts on the greatest birth story of them all, that of our Savior, we have another account of a mother and child to contemplate.
This is the story of Hannah and Samuel—and also God. First, a bit of background. The story of Hannah chronicles events taking place in the eleventh century Before the Common Era. This was a chaotic time; one in which the Israelites were often oppressed by the surrounding nations. It is far from the high point of Israel’s history.
It is in this dark and oppressive environment that we meet Hannah, the wife of Elkanah. Hannah, we learn, is the aging and barren, yet beloved wife of Elkanah, who we know is a man of some means, because he has two wives. The second of these wives is Peninah—and she is marvelously fertile. She has children. She also has something of an unkind spirit. She taunts Hannah endlessly for her lack of progeny. You might wonder why children should be so important, particularly since Hannah was the cherished wife of a man of means. In the time in which Hannah lived, barrenness (and, mind you, barrenness was always believed to be the woman’s problem) was considered a source of disgrace in the ancient world. Hannah might have been the favorite wife of Elkanah, but this didn’t save her from living under a cloud of shame. In fact, those around her probably spent some interesting and creative hours of gossip wondering what she must have done to deserve such a punishment.
Not only did Hannah have to endure shame; her future was precarious as well. If Elkanah were to die suddenly, his sons through Peninah would inherit everything, leaving Hannah dependent upon their goodwill (or lack thereof). Without a child, there was a very real possibility that at some time in the future Hannah might very well end up homeless and destitute.
We learn than each year Elkanah takes his family to Shiloh to visit a sanctuary administered by the elderly priest Eli. Finally, one year, as the family arrives at Shiloh, Hannah discovers that she has had enough of Peninah’s taunts and she goes alone to the tabernacle of God. When she arrives, she passes by the elderly priest Eli—who, truth be told, has a world of trouble on his hands, beginning with his worthless sons. But, rather than focusing on them, he espies Hannah who is praying –her mouth moving, but not speaking words, and he accuses her of being drunk (Have I mentioned that Eli has a tendency to make erroneous assessments of people’s character?). Hannah responds by telling Eli she has not been drinking—but praying saying: “I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” And Eli, in spite of all of his flaws, in this case speaks correctly the word of the Lord, when he says. “Go in peace; may the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And Hannah bears a son and names him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.” The name Samuel, translated from Hebrew means “God hears.”
So, back to Hannah’s prayer spoken in the dark and smokey confines of the sanctuary in Shiloh. In the words she spoke during her prayer, Hannah promised God that if she were to have a son, she would dedicate that child to God—she would give him back to the Lord. In essence, she would give that child away. And she does. When he is but a child she takes Samuel back to Shiloh to live with Eli in the holy place of God. That’s the picture you see on the front of the program this morning. That child, for whom Hannah had waited so long and prayed for so earnestly, a male heir who could have provided her with all the protection she might need in facing an uncertain future—she gives away—gives him back to God. It’s an amazing moment and it culminates with a song—the canticle that we read this morning in lieu of the psalm.
If we read Hannah’s story correctly, it becomes a symbol for our lives in the sense that as we receive the grace and love of God in our lives, we are expected to give it back to God and to God’s people. Hannah knew that her child—long hoped and prayed for, wasn’t simply for herself. Samuel was given to her, surely, but also to her people. Listen again to some of the words of the Song of Hannah. “God raises the poor from the dust; and lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with the rulers and inherit a place of honor. For the pillars of the earth are God’s on which the whole earth is founded.” And, ultimately, in the wisdom and grace of God, Samuel becomes a great prophet and a leader of his people.
So, what did Hannah gain—if she was given a son only to give him away? It seems to me that we cannot underestimate the importance of dignity. This is what Hannah received. Her son’s arrival took away shame. And, shame…well, it can be as debilitating as physical starvation. People need dignity as much as food in order to survive. If we read on in 1st Samuel, we learn that Hannah was to bear more children in time—but this, I believe, is not the real blessing—the real blessing was that Hannah knew that God heard her prayers and responded. God made a path for her in the midst of an existence which must have been close to unbearable.
Perhaps it seems unfair that Hannah had to spend so long waiting for her child to arrive. But consider this. Waiting is often born from deep longing. We long for something—because we know that there is something that is not right with the way things are. Longing and waiting, these are gifts—they enable us to hope and value things which appear to be out of our reach. Longing reveals that something is not right with the way things are; it is a sign that the world—and ourselves--are not as they should be.
All of which prepares us for the season of Advent, soon to arrive. What good would a Savior be to a world which finds itself quite satisfied with the status quo? What is the purpose of hope if all of our wishes were granted as soon as they were uttered? This isn’t to minimize the realities of shame, grief, suffering and oppression—rather it is to highlight their importance. Take some time today or this week to ask yourself “What is it for which you long?” What is it that is not right with the world? People who are comfortable—those who have plenty of wealth and security are often so well insulated against the pain of others that they rarely see it for what it is. They are rarely the change-makers. Instead, it is left to people such as Hannah—and others such as Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, to work with God in order to reveal the true hope which is needed in the world. A hope which speaks of salvation—not just for some who are deemed worthy, but for everyone, including you. In the hope of the coming of our God. Amen.