1 Samuel 1
Our story this morning is an unusual one.
It is set within a complicated household: one husband with two wives – one blessed with children; the other completely barren yet dearly loved. It’s not exactly a recipe for domestic bliss, is it? And as we read carefully through the text we get a sense of the underlying game playing and competition and rivalry that occur for this man’s affections.
Every year, like all good God-fearing families, they would journey to Shiloh (remember that this story takes place long before the temple in Jerusalem had been built) to offer the necessary sacrifices – one for forgiveness, another for peace, and a third, mentioned here, as an offering of gifts. This meal offering speaks of a life that is dedicated to generosity and giving and, indeed, during the sacrifice Elkanah responds with great generosity and compassion to the wife he loved so much, who had lived so many years with her barrenness and pain, by giving her the biggest portion.
He probably thought he was helping but year after year after year it merely stoked the fires of envy and resentment in Peninnah and she taunted poor Hannah mercilessly. “You dried up hag. You useless waste of a womb. Don’t you know how it must displease and embarrass our husband that you have given him no sons; not even a daughter. What purpose, what meaning is there to your life when God won’t even gift you with a child while I have so many? You might as well be dead. One of these days our husband is going to tire of trying and he will put you out, divorce you, shame you like your wretchedness shames us.”
It got so bad eventually that Hannah was reduced to tears and lost her appetite completely which provoked Elkanah’s temper, “What on earth are you crying about? Are you seriously getting upset about this again? Am I not enough for you? What do I need another child for?”
Can you feel the conflict, the pain? Not only within Hannah but how Hannah’s hurt affects the whole family in a profound and painful way.
It’s just like this in our daily lives. Be it at work or at home, there are moments of such pain and conflict and stress in our relationships that we lose our appetite or our ability to sleep. We go over and over in our heads the way that we should have stood up to our boss, or our mother, or our partner, or our best friend. We feel misunderstood, unappreciated, manipulated, criticised, insignificant, taken forgranted … and why?
Because each of us is created as a person of value, of significance, of importance.
We are uniquely made because we have a unique gift to offer; a God-given purpose that is unique to our particular makeup of personality, talent, and perspective. Yet, more often than not, we get sucked up into the demands of life, the pressure of parents, the expectations of partners, the deadlines of bosses and bills, the job specs. of work that we are not at all suited to do but doing because it means that at least we have a job and a source of income and a means of providing for those who depend on us.
I invite you, in fact I challenge you, the next time you find yourself in a conflict-ridden situation to look at what is at the heart of the matter. I think you will be surprised to find how often it boils down the expectation that you do something you just don’t want to do or that you do it in a manner that is different to how you prefer to do things.
Now, I’m not saying that we can simply shirk our responsibilities and rid our lives of everything we hate doing. I remember clearly how in the days leading up to our marriage, my mom sat Darren down and said, “Now, you know she doesn’t clean. She doesn’t iron. She doesn’t cook. And she doesn’t do dishes. Are you still sure that you want to go through with it?”
Well, over our 18 years together I have learned to cook and clean and iron and even do the dishes because these are things that need to be done in order for my family to be clothed and clean and healthy and full but we have had to learn to negotiate roles and days in order to enable each other to pursue our passion: that thing which makes us feel alive and significant and worthwhile.
For me, that’s ministry – particularly teaching and preaching and writing. I wonder what it is for you? I wonder if, in the midst of life’s busyness and the demands of other, you’ve ever stopped to ask yourself the question, “What on earth am I here for?”
For Hannah, it was motherhood. I am sure that she loved Elkanah as much as he loved her. That such love kept her in a home full of tension and torment. But there was a part deep within her that wanted more, that desperately desired to carry and birth and mother a son. That was her reason for existence, her understanding of her significance and we clearly see the pain and frustration that had built up within her at not doing what she was made for as she cries inconsolably and pours out her prayer.
It is a profoundly honest prayer that speaks of a deep-seated sense of being invisible even to God; neglected, unseen despite the severity of her suffering. It is also a profoundly human prayer in that she resorts to a little bit of bargaining to get what she wants. So she recognises the might, the power, the capacity of God to make motherhood possible for her despite years of barrenness; she just feels that it’s necessary to motivate God by promising God that if she should be gifted with a son, she will return him to God.
And so it often is in our own lives, in our own prayers: a sense of God being missing in action, a wondering within us as to why the God we believe to be so powerful and just allows us to be victimised, bullied, mistreated, alienated, and pushed aside. When we are living life out of step with God’s Spirit, the first one that we point the finger at when things go wrong or our lives seem shallow and lonely or our greatest dreams just don’t seem to satisfy is God – as if God has withdrawn his presence or lost his might.
And so we moan and blame and demand and complain when the truth is that we have lost sight of our significance, we have allowed ourselves to be sidetracked from our unique gifting and purpose, and the priorities and the pressure of the world are eating into our time, our pockets, our self-esteem, our energy, our passion, our assurance of God’s presence. Like little Red Riding Hood we stray from the path to to pick a lovely bunch of wildflowers then are surprised to find waiting for us at Grandma’s House in Grandma’s bed and in Grandma’s pyjamas a big bad wolf waiting to gobble us up.
Which is when the bargaining begins. “God, if you get me that promotion, I promise to tithe more faithfully to the church. God, if you save my marriage, I promise I will never look at another woman in a way which would cause trouble again. God, if you see me safely through this surgery, I promise to take better care of my health.”
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! God knows that it is when we are in utter despair that we reach this point – after we have tried and tried and tried to solve the problem, to improve the situation, to get ourselves out the bad wolf’s belly. And, as God does with Hannah, God hears every heartfelt, humble, honest prayer and begins making the necessary arrangements in response to what we ask.
What makes Hannah’s story so unusual though is the what happens after this intense time of prayer and pleading with God.
In the second half of the chapter we read how the priest, Eli, mistakes her groaning for drunkenness and rebukes her sternly. But as she explains her desperation and pain to him, he is moved with compassion and gently commands her, “Go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you have asked of him.”
And, indeed, Hannah goes her way with the peace that she has been heard and that God is at work.
The woman who’s face was stained with tears and marked by pain becomes radiant; she who could not bring herself to eat, now has a hearty appetite. She does not yet have what she asked for; she is not even sure that she will get what her heart desires but her reconnection with God, her reclaimed sense of being seen and understood by the One who matters the Most, puts everything into a new perspective; makes anything possible.
How often do we bring our burdens before God in prayer, only to pick them up again as we say “Amen?” How often do we ask, and bargain, and resolve to trust God then rush straight back into a situation with our upset and our anxiety and grudges built up on past experience? How often do we say, “Lord, I place this into your hands” without actually letting go?
God longs for us to know that perfect peace which does not promise that we will get exactly what we want, but assures us that God is with us every step of the way. The God of Angel Armies has our back, is on our side, and anything is possible – more even than we sometimes ask for with our limited faith and imagination.
The other aspect of Hannah’s response that strikes me so strongly and that, if I’m honest, is hard to wrap my head around is this: Hannah, in her bargaining with God, made a promise that if God gave the gift of a son, she would completely and unreservedly give him back to God for a life of holy discipline.
And then God gave her her heart’s desire. I wonder how she ever brought herself to put that little miracle down. I can imagine long hours of each day spent happily nursing him, holding him, watching him sleep and breathe while her heart was filled to overflowing with love and a sense of her blessedness.
Yet, in every moment of delight and wonder, she remained true to her intention to give the gift back to God and, when Samuel was weaned – which would have been at about 2 years of age – she returned to the temple with Elkanah.
She sought out the priest who had offered her the blessing of peace and she dedicated her beautiful boy to God for life, placing him into Eli’s hands, trusting him to life in God’s presence with just an annual visit to see how he was growing in gift him with a new gown, handmade and full of a mother’s love.
Hannah recognised that as God was faithful in answering her prayer, she had to be faithful in honouring her promises. But more than that, Hannah discovered a truth that we all need to know: that the significance we are seeking, that unique God-gift, is not for ourselves. It is not to make us feel special or important. It is not to elevate us above others. It is not proof that God is on my side so you had better be careful about messing with me.
Significance only becomes significant when it is used to bless the world around us; when the gift is given away.
One of the things that really irritates me about shops over the Christmas period is the fancy trees with their fake presents scattered all around. Empty boxes prettily wrapped – just for decoration, part of the show. You might argue that their purpose, their significance is simply to look pretty but, at the end of each season, they are packed away or thrown away. They offer no substantial value. Can you imagine how beautiful it would be if those boxes were filed with something real – not to be left under the tree – but on Christmas Eve to be handed out, given away, to someone who feels invisible, unseen, unable to cope with the pain of their circumstances?
That’s how we are called to be living as people of faith. When God hears our prayers and makes the necessary arrangements in response to what we have asked for, the blessings, the gifts, are never for our own benefit. They are to serve a purpose, to be given away, to help others find peace and wonder in the God of Angel Armies who makes all things possible.
Like Hannah, we are created to be a blessing but when we make our bargains with God we are instead quick to forget where the answers to our prayers come from and slow to return that which we had promised.
This morning, as we celebrate the gift of work and talents and as we reflect on Hannah’s story, I invite you to take home with you three questions to reflect on:
- What is your God-given-purpose, the unique significance with which God has blessed you?
- What possibility is God inviting you to pray for?
- What will you do with the gift that God gives you in answered prayer?
And, indeed, may you go from this place in peace this morning. And may the God of Israel, the God of Angel armies, give you what you have asked of him.