1 Samuel 2:1-10
Who has ever asked God for something? Who has ever prayed for something to happen or for God to reveal the meaning of something? Well, then, in a way, we are just like Hannah.
Before we talk about the famous song of Hannah in our scripture today, we are going to need to look at the context, the surrounding details of Hannah’s life. Hannah was used to asking God for help. We all have our own individual reasons for asking God for help or assurance, whether it’s because of illness, disappointment, natural disasters, trouble at work, or a whole host of other reasons. And in fact, many passages in Scripture urge us to cry out to God in our times of need.
Here are Hannah’s reasons for calling upon God repeatedly:
- Hannah is shamed in her house and in her community because she is barren. In ancient times, a woman’s worth was directly linked to her ability to produce offspring. The Bible says that Elkanah was a righteous man, always worshipping the Lord of hosts, and he loved Hannah, always giving her a double portion of the sacrifice at the temple (better than roses or chocolate?) to show his love. But, Elkanah took a second wife, probably because Hannah was not producing children. 1st Samuel 1:6 says “her rival (meaning her co-wife, the second wife Peninnah) used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her [Hannah’s] womb.”
- Hannah’s husband can’t seem to figure out how to offer support and care: in 1st Samuel 1:8 Elkanah asks her, supposedly rhetorically (according to him): “Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” Thanks, Elkanah, very helpful. If we put ourselves in Hannah’s place, how would we feel about this gesture of so-called “comfort”? He is asking her why she is crying when he should know full well the shame that is brought upon women in that time who don’t fulfill their prescribed duties to their house by having children. He should know what’s wrong! Where is pastoral care when you need some?!
- Hannah goes to the house of the Lord, the tent of meeting at Shiloh, and she prays so fervently and so rapturously that the priest, Eli, thinks she is drunk! It was not the custom at that time to pray silently, so when “her lips moved but her voice was not heard,” Eli was concerned that she’d been sampling the wine a little too much. But Hannah replies in verse 15: “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” This reminds me of those times that I know we have all had, when we are lost for words or when our tears dry up because we are so tired of asking God to help us, asking others to believe us, reminding ourselves to keep going in whatever struggles might be facing us at the time.
But what I find really intriguing about Hannah, is that she kept asking God for a son. Hannah encourages us to be ourselves, to worship God so intensely and so intimately that people think we are intoxicated–and intoxicated we might be with the desire for deliverance from our troubles. Hannah lives in the middle of a dysfunctional family, where empathy is hard to come by, but Hannah knows who she is as a person and who she is to God--she never pauses to say, “God doesn’t think I’m important enough to answer my prayer”–no, she persists in prayer and she actually makes a deal with God, though perhaps inadvisable and potentially leading to disappointment, it is a natural thing to want to do! Through it all, Hannah was persistent and believed that God would be present with her and answer her prayers. Unlike Moses, who struggled with self-doubt and questioned himself, almost letting himself be turned back from his divine calling at the site of the burning bush, Hannah persists. We can imagine that she, too, must have been burdened by self-doubt and wanted to give up at many points along the way. All sorts of discouraging things happened in her life (infertility in the face of desiring a child; an insensitive partner; a rivalry within the household; religious authorities belittling her without understanding her life context) and, through it all, all the times she could have turned back or given up, she kept believing in God’s presence with her. Now, my point is not that we have to pray until we get what we want, because I don’t think that’s the way prayer does, and should, work. Prayer is a way of connecting with God, it’s not a hotline to getting all of our dreams fulfilled. What I see in Hannah is not that she always believed God was going to give her what she wanted, but that God was going to be active.
In short, Hannah lived like God was real. That might sound like an odd or funny thing to say–yes, most likely, if you’re joining me here today, we believe God is real and present and active in our lives–but believing something and living it out every day are different things. I encourage you to think about the times in your life where you counted only on yourself to
What does it mean to live like God is real? I first heard this turn of phrase from a community organizer out in California, Alexia Salvatierra who works to encourage Christians to shape their organizing around the “implications of the truth that God is real and Jesus is risen.” This phrase caught me off guard for a couple reasons: first, I know God is real! Right? In my heart, I have a conviction that there is a greater spirit of love and justice at work in this world, and whom I feel I can connect with. Second, as someone who studies religion academically, I sometimes find that it is a lot easier to think about God instead of pray or focus on being present with God.
How do we live everyday knowing that God is real? The take-aways of this idea are these: 1. to not rely on ourselves to do everything; 2. to not give up b/c it’s taking a long time. 3. to sustain the sure hope that God is present with you in your time of distress.
Hannah’s song shows us what living like God was real meant for her.
- She praised God for the things God had done in her life already. Hannah says, “The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.” Though Hannah did go on to have six children, the number seven here represents a number of wholeness and holiness. By saying this, Hannah recognizes that God was with her and heard her fervent prayers over and over again–through all of the nights when she hoped against hope to have a child, through all the tauntings of the women in her household and in her community, and through Elkanah’s insensitivity. God is present with Hannah in a personal way.
- Hannah also praised God’s actions in the wider culture. Hannah is singing a song of national thanksgiving, which is appropriate when we contextualize this reading history and see that it was written after the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. This exile was painful and confusing to the people of Israel, who wondered about their community identity and how they were to continue their traditions in a foreign land. Out of this context arises many psalms that raise questions of identity–people asking: who are we if we can’t live in our homeland and worship our god? In Hannah’s song, we see communal vindication as she refers to the multiple ways that the people of Israel will be liberated. She says, “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.”
What is remarkable about Hannah’s song is that she knows God is with the oppressed and hurting in multiple ways–not only is God walking with her through her personal trials, but God is also present with Israel through their community trials of exile and identity crisis. God is not just one Supreme Being up high in the sky, but God is personal, God is near and God is involved in the day to day workings of the world. Hannah’s faith existed on multiple levels, both personal and community-wide, because God exists on multiple levels.
I am drawn to Hannah’s song today because it is not only a praise for the God who opened her womb, but a song of revolution: her personal salvation is intimately linked to salvation for the people of God. Rev. Karla Suomala writes on her blog: I wonder if Hannah’s suffering is not perhaps more complicated, more profound than the surface of the story suggests. She is enmeshed in an unjust system that seems at every turn to be working against her desire for a better, more abundant life…Her only recourse, her only option within this system, is to return to the God who closed her womb in the first place… Is the author of this text aware of the acute injustice of a woman’s circumstances at that time? Is he giving voice through Hannah to the deep, systemic injustice that has caused untold suffering for women throughout history?…As scholars have aptly noted, this just doesn’t sound like the simple prayer of thanks we might expect from a new mother. This is a song of revolution where the bows of the mighty are broken and the poor are raised from the dust. Hannah’s song penetrates the surface, pointing to the pillars of injustice that must be pulled down. Some of those pillars may be the very ones that put her in such a desperate situation in the first place.”
In the last few weeks before Advent, we should also notice that Hannah’s song is also a precursor for Mary’s Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke. Mary, like Hannah, is a woman who existed on the margins–in Hannah’s situation, she was barren and could not give her husband a child, which would have been a cause of great shame in Biblical times; in Mary’s case she was a virgin, living in Galilee under occupation by the Roman Empire, without much political power, whose destiny was determined by the men in her life. Similar to Hannah, Mary says, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…he has brought the down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
This practice of living like God is real is perhaps especially poignant today, as the world is reeling from the terror attacks in Paris, Beirut and Kenya, among many other places. Violence is scary, and hard for many of us who have the privilege to live relatively safe and sheltered lives in the USA to understand. I admit that I have no frame of reference to gunshots or explosions on city streets or wars being fought overhead and in my backyard. I admit that as a white educated Christian Westerner in the USA my body, my family and my hometown has never been under attack because of these identities, and yet I am complicit in so much violence because of the privilege that comes with these identities. Many are quick to condemn whole religions over the hateful acts of a handful of dangerous, radicalized people. We MUST NOT be so quick to paint each other with such a broad brush. We MUST NOT only see the violence in Paris, but also that in Kenya, in Beirut, in Syria and Iraq and the countless other places that have also experienced incredible destruction and grief in the past 24 hours. We MUST see the violence done in Nashville, in Tennessee, in the USA just as much as we see that done overseas (Mizzou, Yale, Charleston, St. Louis, New York, Cleveland, and so many other places). We MUST NOT value the grief of some over the grief of others. We MUST NOT value the lives of some over the lives of others. May the God who we know through Hannah’s song be with us in this time of sorrow, as individuals and families mourn the loss of their loved ones, and as the world again questions what we know about terrorism and about religious fundamentalism of all stripes.
As we are getting ready for Advent, for the time of Mary’s waiting to come to fullness, for the birth of Christ entering the world, let us think about these things: How can we live like God is real? Let us focus on how to see the people on the margins, the place where God is at work outside of mainstream culture. Let us remind ourselves and remind each other that God is at work in the world, that God does hear our prayers and is present with us through our time of need. Thanks be to God.
(This sermon was originally preached at Central Christian Church in Springfield, Tennessee on November 15, 2015)