No longer sad
Sermon preached at Enmore, 26th Sunday after Pentecost, 18th November 2018
Reading: 1 Samuel 1. 4–20; Mark 13.1–11
After looking at the story of Ruth last week, our Old Testament reading today gives us another narrative about a woman, the story of Hannah. Hannah’s story takes us into the beginning of a new era in Israel’s history, the period of monarchy. We explored this period earlier this year when we followed the narratives about Samuel and David. 1 Samuel tells the story of the transformation of ancient Israel from a loose collection of tribes into a centralised state, with a capital city and all the trappings of monarchy. Social historians can mine the text to determine the factors at work in this change: the growing power of the tribes, external pressure from powerful enemies, technological progress etc. However, the author/authors of this book show little interest in these things-their interest is in the people involved in the story and the part that Yahweh plays in this transformation.
So 1 Samuel opens with ‘a certain man’, Elkanah, an Ephraimite from the hill country; a man with an impressive genealogy and a man of substance who can afford two wives. One wife, Peninnah has given him children but his other wife, Hannah is childless. Elkanah is portrayed as a faithful Israelite who goes every year to worship at the temple in Shiloh. The word ‘temple’ is a euphemism-there was no real temple until the reign of Solomon many years later but Shiloh was the centre for worship and sacrifice where the aged Eli and his two sons were the priests in residence.
Hannah is childless in a society where barrenness was regarded as a curse. Grief at her infertility was aggravated by the provoking she received at the hands of her rival, Peninnah. Elkanah clearly loved Hannah but failed to comprehend the depth of her grief and his unhelpful comment, ‘Am I not more to you than ten sons’ reveals his insensitivity. ‘You are more to me than ten sons’ might have been a better response! Hannah finds the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, not a source of comfort but a time of anguish because she is so tormented by Penninah. In desperation she decides to present herself before the Lord. One suspects that women were expected to take a rather passive role in the temple activities and Hannah’s actions in pouring out her grief before God draws the attention of Eli who assumes that she is drunk rather than despairing. Doorkeepers in the house of the Lord have a very responsible task. We never know what burdens a person may be carrying when they come into church. Hannah was not the first and certainly not the last person who has walked into the house of the Lord wanting to unburden herself. Those of us who are doorkeepers need to make sure the doors are always open and welcoming to the troubled and distressed.
Hannah’s prayer was fervent but silent. It was also a bold prayer. A prayer based on the assumption that God hears, that God cares and that God will respond. Such an assumption may be something we take for granted but it is worth noting that it is a radical assumption that the creator of the universe, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, cares about me and my troubles. Honest, heartfelt prayer is a bold thing to do but time and time again, the Scriptures remind us that the life of faith is grounded in that boldness. Jesus encourages us to pray saying: “Ask, and it will be given to you: seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.” (Matt. 7.7) The writer to the Hebrews tells us to approach God with confidence and a true heart in full assurance of faith.
Hannah made a bargain with God: if He would give her a son, she would give him back to the Lord. She would present him to God as a Nazarite. The Nazarites were an Israelite order that since the time of the Judges, dedicated themselves to God by setting themselves apart from their culture. To indicate their separation they refrained from cutting their hair or shaving their beards. The best known example was, of course, Samson, who for a long time abstained from alcohol and shaving but had a weakness for beautiful women. Samuel was to prove a far more diligent member of the Nazarite order.
Confronted by Eli and accused of being drunk- Hannah tells Eli her story and the nature of her petition. Persuaded of Hannah’s sincerity, Eli sends her away with a blessing: “Go in peace, the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” Greatly encouraged by the priest’s words, Hannah returns to her quarters, eats and drinks with her husband and is no longer sad. Her prayer has not yet been answered but she knows she has been heard and remains confident that God will not disappoint her. The worship rituals completed the family returns home to Ramah.
Two things happen when they return: Elkanah ‘knew his wife’ and the Lord ‘remembered her’. We are probably all aware that the word, ‘know’ when used in this context in the Old Testament referred to sexual intercourse but we can imagine that following the events at Shiloh Elkanah also had a better understanding of his wife, Hannah. He knew her now more intimately than before. Hannah is one of a number of people ‘remembered’ in the Scriptures. We may recall the flood story in Genesis when Noah, his family and the animals are afloat in the ark and the narrator declares: ‘But God remembered Noah’. In God’s remembering was their salvation. Rachel, the second wife of Jacob was also remembered by the Lord when she cried out for a child. She gave birth to Joseph who saved his people through the time of famine in Egypt. And in the pages of the New Testament we recall the words of the repentant thief on the cross who in the hour of his death cried: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Finally we take note of the final words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s Gospel: “And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.” We are included in God’s remembrance and therefore we have hope.
Hannah is true to her word: she keeps her promise to give her child back to God. She names him Samuel meaning ‘God hears’ and when he is weaned she takes him back to Eli so that he can begin his apprenticeship with the elderly priest. The child, Samuel is to play a significant role in Israel’s transition from a collection of disparate tribes to nationhood under central authority. He will also reform the worship at Shiloh and bring new vitality to the religious life of the nation. The narrator remarks: “All Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”
The Hannah narrative ends with her great hymn of praise, many of the sentiments of which will be echoed in a later hymn of praise from Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the first instance it is a song about Hannah-the voice of the childless woman who is rescued from her plight. At the same time it is a hymn that envisages a future far beyond Hannah. In the coming of Jesus we meet the one ‘who raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap’. He is the one who declared that it is the meek, the Hannah’s of the world and not the rich and powerful who will inherit the earth.’
Finally a word about our Gospel reading from Mark. Jesus and his disciples have been in the temple and have just witnessed a poor widow putting her last coins into the treasury. They then move outside and one of the disciples makes the comment: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” In Jerusalem today one can still see some of Herod’s massive stones — tourists like to stand next to them and have their photos taken. The temple was a remarkable structure. The disciples were impressed with the big and so are we. Our world loves big; big bridges, big stadiums, big screens, big macs, big cars, and yes big churches. There is no end to what large stones we seek to erect. But on the brink of his own arrest and death, Jesus warns his disciples, don’t be seduced by the big and the grand, because it may have a poor foundation and it will not last. Herod’s temple was built to please his Jewish community and to demonstrate his own power and authority but in A.D. 70 it was to be destroyed just as Jesus predicted. So in this passage Jesus warns his followers of the difficult days ahead and he calls them to faithfulness and perseverance. He reminds them that his kingdom is not to be compared with the kingdoms of this world which are ephemeral and passing. He calls them to focus their attention, less on the things that will happen in the future and more on the one who will bring all things to a conclusion in his time, the Son of Man, Jesus. So in the words of the writer to the Hebrews from this morning’s epistle: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”