St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

No longer sad

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.”

Philip Brad­ford