November 14, 2021
1 Samuel 1:4-20
For our second reading today we go to the beginning of 1 Samuel to hear the story of Hannah. Listen as God continues to speak to you today.
I really do like this story about Hannah… the drama… the humor… the humanity of it all… but for the life of me… I’ve had a hard time these past few days finding the sermon for this morning that comes from this story. Since Thursday there’s been false start after false start. So the me sitting at my computer right now looking once again at the blank page in front of him… that me… not the me standing behind the pulpit saying these words to you now… that me in front of the computer has decided that the only way I’m going to get through this sermon is to just let my mind go and follow the stream of thought wherever it leads… no matter how messy that gets. So again… the me sitting behind the computer writing away… at this moment in time in writing… has no idea where this sermon is going to go… and the me standing behind this pulpit really hopes he found a way forward and says something that the Spirit can work with as you hear it. I learned long ago that often it’s less of what I say and more of what you hear. So… don’t be surprised today if I reach the end and we’ve explored some ideas… but there isn’t a real conclusion that ties everything neatly together. I’m opening up the brain tap now… and saints there isn’t going to be another draft that reworks all this. So let’s take a deep breath and see where this free flowing thinking takes us with this story about Hannah.
I always feel for Hannah because she is trapped in this situation at no fault of her own. She is trapped in this cultural expectation of her time and place. The only value a woman has in her time and place is in bearing sons. Right? That’s the idea that has such a hold on her it is killing her. Maybe not physically, although considering her emotional condition… weeping all the time… not eating… the depths of her depression constantly egged on by Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife who has done what Hannah has not been able to do… bear children… sons and daughters…who is to say that Hannah is not or will not be a threat to her own life if this pressure continues unabated. I think this trap runs that deep in her. Her pain is that deep.
Today we talk about cultural traps… expectations that are created that people convince themselves that they must achieve… that they must meet and/or exceed these expectations… cultural traps that are exacerbated by today’s social media. Although we talk most often about teenagers and the harm being done to both girls and boys… it is pretty clear… in spending just a small amount of time on any social media platform… there is going to be the pressure of expectations for everyone that turn into the prevailing culture. I know what the Instagram algorithm keeps putting in front of my eyes saying what is the standard today of female beauty… what is the model of femininity… what is manliness. The pressure to conform is real. How is it those people have it all together and I’m so lost? The pressure to live up to these expectations and others like them are real. Too many people are being trapped and crushed by these expectations out there… defining some manner of success in life. It’s not just a modern phenomenon, though. I would look askance at anyone here who says that they have never felt the weight of some cultural expectation at some point in their lives. Who doesn’t have some story about how far they went to conform to that expectation… or the pain that came when they failed to meet that expectation and others let them know about it? Relentlessly let them know about it.
Hannah is trapped. And Elkanah, her husband, can’t help her. He can’t pull her free. Clearly, he loves her. He keeps trying to convince her that this expectation she is carrying… that is crushing her… he doesn’t care about it when it comes to her. He can’t understand why his love isn’t enough for her… treating her special and giving her extra attention… why she can’t let this go and be satisfied with him and his care for her. The duty of having children… the responsibility of creating an heir… that has been met. Peninnah… as bad as she is… has done this for Elkanah. That box is checked. Done.
And speaking of Peninnah… Peninnah who has met the cultural expectation… Peninnah who has children by her husband… Peninnah who should be on top of the world… Peninnah is awful isn’t she. Meeting this cultural expectation has not made her a better person in the least. This is what success looks like? It’s like going around thinking… oh, if only I had a million dollars… if only I had a million dollars and I didn’t have to worry about money anymore and all the anxieties that comes from struggling to make ends meet… if only I had a million dollars… I would be happy and my life would be good. And then you meet someone who has a million dollars and they’re just the worst. Unhappy. Nasty to the people who they believe are beneath them. Maybe Peninnah is so awful because by the cultural expectations she is supposed to be the favored wife… and she isn’t… she is supposed to feel fulfilled… and she doesn’t. Who is this expectation really working for? Peninnah is a woman who has it all, but also seems to have nothing at the same time. I think the only real pleasure she has in life is provoking Hannah. That’s what gives her satisfaction.
Think for a minute about all these expectational millstones that get hung around our neck and the time and the energy we spend trying to satisfy them. It’s different from that something inside that motivates us. It’s different than a sense of calling or the setting of goals to achieve something. An expectational millstone is put there by some other hand… defining a worth in some way. A woman who gives birth to a male child. A man who earns this much money. A person who looks this way or that way. The stuff we must have to surround ourselves with in order to find a sense of value… a value given to us by others. Hannah, who is loved, is trapped and feels useless. Elkanah, who has succeeded in life, feels useless. Peninnah is the worst and only makes matters worse. Outside expectations are being met and not met… but the end result seems to take all of them to the same sad place.
This is the point where I… the me sitting and writing… hits the sermon wall. Because what I want to happen next is that Hannah… as she goes to pray… Hannah gives all these false expectations to God and is set free from having to prove herself to some arbitrary cultural standard. I want to talk about finding release and relief in prayer. Last Sunday, when I got to talk about knowing that God loves you… loves you because God is God and you are you… not because you’ve met some certain set of preset conditions to become worthy of God’s love… that’s what I want to put out there to Hannah. Stop. Reset. Start first with God’s love and see how that sets you free… see where that will take you. Live in grace.
But that’s not what happens… is it? After a bit of comedy with old Eli the priest… a man obviously not prepared to meet an emotionally trapped woman… Hannah prays… weeping bitterly and makes this vow… “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death.”
It’s the quid pro quo of the prayer that I am having a hard time with. It’s the transactional nature of the prayer I’m having a hard time with. If she had prayed for a son and left it at that. Prayed that God will see her and relieve her from the trap she was in… ok. But that she makes the deal… and I have to admit… I’m stuck. A sermon about taking your problems to God in prayer. That would be a good sermon. I could preach that sermon. A sermon about taking your problems to God in prayer and praying for God’s will to be done… to be shown the way… to be given that helpful nudge by the Spirit… lead and I will follow. I could preach that sermon. Ok God here’s the deal… you give me what I want and I’ll give you what you want. And I hit the wall. Smack. Meg’s reading from Hebrews. God has set us free from sin through the sacrifice of Christ… have confidence in what God has done… in your freedom hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful… provoke one another to love and to good deeds… encouraging one another. God does… we respond appropriately to God’s graceful acts. That’s my prayer pattern. That’s my theology pattern So I’m not prepared for Hannah’s prayer… much like Eli I suppose.
Now I need to argue with myself as I type away… because it’s the only way I’m going to get to the end of this sermon. I can’t stay stuck at this wall. That doesn’t help. Because… again… again I can appreciate that Hannah goes to God in prayer. I can appreciate that through this prayer she finds release from the trap she is in. She is able to find peace. She is able to go before God in the unadulterated truth of where her heart is… with all her pain… with an honesty that if I were being truthful with myself… I know I have a hard time doing. How encouraging is it for me to dictate how she is supposed to pray… to lay the millstone of an expectation I carry around her neck… likely adding to her burden. Prayer is a conversation, right? Prayer is a conversation with God… so what good does it do for me to judge the quality of her conversation. What makes me think my conversations with God are somehow better than hers. Isn’t what’s at the root of that thought trap what got us to this problem in the first place… isn’t that what Hannah is already suffering from… the root of the trap she is in?
Hannah was trapped. She went to God and she prayed. The burden was relieved then. Be thankful and happy for her. If she was really so caught up in the bargain aspect of the prayer then wouldn’t that relief only come later when she does finally become pregnant? That’s a good point… and I concede to myself… and that ends the argument with myself.
Hannah is good to her word and Samuel eventually is left with Eli to serve the Lord. And the last thing we hear from Hannah is another prayer… a prayer that shows just the wisdom she has gained from her experience… and that’s where we’re going to end too… with Hannah’s second prayer. Because as we move closer to Christmas… don’t be surprised if this wisdom doesn’t show up again in the mouth of another young woman.
“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
2 “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6 The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8 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.[c] For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.
9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. 10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High[d] will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”