Monthly Archives: June 2013

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

Goodbye started out as “God be with ye” and Farewell was once “Fare thee well.” They all mean the same thing: I hope everything goes well with you until I see you again. Such fond wishes take the finality out of leaving. When Arnold Schwarzenegger uttered his famous “I’ll be back,” it might not have had that same desire for another’s well-being that you get from a simple “Goodbye,” but he did give voice to the second part of the farewell wish – until we meet again.

I’ve been wondering why I’m not more upset about saying goodbye to people and places that have grown very dear to me over the past fifteen years.  Part of my reaction is certainly due to the expectation of what is about to happen. The appeal of the destination in front of me overshadows the sadness of leaving what is behind. But I also think there’s something to be said for recognizing that, as I wrote last week, walking through a door doesn’t necessarily mean you have to lock it behind you. I’m not burning any bridges here.

I’ll be back.

God be with you until we meet again.

Now, please excuse me while I go pack another box.

And so it begins

The reality finally hit me yesterday, as we drove away from the moving company’s warehouse with a carload of boxes and packing materials.

We are leaving.

It seems like we just got here. I walk through this house that it took me years to like, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. It has finally become “home” to me, and now I’m getting ready to pack up everything and move away. I mourn the kitchen redo I never redid, and the sewing projects waiting in bins down in my sewing corner, projects that will never be completed now. Won’t have time. (Never did, apparently.)

I check the buds on the rosebush out front, the one my music teaching colleagues gave me last summer to celebrate my MDiv, the one called “Music Box” (get it?). Will we see any blooms before we leave it behind?

And everyone wants to get together with me for coffee, or dinner, or time to connect before we leave. But there simply isn’t time to see everyone we’d like to see, and time for coffee seems like a luxury I cannot afford. The panic starts to rise, as I add three things to my list, and only cross off one. How will we get it all done?

There are those other deadlines, too. The ones that have nothing to do with moving, but everything to do with ongoing responsibilities, with plans that were set in motion a couple of years ago, before we knew we had five short weeks to sell one house, buy another, move to a new town, get acquainted with new people, and start this thing called full time vocational ministry.

We are arriving.

Whatever happens, I know that God put us here, in this particular place at this particular time, to serve him and the people he calls his own. Every step that has brought us to this point has been a miracle, and I have full confidence in the God who saves me that he will get us through the next few weeks of craziness.

But I wouldn’t mind a bit if you kept us in your prayers.


Lying Fallow

Our little suburb is putting in new streets. It’s been a five-year project, and our street is part of the final phase. Before they can start digging up the old roadbed and begin actual construction, however, there’s a lot of prep work that has to happen. Giant holes appeared in our lawn last week, surrounded by yellow tape and barriers with lights that flash into our bedroom window all night.  They have replaced all the sewer connections, and are now working on laying new water and gas lines.  When all the utility work is done, they will start tearing out the old asphalt. New curbs and concrete driveway aprons will go in. Several lucky homeowners will find a runoff basin “rain garden” in their front lawns (my husband likes to call these “mosquito farms”).  Finally, after six to eight weeks of noise and dust, we will have a beautiful new street.

We decided to go with the flow on this one. We aren’t planting a garden this year. Tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce have given way to marigolds and whatever else was dirt cheap at the garden center. The flowers will hold the soil in place while the dust flies, and I hope they will brighten the otherwise gloomy prospect of a year without fresh basil and tomatoes.basilinabasket

We are giving the garden – and ourselves – a sabbath rest. Lying fallow lets the earth replenish itself, and we don’t have to worry about synchronizing our canning schedule with the other events of our lives. We don’t have to worry about weeding and fertilizing, or pest control. Just letting the ground be ground for a season frees us to do things we may not have had time to do otherwise. Like sit by the firepit in the evening, or read a book that has been gathering dust on the “to read later” shelf. Or just be.

How do you allow yourself some time to lie fallow, to listen for God’s still, small voice, and to sit at the feet of Jesus?

How Will You Build? Sermon on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23

Sermon for June 9, 2013
Click here to listen to this sermon.

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve explored the theme of wisdom, found in the opening chapters First Corinthians.  We know that Paul was writing to the church at Corinth to set them straight on a few matters of theology, but he also was writing to guide them, as they figured out what it meant to be the church in first century Corinth.  We know that the Corinthians were proud of their knowledge, or their “wisdom,” and Paul opens his letter to them with strong words of warning against seeking earthly wisdom over God’s wisdom.

We also know that, like any group of humans living together in community, the church at Corinth suffered its share of discord.  Arguments over leadership had divided the church into factions, and these factions were threatening to destroy the church.  Paul’s concern for this congregation is not limited to Corinth alone.  He sees how squabbling in Corinth holds implications for the other churches under his care, and he is eager to resolve issues before they develop into full-blown schism.

In the passage we heard a moment ago, Paul admonishes the believers for acting childishly and foolishly.  He uses two images to describe the church.  One is a field that Paul has planted and Apollos has watered, but a field that depends on God alone for its growth into fruitfulness.  The other image is one we often mistakenly associate with the word “church.”  Paul tells the Corinthians that they are like a building.

Remember the story of the Three Little Pigs?  When it was time for the pigs to head out into the world and build houses of their own, each had a perfect plan for building.  They chose their materials to suit their personalities.  One chose straw, another chose sticks, and the third pig decided to build a house out of bricks.  When the Big Bad Wolf came around, it took no time at all for that wolf to huff and puff and blow down the house of straw.  The pig that had built the straw house went running to the next pig’s house.  Together they huddled in the house of sticks, but the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew in that house, too.

When two very frightened pigs showed up at the third pig’s door, it would have been easy to say, “Sorry, you got what you deserved!”  But that didn’t happen.

The third pig let the other two in, and bolted the sturdy door and shutters against the Big Bad Wolf.  Safe at last!  But when the Big Bad Wolf couldn’t blow down the brick house, no matter how hard he tried, he climbed onto the roof, and found the one opening that the pigs had left open: the chimney!

As the wolf came down the chimney, however, he discovered – now here you can insert your favorite ending to the story.  Some folks end it with the wolf falling into a boiling kettle that was hanging over the fire (but in that version, the first two pigs get eaten by the wolf!), while others have the wolf falling into the fire itself.

I learned that second one, thanks to Walt Disney.  –  So the wolf fell right into the flames, where his tail caught fire.  He went running out of the house as fast as he could, straight to the pond, and jumped in the water to cool off his burning tail.  The Big Bad Wolf never bothered those three pigs again, and they lived happily ever after in their strong, brick house.

Great story, right?

But it is a fairy tale.  Literary historians cannot identify the origins of the story, though it first appeared in print in the mid 1800s.  It’s been classified, analyzed, adapted, parodied, and even turned into a children’s opera, using music by Mozart.  Though I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul never heard the story of the Three Little Pigs, I’m also pretty sure he would have liked the moral of the story: When you build a house, the materials and method you chose matter.  Straw and twigs won’t work, when put to the test.  A building that will last, must not only be made of sterner stuff, it must be built on a solid foundation.  As Paul writes to his friends in Corinth, he has some important construction advice for them.

Let’s turn now to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 3:10-11, and 16-23.

1 Cor. 3:10   According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.  Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.  11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

1Cor. 3:16   Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.  18    Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.  For it is written,

“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”

20 and again,

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

21 So let no one boast about human leaders.  For all things are yours,  22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

At first glance, we might think this passage is really just a summary of Paul’s teaching from chapters one and two.  Back in chapter one, Paul wrote, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”[1]  And now, we hear the corollary of that statement: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”[2]  Instead of showing off how smart and wise they were, the Christians at Corinth had been demonstrating their spiritual foolishness.  They had done this by identifying themselves with particular leaders, saying “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Peter.”  Paul denounced this rivalry back in chapter one.  The rivalry is apparently not between leaders in the church, so much as it is between groups of followers who claim to belong to particular leaders.  He reminds the Corinthians that he and Apollos are both servants of Christ, working together.  He urges the church to be unified in Christ alone.

But this passage has more to offer than a simple summary of Paul’s argument up to now.  Paul uses this opportunity to explain to the Corinthians – and to us – why it is so important that they seek unity.  Paul is not only telling the early church to “Grow up!”, he is giving it good reason to do so.

First, Paul uses the image of a building to help his readers understand his point.  Like any good builder, Paul starts by laying a firm foundation, and that foundation is Jesus Christ.  Nothing more, nothing less will do.  The only viable foundation for the church is the Lord Jesus Christ.  In the verses we skipped, Paul goes on to explain that whatever material the church uses to build on that strong foundation must be able to withstand the test of fire.  Like the first two pigs in the fairy tale, the Corinthian Christians have settled for flimsy stuff to build their faith.  Paul is urging them to build with materials that will last.

Then, Paul goes on to explain why the materials they choose to build are so important.  “Do you not know,” he asks, “that you are God’s temple?”  The building under construction here is more than a simple hut.  It is the place where God’s spirit resides.  In fact, it isn’t a building at all – that’s just the metaphor Paul has been using.  This temple is the people of God, Christ’s church.

There is an important point of grammar here  in verse 16 that may not be clear in standard English: the “you” is plural, not singular.  It does not refer to an individual, but to the whole community of believers.  If we lived in the South, there would be a distinction between “y’all” and “all y’all.”  So Paul is saying:  “Do all y’all not know that all y’all are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in all y’all?”

This is a radical notion in its original context, where God was believed to reside in the temple at Jerusalem.  Even in the pagan culture of Corinth, a temple was expected to be a building.  Yes, Paul says, God dwells in the temple but it is not a building.  It is a community of faith.  And it is up to you – all y’all – to build that community.

This idea is radical today for a different reason: our society focuses on individual experience, on self-fulfillment that centers attention on personal satisfaction rather than personal piety.  Contemporary culture values individualized spirituality, but our God is not a private God.  “Come, let us worship and bow down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker,” the Psalmist writes.[3]  While personal piety is important to our spiritual growth, worshipping as part of the Body of Christ, in community, is essential to the development of our faith, and to the building up of the Body to which we belong.  It may be possible to be a believer in isolation, but it is impossible to be a true disciple alone.  We need other disciples around us, living out our faith together in unity as the Body of Christ.  The Greek word Ekklesia, which is translated throughout the New Testament as “Church,” refers to a gathering of people, not a building – or even a location.  The church is a group of people, gathered together in Jesus’ Name.

But Paul isn’t finished.  Since you are God’s Temple, he continues, the holy place where God’s spirit lives, does it make any sense to destroy yourselves with petty feuding?  If you try to destroy God’s temple – which is all y’all – you will be destroyed in the process.  Don’t kid yourselves.  Not only is God’s foolishness wiser than your wisdom, your wisdom is foolishness to God.  So stop arguing about which leader you should follow.  You don’t belong to any of us; we belong to you.  And you belong to Christ.  And Christ belongs to God.

This is a new way of thinking for the people of Corinth.  The hierarchy has been turned upside down.  Or, more accurately, right side up.  Isn’t it true for us, too?  How often do we “try to fit God” into our overly busy lives, instead of ordering our lives around God?  How many of us are more likely to follow a celebrity on Twitter than to follow the one who saves us from our sins?  Isn’t it easy to buy into the “me first” culture that surrounds us?  I know my blood pressure rises every time someone cuts in front of me on the highway.  But if we get our priorities straight, God is at the center of everything we think and do.  Christ is not only our faith’s foundation, he also becomes Lord and King over all aspects of our lives.

Paul reminds us to keep God at the center of everything we do together as a church, too.  With Christ as the foundation of the church, “each one should be careful how he builds.”[4] Paul writes.  In other words, we need to be intentional with the process of being church.  How we build is important, if we are to live out faithfully our calling as God’s people.

When you paint a house, proper preparation is everything.  You have to replace the rotten wood, scrape, prime, and do the trim work before you can ever begin to lay on that first coat of paint.  Most of the work that goes into painting a house is the prep work.

When you plant a garden, I was reminded yesterday, you have to prepare the dirt if you want the plants to thrive.  The ground must be broken up, the sticks and weeds removed, and the soil enriched with compost or fertilizer before you put the seeds in the ground.

Right now, our little suburb is rebuilding its streets.  We are not talking about re-surfacing, like the work that is happening  around the church’s neighborhood right now.  These are new streets, with curbs and concrete driveway aprons, and run-off “rain gardens” and the whole works.  It has been a five-year project, and our street is part of the final phase of street rebuilding.  Before they start tearing up the asphalt and digging the new roadbed, however, the prep crews are putting in new sewer connections and new natural gas lines.  I don’t know about you, but I never really thought about sewers and utilities as part of a road-building project.  But the people who have planned it know what they are doing.  How you build matters.

Paul has given us a good “How To” guide for building the church in this passage.  Here are the ways Paul says we should build:

First, Paul writes “According to the grace God has given me, like a master builder.”[5]  We need to depend completely on God’s grace, recognizing that it is God who does a mighty work in us.

Second, We make Christ our foundation.[6]  With the focus of our attention on Jesus, we no longer worry about getting our own way.  When being like Christ becomes the foundation of everything we do and think and say, “our way” simply doesn’t matter any more.

Third, We work together, in unity. [7] There are so many ways we can allow ourselves to be irritated by one another, aren’t there?  But none of these differences of opinion should matter to us as much as being one in Christ Jesus.  We are the church together, the song goes.

Fourth, We remain Spirit-filled [8] – If we are God’s temple, then God’s spirit lives within us.  The Holy Spirit is “at home” among us.

And fifth, we must be Wise by God, but fools by human standards[9]  – When we turn our attention toward the values of the world around us, we get distracted by things that don’t matter to God, and we ignore what burdens God’s heart.  We look to the rich and successful for affirmation, instead of looking to the poor and powerless Christ calls us to serve.

The mission of Bethlehem Covenant Church is to be a welcoming neighborhood church with a heartfelt devotion to God.  Through our strategic planning process, our church has named four areas where we want to see God moving in and among us to carry out that mission.  Reading the Bible; Recognizing the Holy Spirit at work; Small Group ministry; and Demonstrating our Faith through Risk-Taking are those four areas.

These are the materials we use to build the church – our church.  These are our building blocks.  But we could have easily chosen other materials.  We could have decided on a different mission statement that would have been just as valid, and done just as much to further the Kingdom of God.  It is important to choose good materials.  Brick and stone is more durable than straw and sticks, when put to the test.

But how we build is just as important as the materials we use. When we do all these things together, according to the grace given us, filled with the Holy Spirit, fools to the world’s values, but wise by God’s standard, with Jesus Christ as our only foundation, then God’s Kingdom grows.  Then all things become ours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to us, and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.  Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:25

[2] 1 Cor 3:19

[3] Ps  95:6

[4] 1 Cor 3:10

[5] 1 Cor 3:10

[6] 1 Cor 3:11

[7] 1 Cor 3:16

[8] 1 Cor 3:16

[9] 1 Cor 3:18

Hannah’s Song (Sermon on 1 Samuel 2:1-10)

You can hear an audio recording of this sermon here.

Hannah’s Song

As I read Hannah’s story, I was reminded of Anne Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies. Have you read it?  Anne Lamott claims the two best prayers she knows are: “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  Anne Lamott’s newest book will be available in November, and you can pre-order it now at any online bookseller.  The title identifies Lamott’s spiritual growth since Traveling Mercies was published in 1999.  This new book is all about prayer.  Over the years, Lamott has refined “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and added a third kind of prayer that she sees as essential to a healthy prayer life.

The new book is titled, “Help.  Thanks.  Wow.”

            In the story we just heard about Hannah, it is clear that Hannah knew how to pray all three of these prayers.  As she poured out her heart to the Lord, Hannah asked for God’s help, and her thanksgiving when God answered her prayer erupted in the song we will read together in a few minutes.  Through it all, Hannah’s complete dependence on God gave witness to the “Wow” of God’s power at work in her life.  Let’s take a closer look at the drama of Hannah’s story.

First, let’s set the stage, and introduce the important characters.  In the Hebrew Bible, 1st Samuel follows immediately after the book of Judges.  In this context, Hannah’s story becomes part of the continuing story of a people’s life with God.  The tension we find at the beginning of chapter one was not merely Hannah’s unhappy childlessness.  A greater tension is also carried forward from the book of Judges.  Its final verse reads: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 21:25).”  Life was chaos, and there was no spiritual leadership among God’s people.  The spiritual landscape of Israel was as barren as Hannah’s womb.  In the passage that follows today’s story, it’s clear that the practice of worship at Shiloh had deteriorated into meaningless ritual.  The two sons of Eli were anything but righteous priests.  Their version of performing sacrificial duties was marked by greed and oppression, and Eli did nothing to prevent them from abusing their authority.

All the people did what was right in their own eyes, but this was a far cry from what was right in God’s eyes.  The time had come for God to do a new thing in Israel, just as the time had come for God to do a new thing in Hannah’s life.

And Hannah’s life was pretty miserable.  Her husband, Elkanah, came from an important family.  We can tell this from verse one, where his family connections are noted in detail.  He was apparently wealthy enough to take a second wife when Hannah did not conceive an heir for his fortune.  Peninnah gave him the children he needed to perpetuate his family line, but his first and greatest love was for Hannah.  No matter how much he loved her, however, Elkanah could not make her pregnant, and that was what she longed for more than anything.

Childlessness was not only a practical difficulty, leaving no heir; it was also a moral issue, seen as a punishment from God for sinfulness.  Everywhere Hannah went, she felt the stares of women who wondered – perhaps even aloud, so Hannah could hear their suspicions – what had she done to deserve this?  Why had God closed her womb?  The stigma of childlessness was a double blow to Hannah, for she trusted God faithfully, and her faith must have been tested every time someone hinted that maybe her life wasn’t as pure and blameless as it seemed.

In our own time, couples who struggle with infertility may ask the same questions that troubled Hannah: “What are we doing wrong?  Why is it so easy for other couples to have babies, while we can’t?”  Even with advances in medical science that promise amazing possibilities, some couples simply never conceive.  There’s a website  –  – which offers encouragement and resources to those who struggle with fertility.  This ministry is founded in Hannah’s story, as it  “attempts to help meet the emotional and spiritual needs of married couples experiencing fertility-related difficulties through prayer, understanding, friendship, shared information, and biblical counsel.”

But, other families struggle with a different kind of childlessness.  Tomorrow, October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.  This observance is designed to bring awareness to the pain that comes with miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death.  This pain is real, and often misunderstood.  There are even websites dedicated to the task of educating us about what NOT to say when someone near to us experiences such loss or barrenness.

One theologian suggests that Elkanah might have benefited from some of this advice.  Instead of asking Hannah, “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he might have done better to assure her that she was worth more to him than any number of children.  But even that assurance may not have eased her pain.  She was suffering, and her rival, Peninnah didn’t make things any better.  As they went up to worship at Shiloh every year, second helpings for Hannah still seemed small in comparison to the amount of sacrificial food it took to feed Peninnah and all her sons and daughters.  Peninnah made sure to add insult to injury by taunting Hannah as they feasted.  It was too much for Hannah.  She left the feast, and took her despair straight to God.

But Hannah’s barrenness was not without hope.  “In spite of – or perhaps because of  – her infertility, Hannah was a woman of faith.  In fact, Hannah is portrayed as the most pious woman in the Old Testament.  Here she is shown going up to the Lord’ house; no other woman in the Old Testament is mentioned doing this.  In addition, Hannah is the only woman shown making and fulfilling a vow to the Lord; she is also the only woman who is specifically said to pray (Hb. pll; 1:10, 12, 26-27, 2:1); her prayer is also among the longest recorded in the Old Testament.  Furthermore, her prayer includes the most recorded utterances of Yahweh’s name by a woman (eighteen).”[1]

“Hannah’s prayer was specifically addressed to the omnipotent deliverer of those in distress, “The LORD Almighty” … – no character in Scripture prior to Hannah had ever used this term to address the Lord.”[2]   As Hannah poured out her heart to The Lord Almighty, she introduced a new way to think of the God of Israel. God was about to do a new thing among his people, and it seems fitting that Hannah should call upon him using a new name.

We could end the lesson right here, and focus on Hannah as an example to follow when we are in distress.  Pouring her heart out to God and depending on his faithfulness, Hannah might offer us plenty to consider as we think of our own unwillingness to truly trust God in all things.  Her willingness to give back to God the very child she so deeply desired is a model of sacrificial living that we might think we could never come close to imitating.  But the story does not end here.

As Hannah pours out her heart to God, barely moving her lips as she prays, Eli assumes she must be drunk.  Here is a woman who barely avoids being an outcast because of her barrenness, and the priest who should recognize true piety when it’s right in front of him, gets it completely wrong.  This is how bad things are in Israel.  The one person who should be able to distinguish between drunken gibberish and heartfelt prayer cannot do so.  But Hannah is bold in her own defense, and when she tells Eli of her distress, he realizes his mistake, and offers her a blessing.

It isn’t much of a blessing, really.  It sounds rather formulaic.  But Hannah accepts it as a word from the man of God, and everything about her changes.  Her sorrow disappears, she rejoins her family, and returns to her home in joyful expectation.

In God’s good time, a son is born to Hannah and Elkanah, and she makes good on her promise to return him to God.  Just as Hannah’s barrenness is not without hope, the answer to her prayer does not come without sacrifice.  After she has weaned the child, which might have taken about three years, she brings him to Shiloh and presents him to Eli.  “Remember me?” she asks the old priest.  “I’m the one you thought was drunk, and here is the child, the answer to my prayers.  I give him into your care.  I dedicate him to God.”

And then Hannah does a remarkable thing.  She prays again, but this time her lips are not moving silently as she pours our her heart before the Lord.  This time, she lifts her voice in song, and sings of God’s victory, not only for herself, but for the whole nation of Israel, for all the people of God. The Lord God Almighty is about to do a new thing among his people, and Hannah’s song gives us a glimpse of what that new thing is to be.

Turn with me to 1 Samuel 2, verses 1-10, and let us hear Hannah’s song together.

1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my victory.
“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
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.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
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.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
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.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
“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.
The Lord!
His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High 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.”

Hannah’s song is more than a personal prayer of thanksgiving; it is a victory song for the whole nation of Israel.  And did you hear that part at the end of her prayer about a king?  This is new!  Israel had never had a king.  But Hannah’s own son will play a very important part in establishing God’s king on the throne of Israel.  The time of chaos, when all the people do whatever is good in their own eyes, is about to end.  The time of barrenness and frustration will soon be replaced with order and peace.

Here is the story so far: God created the world and everything in it.  People messed it up.  God wanted to reconcile the people of the world to himself, so he chose one man, Abraham, to become the father of many, and those many would become God’s own people.  Abraham believed God’s promise.  Abraham’s descendents, the nation of Israel, grew while slaves in Egypt, but God brought them out of slavery, into a land of their own.  They were not always faithful to God, but God was always faithful to his people.

Hannah’s story is but a short episode in the bigger story of God and his Kingdom.  Her faithfulness mirrors God’s faithfulness.  It also sets the stage for the transition from the time of the judges, when everyone did as they saw fit in their own eyes, to the anointing of Israel’s first king, Saul, and the subsequent reign of Israel’s greatest king, David.  Samuel, the child of Hannah’s fervent prayer, is the last of the judges, the prophet who identifies David as God’s chosen ruler over his people.  It is from David’s line that another son will be born under miraculous circumstances, and that child’s mother will echo Hannah’s song in her own, singing, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary’s song will also remind us that God raises up the lowly and brings down the mighty.  God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.  God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  God’s timeline may not meet our expectations, but God’s timing always meets our deepest need.  Like Hannah, we need to trust that truth.

The connection to Mary’s song reminds me of that theme of reversal that threads its way throughout the gospel of Luke.  It’s an important theme, not only because it describes how the person of Jesus turns the expectation for a Messiah upside down, but also because that theme runs throughout the entire story of God and his people.  God almost never does what we would expect him to do, certainly not what we as humans would do if we were the ones in power.  God is always choosing the younger son, the weaker nation – the wrong answer, by human standards.  And it is precisely in this overturned reality that the Kingdom of God comes closest to us, shakes us up a bit, and calls our attention to the fact that God is doing a new thing in our midst.

So where do we fit in this great, amazing story of God and his love for his people?  How do we respond to such love?  What new thing is God about to work in our midst?  What are we waiting and hoping for, as Hannah waited and hoped for a son?  What are we willing to give up, as Hannah gave up Samuel to God, as soon as her cherished child was weaned?

Are we like Peninnah, proud of our status and arrogant toward those around us who don’t have it as good as we do?  Who might not be as righteous-looking as we are? If I’m honest, I have to admit that I sometimes fall into this category.  Like the Pharisee who passed by the poor man who had been beaten and robbed, I don’t want to get my hands dirty.  I’m on my way to an important meeting at church.  I don’t have time to stop and help someone I don’t know, whose need is obviously beyond my ability to meet it.

Or are we like Elkanah, eager to do the right thing, but unsure of the right way to do it?  So we follow the familiar rituals and say the things we think others want to hear from us, and never really get close enough to God to bare our souls?

Or maybe we are like Eli, the priest who is no longer effective because he has lost touch with God.  We once knew what it was like to follow obediently where God led us, but those days are gone, and now we stumble along and can’t tell the difference between drunken revelry and heartfelt prayer.  When God calls someone in our midst, it takes three attempts to get our attention.

Can we be like Hannah?  It seems so hard.  But here is the key to Hannah’s faithfulness, I think.  This is what made it possible for her to promise God she would give back to him her son, if God would only let her have one.  She poured out her distress to the Lord, fully believing that God would do the impossible.  She knew it was just a matter of time – God’s time – before her prayer would be answered.  But Hannah’s answered prayer was the result of more than persistence.  She fully trusted God to do the impossible because she knew that God does not act out of our strength, but shows his greatness in our weakness.

I am reminded of Paul’s experiences, as described in 2 Corinthians 12 as I consider Hannah’s suffering and her resulting song.  Paul writes:

7b . . .there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me– to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (Corinthians 12:7b-10).

God’s power is demonstrated at the point of our weaknesses.  That is grace.  God’s grace does not seek out our strong points and enhance them, so much as His grace seeks out our weakest points so that it may be absolutely clear to all that it is God who accomplishes great things through us.  Those things that cause Hannah the greatest sorrow, the greatest pain, are the very things God uses to produce her greatest joys.[3]

This is the good news of the gospel.  …  Those who joyfully embrace the good news of the gospel know they are helplessly and hopelessly lost in their sins, just as Hannah was helpless before God.  They rejoice in the fact that what they cannot do to earn God’s salvation, Christ has done for them by His death, burial, and resurrection.  They gratefully receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of righteousness as divine grace.  And they come to learn that the same grace which saves them is the grace by which God continues to work in their lives. 

I pray that you have received the gift of God’s salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.  If you have not yet accepted this grace, I pray that you will do so today.  And as you trust in Jesus, following him as a true disciple, give him your weakness, give him your sorrow, give him your distress. Pour out your heart before the Lord, and know, as Hannah knew, that God is about to do a new thing in you.  Amen.

[1] Robert Bergen, New American Commentary on 1 Samuel, 67.

[2] Ibid, 68.

[3] The Son and the Psalm of Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1–2:10) Study By: Bob Deffinbaugh