You can hear an audio recording of this sermon here.
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 – Hannah.org – 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).”
“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.” 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.
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.
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.
 Robert Bergen, New American Commentary on 1 Samuel, 67.