| 1 Samuel 1:4-20
||Sun, November 19, 2006
Rev. Ed Searcy
|You must know Hannah. The whole church must know Hannah’s story. She comes onto the stage unknown. She emerges from the shadows into the biblical narrative as a woman with no reason to hope. Her womb is closed. She is unable to conceive the gift of a future. This closure is the LORD’s doing, since the future is God’s doing. This is the first scene in the great two volume story of Samuel, the long awaited leader who will open Israel to David, its Messiah. But the story does not open with a grand announcement. It opens with Hannah weeping bitterly and not eating and broken hearted. She is deeply distressed, filled with great anxiety and vexation. Her’s is a long, bitter story of ache. Year after year at the time of the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh, site of the ancient temple of Israel, Hannah is alone at the great sacrifice. Her hopes of being able to participate in birthing the future are dashed over and over. The story means to remind us of the barrenness of Israel’s future in her time. As one well versed commentator notes, Israel then is a community in economic and political and moral chaos, “engaged in brutality and betrayed by undisciplined religion. Israel does not seem to have the capacity or the will to extricate itself from its troubles.” Hannah lives in a desperate time. The Word of the LORD is rare. There are few visions (I Samuel 3). The future is bleak. Experts would say that this community is in its death throes. It is a time when churches are closed down, one after another. Hannah lives in a time like this, a time like our time.
You must know Hannah because there will come a time when your capacity to conceive of a new life is barren, and because there will come a time when our congregation’s future is closed. And you must especially know Hannah today if your future - our future - is closed now. You must know her if you recognize her deep distress, her lack of appetite, her heartbreak and her bitter tears. This is always the starting point of the gospel. The good news always begins with a woman like Hannah or Sarah or Rachel or Elizabeth or Mary. The good news begins with an impossible future, a blocked womb, an inability to conceive. We had heard that the good news was as simple as“God is love”. But it’s not that simple. The love of God is thicker and more complicated than that. The love of God is a story of impossible Good Friday dead ends, when there is nothing left to do but to pray with wailing and longing and lamentation. This is what Hannah does. She presents herself “before the LORD”. She makes a vow. Is it like a wedding vow? Or is it like a bargaining chip? She says if ... then: “If you will look on the misery of your servant and remember and not forget but will give a son, then I will give him to you as one consecrated to serve you.” It sounds crass to us - forcing God’s hand by promising that this child will be given to a religious order. It’s as if she is saying; “How can you refuse? The child will add to your numbers. You need some faithful servants.” It’s easy for us to criticize. We are not in her shoes.
Remember six years ago. On this very day in November 2000 the worship elder was our Christian Education Minister, Janice. It was the day when her decade long struggle with infertility was shared with the congregation. Her prayers that day were well rehearsed. Janice had been praying them for years. She understood Hannah’s desperation. She and Jim also offered that a child who came to them would be consecrated to the Lord, raised as a child set apart as a messenger of the good news and a witness to the kingdom come. And now that Jameson is three we can see that Janice and Jim are keeping their word. Jameson is already a fine preacher. Really. He is. Was it a vow? Or striking a bargain? Was it right? It is what you do when you long for an opening into the future. You say to God something like this: “Listen Lord, this congregation is up against it. The future does not look friendly to a church surviving and thriving here. It’s not just the indifference of the neighbourhood or the benign neglect of the culture. It’s also the denomination’s dysfunction, not to mention the fractures in the congregation that are revealed when we seek to agree on a marriage policy. It is enough to make a pastor weep, not eat, go home sad and wake up with anxiety and vexation. So, O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember this congregation, and not forget it’s life for you, but will birth a future for this congregation then we will consecrate the future of University Hill to your purposes. It will not be about us, about how well we are doing, about what a great church this is. It will always be about you, about what you are doing, about what suffering and trouble you call us to bear on your behalf. And you need churches like that. Desperately. If you want one here, we’re ready. All it will take is for you to open the blocked future and carry us through safely.” Yes. It is a bargain. It is offering God a deal that we hope cannot be refused. It strikes us as crude, theologically inappropriate and primitive. It strikes us that way until we are desperate like Hannah or like Janice. Then any means of getting God’s attention is fair game - lamentation, vows, even bargaining.
To meet Hannah is also to meet Eli. Eli is the priest who notices Hannah’s babbling behaviour. He assumes that she has been into the bottle. Her lips move, she seems to be talking to herself. He chides her for being drunk. She pleads with him: “I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” She longs to be regarded as a person of worth. She has received no answer, no comfort, no promise, no sign of a future. She comes to worship on Sunday after Sunday. Outwardly she is fine. Her appearance reveals nothing. But the tears well up regularly and cannot always be hidden. She tries to hide them but she cannot. She feels foolish. Emotional. She keeps control. She reveals little. But there is an Eli present, one who belongs to the priesthood of the baptized who notices the tears that roll down her cheeks each Sunday. And this Eli, like the first Eli, hears Hannah’s silent cry and steps up to her “The Peace of Christ be with you” by which he means “The God of Israel grant the petition you have made to the Lord.” Sunday after Sunday, this contemporary Eli in our midst finds this living Hannah and looks into her tear-filled eyes and says it again: “The Peace of Christ be with you”. It is not “Hello, it’s good to see you.” It is always “The God of Israel grant the petition you have made to the Lord.” Every Sunday Hannah is here. She is a woman, a man, a youth, an elder. Hannah’s lamentation is silently wailed by any who come burdened by the weight of a stone rolled across the future, leaving her trapped in a tomb of the present. Eli’s blessing is pronounced by any one who notices that cry and speaks Christ’s peace.
Have you noticed that God has not yet spoken in this story? It is entirely populated by human actors who speak to God and on behalf of God. But the voice of God is not heard. Instead, there is a chapter long telling of Hannah’s desperate plea. Then, in the span of a single verse, the miraculous conception is announced: “Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son.” The story has lingered over the long waiting and the silence of God. It passes down to us a history of blocked wombs, closed futures, impossible dilemmas. It wants us to remember that God’s people have been this way before. It is the nature of our story. In every generation there comes a point at which barrenness threatens an entire people. In every generation there is loud lamentation and fear that it is the end of God’s story with us, the end of the church, the end of our lives. And in every generation there comes a miraculous conception. God creates a future when none was possible or expected. It is never our doing. No amount of multi-million dollar ad campaigns or welcoming workshops, no collection of catchy new songs or power point sermons, no attempts to rescue the church or our lives result in the miracle of a future. It is always a miracle that has been longed for, asked for, even bargained for by the Hannah’s of the age. It always arrives in the Easter shock of a verse. And it changes everything.
I recall when I witnessed that miracle here. It was on that September Sunday three years ago when we gathered after worship to give to God the little body of Laura and Jim’s first born son. It was the saddest of days and the most wondrous of days. I remember the trombones in a semi-circle below the cross bearing us into the grief playing the most haunting and beautiful arrangement of “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded”. I remember Laura lighting a candle on the table to mark the life and death of her infant. I remember her invitation to those who wished to light a candle to mark the birth of a stillborn child or a miscarriage to do so. I remember the long line as so many of you came to light candles for a little one whose brief life and death still bring tears and ache. I remember that Laura and Jim named their little boy Samuel. He did not take a breath. He did not speak a word. They gave him to the Lord. Little Samuel’s witness in death gave us a glimpse of God’s opening into the future. That day I was a witness to the cultivation of a people who bring their longing and ache here, before the Lord. We are becoming a people who lay our burdens down at the foot of the Cross. That day I found a voice to say: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to the LORD.” That day I found a heart to believe that this is precisely what God will do. Somehow, in some way that I cannot predict, God will conceive in you the future you long to birth. It is a future you are already promising to give back to God. It is what gratitude does. It changes a bargain into a gift. A gift received from God. A gift given back to God. God's new future is the most miraculous gift you can receive. It is the also most beautiful gift that you can give back.