Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, October 23, 2018
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Channels for Grace

1st Samuel 1:1-28

 This is the first time I’ve ever preached on this passage, and I found it difficult because it’s one of those passages where there were a lot of different ways to see it.  

 One of the most obvious would be to talk about a message of hope for those who are unable to have children.  We’ve had several family members and friends who either were in that situation or still are, and we’ve seen firsthand how difficult it can be.  

 Six years ago at Thanksgiving time, we went to my high school reunion, and we ended up sitting at a table with a young woman that I had been friendly with in high school.  She had three children and was expecting number four.  And she went on and on about how wonderful it was to have children, and kept telling us not to put it off any longer.  

 What we didn’t tell her is that at that time, we’d been hoping for children for several years, and we were having a lot of doubts about whether or not we ever would.  I guess she played the part of Penninah for us.  The happy ending to the story is that what we didn’t know at the time was that Sharon was already expecting Joshua.  

 But if we read the story only as a message for a “barren” woman, then we are missing out on its application to all of us.  No matter who we are, we will all experience times of “barrenness” in our lives, times when there doesn’t seem to be any reason for joy or thanksgiving.  And we will experience times of blessing as well.  How do we respond to the barren times?  And what do we do when we experience God’s grace?  Those are the questions we can all take from Hannah’s story.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize what an appropriate text this is for the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  

 Let’s look more closely at the story:

 It takes place near the end of the time of the Judges.  After Israel came into the Promised Land, they were led by a succession of judges whom God chose.  Samuel was the last of the judges, and the one who would oversee the transition of the nation to a monarchy.  

 We are introduced first to Elkanah, who had two wives.  Polygamy was very common in the ancient Near Eastern world.  It was not God’s design.  In Genesis chapter 2, when God described the ideal of marriage, he specifically said one man and one woman and two becoming one, not three or more.  But God did permit polygamy in the Old Testament, I believe as a concession to a highly patriarchal culture.  

 In that culture, there were some advantages to it.  There were always more women than men because men were more likely to die in war or in a dangerous occupation.  And in a society where women could not earn a living on their own, polygamy met a need.  But it was also a form of “social prestige.”  Men wanted more than one wife to be admired.   I guess if you can’t own a fancy sports car, a second wife was the “next best thing.”  

 But even though polygamy was permitted in the Old Testament, most marriages were monogamous.  Most men could not afford more than one wife.  Men, you can make your own joke at this point.  

 Penninah had children, and Hannah did not.  Hannah was the first wife, and the fact she was unable to have children may have been the reason for a second wife.  To be “barren” in ancient Near East society was a very negative thing.  It was often seen as a divine punishment:  You can’t have children because God is mad at you!  It also meant shame and a loss of social status and social security.  In a society where a woman could not earn a living, she could find herself destitute if her husband died and she had no children to care for her!  

 Because of this, barren women were often abandoned or divorced.  But Elkanah was a righteous man, and he loved Hannah.

 The story picks up with a pilgrimage to Shiloh.  There was no temple yet in Israel, so the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant were kept at a place called Shiloh.  All Hebrews were required to make three annual pilgrimages to the Tabernacle for the Feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.  This pilgrimage was probably for the Feast of Tabernacles.  

 Tabernacles was celebrated at the end of the harvest.  It was kind of the equivalent of our Thanksgiving, being held at the same time of the year.  And it was also a way of remembering and being thankful for the journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land.  

 At the feast, each family member would be given a portion of meat from the sacrificial animal.  Meat was a rare treat in their diet, typically only eaten at special occasions.  Hannah received either a “double portion” or a “choice portion.”  It’s uncertain how the Hebrew should best be understood.  And it seems that each year this attracted the jealousy of Penninah.  Polygamous marriages often had great difficulties with jealousy!  And so Penninah would make fun of Hannah.  Elkanah tried to console her, but the weight of her barrenness was too much.  

 We all experience barrenness from time to time in our lives.  It could be the loss of a significant relationship.  It could be an unfulfilling time of life or an unsatisfying job.  It could be a season of depression or addiction or many other things.  The question is: What do we do in the midst of barren times?  Do we lose hope?  Are we honest about our struggles, or do we try to put on a “brave face” and maintain a stoic faith, even when we don’t feel it?  Do we turn to God in prayer as Hannah did?  

 It’s important to pray for our deep needs.  Unless we invite God’s participation in a particular situation, he may not intervene. Why would we expect God to do something if we don’t ask him to intervene?  I also think persistence in prayer is very important.  Jesus said as much in his Parable of the Persistent Widow.  I think we grow through persistent prayer.  And sometimes our prayers “evolve” as we continue to pray them over time.  

 Hannah’s prayer takes the form of a vow, which was very common in ancient Near East culture.  She seeks God’s provision in return for a gift to be given back to God.  But I think we also see an unselfish attitude in her prayer.  She does not want a son so she can cling to him, but so he can be a blessing to others.  We looked at the Epistle of James a few months back, and James told us not to have selfish motives in our prayers.  She certainly does not.  

 Hannah also makes a Nazirite vow in connection to this hoped-for son.  A Nazirite vow was a vow to abstain from alcohol and to leave one’s hair uncut as a sign of dedication to God.  Usually Nazirite vows were only for a certain time, but Hannah’s vow for Samuel is life-long.  Many Bible scholars point out that Samuel then becomes a contrast to Samson, who was also a Nazirite, but not a very faithful one!

 Eli, the high priest, for his part, isn’t doing a very good job!  He can’t tell the difference between sincere prayer and drunken rambling.  But he was old and his eyes were failing, so we’ll give him a pass.  And when he finds out what Hannah’s prayer is, he adds his blessing to it.  Hannah goes away convinced God has heard her prayer.

 She returns to the feast.  She eats and she worships the Lord.  And in due time, she has a son, Samuel.  And when he was weaned, about three years old in that culture, she returns to give him back to God.  Certainly, that was not an easy thing to do.  But if we are going to make a vow to God, then we’d best be prepared to keep it!  

 But there is a happy little note about Hannah in the next chapter.  She went on to have five more children.  And each year she returned to Shiloh, she would bring little Samuel a robe for him to wear.  

 What should we take away from the story?  Let me lift a few things up:

 First, we should be honest with God in our prayers.  We should not put on a show before God, or even before others, that we somehow “have it all together.”  None of us really do.  But if we can’t admit that before God, how can he ever do a work of healing and restoration in our lives?  

 Second, we should not lose hope in the midst of barren times.  We believe in a God who can turn “barrenness” into blessing.  I know it’s easier to say that than it is to do it, but we should try never to lose sight of the God we know and what he can do.  

 And finally, when God blesses us, we should return his grace through praise and service.  That is the essence of worship, returning God’s grace to him as praise.  

 I think it says something very troubling about us if we fail to worship God, and let’s face it:  We live in a society that, by and large, does not worship God.  It says that we don’t see blessings coming from God.  Or it says that we take them for granted.  Or it says that we receive grace without also allowing grace to flow through us.  And sometimes, unfortunately, that is the mindset of people in the Church:  I want to be blessed.  It’s fine to be blessed, but we also need to be a blessing to others and to God.

 In the land of Israel, there is a picture of the difference between just receiving blessings and also being a blessing.  The Jordan River flows down into the Sea of Galilee, which is one of the most productive lakes in the world, surrounded by productive farmland.  From there, the Jordan continues to flow into the Dead Sea, which is dead, devoid of life, and surrounded by land that is completely useless.  The difference is that the Dead Sea has no outlet.  It only receives water and never gives.  And so over the centuries, everything in that water has continued to build up in the Dead Sea and made it unsuitable for life.  

In a way, that’s a picture of what we should not be as Christians.  We are to be channels through which God’s grace flows into the world, not just reservoirs into which God empties his grace.  And grace flows through us when it becomes worship of God and service to people.  

Hannah embodied those two things.  She worshipped God for his grace to her, and she gave the most precious gift she had, her firstborn son, so that he could be a blessing to others and lead a nation back to God.  Don’t simply ask to be blessed, but seek ways to be a blessing.

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