This morning’s sermon will be in a slightly different format; I would like to relate Hannah’s story to you in first person. So… (put on scarf)
My name is Hannah. I am best known for being the mother of the prophet Samuel, who would go on to anoint the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David. My prayer is considered one of the great prayers in the Old Testament. Actually, it is a song; a psalm of praise similar to the great psalms of David, in which God is honored and praised! For indeed, God has done great things for me! Let me tell you a bit about myself, so you can understand the depth and breadth of my thanksgiving.
I am a Hebrew woman, married to a man named Elkanah (el-KAY-nah), descended from the tribe of Levi, and we dwell in the hill country of Ephraim. He also has another wife, which is permitted in our culture, whose name is Peninnah. While I am Elkanah’s favored wife, Peninnah was able to give him sons and daughters, while I remain barren.
Now in our culture, the wife -or wives- are expected to take care of the household for the husband; but, bearing children was our greatest responsibility. Sons especially. It is up to us wives to bear the sons that labor along side their fathers and daughters that might make for advantageous marriages. To be barren was a sign of shame, and I most certainly bore that shame. Peninnah never wasted an opportunity to humiliate me, and I could see the looks of pity and condescension on the faces of the women who would gather at the well and other public places.
The worst of these experiences was when the whole family – Elkanah, us wives and Peninnah’s children would go up to the tabernacle at Shiloh to observe the annual feasts. While we lived in different tents at home, we were together on the road, and so Peninnah had much more opportunity to disgrace and embarrass me as we walked along the path. Even worse, the feasts were to be a special time of rejoicing, and all sadness was prohibited. Well, how can one rejoice when she’s been constantly humiliated and shamed for days? Once we got there, all I could do was cry, and then my shame was made worse because I was excluded from the festive meal.
It’s not that Elkanah didn’t try to comfort me. He was very generous in showing his love by giving me a double portion of the meat that had been sacrificed – even though Peninnah got more than I did to share with her children. He always tries to make me feel better, reminding me of how much I mean to him. And he tries to comfort me by saying his love is better than 10 (!) sons, but it doesn’t really help. I am still barren.
Finally, on one particular trip to Shiloh, I managed to make it through the meal. But I just couldn’t stay, it hurt too badly. So, I hurried off to find my way to the tabernacle, and I just poured my soul out before God. I was sobbing so hard, I was shaking. I was so distraught I couldn’t even get the words out; all I could do was move my lips, and hope that God would know what was on my heart. And in the midst of my despair, the priest approaches me and accuses me of being drunk! Not hardly!
I was able to convince him that I wasn’t intoxicated at all, but rather, speaking to God out of a very deep agony. And I continued to pray; in his hearing and in God’s, that if God would give me a son, I promised I would give the boy back into God’s service. And then, miracle of miracles, Eli assured me that God had heard me, that God would grant my request, and bless me.
I had to believe him! I know the priest of the Lord to be true in what he says! And from that moment on, I was able to return to the worship celebration, now full of joy rather than sorrow. And my joy was increased when we did find me with child, and when my son, who I named Samuel, was born. Blessed was I among women.
I loved my son more than I can ever say, and kept him close to me until he was about three years old. Then it was time to take him back to the tabernacle and into the care of Eli. But as I prepared to do so, I was filled with so much gratitude toward God that I offered the prayer of praise, for which I have been remembered.
There are scholars/ who doubt the words of my great song of thanksgiving/ are really mine. It is true that the words convey more than a simple thank you to God for my son. It is also true that these do not seem like the words of a simple Hebrew woman. Could it be that God’s Holy Spirit, present from the very beginning of creation, was present in my song? Many of the words that have been recorded in the scriptures are said to be the product of human experience and personality, empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. These words could not have been expressed without having suffered as I did at the hands of Peninnah, due to my barrenness. And my words about the future – they can only have come from divine inspiration.
So, let’s talk about my prayer. It has been said that it was the template for Mary’s song of joy which you know as the “Magnificat”. Perhaps that is because the same Spirit of God inspired us both, although we were praising God under very different circumstances. God did a very great work in both of us; miracles really. So if God can make the barren and virgin bear sons who will forever impact human history, how much more can he do for the nation of Israel and the nations beyond that?
So when I prayed, it was not just for myself, but for the whole nation of Israel. I trust that God will be their rock, their strength, their protection. Moreover, God will work in their midst by overturning the expectations and assumptions that come from the human experience and condition. You see, so many people, throughout history, seem to have forgotten that their strength and security in this world, can be lost. All material things will ultimately perish. It is the Lord who brings life, even giving children to the barren, Only the Lord can provide strength and security. Only the Lord can feed the hungry; make the poor rich and exalts the lowly. Only the Lord can grant life, and He does so in surprising ways and in unlikely places.
Yes, it was hard to give up my son to the work of God in the tabernacle, but I took comfort in seeing him each year when we went up for the feast, where I now joined the throngs with my own joy. But more importantly, my experience with God has assured me that he is faithful now, as he has been in the past and will be in the future. Therefore, I was able to wholly entrust my son to the priest and to the service of God.
I know that God heard my prayers, all those years, pleading to be blessed with a child. I know from experience that God hears the prayers of the downtrodden and broken-hearted. And in fact, that blessing that Eli said God had promised me? I ended up having five more children. God hears our prayers, and as I can attest, God will answer our prayers in God’s own time. It is for us to be patient and wait, but always and ever bringing our desires to God. And we will experience the answers to our prayers in a mighty way! Thanks be to God. Amen.