Sermon for Sunday, May 10, 2009
Dr. Dan Doraini
I Samuel 1:1-8, 10-11, 15-18, 20
Mother's Day began as a reform movement, not as a sentimental celebration of feminine virtue. In 1858 mothers joined together to protest injustice, lack of sanitation, disease-bearing insects and polluted water. In 1870, after the bloody Civil War, Julia Howe proclaimed a day for mothers to oppose wars that bring men home "reeking with carnage" if they make it at all.
Today we hear story of a real, gritty mother, Hannah. The characters in her story are: Hannah, a godly but barren woman; Elkanah, her decent, flawed husband; Peninnah, Elkanah's second wife; Eli, flawed leader of Israel and the Lord.
1. Longing for children
The story begins in the days before Israel had a king. It was a dark time. Evil priests were drunks, they stole from some worshipers and seduced others. Many followed their example, while good priests seemed powerless to effect reform. But people still came to the tabernacle to sacrifice and to learn.
Samuel 1:1-2 - Tension in the home
There was a successful man named Elkanah who did what successful men often did in that era, he took two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. There was no law prohibiting polygamy. But God had designed marriage to unite one man and one woman: Adam and Eve, not Adam, Eve and Genevieve. So the man followed the culture instead of God's design for marriage. We are prone to do the same. But families work best when we follow God's plan.
Since Hannah is named first, she was probably the first wife. But she was barren. Elkanah probably took his second wife so he could have children and heirs to keep his name alive. But he should have waited on the Lord instead of pursuing his own plan. When Elkanah departed from God's plan, everyone paid for it. We can expect trouble when we go our own way.
The trouble began with Elkanah: he loved wife number one, Hannah, more than wife number two, Peninnah. Hannah had her sorrow, too. She was childless. At that time, a woman's value was closely joined to her ability to bear children. Childlessness brought great sorrow, even shame, in her culture. I do not say this was right. But in that culture childless women felt shame.
We can still feel or cause shame for the wrong reasons. The church rightly promotes traditional marriage in cultures that question it. But if we're careless, we can seem to condemn single parents and single adults. Some mothers are single because husbands abandoned them. We must stand with them as friends. Some singles have good reason to be single, others yearn to marry. We must never condemn them. It's important not to make sufferers feel worse!
Sadly, Peninnah was making Hannah feel worse. Unhappy that Elkanah loved Hannah more, Peninnah took it out on Hannah. She had several sons and daughters and she "kept provoking" Hannah for this.
Hannah was childless, but notice how the Bible says it: "The Lord had closed [Hannah's] womb." The Lord sometimes brings hardship or pain to accomplish his purposes for the sake of a greater good. Jesus said one man was born blind so that "the work of the Lord might be displayed" when Jesus healed him (John 9:3). Listen: We cannot properly evaluate an event until we see the end – the purposes of God. So here, the Lord turned their trouble to a good goal.
In the end Hannah had a child, but not just any child. This child, Samuel, became a mighty prophet, judge and priest. He restored worship in Israel, then prepared the way for great King David. His unique birth and early life prepared him for this. This was God's purpose in Hannah's sorrow.
Samuel 1:3-5 - Worship
Perhaps the two wives stayed apart much of the time, but every year they traveled to the tabernacle at Shiloh, in the same vicinity. We commend Elkanah for this. Worship was a priority for him. He let nothing stand in the way. He ensured that his family had special, consecrated time with the Lord. The wives and children walked a full day to reach the tabernacle, to celebrate there.
Samuel 1:7-8 - Hannah's misery and solitude
This should have been a time of joy and singing, but instead the journey and worship were miserable. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord "her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. Elkanah, her husband, would say to her, "Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don't you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don't I mean more to you than ten sons?"
He means: I love you and I hope that can be enough. He showed it by giving her good food in a time of scarcity (1:4-5) Meat was rare. Double portion may not be the best way, but he treated her well. However, he sounds insensitive, clueless almost: "Surely I'm worth more than ten sons." We suppose he means "I love you whether you bear sons or not," but surely he could have said it better. She wants a husband and children. Hannah looks lonely with no children, wife number two is a rival and her husband is a bit insensitive.
Yet Elkanah has his priorities straight. First, he ensures that his family comes to worship together. An aside: Today, we easily let work, sports and vacations push worship out of the way. I wonder what we teach our children when we do that? Second, Elkanah loves his wife whether she "produces" children for him or not. He understands: In the family, the marriage comes first.
Godly as she was, Hannah missed this, as did her rival. We miss it, too. We miss it when we bury ourselves in our children and let the relationship between husband and wife languish. How foolish! We have our children in our homes for eighteen to twenty years. Husband and wife are together, ideally, for forty, fifty or sixty.
When God created the family, he said, "Let a man leave his father and mother and be united to his wife." Married folk, your spouse comes first. The best way for us to bless our children is to let them see you putting the Lord first. The second way is to let them see you putting your beloved next.
Still, Hannah was desperate to have a child and she felt it most when she was with the whole family at the tabernacle. She should have been happiest when everyone ate and worshipped together. We know a happy family is often happiest at celebrations - and a sad family is often saddest at the same times. So Hannah was miserable. But she was a believer, so she took her sorrow to the Lord.
Samuel 1:9-11 - To the tabernacle to pray
What better place to pray than the tabernacle? God was there in a special sense. Levites led the people in song; priests offered sacrifices. Some sacrifices expressed thanksgiving; others were for sin. We see that she's a woman of faith:
She said one of the longest prayers in the Bible.
She makes and fulfills a vow: to give her child as a living sacrifice to God.
In time of need, she doesn't scheme, as many do (Genesis 16:2). She seeks the Lord!
She seeks the Lord in her misery for children. How wise! We should pray over our heartaches. Lists are easier, but pray for heartaches. We should also pray for children, even before they're born. Single adults can pray for children even before they marry, if they hope to become parents. We pray for them in the womb and at any other time. Children are a blessing from the Lord.
I have studied this question at length and believe the Bible does not specify how many children we should have, at what age, at what time in our marriage. I won't legislate where the Bible doesn't. But I'm sure that the Bible says children are a blessing and we should seek God's blessings.
To hear the Lord today, let's admit that we may not resonate with Hannah's desire for children. To become a parent, especially a mother of small children, is to enter a life that is at odds with some of our cultures leading values.
Children "interfere" with the career of talented, trained, professional women. They also cost money, so mothers often need to work, but it's part-time.
Little children also take so much time and energy. We lose our time for reading, friendships, meditation, exercise, conversation. And they wear us out.
This is especially true for young mothers. Someone shared this story: A tired-looking dog wandered into a woman's yard. The dog's collar and plump belly showed he had a good home. He walked over, received a pat on the head, then followed the woman into her house, curled up and fell asleep. An hour later, he got up and left. The same thing happened for several days. Finally the "hostess" pinned a note to the dog's collar: "I would like to meet the owner of this sweet dog. Do you know that most afternoons he comes to my house for a nap?" The next day the dog arrived with a note pinned to his collar: "This dog lives in a home with six children, two under the age of three. He's trying to catch up on his sleep. Can I come with him tomorrow?'
True or not, the story presents our ambivalence regarding children. Many in the West wonder: Do they make my life better? Are they worth the sacrifices? But we must question these questions. They assume the goal of life is to live well, to please or fulfill ourselves. But no. Our goal is to please God and serve him.
We won't find the right path in life by asking, "Will this work out for me? Will it please me? Enrich me?" Instead, ask, "Will this please the Lord?" And if we seek him first, Jesus says, "all these things will be added to you."
Hannah longed for children. We can see her self-interest. But she also followed the Lord's will. Children are a blessing, God's inheritance in the land. So she prayed for children. We can pray for children today - in different ways: If we wait for them in marriage, if we wait to find a husband or wife and if we want to open our heart to parenthood.
2. Loving our children – First, Hannah's prayer
So it was that after the family meal, Hannah presented her strong, tear-filled prayer in the tabernacle. Perhaps Hannah had prayed for a child many times. Why didn't God answer? Why withhold this blessing? But she didn't despair, she prayed all the more: "In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord" (1:10). "Her pain made her a theologian" 1
She prayed to the Lord Almighty (first such address in the Old Testament). How apt. She asks God to use his power for her, to give the gift of life.
She knows the position of a believer. She tells the Lord she is his "servant."
She know a relationship with the Lord involves giving, not just taking.
So she makes a promise: If the Lord gives her a son, "then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head" (1:11). "No razor" means he will be a Nazirite: dedicated to God's service. He will undergo certain disciplines – no alcohol, no cutting of his hair. (Numbers 6:1-21)
As first glance it may seem that she proposed a deal with God. “If you give me a child, I will give you..." Today: “If you give me a job, I'll give you…" Such prayers are spoken during terrifying battles. We can even make a vow over work.
Samuel 1:12-16 - From curse to blessing
Eli the priest was an old man, too old for the strenuous work of the sacrifices, but he still watched over the place of worship. Eli saw Hannah praying and moving her lips. He decided Hannah seemed to be drunk. So he rebuked her. "How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine" (1:14). This is sad in several ways:
Apparently, the people got drunk so often that Eli was looking for it.
Sadly, however, Eli couldn't differentiate between sincere prayer and drunken muttering. He watched lips but couldn't read hearts.
So he was a poor guardian, condemning a woman he should have encouraged. Hannah told him he was wrong. She wasn't drunk, she was troubled: “I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief" (1:15-16). What a powerful description of a troubled believer in prayer. "I was pouring out my soul before the Lord, praying out of my great anguish." It is good to pray in times of distress; the Lord hears, whatever our concern.
Eli accepted her correction and blessed her. "Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him" (1:17). She went home with her head high and before long, she gave birth to a son named Samuel.
Hannah meant to keep her vow: “Lord if you remember me and give me a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life" (1:11). How could Hannah long for a child as she did and still give that child up? Answer: The only way to love a child is to give him or her up. In fact, the whole of parenting can be seen as progressive release. To relinquish a child – at the right time, when the child has been nurtured and discipled, that is an act of love!
3. Relinquishing our children
An infant is almost entirely dependent on mother and father. In six weeks they learn to smile; the world broadens to all people who want to make them smile. Then they move. First they crawl, then walk, then run. Then they run away from you.
First, children sit still when you read to them. Then they tell you what to read to them. They tell you to read it right – don't skip any words! Eventually, they will tell you what to read.
First they nurse, then you spoon-feed them. Then they spoon-feed themselves. Then they learn to get food from the refrigerator for themselves. Then they get food for their friends. Then they teach you about sushi, tapas and Thai cuisine.
At first, children want to go with you - wherever you go. Then they want to go without you. Then they want to go places that scare you – caving. Then they try to get you go caving with them. They will be your guide!
At every age, we must prepare our children for the next step and must prepare to let them go into it. By constant conversation, by instruction, we hand them over to the Lord, set them free. Hannah did this in a spectacular way.
"After he was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was, and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh." She told Eli of her prayer "I am the woman who…" She recounted her vow and said, "So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord" (1:24, 28).
This is a parent's calling: "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6). That is, after the parents' years of leadership are over, it's between the child and the Lord. Hannah saw this and released Samuel to the Lord. At age two or so, she released little Samuel for priestly service. She did it with conviction: She and her husband brought Samuel, with impressive gifts and sacrifices, and presented him to the Lord, for life.
Eventually, Hannah had five more children, but she didn't know that when she gave him up. "Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him [during] the annual sacrifice" (2:19). So Hannah gave her boy to the Lord but continued to love him. Meanwhile, Eli the priest prepared him for God's call.
4. Reflecting on God as Father
This is a story about one of Israel's godly mothers, but it is also part of the story of God the Father. For while Hannah is barren and tormented, the Lord is working to renew his people and pointing to his final redemption in Jesus.
As judge and prophet, Samuel called God's people to repent and seek grace. In his days, the priests were thieves, drunks, players; the people followed. Samuel judged the hypocrisy and set an example of godly life. He also anointed David as God's king and assisted him in dark days when Saul was bent on killing him.
Samuel is even a "type" of Christ: The Lord opens the womb of a childless woman, who gives birth to a unique child, who becomes God's servant. Samuel is like John the Baptist. He called Israel to repent, to prepare for the Lord's anointed. In his day King David, but ultimately Jesus, Son of David. Samuel is like the Lord in his own way - devoted to God's work, faithful as prophet, priest and judge. Yet he is but a shadow of Christ, who is judge, prophet and king, priest and sacrifice – far greater than any man.
So this story on motherhood points us to God, our Mighty Father. It ends with Hannah happy. More than that, she praised the Lord:
“My heart rejoices in the Lord… for I delight in your deliverance. There is no one holy like the Lord… there is no rock like our God… for the Lord is a God who knows. [He] brings death and makes alive. He will guard the feet of his saints.” (2:1-9).
The Lord is the hero of this story, but Hannah is the one woman who pursues God and his cause with a passion. Not that she was perfect – no mother, father, or child is – but she worshiped God, sought God in prayer, and loved his goals.
Until 1910, Mother's Day kept its reformist roots. Mothers fought lynching, child labor, trafficking in women, and consumer fraud. Then the florist industry judged it "a holiday that could be exploited." The sentimentalizing of Mother's Day began. The goal: To create an idealized portrait of the perfect mother that celebrates a few and makes most feel like a failure.
The story of Hannah lets us reboot Mother's Day. We could return to issues like water, war and human trafficking. I hope we see our effort to care for orphans in India and Kenya as part of that.
But consider Hannah. She was not a perfect woman. She [apparently] adopted her society's view that women justify their existence and worth by bearing children. Children are a blessing, but we can't justify our existence by anything we do. God gives us existence and then he justifies us by faith. But her story speaks to us. How?
Above all, Hannah lived by faith. She worshiped God even when disappointed. She took her sorrows to God and prayed over them in his presence. I doubt that she found prayer easy. Prayer typically brings peace and calm, but not always. She took her anguish to God and prayed honestly, in anguish. So should we.
Hannah's story teaches us to empathize with every woman whose dreams of motherhood have been shattered. Single women who cannot find a marriage partner, married women [and men] who cannot conceive, solo mothers who were abandoned or widowed and hear that mothers should stay at home and care for their children even though they must work to provide. Let's be sensitive to every life situation on Mother's Day. Try to remember how others feel. Never carelessly add to another person's distress.
But Hannah does teach us to long for children. Unless something changes, the native population of Europe will decline nearly fifty percent in some European nations over the next forty years. The view of children has changed. The Bible says children are a gift and a reward. Therefore, we should long for them, seek them. We're so interested in self-actualization, we can become selfish. We worry so much about the burdens of parenthood - are they worth the sacrifice? - that we forget it is more blessed to give than to receive. Let it be our goal to be "Jesus-actualized." That means a life of faith and giving – including giving to children.
Hannah teaches us to love our children. She prayed for her unborn child, Samuel. She nursed him and clothed him as loving mothers do. Someone once asked me what I like best about being a father. So many options: reading, playing, making up stories, asking questions that make them think. I answered, "Hugging them." But Hannah also loved her son Samuel by relinquishing him
Hannah did it in a unique way: because of a vow at a critical moment in Israel's history. But we still relinquish our children. A vital moment is the first day of school, but it's a life-long process. As we teach our children, in word or deed, we prepare to relinquish them. As we show love, respect and lead, protect, and nurture, we also prepare to release them. We release them into the world, to their own responsibility, to their relationship with friends, spouse, and the Lord.
1 Bergen, Samuel, page 68