Sunday, November 15, 2009

Little Retreat - 12: Hannah (Sermon on 1 Samuel 1:4-20)

What do you want so much that you think about it all the time? If you’re younger, maybe it’s a video game, or a particular soccer ball, or some new music for your ipod. Those of us who are a bit older have different material desires – a certain piece of jewelry, perhaps, or maybe something for the house. Perhaps it’s the intangibles that stir up our longings -- a new job? The resolution of a medical problem? A chance to travel to see our families again?

What Hannah wanted more than anything else was a child -- a male child, to be specific. At least the story seems to tell us that that’s what she wanted. She was one of two of Elkhanah’s wives, and his other wife had children and Hannah didn’t. Elkhanah loved her more than he did his other wife, and did more for her, and told her how much he loved her, but the other wife taunted her and gave her a hard time and generally made her life miserable, and besides – in her culture, the production of children was what made a woman’s life meaningful.

Hmmmmm….did Hannah really just want a child, or want a child for the usual reasons we think of for having a child? Maybe not. When Hannah went to God with her longing for a child, she promised that she would consecrate his life to God; she promised that she would turn him over to God. She wasn’t looking to complete a family in the usual way – she wasn’t planning to keep her family together. She wasn’t anticipating the enjoyment of raising a son and watching him grow into adulthood – she was planning to give him away to God.

The evidence, it seems to me, is that what Hannah wanted was purpose and meaning in her life. And in her time and place, purpose and meaning for a woman was all tied up in bearing male children. No wonder Elkanhah’s other wife lorded it over her – the other wife was the successful one, the one whom in the eyes of the community had it made. Hannah had the love of her husband, but without a child she was unable to fulfill her role as an adult marred woman; her life seemed to have little point.

It’s hard for us to understand today, in a world in which women, and men, have many different choices about ways in which to live out meaningful lives. I don’t need to detail them – we all know that we have a multitude of options and choices. But in Hannah’s time things were very different. Her husband, Elkhanah, was actually something of a radical– he thought that she should be satisfied with his love, should see her life as valuable because he loved her. But Hannah didn’t see it that way. She thought that meaning and purpose could be found only in bearing a child.

Or……….. did she? Maybe Hannah wanted something more. Most of us, if we want something deeply, whether it’s a video game or a new job, so deeply that we pray for it -- our idea is that God will fulfill our dreams and we will be grateful and then we will go on about our lives, living them pretty much as we always have. We may find more meaning and satisfaction in a life with some new music to listen to, or we may find new purpose in a more challenging job, or a job with a better future – but we tend to stop there.

Hannah didn’t. Hannah didn’t stop there. She could have prayed for a son and promised to be grateful for his arrival and to care for him and raise him well, living out her life as a respected member of her community. She could have – but she didn’t. Hannah wasn’t just hoping for a child, and she wasn’t just seeking a meaningful life. She was looking to align herself completely with God’s purposes – to fulfill God’s desires. That would mean a big sacrifice for her – she would give her lovely child back to God when he was three or so years old -- but that’s what she wanted. And so she promised God that if God would give her a male child, she would consecrate that child to God as a Nazorite. He would be prohibited from certain ordinarry bodily practices, like shaving his head. He would be precluded from indulging incertain delights – like drinking wine. He would be set aside as someone who would become wholly God’s servant as a priest and prophet.

Maybe we should re-think those things we want so much. Maybe we should re-think what and how we want. Maybe Hannah sets the standard. A new item for the house, a new job Something that will give more meaning and purpose to our lives -- maybe that much desired college admission letter? Not enough on its own. Hannah shows us that we might want to think in terms of aligning ourselves with God’s purposes, that our desires are found within God’s desire for us. And those desires – when they are part of God’s purposes for our lives – they always turn out to be about service.

You already know this, of course. I’m just reminding you. Those of us who are teachers, those of us who are running a store or working in a business or government office, those of us who are in school or raising a family – we know, intuitively, that in our service to others we are living out God’s purposes. But might we think about it a bit more? – might we be a bit more intentional about what we are doing? – how might we, quietly, in our prayers, make a consecration , a donation, of what we do to God? How might we consecrate our students, our customers, our co-workers, our teachers and professors, our own children, to God?

Especially, we might ask – especially when we don’t know the end result! So often we have no idea – will that student perhaps grow up to be an astronaut? Will that customer go home, grateful for a kind encounter in our store? Will our children live good lives, helpful to others?

We don’t know, and again we look to Hannah. Hannah had no way of knowing that the baby she cried out for, the child she consecrated to the Lord, would become the prophet and priest who interfaced between the people of Israel and God over the issue of a king for Israel. All Hannah knew was that she longed for a child, longed for a life of purpose and meaning, longed to align herself with the desires of God. Many years after Samuel’s birth, Israel would still be governed by judges, whose main task was to resolve disputes. Samuel would become the prophet who represented the people to God and God to the people in the decision to select Saul as the first King of Israel. Samuel would become the priest who subsequently anointed David as King. Hannah’s willingness to turn her life, her greatest desires, over to God, made her deeply vulnerable to all possibility, but it also and gave her life its ultimate purpose.

If we are able to absorb Hannah’s story into our own, we may find that we live a similar narrative. Our own versions, of course – we face different cultural expectations and limitations in terms of what constitutes a meaningful life in its specifics. But when we seek purpose in our lives by offering God’s greatest gifts back to God in service to others, we not only follow Hannah’s example – we follow someone else who would have known her story. Jesus, in aligning himself entirely with his Father’s purposes, lived his earthly life and then lost it in willing donation on our behalf. In seeking to place our deepest desires within the desires of our God, we imitate Hannah in her quest for a child and her gift of that child to God, and we imitate Jesus in his eternal quest to embody God’s longings by giving of himself to us. Purposeful lives, it turns out, do not come from receiving what we want, but in giving what we receive. Thanks be to God.

(Image: Admont Giant Bible, Salzburg; c. 1150 ~ Here)


Songbird said...

I like what you did here, and also feel kicked in the pants by it, needfully. Thank you.

Stratoz said...

hope you were met with ears that listened

Joan Calvin said...

Great sermon. Thanks

Mompriest said...

I really appreciate what you said here and how you said it. Well done good and faithful servant.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I like how you explored this subject. And your conclusion spoke to me, especially this line:

Purposeful lives, it turns out, do not come from receiving what we want, but in giving what we receive.

I need to think about this for a while.

Rev SS said...

Great reflection and excellent point made: "Purposeful lives, it turns out, do not come from receiving what we want, but in giving what we receive." Amen.

ap said...

Very well done! Alexandra

Magdalene6127 said...

This sermon carries a powerful message, one I badly needed to hear. Thank you.

Kathryn J said...

This was a wonderful sermon. I have never heard of Hannah - woefully ignorant of much of the bible but currently part of a study group. Thinking about what she was willing to do is mind-boggling in our current culture of parenting. The sermon to me is a call to focus on giving rather than keeping - in a more general sense.