Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sermon from Sunday, June 21

Having trouble getting the audio up here. Will post when available. Based on 1 Samuel 1:1-11, the story of Hannah.

It may surprise some of you that Hannah is one of the more popular baby names for American girls the last few years. In 2006, it ranked as the 8th most popular girl name, which was actually down from its peak—between 1998 and 2000, Hannah was the 2nd most popular girl name for babies in the US. This was a relatively new development, as Hannah was the 91st most popular girl name in the 1980s, the 475th most popular girl name of the 1970s, and the 905th most popular girl name of the 1960s.
There probably is a reason for the recent popularity of the name Hannah, and that is that people don’t really know their Bible very well. Because to give your kid a name like Hannah is not to wish on them an easy life. Hannah is a name that weighs heavy at times, because Hannah had a very difficult time of it, at least at first in her life.
Hannah was infertile. When I was writing this sermon in the study, I wrote, “Hannah battled infertility.” But that was not true: Hannah did not battle infertility because the Bible doesn’t reveal that there was very much that women could do at that time except for pray. There was no scientific knowledge about how ovulation worked and no options for things like in vitro fertilization. Generally couples who faced infertility would have the man sleep with a servant girl who would then be forced to give the child to the couple. One article I read expressed in these terms: in Biblical times they viewed the womb as a mystery; today we view the womb as something over which we express mastery. Today we view it almost as a right that women should be able to bear children, whereas in Biblical times it was simply understood to be part of God’s inscrutable will that there was a certain segment of women who simply could not. “The Lord had closed her womb” is how this text expresses it about Hannah.
The text of the Bible, which often seems blind to modern sensibilities about women, is surprisingly tender when talking about Hannah and how all of this made her feel. Her husband, Elkanah, also had another wife named Peninnah; Peninnah had many sons and daughters and Hannah of course had a deep rivalry with her. Polygamy was not all that common in those days, reserved for the very wealthy who could in essence afford 2 wives and families. And Peninnah, we read, used to provoke her severely and irritate her; we can only imagine what that means exactly—it could be that she mocked her outright or gave her the cold shoulder, we don’t know. And Elkanah, the husband, saw what it was doing to Hannah and it made him feel tenderly toward her. When they would go up to offer sacrifices to the Lord, of course there was meat from the sacrifices; some of that meat was given to the priests who offered the sacrifices and who depended on the people for their food. But most of the meat from the animal was given back to the family who brought the animal to be sacrificed. And this was a special treat because meat was not all that common in those ancient times, even for some wealthier families. And Elkanah would split it all up among the members of his household, but he used to give Peninnah a double portion, because he loved her so much and felt so tenderly toward her. One of the most poignant and sweet parts of Scripture is when Elkanah sees Hannah so sad, and he says, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” And of course, Elkanah doesn’t get it; few husbands really can get this, even today, I think. But his response is sweet and clueless and tender in a way we don’t often see in Scripture.
While infertility is a uniquely difficult issue, and not all of us have dealt with it, I think there is something in Hannah’s life that strikes a chord in all of us. Unlike modern approaches to infertility, Hannah’s sense was not that something in her body was not working properly. Hannah’s sense was that there was a wonderful blessing out there somewhere that for some reason—some inscrutable, unexplainable reason—was not destined for her. She would never know the joy and blessing of parenthood not because there was something fixable that no one could find but because God had closed off those joys and blessings by closing off her womb. And this is something which we all can appreciate.
We all know what it is like to have something beyond our reach and have absolutely no way to get to it. We were out to lunch last Sunday with our little boy, Jack. And I felt so bad for him because here we all were eating these greasy beautiful cheeseburgers up at Red Robin—and he couldn’t have any! And not only that, when I got out the baby food to feed him, he started smacking his lips because he was so hungry, but of course, he doesn’t know how to get the tops off of jars, and so he just sat there smacking his lips because he couldn’t get the baby food open. His yummy food lay just beyond reach, but he couldn’t get to it. He just couldn’t.
We all have experiences like this in our lives, where we feel unable to obtain something we desperately want. Sometimes in our shallower days, that something is a literal thing, a big-screen television or a fancy new home. But more often, those things that we feel unable to attain that really bother us, that really get under our skin, are deeply painful sorts of things. We want to be able to create a new and different life for ourselves but lack the tools to do so and lack the money to get the tools we need. We see one of our grown children on the wrong path in life, and we want them to take a different path but they will not. We want a cure for a disease that threatens our lives or the lives of those we love. In each of these cases, we cannot control the outcomes. We cannot make money appear out of thin air to go back to school and get a new degree. We cannot make our grown children (or even our children who are still at home) choose a different course in life. We cannot snap our fingers and conjure a cure for cancer out of thin air. In all these things, we may feel a bit like Hannah—for some reason God has marked us for a particular burden to bear in life that some people get marked for. We don’t know why it was us, it is beyond us why this would happen that way. And just like Hannah had no weapons in her fight against infertility, we feel that there is nothing that we can do to change this.
And yet Hannah did do something. She got up after eating and she went and presented herself before the Lord, and she prayed. She prayed, “If only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will set him before you as a nazarite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.” A nazarite was a special sort of person, or maybe an ordinary person consecrated to God in a special kind of way. If Hannah were favored with a son, this son would be specially devoted to God; he would not get mixed up in drinking, and his hair would remain uncut as a testimony to his status as a special servant of God.
There are three things I want you to notice about this: two things that Hanna did and one thing she did not do. First, I love that phrase that Hannah “presented herself before the Lord.” There is a lot of honesty here; there is no pretense. Often we bring ourselves before God with pretense, pretending that we’re better off than we are. We say pious sounding things like, “If it’s your will God, make this happen. But if not, help me to cope with your good and gracious will.” Hannah doesn’t do this. She presents herself to God totally as she is, and I think God values that kind of honesty, that says this is where I am right now, God, this is what I feel is right, God, and this is what I want you to do, God. Hannah doesn’t hide herself behind pious language or sentimental words, and she doesn’t give God ultimatums. She just presents herself, just as she is.
And how is she? miserable. If you will only look on the misery of your servant, if you will only remember me, God, and if you will only give me a son. That’s where my heart is right now, that’s what I think I need, what I think I want the most. That’s honesty, that’s real, and God apparently values that sort of speech. After all, consider for a moment the situation from God’s perspective: he created humans with the capability to hurt. He created us with the capability to feel pain on behalf of others or even when something in our lives reflects brokenness. That’s often a very valuable thing; he created us to feel like he feels, he created us that our hearts would break with the things that make his heart break. Would he really then want us to always be hiding our real feelings? Hannah presents herself honestly to God.
Then I love how Hannah offers her desires to God. “If you will give me a son, I will give him back to you.” How often we fail to pause and consider why we want the things we want. It’s easy to see this with financial desires or things that we want. For instance, if I were to get a big-screen TV, I really doubt that I would use it for much good. I mean, I would enjoy it, and I’d have friends over to watch games and things, but I don’t think God’s Kingdom would really be advanced by me having a big-screen TV. I’d just like it. It would be fun to have it.
But sometimes we don’t even know why we want the important things; for instance, why do we want our children on the right path in life? I know that even at 3 years old, I get anxious about how Gracie behaves. But to be honest, my anxiety is mostly about me. I don’t want to be looked at as a bad parent, an indulgent parent, a too-hard parent, or whatever. I want Grace to behave—at times—mostly because her behavior reflects on me. That’s, frankly, not a real good reason for me to want her to choose the right path in life. What would be a good reason? Because I want her to grow up to be like Jesus; because I want her to choose that path for her life because it is the only path that brings real reward, and it is the only path that makes the difficulty and pain of life worthwhile. There are good and bad reasons for wanting kids to choose the right path; there are even good and bad reasons for wanting someone to be healed.
Hannah was commendable because she offered her desires to God; she wanted this to happen, to have a son, but she said, “If you give me this thing I desire, I will hold none of it back from you.” In other words, I will remember that this came from you, that this is a gift, and I will not treat it as something I have earned, and I will treat this boy as yours, not as my own. This is commendable because it is the very definition of a steward, which you and I are called to be. Hannah says, “Whatever is mine is yours, God.”
Prayer is not an easy recipe, and I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying, “Here’s how to get your prayers answered.” But I will say that I think the reason that many things I pray for do not happen is that I do not always share Hannah’s attitude. It is too easy for me to want things because I want them, not because I want to steward them for God, to use them for his Kingdom. Again, please don’t hear me wrong—I’m not saying that if you build God a good case for why you want something, God will give it to you. To be honest, it probably works the other way: if you become a good steward, if you are growing into God’s image, you are going to start to want the things God wants, and to want them for the right reason. Hannah was just such a person, who wanted what God wanted for God’s good. So I’m struck by that as well as by her willingness to be honest before God.
That’s what she did; now for the one thing she didn’t do that I also think is important. She didn’t try to practice magic. What do I mean by this? By this I mean that she doesn’t try to use human means to manipulate God. She is honest with God about what she is feeling. She is honest about what she wants, and she is sincere in her desire to steward her son rightly. But she doesn’t try to manipulate or trick God. She doesn’t say, “I’ll be extra nice to Elkanah if you give me a son,” or “I’ll stop my backbiting and anger at Peninnah if you give me a son,” she simply says, “If you give me a son, I’ll be a good steward just as I have sought to be my whole life.” Not, “If you don’t give me a son, you and I are through.” A simple statement of what is.
What about us? While likely not many of us are struggling through infertility right now, each of us is praying for something today, each of us is desperately hoping for something. Let’s each of us seek to be like Hannah, who didn’t try to manipulate God, but tried her best to steward what God had given her no matter if she got what she wanted or not.
The story has a happy ending for Hannah—she has a baby boy, Samuel, who she delivers back to God by bringing him back to the temple to serve Eli and the other priests. This may seem strange to us, but for women in that culture, having the child was a sign of blessing, and keeping the child was not quite as necessary. So Hannah was happy to give the baby, and although I’m sure she was somewhat sad to see him go, no one could ever take away her status as a mother.
Will our stories end happily? I don’t know. But I do know that as we give ourselves to God, as we seek to be better stewards of all things he gives us, we will find joy in that we are becoming the kind of people God uses to show his love to the world.