"Barrenness is a Heavy Burden to Bear" The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon November 14, 2021 1 Samuel 1:4:20 & 2:1-10
The inability to have children is a crushing burden to those who want children. I can tell you from a personal and professional experience that it remains devastating in our day and time, but the degree of associated pain was excruciating in ancient Israel. In that culture as in many others, the absence of children was assumed to be a sign of God’s deep displeasure which was evidence of the lack of worthiness and faithfulness of a person. Often, women bore the brunt of the stigma, because if he could afford it, a man could take another wife and eventually father children.
Penninah, the other wife who could bear children, taunted Hannah intentionally making her life miserable at every turn. Not being able to conceive meant that Hannah had no real future both in terms of bloodlines and in terms of her familial and communal standing. She was given a life sentence without hope of reprieve or pardon.
Hannah is deeply distraught. Her husband, Elkanah, adored her and attempted to help Hannah. He starts off well by asking her:
Why do you weep?
Why will you not eat?
Why is your heart sad?
But his efforts fail badly when he makes the help he extends about himself:
“You have me—isn’t that enough, more than ten sons?
Not good, Elkanah.
Hannah remained faithful. At the temple of Shiloh, she weeps bitterly while praying fervently. She tells God that if she is given a child, that she will offer him up to be a Nazarite, a very devout adherent, devoted entirely to the temple rituals and practices.
She prays with so much fervor that Eli, the high priest notices her from afar and for no good reason, immediately assumes that she is drunk.
He confronts her and tells her to put away her wine.
She explains that she is not drunk but that she is a deeply troubled woman.
Eli sees that she is sincere and changes his tune, in a sense having to quickly reflect on his own shortsightedness—he is brought up short, and changes course quickly. He blesses her and asks the Lord to hear her prayer. “Let the Lord find favor in your sight.”
The cloud of hopelessness pierced, Hannah’s countenance was no longer sad. Soon after she conceived a child, whom she named Samuel which means “one from God.”
Our second reading recounts Hannah’s song which starts off with effusive praise: “My heart exults the Lord.” It is also a rebuke to the proud and haughty. It describes how God will vanquish the powerful and bring the rich low, will raising up the poor.
God turned the world upside down, lifting up the lowly like Hannah. Hannah exalts that God has responded and made things right.
What does this passage say about faithfulness and the prayers of the devout? It suggests that God hears our prayers and responds in ways that we don’t expect or cannot imagine. We cannot always anticipate or fathom what God is up to in our lives, as God acts very often in unexpected and unlikely ways.
Accepting that there is a great amount of mystery in God’s involvement in our lives, what it does say is that we God acts to give new life through God’s blessings.
By answering Hannah’s prayer, God works to create new blessings that will beget further blessings, and life abundantly. Samuel would go on to give his blessing to the first King of Israel, Saul, and to David.
This rich text might be distilled down to primary takeways: the lowly and despised are the apple of God’s eye. The Hannah’s of the world should take heart and remain faithful. Keeping close to God even in the darkest of circumstances is well advised.
And, then, there is a message for the Penninahs’ of the world, who have the power and sanction to torment, disparage, and taunt. Simply put DON’T do it—it is not what God wants of us and for us.
There is also a message for those who find themselves attempting to help a loved one like Elkanah. Help by all means but do not TELL someone how they should feel especially if you position yourself as the saviour in that conversation, as did Elkanah.
And if you are Eli, counseling others when in a position of authority or greater power, do not assume things based on a superficial or self-serving read of the situation. Sit and listen. Say nothing mostly and do no harm first.
If God prioritizes the beaten down and downtrodden, it follows that these same people and groups of people should be the apple of our own eye and the recipient of compassion and care… especially when our care runs contrary to prevailing societal values which almost always privilege the powerful, the dominant and the rich.
Finally, at times, we are reminded that new beginnings nearly always come out of the depths of despair. They often come out of the stuck places which seem to be hopeless and dark. The birth pangs are awful but pass giving way to new life which endures and which begets even more life and more blessings to come. This notion is also described in the gospel which describes the birth pangs in a more cosmic sense, rather than on a personal dimension. But the sense is the same--God is at the heart of the New Creation.
As we move into Advent shortly, I pray that we each reflect and examine our own conscience and behaviors; let us always side with those brought down low and those brokenhearted and let us always be open to bearing blessings into the world for our sake and the sake of others.