Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
Today we heard a story about a vulnerable woman, who despite her rather precarious social situation, nevertheless demonstrated great faith and trust in God. This woman miraculously became pregnant and gave birth to a son who played a very important role in the salvation history of Israel and the line of King David. During the time when we normally recite a Psalm together, we instead recited this woman’s song to God, in which she praises God for lifting up the powerless and humbling the rich and powerful. Quickly, how many are wondering if we accidentally read our Advent readings a month early?
Well there are a lot of similarities between the story of Hannah and Samuel and the story of Mary and Jesus. And I’ll bet that there has been more than one doctoral thesis exploring these connections. Some of the similarities are quite obvious. There are the miraculous births of key figures in our salvation history. And the Magnificat sung by Mary is based on Hannah’s song which was our canticle this morning. But the similarity I want to look at is what Mary and Hannah had in common with Ruth and Naomi, whose story we read last week. All of these were socially vulnerable women who stepped up when they needed to, demonstrated incredible faith in God, and ended up playing a much greater role in the coming of God’s kingdom than they could have imagined.
Last week the pastor preached on the story of Ruth and Naomi. The story of Ruth in the Book of Ruth immediately precedes the passage we read today. Naomi and her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth are widows in ancient Israel. Not only have their husbands died, but they have no sons. Ruth was a foreigner to boot. It is hard to imagine someone at greater risk of living in brutal poverty. But Ruth had made the decision to be with Naomi and to follow Yahweh, the God of Israel. And as we heard last week, Ruth’s faithfulness in following God resulted in her marrying Naomi’s kinsman redeemer and becoming the great grandmother to King David.
Today’s reading is the story of Hannah. Hannah is the first wife of a man named Elkanah. The story tells us that Hannah was not able to produce an heir for her husband. In ancient Israel, it was very critical for a wife to bear a son who could then carry on the family tradition. As we learned last week from Ruth, in ancient Israel only men inherited and carried on the family name. A woman who could not bear a son was in an extremely vulnerable position. Her husband could divorce her or ignore her. Fortunately, Elkanah did not do this. Instead, he took a second wife who bore him children. This is the general setting for today’s story.
Somewhat more specifically, verse 3 tells us that Elkanah took his family and went once a year to worship and sacrifice to the Lord at Shiloh. This was before David had established Jerusalem as the center of Israel, and at this time the town of Shiloh was the important religious center in Israel. Most commentators I have read suggest that when Elkanah and his family went to Shiloh they would have had a feast very similar to our Thanksgiving dinner. So when it says that Elkanah gave portions of meat to his family, this was probably referring to a major family feast. At this feast, Elkanah gave Hanna “a double portion because he loved her.” It would appear that Hannah was Elkanah’s favorite wife despite her inability to have children.
This sets us up for the next part of the story. Since Hannah couldn’t have children, Elkanah took a second wife, named Peninnah, to produce an heir. And , Peninnah did just that, but Elkanah still loved Hannah more. This led to a very dysfunctional situation. You had the best loved wife, Hannah, who was not able to bear children. Then you had the number two wife, Peninnah who did produce children. Both of these women had grievances and cause to be envious of the other. We are told that Peninnah responded by constantly needling Hannah about her inability to have children. Our reading tells us that Peninnah “kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.”
Can you imagine the situation? You’ve got the husband who strikes me as a nice man but rather clueless. He seems to be completely ignorant of how his wives are feeling. He tries to reward Hannah with a special portion at the feast but he is unable to give her the one thing she most desires – that is, children. Peninnah saw Elkanah lavish this special attention on Hannah and probably thought to herself “Why give her all the attention? I’m the one that has given you children. Why slight me in favor of her?” And so in childish fashion, Peninnah would provoke Hannah behind the scenes till she cried and lost her appetite. What a wonderful home life it must have been.
But one time at Shiloh, Hannah had had enough. Rather than just continuing to be upset, Hannah decided to turn to the Lord. She poured out her heart in anguish to God. Hannah told God that if God would only give her a son, she would in turn, dedicate that son to the Lord’s service for his whole life. Israelites dedicated to God did not shave their heads, and so when Hannah said “I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head” this is what she means. Hannah must have been very emotional because Eli the priest watched her and figured that she must be drunk. When Eli realizes his mistake, he tells Hannah “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” God uses the bumbling Eli, who was not able to tell the difference between an emotionally distraught woman and a drunk woman, to assure Hannah that her prayers had been heard.
In time, Hannah did become pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. When her son Samuel was ready, Hannah took him to the priest Eli where he entered into God’s service. When Samuel grew up, he became one of the leading prophets in Israel and, among other things, anointed David to be Israel’s king. Hannah’s decision to turn to God in her time of trial led to one of the greatest prophets in Israel’s history who anointed King David.
This is a great story, just as the stories of Ruth and Naomi and the Virgin Mary are. But what does it teach us? What lessons can we learn from these stories? They tell us about how God works in the world to bring about his plan for salvation. In each of these situations, God used the weakest and most vulnerable members of society to play a key role in the salvation history of the world. These women were not asked to complete a great quest or conquer a powerful enemy or become a celebrity. Rather, these women were only asked to take an incredible step of faith and follow the path that God had already laid out for them.
Those of you who know me, know that I am a huge fan or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and the accompanying movies. In these stories, there are great races of men, elves, dwarves, and eagles. All of them had a proud history of great and noble deeds and possessed martial prowess and always sought after glory. But then there were the hobbits and these were largely forgotten about because they were very pedestrian and shied away from glory and adventure. There were two special hobbits, Frodo and Sam, and these two hobbits never sought glory, never saw themselves as the central feature in the story. They just did what was asked of them. And it was Frodo and Sam and their simple faith and obedience that, in the end, proved decisive.
I think that Tolkien probably got this theme in the Lord of the Rings from stories like Hannah’s, Mary’s, and Ruth and Naomi’s. These were people who did not fancy themselves as the center of the story. Rather, they demonstrated a simple but strong faith, trusting in God and moving forward in obedience to God’s calling. And at the end of the day, though they did not realize it at the time, nor did they seek it out, they nevertheless played decisive roles in God’s overall story of bringing salvation to the world.
In today’s world, we often think that we are the central feature in the story. Sure, we may be open to sometimes receiving input from God into our story. Indeed, we often ask how God fits into our story. We might ask “what is God doing in our lives?” and that might be a very good question to ask but there is a danger in it. One of the defining themes of our Western culture is radical self-autonomy – in other words, everything is about us and our definitions of reality, our wants, our desires, our stories. Christians cannot help but be influenced by this way of thinking. It is human nature to want to be the center of the story.
And so, often Christians ask how God fits into our stories. This is usually done with the very best of intentions as we seek God in fulfilling our culturally given right to define our own stories. But is this how Hannah thought about it? Or how Mary thought about it? Or Ruth or Naomi? I don’t think so. They didn’t pray to see how God fit into their stories, but rather, they prayed and responded by doing what was asked of them in God’s story.
Theologian Eugene Peterson, in a commentary on the first and second books of Samuel, makes a very important observation about the story of Hannah and Samuel. Peterson writes “We do violence to the biblical revelation when we “use” it for what we can get out of it or what we think will provide color and spice to our otherwise bland lives. That results in a kind of “boutique spirituality” – God as decoration. The Samuel narrative will not allow that. In the reading, as we submit our lives to what we read, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but to see our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which my story finds itself.”1
Peterson’s point is so important I want to repeat it “we are not being led to see God in our stories but to see our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which my story finds itself.” If we have this perspective – of our story being part of God’s larger story – then I think that faith, trust and obedience in God becomes more natural to us. Think about it. If we are the center of the story, we don’t know how the story ends. However, we know the ending to God’s story – we can read that in the final book in the Bible, the Revelation of John. We know how God’s story ends. We can count on that.
If we realize that the story is not all about us, then we don’t need to prove anything or make our mark. We don’t need to swoop in and save the day. We can step back and realize that we only need to join Naomi, Ruth, Hannah and Mary in trusting God and obeying him, because that is the key to God’s story being the context and plot in which our stories belong.
God’s story is all about rescuing the world from sin through Jesus Christ. And all of our stories are to be found within this context, within this plot. Jesus Christ is the main character in our stories and is where each of our stories find their roots. If we can keep focused on Jesus and respond to God with faith and obedience, we will play our part in God’s greater story.
Let us pray,
Lord God, we thank you for making us a part of the most incredible story ever – the story of Jesus Christ coming to earth to die and rise and again, saving us from our sins and restoring our relationship to God. You have given us your story in the Bible. As today’s Collect tells us: you caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1Eugene Peterson, First and Second Samuel (Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), p. 3.