Sunday, October 3, 2010


Good Morning. I’m so glad that today I get to share one of my all-time favorite stories from the Bible. Now while I bet most of you know this story from Sunday School, I’m going to fill in some pieces that aren’t usually mentioned in Sunday School, ok? The message this morning is about a parent. What’s more, this parent has a very special place in all of history (not just the Bible). Really! In fact, you should learn about this person in history at school – except that our school administrators don’t seem to want to give the Bible that much credit.

Now I want you to guess who this person is. The first hint is simply that our subject is the author of the song of praise that Bethany read a minute ago. [The second hint is that this parent’s child also has a special place in history. This child is the first - or perhaps second - child in history whose words are ever recorded.] That’s right, [the child is Samuel, and] this morning I will be telling the story of [his mother, whose name was] Hannah.

[Now I just told you part of what Samuel’s place in history is.] But what is Hannah’s special place in history? Well, the poem that was read for us earlier is Hannah's prayer. Hannah is the first woman in history whose composition is recorded. Now in spite of what some people will like to tell you, the Bible is really very respectful and generous to women. And it is not only in the New Testament, where Jesus empowers women and Paul writes that there is now no difference between men and women in Christ. It is in the Old Testament, too. Even before Hannah’s poem is recorded for us – giving a woman a voice in the Bible long, long before women had any power or voice in other cultures – there is a woman’s story even earlier in the Bible, isn’t there? Of course, I mean the book of Ruth. But even before that, the stories of Rahab and Deborah and Hagar and Miriam are given important places in scripture. In fact, the status of women in the Bible is literally thousands of years ahead of the rest of the world. If you don’t believe me, look it up: it is difficult to find examples of women’s writing apart from the Bible that are less than three thousand years after these words of Hannah were recorded.

But before we talk about Hannah I need to tell you something about the time that Hannah lived in. It was a little different back then than it is today. You knew that already. I'm just reminding you. But one of the big ways that things were different is that back then babies were really, really important. Now I know that today there are some people who think that babies are important – they are all my friends.  But back then pretty much everybody knew that babies were important. And Hannah herself thought that babies were really, really important. The trouble was that Hannah couldn't seem to have a baby. Now she was married. And she and her husband did love each other. But no babies were happening. And this broke Hannah's heart.

But there is something else that I need to tell you about how things were back then. As you probably know, today there are about the same number of boys as there are girls, and the same numbers of men as there are women. At least that's true in Canada and North America. But back then it wasn't true at all. You see, every year back then most of the men would go to war. They would be fighting battles with other men from other nations. Many of them would die. So there were many fewer men than they were women. And so, if a woman wanted to be married – and almost every woman wanted to be married because, as you recall, everyone knew that babies were really, really important – have I said that too many times? – if a woman wanted to be married, she might have to share a husband with another wife. I bet you can imagine that that wasn't always a lot of fun.

Anyway, poor Hannah: not only was she unable to have a baby, but her husband had another wife who already had a number of children. And that other wife was always teasing Hannah for the fact that she had babies while Hannah did not. Why are people mean like that? Remember, if somebody else is mean to you, it doesn't help matters at all if you decide to be mean yourself.

Now, during most of the year, Hannah could keep busy and mostly avoid that other woman’s taunts. But every year Hannah, her husband, and her husband's other wife with all her children went to Shiloh where God's tabernacle was set up and where everyone in Israel was supposed to come and make sacrifices. Of course, on those trips, the whole family was basically forced to hang out together. And those were the worst times. The year our story begins, poor Hannah has just had to suffer through a particularly nasty bout of teasing. And the Bible says that she went to the tabernacle and prayed. First Samuel, chapter one, verse ten: “In bitterness of soul, Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord.”

Let’s stop here for a second: “Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord” – now I’ve already told you that we can learn a lesson about prayer from Hannah, didn’t I? After all, the whole reason that Hannah’s story is in the Bible in the first place is that her prayer was special. That is, God answered her prayer. So if we look closely at her prayer, we might find a lesson on how to have our prayers answered by God, right?

But the funny thing about Hannah’s prayer is that it is one of those prayers that the “experts” say we shouldn’t pray! Poor Hannah is so beside herself with grief that she comes to God with a deal: “If you, O God, give me what I want, then I’ll do something for you.” I gotta tell you: we are in no place to make bargains with God. It is a big mistake to imagine that God is a way to get whatever it is that we want. That's just wrong. God is worthy of greater respect than that! And if we don’t come to God with respect, then how can we expect to receive answers to our prayers?

But go figure: even though Hannah prayed in a way that we aren’t supposed to pray God answered her prayer anyway. I really love that. It means that God doesn’t operate according to any formula. God is big enough to take us just as we are, and to take our prayers just as they are – “doing it wrong” or not. And He loves us. He loves us enough to listen to those prayers – especially when our hearts are breaking. This is the God that we serve, dear friends. He doesn’t ask us to behave before we belong. He doesn’t ask us to climb up to His standard before He is willing to listen to us. It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.

Of course, God’s children will be known for resembling their Father. We, too, must be willing to overlook lapses in spiritual protocol. According to the Gospel of John, there is only one thing critical to the church – that we love one another. We remain in Jesus when we love one another. We experience the fellowship of unity when we love one another. We provide the most compelling and attractive offer of grace to the world when we love one another – accepting without exception.

But back to Hannah: here’s how the Bible continues: “And [Hannah] made a vow, saying, ‘oh Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, … I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.’”

Now please notice what Hannah does. Hannah looks for a win-win situation. She isn’t just looking for what she wants. Instead, she wants to be able to do something for God. I think that that is a good principle: when we stand before God, we need to understand that we have no rights at all! As we were taught a few weeks ago, it is really God Who owns our money; it is God really owns our time; God owns our bodies; God owns our brains. As the Bible says, “It is God who has made us, and we belong to Him” and “Every good gift is from our Father above.” That’s just the way it is. That’s the reality. If we have any other attitude when we come to God, we shouldn’t expect Him to take us seriously.

So Hannah searches her heart to find something that she thinks God might want from her. And you know what she finds? She decides that since her heart is going to be broken anyway, she would accept the second most heartbreaking thing in the world in order to avoid the most heartbreaking thing in the world. Hannah is not just using God. Hannah’s deal with God involves a huge sacrifice. You see, if never having children is the worst possible thing in the world, then the second worst thing in the world would be to have to give up your only child. But that’s exactly what Hannah offers to God: “I’m willing to give the child back to you,” she says, “as long as you are willing to give me a child.”

Now God didn’t just answer Hannah’s prayer outright. It is clear from the Bible that God wanted to answer Hannah’s prayer, but before He did, He put Hannah to a test. Now if you’ve ever been to school, chances are that you know something about tests. But if all you know about tests is from school, then you probably don’t like them very much. I find it amazing when an eleven-year old boy is troubled about being given a test at school – when the same boy, being given a test in a video game, gets all excited! Of course, in video games they aren’t called “tests” – they’re called “puzzles”. But they really are just tests, of course. At school, or in a video game, the test is to see if your brain is in the right place. With God, we’re tested to see if our hearts are in the right place.

And you know? A lot of the Bible is better explained – hey, a lot of life is better explained – when we realize that God is continually testing his children. It happens all the time! What does the Bible say? “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12,13)” or “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face [tests] of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops [you to perfection]. (James 1)” The good news about the kind of tests that God gives us is that God knows how we are made, and knows what we can handle, and never sets us up for failure.

And so God put Hannah to a test. And the name of her test was Eli. Eli was the priest and judge in Israel at the time.

S: Did you sss-ay “Eli”
D: Hello?
S: I sss-aid – did you sss-ay “Eli”?
D: Oh! Hello. Well yes I did.
S: Well! Let me talk to you then…
D: You said you wanted to talk to me?
S: Ye-sss.
D: About Eli?
S: Ye-sss. I’ve heard sss-ome nassss-ty things about Eli.
D: Well, this is church – we don’t gossip in church.
S: It isssn’t gosssip… exsssactly.
D: Hmm.
S: And it isss all true!
D: Gossip can be true and still be gossip.
S: Aren’t you conssserned about eeee-vil in the church?
D: Of course I am!
S: Well then you should be conssserned about Eli’s sssons!
D: Oh yes, Eli’s sons – the Bible says that they were very wicked.
S: Sssseee? If it’sss in there, then it isssn’t gosssip.
D: Ok… We know that Eli’s sons were bad characters.
S: But they were also supposed to be priestsss!
D: What’s your point?
S: Well, if there is a lot of corruption among the priests, then how can we trust anything at all that they ssssay?
D: But there is corruption everywhere! Everywhere that there are people… or snakes.
S: No need to get nassssty.
D: But seriously. In all of history, there has never been power without corruption. Does that mean we shouldn’t have any more government?
S: well…
D: And in all of history, there has never been money without corruption. Does that mean we shouldn’t have any more buying and selling?
S: I was jussst sssayin’.
D: You’ve said enough.

Goodness! That snake was making some pretty vile insinuations, wasn’t he? And the worst part? Everything that the snake said was true! Eli’s sons were wicked. They took advantage of their position as priests and they even stole from those coming to the tabernacle. Now I’m sure that these things were common knowledge at the time. No doubt even Hannah was aware that Eli was not a very good father. But that’s exactly why God used Eli to test Hannah.

As you remember, Hannah had promised to give back to God the son that she was praying God would give to her. And as we discover later in the story, that means taking the child Samuel, when he was very young indeed, and asking Eli to take care of him! That’s right! This same priest who had done such a horrible job raising his own sons would be the one responsible for parenting Hannah’s precious son into adulthood. And if that didn’t occur to Hannah the first time she prayed her prayer, it almost certainly would have crossed her mind when Eli came up to speak to her.

You see, Eli insulted Hannah. Can you imagine? Hannah comes to the tabernacle to pour out her heart to God and to beg Him for mercy. She’s in terrible sorrow. And then this old, corrupt, failure-of-a-parent, who is supposed to be representing God, comes up and, mistaking her sobs for something else, very rudely says to her, “How dare you come here drunk?”

Now if this story were being told by Hollywood, Hannah would have been totally angry. And if there were another tabernacle down the street, I’m sure that Hannah would have been tempted to leave Eli’s and never set foot in it again. Unfortunately, we are both too much influenced by Hollywood and there is too much opportunity for us to sit in judgment on the church. If we are ever offended by someone representing God, we are often far too quick to become angry, and far too quick to decide that the church down the street is a better “fit” for us – or perhaps to give up on church altogether. I wonder how many prayers remain unanswered because our pride makes us unable to pass the tests that God has for us.

I’m glad, though, that Hannah passed her test. I’m glad that her story is recorded in scripture as a lesson for us. In spite of Eli’s evil sons. In spite of his poor parenting. In spite of his insensitivity to her heartache. In spite of his insult. Hannah treats Eli with respect. Respect, incidentally, that he likely didn’t deserve. But no matter. Hannah responds with respect and with dignity. “Oh no sir! I haven’t been drinking – instead, I was pouring out my heart to the Lord,” she replies. From her position of weakness and suffering, Hannah brings dignity and respect to the one in a position of power.

And that was the test. Throughout scripture, we learn that God is slow to anger and abounding in love. In the book of James, we are told that we, too, should be slow to anger. Hannah’s test was to prove that her heart was in sync with God’s – she was placed in a situation where it would have been all too easy for her to become angry, but she didn’t. I pray that we, too, can do the same.

Psalm 37:4 says “delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.” And Hannah’s heart was so in tune with God that He granted her heart’s desire. She was soon able to have a baby. A boy. She named him Samuel. When he was old enough for solid food, she brought him to the tabernacle and committed him to God, asking Eli to look after him. But that isn’t the end of her story. The Bible says that she was able to have not just one, but five more children after that. As for Samuel, in spite of being looked after by Eli, the parent-fail, the Bible says that Samuel grew in favor with God and with all the people. But his story will have to wait for another Sunday.