Sermon for our new series - "The Way of the Heart"
1 Samuel 1
I wonder how often we actually consider what could be called the way of the heart? I am not talking about warm fuzzies or romance. I am not talking about being good people, but about where our heart lies within the scope of our being. Where it lies within the scope of our relationships. Hearts can be gladdened by so much, but also saddened by even more. The effects of the world, the effects of sin and grace upon us do that. That is why this summer, our series is called “The Way of the Heart.” It will be a time we invest into the stories of 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings. Looking at real people with real problems. How those problems may or may not relate to us, but also where the Scriptures and God fit within that. Within you. Why these stories, this Word, matters for you. The lives of Hannah, Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon. A collection of people that have just as much to do with Jesus, as Jesus does with you. Without Hannah there would be no Samuel. Without Samuel, no anointing of David. Without David, no Jesus.
Well, I ended the reading early, because it’s long, but I felt it ended where it needed to with a word of grace. Because we begin with this story and work our way through to the actual birth and dedication of Samuel to work at Shiloh for the Lord and we can be overcome by so much. There are certain things this story is not about, and things that it is about.
It is not about Polygamy, although it can be. We see a culture in which being fruitful and multiplying was the calling of marriage. So when Elkanah marries Hannah and Hannah does not conceive, he finds Peninnah, because Peninnah does. Regardless of what some of our more extreme Mormon neighbors might share with some of our Muslim and African neighbors, Polygamy was not the design of God. You can read through the Scriptures and it never goes well. Whether here with Elkanah, or Jacob and Leah and Rachel, Abraham and Sarah, David with Michal, Bathsheba, etc. Solomon with his many wives. Things don’t go well because people are people, and I would find it hard, for instance, to love another woman as much as I love my wife. Not to mention we find so many other problems arise too. He gives a double portion to Hannah because he loves her. It says nothing of his love for Peninnah, nor does it say he withheld anything from her. But it makes clear his heart lies with Hannah.
This is not a story of childless couples, because Hannah does not remain childless. I have known too many in my life who have not been able to have children of there own and I would have a hard time sending them here for comfort. Instead, I will save some words on this a little later.
This description of life in 1 Samuel 1 is also not a good picture of women relating to women. In fact, at Bible study on Sunday I was reminded that often in our world women are their own worst enemies. You can find it in the halls of the high school. In the office. In the church. Hannah here being ridiculed by Peninnah because she cannot have a child. Peninnah not realizing here what the author wishes to convey in that God is the Creator and we are the creature. But we never remember that either, do we? I wonder how many women, or men even, in this room right now have been a Hannah or Peninnah. Been ridiculed for that which they cannot control, or ridiculed others without knowing the truth. Tearing down a sister or brother because, unlike what Paul tells us in Romans 12, we do think more of ourselves than we ought.
This narrative is also not about the reasons for prayer. This is not God as a vending machine. If I just follow this formula God will answer my prayer and give me what I want. No. It is something more than that when it comes to prayer.
What this account does tell us is a good description of the heart of a husband, regardless of how I’ve painted him. Elkanah – Am I not better to you than 10 sons? Knowing that her anguish lies in lacking offspring, but also in hopes that knowing for him that his worth that he has placed on Hannah now surpasses that of incubator or daycare. Are we not good enough for each other? I think of Carry and I where we so often rarely do much together apart from just being together. In the same room. Breathing the same air. Hearing the same sounds of cats and children. Knowing what this thing that is called life is that we have together.
This story of Hannah, and Eli, and Samuel, is also a wonderful picture of prayer, but not how we often want it to be. Hannah has been consumed by the bullying. By the lacking of blessing she felt from God. She is so heartbroken, ashamed, despondent as my translation says, that she won’t eat, which is huge. She is so hurt she is not worshiping. That is this meal here at Shiloh. Going up to the Tabernacle for a festival and she will not eat which is part of the celebration. Part of the worship, to devour the offering brought to God.
She can’t eat because of the pains of the heart. She leaves her family at the feast, goes to the door of the house where the ark of the covenant was kept (that is the box that Moses made which held the law of God and had the Mercy Seat of God upon it) and she weeps in prayer. “Lord, if you will take notice of your servant’s suffering, remember and not forget me, and give your servant a son, I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and his hair will never be cut.” So pained by the weight of her own burdens and guilt she comes to God and says – Just remember me once and I will return him to you.
Paul exhorts us to be patient in suffering and persistent in prayer. The two go hand-in-hand I think. Persistence in prayer often grows out of true suffering. True affliction. Prayer becoming what Hannah describes as a pouring out of one’s heart to God. Not because we know that God will do what we ask, but because we finally discover how small we are. How weak we are. How we rely on God every day for everything and hardly ever say thank you. Prayer becoming a form of repentance. A turning back to God in knowing that whether in this life or the next, God wins.
The biggest struggle, though, is that a “Pray-er”, someone who has been brought to that position of kneeling before the mercy of God in supplication, can often be ridiculed. Thought crazy for devoting time for something we so often think useless. But prayer is not about us, but about God. Prayer becoming the act we do in return to the One who has promised to hear. We may never know the answer, but we can receive consolation. Sometimes that is all there is. No fix. No making things right. Just comfort. Rest. A burden to be laid down.
In fact, I love this story because it paints a completely human picture of real life. I shared with the men on Wednesday about how we often see the church as an organization to do amazing things. We often see the government and groups of people in the way we do the old State churches, where loving others is wrapped up in programs and social justice. But what this account of Hannah shows is that there are real people amongst you, with real shame. With real burdens. With real heartache that no amount of money, of social action, or church night can fix. I would count each of you among her. Real people who have been brought to a place in which the only solace you have is that God listens.
If that is not you, then I know that you then are Eli. Because in the midst of her anguish, God hears her pleas and sends a preacher. A preacher with a word of grace. Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant the request you’ve made of him. After misunderstanding her, Eli realizes his duty. He speaks. Sends blessings. It sounds as though he says to her – thoughts and prayers. You may laugh but tell me what more Eli could do, apart from preaching this word – Go in peace. The peace in knowing that God is not punishing you. God is not angry with you. God is not distant from you. God hears you. Now hear him. Go in peace.
It appears to have been enough for her. It says she left and ate and no longer felt despondent. It doesn’t say that she knew she would have a child or not. She was brought to peace. A preacher came and lifted her burden. Is that you? The preacher? To pronounce a word to someone to lift off the burden without clichés. Words of promise. Go in peace?
I said that this was not a place for the childless couple to come. Not a place to think that somehow God has caused this. It is a place, though, in knowing that whether we have children or not, there is grace for you. For each.
Hannah has her son. Names him Samuel, meaning “requested of God.” God gives, and she gives back. She then has other children, but this one was special, for her, but also for us. Samuel becoming the last, and some say the greatest of the judges. A prophet. One whose task was to be an intercessor and preacher. One to intercede to God on our behalf.
This story connects to you in such a way that God should be seen, not as one who grants requests but provides grace. And this is needed more than you can know. For people around you, even you, have real burdens. Things that cannot be taken away apart from the grace of God. No money, no law, no bureaucracy, no election can do it. Just grace and peace. God’s mercy to tell you that you are not forgotten.
Eventually Hannah has Samuel and gives Samuel as an offering of worship to God, a fulfillment of her vow. But God’s grace did not stop with her giving something back. Having Samuel be at the tabernacle, serving God, it says that Hannah went up every year to bring him a new robe. Every year as she hand crafted these new clothes for her dear son, she would be reminded of God’s mercy towards her, those words of peace, but also knowing that in the same way God was giving back to her by having her son be another preacher to speak to her of Him. A reminder that God stands as one that gives, not needing us to give a first-born son to have him love us but to turn to him in our despondency to hear from him a word. To receive from him a word. In regularly attending to the promise from God she received in Samuel, she would realize that there was a place where our need and God’s grace meet. For her it was there at that house of the Lord, for us we know now that it has a name – Jesus. The Word of God made flesh to speak to you. Where burdens, not just sin, go to be carried. Knowing that we have to have that place where we can go to receive even a word to bring us rest. That is this work of Christ for you. This work of God for you. It doesn’t mean that the burden evaporates, or goes away, but it means that here now you have a place amongst us all who have burdens to bear to the cross of Christ, that he might take them upon himself and you receive back from him his peace. Knowing that your shame, your burden, your real heartache has nothing to with defining you. Lay it down. Thanks be to God. Amen.