1 Samuel 1:9-20; 2:1-10; Luke 1:46-55
From time to time mothers and fathers post this Bible verse in their child’s nursery. 1 Samuel 1:27 ~ “For this child I prayed; and the LORD has granted my petition.”
I’m sure those words resonate with many Christian parents who waited long for their child, or whose child faced dangerous health threats, in the womb or in the first year. Such as our grand-daughter, Amelia. Born three months early, she then spent her first 118 days in the IWK children’s hospital.
It was a woman, Hannah, who spoke those words, about her long-awaited son, Samuel, a few thousand years ago. “For this child I prayed.”
Here is a bit of Bible genealogy: father son, father son, wife wife. It answers the age old, Nova Scotian question: “Who’s your father?”
1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
It ends with the sometimes hard question, “Who’s your child?” Not every one of us has a child. Hannah suffered for having no children, for years, it seems.
So begins this section of the Bible we call First Samuel. It is clearly from a different culture, long ago and far away. When did this happen? Take a look at the timeline on the bulletin cover: can you find this moment?
And what are some of the cultural differences we notice about these people?
Polygamy – men with more than one wife. It was Elkanah’s other wife, Peninah, who’d borne children, who goaded and provoked Hannah. Many OT men were polygamous, such as Abraham, Jacob, Esau, and Kings David and Solomon.
Childbearing expectation – and of a male child. It was not a day and age when couples would choose not to have children, like some of my friends have done, and my sister and her husband. In most cultures through the ages, couples have children. That’s it. Not to have any was a problem, maybe even a curse.
Making decisions for an unborn child – in the case of Samuel (even before he is conceived) he is promised to be given up to service for God in a shrine, with the Jewish priests. Hannah and Elkanah go through with this promise when he is born.
The promise about the child is a specific cultural thing: the Nazarite vow – set apart for God. Another famous character who was a nazarite was the judge Samson. This was sometimes a short term pledge, not life-long.
One other little thing we may notice in this story is that everyone would pray out loud, not silently. When Hannah, in desperate, private prayer, moves her lips but does not make a sound, priest Eli thinks she must be drunk. It was also normal that those who read something would read aloud to themselves.
Out of this very different time and place we have these amazing, holy stories: sacred history that speaks to us even now. How things have changed, the little things and the big.
One thing that can remain the same, through the ages: life is a gift. The birth of a child is the receiving of a gift. People of faith look to God as the giver of life, of every life. Some of you know this attitude: that last breath you took? It was not promised to you: it was a gift, a wonderful gift. Each breath you take. (See Psalm 104:27-30.)
Family connections are counted a blessing; bearing children is counted a blessing. What do we do without this blessing? This is the painful question at the beginning of this story. Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. It was the annual time to offer special worship to the LORD God. The family – Hannah and her husband, and his other wife, and their children – had gone up to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Hannah is provoked to tears by Peninnah. She offers her desperate prayers.
There is a lot of pain and tears associated with not having children. Or losing a child. Or all the things of this nature. Annually, October 15th is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day, in Canada and many other nations. So it is a fitting time to go to God with our prayers and questions about children.
All those centuries ago, Hannah’s conversation with God was remarkable. We are told: 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, 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 male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
Hannah pleads for the gift of a child, yet promises to give him over to a special kind of life. She asks for him, to give him away.
The desperation this woman felt must have been so deep. So many people have experiences like this. I think of people in my own family, and circle of friends, who wanted a child, but never got to raise one. And the many people who lost a child early in life, or even later. That loss stays with a person. It stays in the conversations with God we call prayer.
Other losses are just as challenging, or more. Abortion surely has its personal impact, as the years go by. This affects so many. The World Health Organization estimates that there are between 40 and 50 million abortions each year, across the world!
Then there is not the loss of a child, but the loss of the relationship when there is estrangement, and one gets cut off. And, of course, many people say goodbye to a child by giving him or her up for adoption – some never see that child again.
In these circumstances, and others, the cry goes up: ‘O God of power, if only You would look on the misery of Your servant, and remember me.’ Then the prayer continues. We ask many different things:
Give the gift of a child!
or, Protect and heal this child!
or, reunite me with my child!
or, answer me, why did this happen to my child?
A child is a gift, but when that gift is not given, or seems taken away, we cry out. It hits hard. It stays with us a long time.
In today’s lesson from history, Hannah is blessed with the answer she wants. The priest, Eli, says, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And God does. A boy is conceived, and born, named Samuel, and dedicated to God.
This is not what is promised in most troubled times for men and women. This is not the happy ending everyone gets. It is the story of a key transition figure in Israelite history, Samuel, who anoints the first two Kings of Israel. It is the story of his origin, of his mother of deep faith. It just happens to be a story of infertility and fertility. Of cruelty within a family and rising above it. Of sacred promises made & kept.
One thing illustrated here, for me, is the readiness of a person of faith to go deep, with God, in prayer. Hannah’s terrible circumstance drives her to desperation. But she knew to pray. She poured out her heart to God. She knew about religious commitments, and she made one.
One way we see that Hannah knew her faith and her God, is the way she waxed poetic after Samuel was born. From the second chapter, Margo read Hannah’s prayer, which is remarkable Hebrew poetry. You may have noticed she does not even praise about her son, the answer to her prayers. She simply praises the God who blesses the whole world. A God who speaks well and holds knowledge. A God who raises up the desperate poor, and squashes down the privileged rich. Hannah’s words get repeated in Psalm 113. And her sentiments are copied a thousand years later by Mary, when she is promised to have a child, the Messiah. Hannah knows very well the One she is praising and thanking.
There are no atheists in foxholes, it is said, and anyone may pray when trouble demands it. But how much better when you or I are already a person of prayer. Then, when life is unfair, when disaster strikes, when our own child is in peril, whatever, we know very well the One with whom we speak. When we already are on friendly speaking terms with Creator, then we are ready for prayer in time of crisis. After all our days of smalltalk with the Spirit, we can have a real heart-to-heart.
And our prayers, like Hannah’s, will be about a lot more than our little problems and praises. Our praise will be about the Big things Jesus is up to in our whole world.
So, in the end, maybe we do best by noticing the gift of one particular Child in all of history. One human life that changes everything is the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, Son of God. How God changes everything: this is what Hannah speaks in her prayer. This is what Mary knows when Jesus is to be born. God changes the world.
There is an interesting Christmas song that includes these lyrics:
A silent wish sails the seven seas
The winds of change whisper in the trees
And the walls of doubt crumble, tossed and torn
This comes to pass when a child is born
And all of this happens because the world is waiting,
Waiting for one child
Black, white, yellow, no one knows
But a child that will grow up and turn tears to laughter,
Hate to love, war to peace
and everyone to everyone’s neighbor
And misery and suffering will be words to be forgotten, forever
This child is Jesus. And it is for each child of ours that He came among us, lived and died, and lives again. ‘Let the children come to me,’ Jesus said, from His daily teaching. Does He not also say it from His cross? And from His risen glory. ‘Come to me.’
Allow me to end by quoting this word picture of Jesus from a 1926 sermon by James A. Francis, often called ‘One Solitary Life.’
He was born in an obscure village,
the child of a peasant woman.
He grew up in still another village
where he worked until he was thirty.
Then for three years
he was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book.
He never held an office.
He never had a family or owned a home.
He didn’t go to college.
He never traveled more than 200 miles
from the place he was born.
He did none of the things
one usually associates with greatness.
He had no credentials but himself;
he was only thirty-three
when public opinion turned against him.
His friends ran away.
He was turned over to his enemies
and went through the mockery of a trial.
He was nailed to the cross
between two thieves.
While he was dying
his executioners gambled for his clothing,
the only property he had on earth.
When he was dead
he was laid in a borrowed grave
through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen centuries have come and gone
and today he is the central figure
of the human race,
the leader of mankind’s progress.
All the armies that ever marched,
all the navies that ever sailed,
all the parliaments that ever sat,
all the kings that ever reigned,
have not affected
the life of man on earth
as much as that One Solitary Life.
James Allan Francis, The Real Jesus and Other Sermons (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1926).
PRAYERS ~ Let us pray.
Mighty God, You became a child for us. You welcome us as Your children. You send us out into our world to reach children with hope. Forgive us for the ways we forget Jesus, from day to day. Forgive us for the ways we do not welcome others who are Your children. Forgive us for the ways we lash out instead of reach out. In the name of Jesus, renew us.
We pray, in response to Your word and Your world around us. Let there be grace and strength for those who have lost a child in pregnancy or infancy. Let there be hope and peace for those who did not get to raise the child they hoped for. Let there be comfort and serenity for those who aborted during pregnancy. Let there be care and love for those who gave up a child for adoption. Let there be purpose and joy for those who never had a child. Let there be compassion and grace for those who are not on speaking terms with a child of theirs.
And, loving Father, let there be encouragement and wisdom for all parents, at every age, caring for each child. We feel surrounded by a world of wickedness and danger and injustice, at times. Master, amid the elections, send wisdom – from our own town to our United States brothers and sisters. Amid the workers in our fishing industry, give a sense of responsibility and understanding for one another. Amid the flooding in India and fires in Africa and America, we pray for help on a grand scale.
We, Your praying children, look with You, Spirit of God, upon all our world, and ask for small blessings at home also. We look for a healing touch for many people we know. We look for strength and encouragement in times of trouble or pain. We look for wisdom and guidance in moments of decision and our opportunities for action. You’ve got the whole world in Your hands, or, as one prophet said, You have inscribed our names on the palm of Your hands, and You shall not forget us. Thank You, praise You, we love You, God. AMEN.