1 Samuel 1:1-20
Psalm 33 says wait on God. Matthew 7 says knock and the door shall be answered. What's the deal? Is there a holy balance of waiting and knocking? Is it context-specific, or is there an ideal blend?
Hannah's story offers one possibility.
Hannah will not be stopped.
Hannah waits for years for her first child. She waits alone. Hannah prays and plans, dreams and desires. Without her husband’s support, without the priest’s blessing, without change in her womb,
Hannah will not be stopped.
Hannah will not be shamed.
Peninnah and Hannah are both married to Elkanah, Peninnah has children, and Hannah has Elkanah’s love. Though Hannah is the hero of this story and we relate to her, this situation would be painful for both women. Peninnah flaunts her children before Hannah.
But Hannah will not be shamed.
Hannah will not be soothed.
Elkanah loves Hannah even though she has had no children. Though women of her time were primarily valued for their ability to give birth to sons, Elkanah has, perhaps, a progressive or passionate streak, and he loves Hannah anyway. Elkanah tells Hannah not to weep, not to grieve, but to be satisfied by his love.
How can Elkanah be so indifferent to Hannah’s womb? Since he already has children with another wife, Elkanah can compartmentalize his own needs, and he's not concerned with Hannah’s fulfillment outside of their relationship to each another. He loves her, but he does not understand her sorrow, thinking extra portions from his temple sacrifices will satisfy her.
But Hannah will not be soothed.
Hannah will not be silenced.
Year after year Hannah prays for a child. Years of waiting, years without signs, years without words of hope, do not dissuade her from praying, year after year, because Hannah’s desire for a child is so deep.
She goes to the temple, even though, as a woman, she must stay on the edge. She does not allow this statement of her inferiority to silence her strong voice, but instead acts boldly on her own behalf. Hannah is audacious enough to make a bargain with God – “give me a son and I will give him back to you.” As Hannah speaks to God – mouthing her words because they are only intended for God – the priest Eli decides she must be drunk. Really?! It’s actually a pretty funny moment in scripture – what would you think if someone sat down in the pew next to you this morning, mouthing prayers and acting strange? Ironically, we don't expect that sort of behavior at church or temple.
Eli misunderstands her spirit and shames her, tries to send her away. But Hannah, we're learning, is a bold soul, and she is not intimidated. She tenaciously responds, “Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety!”
Hannah will not be silenced.
Hannah’s story offers us one answer to the question posed by our scriptures today: do we wait on God, as the Psalmist sings, or do we knock, as Jesus preaches?
Hannah does both. She is knocking throughout this story. She prays and plans, dreams and desires. She knocks and knocks, year after year.
And Hannah waits on God, too, by finding peace before her prayers are answered. I'll say more about what I mean in a moment, but first I want to confess my deep discomfort with stories like this of Hannah, or Sarai or Rebekah or Rachel or any biblical woman whose story is about barrenness. There's a pattern to it, a couple doesn't get pregnant, the woman is considered barren, after a lot of prayer God opens her womb and they get pregnant and the story gets to be about God's power and mercy.
So. What do you think and feel about these stories? I really want to know! If we were a small congregation I'd ask you to tell me right now, but we don't want to be up here while the youth's ice cream melts downstairs.
So I'll tell you: these stories make me quite uncomfortable. I think they can be theologically dangerous, in fact.
First reason: throughout scripture, infertility is always considered to be caused by a woman's barrenness. What modern science tells us is that about 10-15% of couples trying to get pregnant struggle with infertility. And in these couples, about 1/3 of the time the challenge is in the man's body, about 1/3 of the time the challenge is in the woman's body, and about 1/3 of the time it's a challenging combination in their bodies' interactions.
So why do the women get all the blame? Now you might be thinking back on Abram and Sarai and recalling Hagar. You might think about Hannah and Elkanah and recall Penninah? These Old Testament men weren't expected to be monogamous, so we could read the stories at face value and think none of these men were infertile and their wives had all the problems, but I think the stories are simply a product of their times, including limited understanding of reproductive science.
The other reason I think these stories are theologically dangerous is that they offer an oversimplified understanding of prayer and God's role in our lives. Because in each of these stories the whole point is that eventually prayers are answered and God changes infertility into fertility. Simple. Pray hard enough, be faithful enough, God will give you what you want. Knock on the door, the door opens, you see what you've been waiting for.
But some of us have prayed to God for fertility, for healing from illness, for recovery from addiction, for our children's safety, for our spouse's forgiveness, for relief from depression, for a true love. We have prayed with every bit of our strength and faith for something clear and tangible.
Some of us have celebration stories to share. And some of us have not gotten a simple, YES, answer to our prayers. Sometimes we knock and the door never opens. Sometimes we knock and when the door opens we're looking over a threshold we never expected and certainly didn't ask for.
So are we not faithful enough? Not praying hard enough?
This is why we read Hannah's story and learn from the peace she finds, the way she chooses to wait on God.
When Hannah goes to pray, year after year, with no change in her womb, does she think about giving up? Even with her deep faith, she must doubt. Her culture and her family shame her for having no child, and she dares to hope anyway. She is a witness to any one of us who hopes for something that the world tells us we don’t deserve, or will never achieve. She must have moments of doubt and fear, but still,
Hannah will not be stopped.
It can be tempting to leave it all up to God, to say tragedy is “God’s will” or part of “God’s plan.” Now I do not believe that it is God’s plan for you to get fired, or be in a car accident, or have leukemia, or have a miscarriage.
Yet God has created a world in which cycles of life and death permeate all existence, in which tragedy, brokenness and pain do occur. But God does not give someone cancer to have “another angel for the heavenly choir” or create a dysfunctional family to teach someone a valuable lesson. When we experience these sorrows, many of us wonder if God picked us for some divine reason. I don’t believe this is the way God moves in our lives, but I do believe that it is the divine spark within us that empowers us to respond to sorrow with strength, creativity, generosity, and extraordinary vision.
Hannah does not passively wait on God to intervene, to bring her a child, or even to sustain her hope. Hannah claims her own divine power and joins God’s movement in the world, as she envisions a new reality, as she proclaims her heart’s longings. She doesn't keep secret her deepest desires, even when the world ridicules her. So Hannah cultivates hope rather than waiting for it to be given to her. She is knocking throughout this story.
We hear in the story that after Hannah stands up for herself – not just to her husband and family, but even the priest Eli, her countenance is sad no longer. This all happens before she gets pregnant. She finds her way to peace before she has the outcome she’s been longing for. And then, paradoxically, a peaceful Hannah becomes a pregnant Hannah.
Jesus says he came that we might have life abundant. Hannah lives an abundant life. Hannah will not be stopped,
But let's rewind to Hannah's peace. Her countenance is sad no longer after she has proclaimed to her family, to the priest, to God, what she hopes for. And as Hannah honors her own self and her own need, she finds peace. While she is still NOT pregnant, Hannah finds peace.
What is Hannah teaching us? Hannah is steadfast in her hope for a child – regardless of what was or wasn’t happening in her body, Hannah knows what she longs for and she isn’t ashamed to hold tight to her hope. What do you long for so much that you will dare to hope for it, even when the world around you thinks you’re a fool? Think about it now. We'll pause for a moment, really think about something that you are truly longing for today.
Hannah surrenders to the movement and power of God in the world and within her. She is absolutely active in her praying and hoping and knocking yet she trusts the outcome is in God’s hands. Consider again what you’re longing for most fiercely – how can you surrender to God’s movement in your life? Pray and hope and knock with all your strength, and also let go of the outcome as you wait, peacefully, on God?
I believe Hannah's wisdom speaks to us even if we don't hold her understanding of God, even if we don't see prayer the way she does. From what I read in the story, Hannah believes that if she prays to God, eventually God will give her what she's asking for. I bet a lot of us in this room think there's much more mystery involved. And still, Hannah's holy blend of knocking and waiting, of seeking and settling down, of reaching for and also resting, is wise for any of us.
Let go and let God, it’s a cliché, but a good one. What does it mean to you? Do you believe the power of prayer means a blind person can regain sight? Someone’s cancer can be cured? But what about the praying person who still can’t see, who still has cancer, who never does get pregnant? Didn’t those people pray hard enough?
When we've heard too much over-simplified, superficial religion, some of us give up on the whole package. But I invite you to keep the best of our faith tradition even as you let some parts go. I know there are some scientific studies that prove some power in prayer, but in our daily lives, prayer doesn't work the way turning on the faucet works. Just because we don't understand how praying and hoping and longing impact our lives, doesn't mean we have to give up on these mysteries.
Hope is dangerous, isn’t it. What do you long for so fiercely that you’re willing to risk hope for it?
Think about what you’re longing for, what you’re waiting for – if you got it tomorrow, if you woke up tomorrow and what you’re hoping for is here, how will you treat this new reality? Will you try to control it? Will you hold it tight? Maybe a week later, maybe a month later, might you be disappointed, that it’s not everything you’d been hoping it would be?
Is parenting ever like that?
Hannah couldn’t have hoped or prayed any harder for Samuel, then she gives him to the Temple, she only sees him once a year, she lets go of control over what she longed for more than anything else in the world. Pretty strange parenting by most of our standards, but she is a fulfilled mother, visiting him, making him priestly robes, telling stories of his growing taller and stronger.
May we learn from Hannah about the abundant life that awaits each of us – even in sorrow, even in waiting – as she sees, with extraordinary vision, that which should not even be possible.
And may we learn from Hannah about the abundant life that is always available to us as we learn to let go and let God move in our lives, in our hoping, and in our receiving.
As we practice living abundantly, we turn to the image of the Kingdom of God. It is already, but not yet. It is a prayer not fully answered, but a miracle always available. Let us sing together Seek Ye First.
Benediction Go into the world this week boldly knocking and praying for what you long for, and find deep peace as lean in eagerly, waiting for the world to be right.