A Woman Deeply Troubled
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
November 18, 2012
The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 1:4-20
When the curtain rises on the Book of 1 Samuel it rises on a man
standing all alone at center stage.
His name is Elkanah, a Zuphite from the little town of Ramathaim in
the hill country of Ephraim, on the western slopes of Israel.
On the wall behind him are four framed portraits of his ancestors:
there is his father, Jeroham; his grandfather, Elihu; his
great-grandfather, Tohu; and his great-great-grandfather, Zuph, for whom his
tribe is named. While he is
still standing there Elkanah’s wife Hannah enters from stage right to stand
beside him. And then his other
wife, Peninnah, enters from stage left.
And then Peninnah’s children come on stage to join her.
And then we wait for Hannah’s children to join her.
And we wait, and wait, and wait.
And it is in that long, awkward moment before the drama even begins
that we see the problem—there is Elkanah, with his forefathers, and his two
wives, but at that point the perfect symmetry of the picture collapses:
“Peninnah had children,” the writer of 1 Samuel informs us, “but
Hannah had no children.”
In that long ago time and in that patriarchal culture a woman’s value
was derived from her ability to cook and to clean and above all to bear
children—male children—who could carry on the family name.
The fact that Hannah had no children was more than a misfortune;
under those circumstances it would have been the worst kind of tragedy.
I have tried to think about a comparable tragedy in our own time, but
it hasn’t been easy. Women these
days derive their value from so many different sources.
We seem to expect them to cook and clean and bear children and be
educated and have a career and make a professional salary and do it all
without chipping a nail on their manicured hands.
Is the tragic woman in our time the one who can only manage a career,
or only manage a household, and who finds herself constantly torn between
her desire for both? Or is it
the woman who does both but doesn’t do either particularly well—the woman
who is constantly reminded of her failure?
It’s a complicated culture we live in.
It may have been simpler in Hannah’s time, but it wasn’t easier.
Any woman who has ever wanted children but couldn’t have them will
tell you that. Any woman who has
ever known the peculiar and persistent ache of an empty womb will tell you
about tragedy. It wasn’t just
Hannah’s value as a person that was at stake; it was her whole life.
So when the action gets underway in this drama we find our eyes fixed
on Hannah as she makes her way up the hill from Ramathaim to Shiloh for the
annual religious festival. The
whole family travels together, Elkanah leading the way, bringing along
behind him the young bull that will be their sacrifice; Penninah following
along behind him, wearing a maternity dress, with a baby strapped on her
back and six or eight children running around her knees like chicks around a
mother hen; and then, ten paces back, Hannah—all alone, trudging up the hill
with her hands behind her back and her head down, wondering why she has to
go at all. When they get to
Shiloh they pitch their tent and make their sacrifice, and then boil up what
is left of the meat for their own meal.
When it comes time to dole it out Elkanah gives portions to Peninnah
and to her children, but he gives a double portion to Hannah because he
loves her. And here is the
first ray of light in this bleak story:
although Hannah doesn’t have any children she has the love of her
husband, and surely that is something.
But is it enough?
You see, she also has the endless antagonism of her rival.
Peninnah, perhaps because she is
not loved by her husband, loves to
make Hannah’s life miserable.
Can’t you just see her as she smoothes her dress over the swell of her belly
and sighs in Hannah’s presence?
As she staggers out of the tent in the morning complaining that “the baby”
has kept her awake all night? As
she pulls her children in close to her—her countless children—and casts a
smug, sideways glance in Hannah’s direction?
Every reminder that she doesn’t have children and Peninnah does is
like a sharp kick to Hannah’s stomach.
She feels the ache of that empty womb, and those empty arms.
And when Elkanah comes to her, professing his love and bringing her
the choicest portions of meat, she turns away in tears.
“Hannah, why do you weep?” he asks, as perplexed as any man has ever
been about the behavior of a woman.
“And why won’t you eat?
Why is your heart sad? Am I not
more to you than ten sons?” And
though she doesn’t say so, he isn’t.
It’s a different kind of love a woman has for her husband than she
has for her children, and one can never completely replace the other.
She pushes her plate away, gets up from the table,
and walks the short distance up the
hill to the tabernacle that serves as the temple of the Lord.
And there she begins weeping, pouring out her heart through her
tears, pleading with God to give her what she most wants.
“O Lord,” she whispers, “if you will only look on my misery, and
answer my prayer, and give me a son, I will…I will give him back to you.”
Eli, the old priest, is sitting there near the door.
He watches her pray and comes to the conclusion—through watching
her—that she is drunk. It wasn’t
all that unusual at Shiloh.
People would come to offer their sacrifices and then follow sacrifice with
celebration. It was like
Thanksgiving, Old Testament style.
They would eat and drink until they had had too much of both, until
they were groaning from all the food, and staggering from all the drink.
You’ve seen drunk people before.
You know how they lose control of their motor functions, how they
begin to weave from side to side when they walk and how their heads wobble
like those little dogs you sometimes see in the rear windows of people’s
cars. And it’s not only their
motor functions they lose control of: it is also their inhibitions, those
God-given safety features that keep us from making complete fools of
ourselves. People who are drunk
lose their capacity for embarrassment.
They can laugh out loud at the least little thing and then burst into
tears as if their best friend had died.
They don’t care who is watching.
They just let the emotions flow.
This was Hannah: praying in the temple with her head wobbling and her
lips moving and the tears streaming down her cheeks.
When Eli saw her he was as offended as you or I would be if someone
wobbled down the aisle of the sanctuary this morning singing, “A Hundred
Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” He
gets up from his place by the door, goes over to where Hannah is praying,
and hisses at her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself.
Put away your wine!” But
Hannah answers, “Oh, no, my lord!
I am not drunk! I am a
woman deeply troubled! I haven’t
been pouring the wine in, I have been pouring my soul out!”
And then Eli sees that it is true, and without even asking her what
she is praying for he says, “Go in peace.
May the God of Israel grant what you have asked of him.”
And let me just insert a footnote at this point: earlier in this
story the author of 1 Samuel has told us that Hannah had no children
“because the Lord had closed her womb.”
In fact, he says it twice.
And it makes us wonder: what did Hannah do?
Why had the Lord closed her womb?
But we need to remember that in those days people believed that the
Lord was responsible for everything, both good and bad.
And so, if a woman had a child they would say, “The Lord has done
this.” And if a woman was barren
they would say, “The Lord has done this.”
But surely Hannah must have wondered why the Lord had done this?
What had she done?
And in the absence of any answer from the Lord her mind must have
filled in the blank; she must have thought of something for which the Lord
was punishing her. And so she
bargains with God: “If you will just give me a son I will give him back to
you; that’s how I will do my penance.”
And apparently God heard her, because he sends his priest to reassure
her. It reminds me of something
that happened to me at one of my former churches.
I was going to visit a family that lived way out in the country and I
invited my neighbor to go with me, an elderly woman who knew the family
well. It was a long way to their
house, and on the way this woman began to tell me something she had never
told anyone before. My car
became a confession booth. But when she finished I realized I couldn’t give
her the kind of advice I would usually give: I couldn’t tell her to go to
the one she had sinned against and ask for forgiveness.
That person had died years before.
And so I did the only thing I could: I said, “I forgive you.”
And when I did she gasped, as if she had been carrying that secret
guilt around for years and had just been given permission to let it go.
Maybe that’s what happened for Hannah—maybe when Eli told her to go
in peace she was able to do exactly that, for the first time in years—to go
in peace, to let out a gasp and leave her secret grief at the altar.
Because the writer of 1 Samuel tells us that she went back to her
tent, she ate and drank with her husband, and “her countenance was sad no
longer.” She must have believed
even in that moment what eventually came to pass: the Lord remembered her,
she conceived in her womb, and in due time she gave birth to a beautiful
baby boy. As she held him in her
arms, as she savored the fullness of this miracle, she decided to name him
Samuel, which means something like, “Gift of God.”
It’s a good story, and although it is not technically a teaching
story, I think there are some lessons that can be learned.
First of all, we learn from this story that
it’s OK to cry in church.
It’s OK to be “deeply troubled,” to pour out both heart and soul
before the Lord in the hope that he will help you.
There are some of you in this room right now who know all about that
kind of prayer, and who have been praying such prayers for years.
You may be praying for the same thing Hannah was praying for.
Or perhaps there is another emptiness in your life you are asking God
to fill. You pray without
inhibition, with your head wobbling and your lips moving and the tears
running down your cheeks. From
this story take comfort, and hear again the words of Eli the priest:
“Go in peace. May the God
of Israel grant what you have asked of him.”
Secondly, we learn that there
are times when God hears our prayers and answers them.
Not every prayer. Not
every time. But if we take the
trouble to consider how many times God has heard and answered we may be
surprised. How many things in
your own life could you name “Samuel:
Gift of God”? Your home,
your health, your husband, your wife, your child, your children, your job,
your joy, your laughter, your love, your losses, your gains?
In this week of Thanksgiving take some time to walk through the rooms
of your life and pick up those things God has given you as gifts.
Look through the photo albums of your memory and take time to
appreciate every smiling moment, every God-blessed day.
Thirdly, we learn that sometimes the
things we want are also what God wants.
This child who was born to Hannah, this son—Samuel—grew up to be
priest and prophet over all Israel, and the one who anointed Israel’s first,
and later her best, king. You
get the idea that God had put into Hannah’s heart the desire of his own
heart: someone who would love and serve him faithfully.
It makes me wonder how things would be at this church if what we
wanted and what God wanted were one and the same.
Would we stagger drunkenly into this place, weeping without
inhibition, littering the sanctuary with crumpled tissues and filling the
air with our sobs? Would we
become a people “deeply troubled” by the very things that trouble the Lord?
And would we find that our concern paired with his concern, our
efforts paired with his efforts, would be enough to get the job done?
Would we go in peace to love and serve the Lord?
Fourthly, and finally, we learn from this story what may be the most
troubling truth of all—that what God
gives us isn’t ours in any real sense of the word, but only on loan to
us from above. After Hannah had
weaned that beautiful baby boy she took him to Shiloh and handed him over to
Eli. In my Bible the last
sentence on the page where this story is found is this one:
“She left him there for the Lord.”
And we can hardly believe it.
Do you mean that after all her anguished prayers for a son Hannah was
willing to give him up?! Yes.
This is what she had said to God:
“If you give him to me I will give him to you.”
And in verse 28 of chapter 1 she says that because the Lord has
answered her prayer she has “lent” her son to the Lord.
“As long as he lives,” she says, “he is given to the Lord.”
In this week of Thanksgiving, we might want to remember that from
God’s perspective it is the other way around.
The earth is his, and all that is in it.
Anything we have is a gift from him, and on loan from him.
And like the books check out from the library, we may get an overdue
notice at any time. In the
We thank God for every good gift that has come from his hand
We pray for the gifts we are still waiting to receive.
We join our hearts with his in praying for the things he wants
And we offer back to him, gratefully, the gifts he has given.
It may not be our way, but it is Hannah’s way, a woman who went from
being “deeply troubled” to being deeply grateful.
In this week of Thanksgiving, may we learn that lesson, too.
—Jim Somerville © 2012