Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
15th of November 2015
1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Today is the second last Sunday of the Christian year and the last Sunday of the season we call ‘Ordinary Time’ or ‘Pentecost’. Next week we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, and in a fortnight we’ll begin the liturgical year again with the first Sunday of Advent, as we look forward to Christmas. So it might seem a bit strange that the lectionary, which has spent the Sundays after Pentecost telling us stories of King David, now takes us back to beginning of David’s story, with the birth of Samuel who will anoint David as king, after Samuel and God both agree that their first choice of king, Saul, was a mistake.
In the book of Judges, we’re told of people who are raised by God to lead the tribes of Israel on particular occasions, people like Deborah and Gideon and Samson. The Spirit of God settles on them, and through them God helps the people of Israel. But throughout the book of Judges the words are repeated: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes”. What was right in their own eyes tends not to be a good thing for the people around them.
Samuel, about whose birth we hear today, was the last of the judges. God acted through Samuel to give the people of Israel the king that they were calling for, David. David may be Israel’s great king, but the books of Samuel takes a long time to get to his reign. David’s story begins, as we hear from today’s readings, not with David; not with Saul who preceded him as king; not even with Samuel, who anoints him, but with Samuel’s mother, Hannah, a barren wife at a time when to be barren was a cause of desperation. The story begins not with a great man, but with an oppressed woman.
Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah. Elkanah’s wife Penninah has children, but Hannah doesn’t. It’s possible that Elkanah is quite happy with this arrangement; he has one wife for child-bearing and one to love; one commentator translates “Peninnah” as fertile or prolific and “Hannah” as charming or attractive. When Hannah mourns her barrenness, Elkanah says to her: ‘Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’ As far as he’s concerned things are fine. But Hannah has all the pain and hunger of a woman who wants children and can’t have them; in a society that would see her lack of children as something God has done to her. Hannah follows in the footsteps of the great matriarchs of Israel’s history: Sarah; Rebekah; Rachel, and she anticipates Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. All these women were barren until God gave them a child, and in every case the child had a special purpose and was given by God as a gift not just to the mother, but to all the people. Hannah stands in a long line of Israel’s mothers.
Hannah is not just barren, she’s also mocked for her barrenness. Peninnah taunted her: “as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, [Peninnah] used to provoke [Hannah].” Ironically, this would happen just as their husband Elkanah was offering sacrifices to the Lord to cover their sins. After the sin offerings, he would make a peace offering and distribute portions of this offering to his family so that they could eat a meal together celebrating peace and reconciliation. Yet it’s at this moment, when peace and unity are to be savoured, that Peninnah is taunting Hannah. I suspect that there’s a reason that I know many people called Hannah and no one called Peninnah. Peninnah is not a role model.
Hannah does what people in her situation have always done – she calls on God. Because she’s praying silently Eli thinks she’s drunk. It’s a good thing Eli redeems himself later in the story by recognising that it’s God who’s calling Samuel, or Eli would be the very model of how not to be a priest. As it is, he adds his blessing to Hannah’s prayer, and she leaves comforted. “In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord.’”
In this beginning of the story which will eventually lead to the kingship of David, we see God working in and through the meek and oppressed. He chooses a barren, despised woman in an obscure family in Israel to bear a prophet and leader of his people. This is the way the Lord always works, as Hannah recognises in the prayer of exaltation that we heard today instead of one of the Psalms. Hannah is an individual woman who has been given a child, but the words she prays are of national thanksgiving. Her song rejoices that the Lord is the one who brings to life, who gives children to the barren, who feeds the hungry, who makes the poor rich and exalts the lowly. She looks to the future and celebrates that God “will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” Hannah’s song reminds us that in Advent, which will begin in two weeks’ time, we will be waiting and preparing for the coming of God’s anointed. Hannah also reminds us that it’s the Lord who is our rock, strength and protection. It is only the Lord who can grant life. Hannah’s story shows us that he does so in surprising ways and unlikely places.
We are about to enter Advent, when we, like Hannah, will be waiting for the birth of a special child. Because of the astounding and unlikely miracle of the Incarnation the child for whose birth we will prepare is both the son of David and the Lord, God’s anointed one, the Messiah. When Mary is told this she sings a song modelled on Hannah’s, in which she praises the God who overturns all expectations and she voices the deep and dangerous hope that in response to human injustice, God will bring justice.
Yesterday, as I was putting the final touches to this sermon, I heard about the terrorist attacks in Paris, which followed the terrorist attacks in Beirut. Over the past few days scores of innocent people have been killed, and so it is hard to sing with Hannah: “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.” So very often in this world the wicked do seem to be prevailing. In imitation of Hannah, Mary sang: “[God] has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” In a world of hatred and violence it can be difficult to see the strength of God’s arm. It takes great faith to join with Hannah and Mary in their songs.
We are about to enter Advent, a time of preparation. Each week during Advent we light a candle, and we name these the candles of hope, peace, joy and love. We live in a world in which it can be hard to hold on to hope, hard to see signs of peace, a world that appears to be one of sorrow and hatred rather than joy and love. But Hannah’s story and her song; Mary’s story and her song, remind us that God is always with us, in surprising and unexpected ways. During Advent we prepare to welcome the Holy One; baby born to a poor family in a country under occupation; a child who had to flee a ruler who wanted him dead and seek refuge in a foreign country. Because of the astounding and unlikely miracle of the Incarnation we know that God has experienced and understands fear and pain and violence, and so we know that God is with all those experiencing fear and pain and violence today. And so with Hannah we can hold on to hope, peace, joy and love, trusting in God, our rock and our redeemer. Today and always we turn to Emmanuel, God-with-us, for comfort in our sorrow and light in our darkness, knowing that nothing, not violence or terrorism or despair, can separate us from the love of God. Amen.
 Judges 21:25.