Sermon: Hannah sings a new song

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
18th of November 2018

1 Samuel 1:4-20

One of the interesting things about the Bible, this enormous collection of books through which we believe we hear the Word of God, is that our Christian scriptures include within them the scriptures of another faith. These are often called the ‘Old Testament’ but I prefer to describe them as the ‘Hebrew Scriptures’ because they haven’t been replaced or made obsolete by the ‘New’ Testament. If they were obsolete, they wouldn’t be in our Bible. Not only are they in there, they are by far the larger part of it, thirty-nine books (or forty-six books if you’re Catholic) as compared to the New Testament’s twenty-seven. The Christian scriptures contain the Jewish scriptures within them, and we Christians read from them every week.

Note: There was so much I wanted to say about this, but I realised that it didn’t fit in a sermon. But I’ll share it here: For Jews, the Hebrew Scriptures only contain twenty-four books, because books that we divide into ‘First and Second’ – Samuel, Kings and Chronicles – are each one book, and because Christians put the prophecies of the twelve minor prophets from Hosea to Malachi in twelve separate books while for Jews their prophecies are contained in one book titled simply ‘The Twelve’. For Jews the scriptures have three sections: the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim, or the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. An acronym is made from the names of these three sections, which is why you may hear or see the Hebrew Scriptures called the Tanakh. We have divided up the Hebrew Scriptures into four sections: the Law; the historical books; the Prophets; and the books of Wisdom writings, and moved them around a bit. Now back to the sermon.

Why am I telling you all this? Last month, eleven people were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the worst anti-Semitic attack in United States’ history. The youngest of those killed was 54, and the oldest was 97. Last week was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, organised anti-Semitic violence in Nazi Germany in which almost 7,500 Jewish shops were demolished and almost 100 Jewish people were murdered. One of the excuses for anti-Semitism throughout history has been supercessionism, the belief that God’s new covenant with Christians through Jesus has replaced the old covenant God made with the Jewish people, and that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people. (It’s because of that belief that I don’t like referring to the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Testaments.) Christians have used this theology as an excuse for attacking and killing Jews on the basis that they rejected Jesus and through Jesus rejected God. It’s a theology that the Uniting Church specifically rejects; in 2009 that Assembly made a statement on ‘Jews and Judaism’ that includes the clauses:

The Uniting Church does not accept:
17. that belief that God has abolished the covenant with the Jewish people
18. supersessionism, the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God.

Instead we believe that, in Paul’s words, we Christians have been ‘grafted in’ to faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, and we should be grateful for that (Romans 11:17). As we remember the anniversary of Kristallnacht and grieve the murder of worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue we remember that we Christians are the younger sisters and brothers of the Jewish people and we should offer them the love and respect that older siblings deserve.

The Hebrew Scriptures, the parts of the Bible that we share with Jews, have their own meaning and integrity apart from the Greek Scriptures or New Testament. They do not exist simply to point to Christ. But the first Christians, who were Jews, did look to their own Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets, in order to understand who Jesus was. We can do that too, as long as we remember that our readings of the Hebrew Scriptures are not the only ways it can be understood. So today, two weeks before Advent, as we hear the story of Hannah and her response to a miraculous birth we can see in her a fore-runner of Mary, whose own response to a miraculous pregnancy we will read on the fourth Sunday of Advent.

I love this story! It is the beginning of the saga of David, Israel’s great king, but that saga begins 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 an oppressed woman.

Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah. Elkanah’s wife Penninah has children, but Hannah doesn’t. 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 is not just barren; she’s also mocked for her barrenness by her co-wife. 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.

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, [God has heard] 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 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 upsets all expectations, and she voices the dangerous hope that in response to human injustice God will bring justice. Both Hannah’s and Mary’s songs are deeply political; Hannah and Mary sing about the way God wants the world to be; a world in which the hungry are ‘filled with good things’ (Luke 1:53), indeed ‘fat with spoil’ (1 Samuel 2:5); and the poor are raised up from the dust, God lifting the needy from the ash heap to sit with princes (1 Samuel 2:8) which the proud are brought down from their thrones (Luke 1:52). Both Hannah and Mary sing of a world overturned.

Hannah’s story and her song, Mary’s story and her song, also remind us that God is always with us. During Advent we prepare to welcome the Holy One; a 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; a Jewish child, when being Jewish was no safer than it is today. Because of the astounding and unlikely miracle of the Incarnation we know that God has experienced and understands fear and pain and violence. So we know that God is with all those who experience fear and pain and violence today, whether in the Tree of Life synagogue, on Bourke Street, in immigration detention, in Syria or Afghanistan. In all those who suffer we see the face of Jesus, which is the face of God. Let’s remember that as we approach Advent and our Christmas celebrations. Amen.

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