1 Samuel 2:1-10
At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people were asking “Why?” Which is what humans always ask in the face of tragedy, even though we never get a satisfactory answer to that question. A Christian leader whom I follow named Alicia Chole gave what is still my favorite response to that question. She said, “God didn’t cause this pandemic. But God’s not going to waste it.” God didn’t cause it. But God’s not going to waste it. I feel that one in my gut. My core belief, the foundation of pretty much all the rest of my theology is my belief that something good is always possible. From the depths of the worst tragedy, God can raise up beauty. God didn’t cause it. But God’s not going to waste it.
Humans construct meaning in different ways. Some people believe in coincidence. Some people believe in fate. Some people believe that God is directing events. And you know what? You get to choose what you believe. Most of the time in life, we find what we are looking for. We pay attention to the facts that confirm what we already believe. If you find yourself flip-flopping back and forth between belief in coincidence and fate and God, you’re not alone. Even the Bible seems to support different ideas at different times. But as you would expect, the idea that God is directing events is the one that shows up most often in the Bible.
This is not surprising considering that in the ancient world they didn’t know anything about physics, or meteorology, or biology and they didn’t know how to interpret causes and results, so they attributed everything to a divine force. But we don’t want to be too patronizing of our sacred text and dismiss that perspective altogether. Because we all know that— whatever we call it— we feel a meaning, a significance to our lives that has more to do than just what is happening on the surface. Especially when it’s hard. And this year has been hard, hasn’t it? We long to find some meaning in all this mess.
I’d like for you to keep all of this in mind as we listen to today’s story. It comes from the book of First Samuel, which means we have taken a giant leap through time from last week’s story of the Golden Calf. The books of First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, and First and Second Chronicles, tell the story of ancient kingdom of Israel from the height of their power as a united monarchy through the nation’s downfall. These books are called the books of history, which leads modern readers like us to ask, “So did they really happen? Are they history in the way that we understand history? Do they communicate concrete facts?”
But that’s exactly the question that I DON’T want us to ask this morning. Because we’re not going to get a good answer. There’s not enough non-biblical evidence left for us to corroborate the facts in these books. And I submit to you that ultimately that question doesn’t matter anyway. Because the facts of this “history” is not the important part of the “history.” We want to know what’s behind the facts, and how these events shaped the people who lived through them, what they believed these facts taught them about God. That’s the “history” that we are interested in when we gather for worship. The facts of the Bible is not the meaning of the Bible. Just like the facts of our lives are not the meaning of our lives.
So. The history. When we left the ancient Hebrews last week, they were busy making idols in the desert. The story says they wandered around for 40 years before arriving in what had been their ancestral homeland. They resettled in that land as a group of tribes who were united by their worship of God, and their tribes were ruled by clan chiefs who the Bible call “judges.” But this configuration wasn’t going to last. As the nations around them got more organized, the temptation grew for them to also centralize their political power. Eventually they were going to get themselves a king. However, political transitions are never that smooth, so there there was a ruler whose power bridges the gap between judges and kings. He was known as a prophet and he had both religious and political power, because church and state were the same thing. This prophet’s name was Samuel. (A very good name.) This morning’s story is of the birth of Samuel.
The story starts like many birth stories in the Bible: with infertility. With the longing for a child. With the waiting. With a woman who has the heart of a mother and refuses to give up. Behind the fact of infertility there’s a deeper significance. God is there. And this would-be mother stays in God’s face about it. She keeps asking for her heart’s desire. She does not give up when her husband lays on a guilt trip by saying he should be enough for her. She refuses to be deterred by a priest who misunderstands her prayers. She persisted. And finally we read these beautiful words: “The Lord remembered her.” “In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said ‘I have asked him of the Lord.'” Hannah and her husband dedicate their little Sammy back to God, and when he’s old enough, he goes to live at the temple and learns to serve the Lord as a priest.
At the beginning of chapter 2, Hannah prays a powerful prayer, which is what I want us to focus on this morning. This is Hannah’s prayer of gratitude from First Samuel chapter 2, verses 1 through 10.
And Hannah prayed and said,
“My heart exults in Lord God,
my horn is lifted high in God.
I smile wide over my enemies,
for I rejoice in Your salvation.
There is none holy as Lord God,
for there is none besides You,
nor is there any rock like our God.
Boast no more so proudly—
insolence comes out of your mouth.
For Lord God is the all-knowing God,
and by Him deeds are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the stumbling are girded with strength.
Those full hire themselves for bread,
but those starving hunger no more.
Even the barren gives birth to seven,
but she with many sons languishes.
Lord God causes death and makes alive,
He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
Lord God makes poor and makes rich,
He brings low and also lifts up.
He raises the helpless from the dust.
He lifts the needy from the dunghill,
to make them sit with nobles,
granting them a seat of honor.
For the earth’s pillars are Lord God’s,
and He has set the world on them.
He guards the steps of His godly ones,
but the wicked are silenced in darkness.
For one does not prevail by might.
Those who oppose Lord God will be shattered.
He thunders against them in heaven.
He judges the ends of the earth.
He gives strength to His king,
exalting the horn of His anointed one.”
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
At first glance this seems like an odd prayer of gratitude. Especially because there’s only one reference to babies in the whole thing. But this prayer is about much more than the facts of Samuel’s birth. Hannah connects her gratitude not only to her personal experience but to the experience of other people and ultimately to the nature of God. Her emphasis is not on the gift. Her emphasis is on the identity of the Giver.
I want to point out again that this prayer contains the proper name of God that we discussed last week. Way back at the burning bush when Moses asked God’s name, God replied “Yahweh.” English Bibles usually translate that to say that God replied, “I am who I am.” Which is technically correct. And it reflects our monotheistic belief that there is only one capital-G God so why would you bother with a proper name? It also honors the Jewish tradition of not speaking that proper name of God. The only problem I have with it is that it’s not very personal. And it doesn’t take into account that in the ancient world the people had a lot of choices about which god to worship. In her prayer Hannah very deliberately chooses to give credit to Yahweh. Not Ba’al or Ishtar or Molech or Zeus. Yahweh. She prays, “There is no Holy One like Yahweh. Yahweh is a God of knowledge. The pillars of the earth are Yahweh’s, and on them he has set the world.”
This name of God business is not just an interesting historical fact. There’s a reminder for us in here. While we may not believe in this existence of other gods like Zeus, we still choose every day who and what we are going to worship. Where do we place our trust? Who gets the credit for good things that happen in our lives? What do we ultimately value? These are questions about who and what our gods are.
This Yahweh that Hannah worships has a very specific identity. It’s in the middle of the prayer. Your brain may have zoned out or filtered it as theological static when I read it the first time, but it’s a big deal. Let me read it for you again, this time from a translation of the Bible called The Message:
The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces,
while the weak are infused with fresh strength.
The well-fed are out begging in the streets for crusts,
while the hungry are getting second helpings.
The barren woman has a houseful of children,
while the mother of many is bereft.
God brings death and God brings life,
brings down to the grave and raises up.
God brings poverty and God brings wealth;
he lowers, he also lifts up.
He puts poor people on their feet again;
he rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope,
Restoring dignity and respect to their lives—
a place in the sun!
For the very structures of earth are God’s;
he has laid out his operations on a firm foundation.
He protectively cares for his faithful friends, step by step,
but leaves the wicked to stumble in the dark.
No one makes it in this life by sheer muscle!
The main message of this prayer is that God is on the side of the downtrodden: the weak, the hungry, the barren, the poor, the burned-out. God sees, God hears, and God remembers. In due time, which may not be our time. But in God’s time, God restores.
Now I’m not going to skip over the part that says God brings life and death, poverty and wealth. That’s hard theology, but we don’t skip hard stuff here. I will tell you that the Bible doesn’t speak with only one voice on that. So this morning I want to ask you to keep that statement in the context of this story. That’s what the Bible is for: for us to learn from the stories. It’s not a theology textbook. It’s a story book, a family travel journal. In this story, at this moment, Hannah proclaims that Yahweh, the God to whom she and her people belong, the God who brought them up out of Egypt all those years ago, this God Yahweh is overseeing the world. In fact the world and everything that happens in it are under the direction of Yahweh, the God who remembers the weak, the hungry, the barren, the poor, and the burned-out.
This is a powerful message. In your weakness, don’t despair. There is a God who remembers you. And in your strength, don’t be smug. “No one makes it in this life by sheer muscle.” God can change any circumstance at any moment. Not with an abracadabra transformation, but with a confluence of events that you could never have engineered on your own. Subtle enough that you can credit it where you want to. You can give credit to God. Or to fate. Or to coincidence. Or to your own cleverness. God is going to let you choose. But some people will choose to see God at work. Hannah’s prayer declares that for those people, the ones who choose to trust that God is at work, they will find what they are looking for and they will experience God’s protective care.
Those who don’t want to find God probably won’t. And God won’t intrude on that. For them, God is silent and dark. Not as a punishment, but because that’s what they already expect, and so that’s what they find.
The question for us this morning is what do we expect to find? And maybe even more than that, what do you want to find? Because despite what other people may have told you in the past about evidence that demands a verdict, I believe that we have an incredible amount of agency in our faith. What I mean is that we get to choose what we believe, who we trust, where we give credit, what we worship. If you choose to put your trust in power and military might, in privilege, in family pedigree, in wealth — don’t get cocky. Because things could change at any moment.
If you choose God, lean into that. Expect to find yourself protected and cared for, and see if God won’t do just that. If you are struggling right now, as really everyone in the world is in some way this year, don’t despair. The story and the prayer of Hannah are here to reassure you. Something good is always possible. Amen.