Tender Mercy, Hannah’s song. A Sermon.

For Glyndon Lutheran Church, 10/14/2012
1 Samuel 1-2 (Narrative Lectionary)

I have a friend named Grace. Grace lives in a slum of Nairobi called Satellite along with her three daughters. Grace married James, whose job regularly brought him out of town. On one of his trips, he contracted the virus that causes Aids. When James found out that he had Aids he said to himself, “I will die without any children.” At that time, they had two daughters, but in their culture, daughters do not count as children.

When Grace found out that she was HIV positive she also found out that she was pregnant for a third time. Doctors and family tried to persuade her to get rid of the child, that the child would be sick, that Grace and James would soon die, that there would be no future, no hope, no life.

But Grace took precautions, which included praying for a healthy child: “Let me have a child who is HIV negative to glorify your name,” she prayed. Grace gave birth to her third daughter alone in her one­room house praying for God to “take care of it.” She had a lot of courage because she knew what she was doing and because God was with her. The child was born with a negative HIV status. And Grace named her Joy.

It is a tender world we enter into when we start to talk about life and birth and babies. There is often unspoken pain or heartache for many women and men, some who have struggled to have children or are unable to have children, others who have lost children, and even others who haven’t felt called to motherhood in a society where childbearing is highly favored. Tomorrow [October 15th] is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. This sense of grief and loss is important to name especially in light of the day’s story. It’s also important to be clear what this story is and is not about.

This story is about a woman named Hannah. When we take a wider view, we see that this story is about ushering in a time of power in Israel through their first kings. Yet, God starts this story in the barren womb of a woman. This is a story about the extraordinary coming form the ordinary, a story about life coming from unexpected and surprising places and people, a story about the power of God to bring life from death, a story about God turning the world upside down.

Hannah was taunted for not having children. She wanted a child, so badly, but could not carry one. No life could come from her. She prayed in the House of the Lord that she would have a child. Scripture tells us that she poured out her soul to the Lord; she prayed so fiercely that the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk. When Eli scolded her to put away her drink, she told him that she was not drunk but speaking to God out of her great anxiety and anger. Realizing his mistake, Eli the priest told her to go in peace, blessing her that the God of Israel would grant the petition she prayed.

After she and her husband returned home, she became pregnant, had a baby boy, and named him Samuel, meaning “I have asked him of the Lord.” When the boy was old enough, she brought him back to the priest and he lived his days in the House of the Lord. Hannah sang a song that Mary, the Mother of Jesus would later echo. Samuel blessed and anointed the kings of Israel.

This is what the story is about.

This story is not about getting what you want through prayer. This story does not say that God gives children all childless couples who want them. This story does not tell us that if we just pray hard enough what we want will come to us. Could you imagine telling a brokenhearted woman and man that if they would have just prayed more God would have heard? God knows our needs before a word of prayer forms on our lips or in our hearts.

However, we can take notes from Hannah on prayer, not as superstition, not as a way to manipulate God, but as a way to heal in God through faith, pouring out our pain, letting go our lament, being honest about our brokenness.

Martin Luther said something like this: True Christian religion begins not at the top as other religions do with speculation about God in the high moments. True Christian religion begins in the bottom where God meets us in our suffering. If you want to know who God is, run to the Manger, and “find the mother’s womb, embrace this infant and Virgin’s Child in your arms, and look at Him — born, being nursed, growing up, going about human society, teaching, dying, rising again, ascending above all the heavens, and having authority over all things.” (LW 26 on Galatians 1:3)

If you want to know who God is, look into the places in your life where God is already present, where God promises to meet you. Not only in the best moments, but in the struggle, in the suffering. God is there.

You see, what God does is doing in this story is what God always does in the bible and in our lives: meets us in our suffering. We saw it in Abraham and Joseph, the people of God in Egypt, and though we might not recognize it, God is with us in our suffering.

Hannah prayed for a son, one that she would dedicate, that is, return to the Lord, give up. God did write a new ending for Hannah. For my friend Grace, God wrote an ending of hope and joy beyond the present; of life beyond death’s grasp.

God is writing a new ending for all of creation. It isn’t always the same and it might not be what we were expecting or hoping for.  God works in weird ways. There is a new ending. The ending of today’s story is not the birth of Samuel. In fact, the end of this story is still being written in your life in this world. This story leads us into Christmas and the Incarnation of God in the flesh. This story echoes on Easter in the empty, barren tomb.

Death does not have the last word. God is on the side of life. Your life. The life of the whole world.

May God who began a good work in you bring it to completion in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.


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