When it comes to suffering in the Bible, most people would agree that Jesus wins the contest. Now this is not exactly a contest that anyone wants to enter. And Job would probably get some votes along with other mostly male characters strewn throughout the Bible. However, we don’t hear many stories of women’s suffering in the Bible. But this morning we hear the story of Hannah, a God fearing women who yearns to be a blessing to God through the birth of a baby. But that baby does not seem to be coming anytime soon.
Hannah was married to a guy named Elkanah who is from a distinguished family line and that he is a man with some money because he has two wives. Initially we know nothing about these wives except for their name and if they have given birth. Peninnah has children; Hannah does not. From this brief sketch, we can deduce a number of things: First, barrenness was considered a source of disgrace in the ancient world, so Hannah lived under a cloud of shame. Those around her probably wondered what she had done to deserve such a punishment. This seems to be the case with her co-wife Peninah, who to make her miserable, would taunt her that the Lord had closed her womb.
Something else we can deduce from the text is this; children, particularly sons were not just tiny humans to love and nurture. They represented the future — life beyond the present generation — in a very real and concrete way. The ancient Israelites had a concept of heaven that was unclear at best. But they could live on forever if they have a long line of descendants that could produce more descendants. But obviously if you could not produce any offspring there will be no descendants. So Elkanah’s future was assured through Peninnah’s sons. Hannah’s was not.
One final thing we take from the fact that Hannah is barren is that even though Hannah was Elkanah’s favorite and that he would give her a double-portion at the sacrifice at Shiloh, Hannah’s immediate future wasn’t secure either. If Elkanah died suddenly, Peninnah’s sons would have inherited everything, leaving Hannah dependent upon their good or more likely their lack of good will. She knew that without a child, and more specifically a son, she could end up on the street. Hannah was dependent not only upon Elkanah’s kindness and generosity, but his life as well.
So year after year pass, and Hannah has not had a child yet. So she finally reaches a breaking point. In our text, she is refusing to eat and she is weeping. To add insult to injury, Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, doesn’t get it either. “Hannah, why are you crying and why aren’t you eating? Why are you so sad?” I mean could you be more tone-deaf Elkanah?? If any of you watch “Modern Family” this guy reminds me of Phil Dumphey. He has a good heart but is quite aloof. Elkanah would have known all those things that I mentioned before about her family line not continuing, no one to take care of her when she was old and Peninnah bragging to Hannah about her barrenness. Elkanah might be a nice guy but he doesn’t exactly read people well.
So Hannah as a person of faith decides to do what people of strong faith often do during difficult times. She is going to take her problem to a higher power. Hannah goes to go to the local sanctuary and pleads with God about her problem. She weeps, she prayers she makes a vow with God. She asks God to see her. She does this in such a way that brings her further humiliation. As if things couldn’t get any worse at this point. The priest at this sanctuary, named Eli, sees Hannah praying and says, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!” Eli obviously didn’t take any Pastoral care classes at his Seminary or maybe he went to the same school of tone-deafness that Elkanah did because doesn’t seem to understand what is going on either.
Unless your prayers look different than mine, I have never had my prayers confused for drunkenness. Many other things sure, but not drunkenness. But Hannah is praying for a child that she has longed for. She is praying from the very depths of her longing. There is no time for formality. This prayer comes straight from her heart. The text tells us she was pouring out her very soul. Her heart. She was communicating to a God she knew and loved. She was bearing a heavy burden, and she was unloading that burden on her Lord. And when you communicate with someone that you know and love, you do so with exuberance and passion. We use pet names and knowing glances. With tears of joy and tears of loss. We let our guard down because they know who we are. There is no need to put on a strong face. Given the right circumstances, I suppose sometimes you might even look drunk. But what Hannah is ultimately saying is to God is this. Please God remember me. God bless me so that I can be a blessing to others. When Hannah finishes praying she explains why she was praying the way she was to Eli who then tells her to go in peace and sends her away with a blessing.
Then Hannah goes home, conceives, has a child, and then names the child Samuel and dedicates him to the service of the Lord.
I want to say at this point in the story that I have difficulty here. I certainly think God wants us to pour out our soul and offer ourselves to him. To be vulnerable enough with God to say hey God I am laying all my cards on the table. My life is in your hands. I offer my prayers and yearnings and struggles up to you. But I also ache for those people like Hannah who have trouble conceiving children or have a sick loved one who needs healing or healing for broken relationships. It is a prayer I have seen many of you lift up even in my short time in ministry who have lifted up the same prayer as Hannah and come before God with those same tears and fears and pain that Hannah did. It is a prayer that I have lifted up on your behalf as well. What I can say to you is this; your pain is God’s pain too. God’s heart aches as your heart aches.
But even in the midst of our wrestling with the text, there is still value that we can take from this story. Hannah is in constant conversation with God. She was willing to share her suffering and pain to God. The story of Hannah reminds us to hear it as a story in which God is active, in and in spite of the suffering now. God please be present in my life and remember me not somewhere down the road, but right now. God meet me right here in the middle of trials and tribulations and joys and celebrations.
Hannah is model of faith for us not because she had it all together or that she had the right thing to say, but because she was willing to bare herself before God. She was willing to be vulnerable with God and say God remember me, I am pouring out my soul to you. God I am not sure you remember me here and I want you to know that I am still here, meet me here in this suffering.
There are times in our lives when we cry out to God, saying please God remember me. On my internship, I went down to the Gulf coast to help clean up a little more than a year after Hurricane Katrina. We helped at many different places during my week there working with Habitat for Humanity. But a guy named Gus sticks out to me. Gus told us his story one day over lunch. He was a man of faith and he said when he heard about the hurricane coming to the gulf coast he prayed and prayed and prayed the hurricane would weaken or miss them. He was convinced God would answer his prayer. But when the storm hit it was even worse than expected. He felt betrayed by God. He came before God like Hannah and he offered up his most sincere prayer. He wondered where God was in the midst of a flooded city that was devastated. Lives ruined all over the place. The main road in Biloxi had a huge sign after the hurricane that said “Boulevard of Broken dreams.” He struggled and wrestled and wondered where in the world God was in the midst of this horrible tragedy. What he started to realize over time and now a little more than a year later was that even though he still wrestles with God, he felt like God heard the cries of the people on the Gulf Coast. Even though he wasn’t sure what to make of horrible storm and the loss of life in the midst of it, he knew God was present through the people that came to help them put their lives back together. He saw God in the lives of the people who heard their cries. He knew somehow God was present in their suffering and pain.
So I want you to know this; you are blessed even when it feels like God does not hear you or not hear you as you hope to be heard. God blesses us when we are marked with that cross in baptism just as Vivienne will receive this morning and it is a cross that is with us all of our lives. The same cross that caused Jesus suffering and death is a cross that brings us life. May this cross free us to be a blessing for others. Amen.