“God’s Grace in the Life of Hannah”
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; July 16, 2017
6th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 1:1-28
It’s a dark time in Israel’s history. They have become a nation weakened by their own disobedience toward God and by the on-going threat of their enemies. For over 200 years they’ve been ruled by judges and during this time their history has followed a familiar pattern: a period of sinfulness followed by God’s judgment, then a desperate plea to God, then, out of God’s faithfulness, God raises up a judge to deliver God’s people. For a time there is peace, but ultimately, complacency and disobedience return and the cycle is repeated, until we find in Scripture: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” The nation of Israel is in a state of moral and spiritual decline.
Still, God is at work—about to bring salvation hope to God’s people and it will come from a most unlikely place—from a family whose turmoil mirrors that of the nation. The family is that of Elkanah who has two wives: Hannah and Peninnah. While Peninnah has given Elkanah children, Hannah has remained barren—a fact that Peninnah will not let her forget. Year after year the family goes to worship God at Shiloh—a name that means tranquility. But there will be no tranquility for Peninnah continually mocks and provokes Hannah to the point of despair.
Hannah, whose name means grace, has been shown little grace or unmerited favor by the people around her. As a barren woman, she has suffered horribly. In a world controlled by men, a woman’s unique ability was childbearing and if she couldn’t do that, what good was she? On this particular trip to Shiloh, when her weeping and inability to eat catches the attention of her husband, he offers some semblance of comfort when he asks, “Why are you so sad? Am I not more to you than 10 sons?” Hannah isn’t consoled. She turns from Elkanah and heads toward the temple. Hannah will take her problem directly to YAHWEH. But wait, Eli the priest is seated near the temple door. Why does Hannah walk right past him? How interesting!
It is a dark time for the people of Israel. It is also a dark time for those who come to worship at the temple of Shiloh. If we read just one chapter further into I Samuel, we learn that for too long Eli has taken his priestly duties too lightly. His role as a priest is to lead, guide, and intercede. He is supposed to represent God to the people. Instead, he has allowed his sons to act in abominable ways and he has not stopped them. In God’s time, payment will be required of Eli and his family.
Since Hannah comes to Shiloh each year, it’s likely that she has heard of Eli’s shortcomings and of the evil-doings of his sons. Maybe that is why Hannah bypasses Eli and goes straight to God. She prays to the Lord—not as a religious duty but as a pouring out of her soul. While people often pray aloud in the temple, Hannah prays silently, and in her prayer, makes a radical vow. She vows that if God will grant her a male child, she will set him before God as a nazirite, set him apart for special service to God, until the day of his death. Usually, such a vow was taken for a specific length of time, but Hannah’s vow is for a lifetime.
Eli, sitting beside the doorpost of the temple, sees Hannah and he misunderstands her grief-stricken state. He thinks she’s drunk. When Hannah explains that she is a woman deeply troubled who has been pouring out her soul to God, Eli does not inquire into her situation or ask about the cause of her grief. (So much for pastoral care!) But note how Hannah responds. She responds to the misguided priest graciously and, punning on her own name, asks that “she find favor (grace) in his eyes.” Eli has seen “grace” right in front of him but he has not really seen it or the woman who bears the name.
Eli offers a parting blessing and Hannah leaves in peace. Hannah, through pouring out her soul to God finds “tranquility” in Shiloh. After a time, Hannah gives birth to a baby boy, calling him Samuel “because I asked him of the Lord,” she says. She receives God’s favor, God’s grace, and she responds just as she promised. After three years, Hannah takes little Samuel to Shiloh where she gives him back to God. Not to be outdone, God pours out even more blessings upon Hannah, giving to her three more sons and two daughters.
There is much to be learned from this mysterious drama between God and Hannah, the woman of grace. But for today, I would like us to consider two lessons that might help us in our own faith journey. First, Hannah models for us the way in which all believers can approach the throne of grace—directly. We no longer have to go through an earthly priest for Christ is our High Priest. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, we may boldly enter the Most High Place. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus, we may draw near to God in full assurance that our heart’s yearnings will be heard. Thanks be to God!
Another lesson to be learned from this story comes in the form of a question: Why does Hannah know what Eli doesn’t? Although we recognize that the Spirit had not been poured out on all believers in Old Testament times, it seems that Hannah models the gift of discernment for she is able to recognize spiritual truths. I wonder, could it be that she’s been walking with God while Eli has not?
In I Corinthians 2, Paul writes of the wisdom that is made available through the Holy Spirit:
[The things of God] have been revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God…Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned…”
Both Eli and Hannah discern something out of their own experiences. Eli discerns that Hannah is intoxicated. Intoxication…he’s seen before…but whole-hearted pursuit of God? Hmmm… Instead of being spiritually discerning, perhaps Eli has become merely religious—going through the motions. He may know the law of God but he does not appear to know the heart of God. And, sadly, any knowledge that he possesses is not being translated into care and compassion for God’s people.
On the other hand, Hannah, out of her understanding, discerns that she should seek God for what she wants. She has learned that her husband cannot solve her problem. She has learned that she is powerless to resolve it herself. And she puts no trust in Eli who has become a poor excuse for a priest. Hannah takes her petition to Yahweh. It stands to reason that she has seen God’s faithfulness in the past. Believing that God honors those who seek him, spiritual discernment leads Hannah to the truth of God’s goodness.
Spiritual discernment can lead us to God’s truth as well. Do you ever have a moment when you feel that twinge—that nudge—from God that says, “Ah…a truth!”? Once, I heard a woman say that she gets “holy chill bumps” when some unexpected, profound truth has been spoken. Frederick Buechner offers this word of wisdom: “Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump in your throat because they are signs that the holy is drawing near.”
On the other hand, I’ve also heard people speak of times when they have read or heard something and they have felt that twinge in their heart that says, “Oh…There’s something not quite right here.” Once, while channel surfing, our youngest son, Shane, happened to see a televangelist asking for a donation “of a mere $350 to assure God’s blessing—just send your money and then lay your hands on your television to get your blessing,” he said. To which Shane responded: “Mom, you’re not going to believe this!”
Spiritual discernment can lead us to God’s truth…IF we will only listen.
Our story begins with a barren woman, who is mistreated by a hateful co-wife, and misunderstood by a priest. But Hannah dares to take her case before God and God listens. Hannah recognizes that her future rests beyond her control, and in doing so—she becomes open to God’s future—a future where Shiloh, tranquility, can be found. In the end, her faithfulness blesses an entire nation who gains a much-needed spiritual leader in the person of Hannah’ son, Samuel. Through Hannah, the woman of grace, God, the giver of grace brings salvation hope to God’s people. Amen.
*Cover Art by Robert Dudley