Have you ever had one thing that you really wanted to do in your life that seemed to be just out of your reach? Have you had one thing you really wanted to achieve only to watch the time for doing it sail on buy with no results? Have you ever found a major goal you had for yourself was just not happening?
If you did then you know how Hannah, the wife of Elkanah felt. So lets open our Bibles to chapter one of 1 Samuel and see what we can learn from her story.
In verse 2 we read: Elkanah had two wives, the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
There it is, in black and white: Elkanah and Peninnah had children, but Elkanah and Hannah had no children. Of the three people involved in the marriage relationship of this family, Hannah was the only one who had no children. And in a time and culture where a woman’s main role was to produce children, particularly male children, to be without children was a major failure. Hannah had no children, and the fact that Elkanah and Peninnah did have children only made it clearer that it was Hannah who was barren. All Hannah wanted in life was to be a mother, and that it appeared was denied her.
Now generally speaking, I pride myself on being a reasonably sensitive person and I usually know when someone is hurting. So I was surprised to find that someone I worked with once, who had convinced me that she and her husband didn’t want children, was pregnant with twins conceived using IVF technologies. What surprised me most about it was how well she had hidden her real desire to have children. It made me realize how deep and personal was the sadness of being unable to bear children – so hard to admit to that it was easier to pretend to yourself and others that you were childless by choice. For those of us who, like Elkanah and Peninnah, have had children it is a grief we can only imagine.
But Hannah was not the only one who was barren. When we are introduced to Hannah, Israel is at the end of the period in which God had raised up a series of national leaders, called Judges, to rule his people, and, as the end of the book of Judges tells us: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Not only had the people become corrupted by the nations around them but the priesthood had also. The temple at Shiloh was served by the priest Eli and his sons, and the bible describes his sons as wicked men who had no regard for the Lord. They treated both the offering of the people and the people themselves with contempt. When it came to spiritual insight and spiritual leadership, Israel was barren, and “in those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.”
At this point it would be easy to sit back in judgment and comfort thinking that was then and things are different now, but are they really? Just recently I was reading a description of the prevailing beliefs of our current western society. For example: Faith says the post-modern person, comes in a variety of different wrappings but inside each is the same gift. So everyone should be free to enjoy his or her own expression of the same cosmic truth. God is a god of variety not uniformity so faith need not require that there be a single way to God. Just as the boundaries between faiths are no longer there, so it is with the boundaries between other things. Now something that is really good is called ‘wicked’ and those that wage war can be called ‘peacemakers’. Words too in the post-modern world have no objective meaning but are interpreted by the circumstances, beliefs and feelings of the person using them: everything is relative and no absolutes, either internal or external, exist. The morality of any decision, then, may vary in view of the individual or situation, and is secondary to what will actually work. Consequently in the post-modern world in which we live, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are categories with no universal meaning, and everyone ‘does what is right in his or her own eyes’. Tolerance of all life-style choices and all faiths is the catch-cry, the mantra of our age. Like Israel in the time of Hannah, our society is no longer listening to God, and we wonder why we do not hear his voice! So maybe there is something here in this story not just for us personally but for our society as well.
When we are introduced to Elkanah and his two wives, we are given Elkanah’s family tree and this means that the author of this book wanted to mark Elkanah out as an important man. And the things we learn about this man is that he is of the tribe of Levi, that is the tribe of priests, yet he is clearly not a priest. Though the official priesthood was failing, yet a faithful remnant remained and in Elkanah was one of the tribe of Levi who remained faithful to the Lord, for as the book tells us:
Elkanah went up year by year from his own town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.
Elkanah saw that the Lord had allowed Hannah to remain barren, yet of the fruit with which the Lord had blessed him, Elkanah gave double to Hannah. If that was the only side of her family life, then perhaps things would not have been so hard for Hannah, but in Elkanah’s other wife, the wife who had children, Hannah had a rival. And we are told of this second wife Peninnah, that she “used to provoke [Hannah] severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, Peninnah used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah. Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
Apparently blind to the jealousies he was inflaming; Elkanah could not understand why his love was not enough for Hannah.
Successful Author and Christian psychologist, Larry Crabb, begins his book Connecting with the story of his eldest son. Larry had two sons, and being a theologian, psychologist, and loving father, he wanted to do all that was right for his sons. So he gave his sons hugs, and spankings, detailed lessons about God, and father and son camping trips, indeed everything that that all his learning had taught him children need Larry did. If ever there was a model parent Larry was it. So it came as a great shock to him when at a conference in which he was the keynote speaker, word came to him that his eldest son had been expelled from college. At a total loss to know what else he could have done or how to make things better, Larry drove to collect his son from college and bring him home. On the way he asked God to do what he could not – find a way to help his son. Finally he gave up trying to be the perfect father and asked God to do it for him. That, says Larry, was the turning point that brought his son back to him. You see Larry had tried to be everything to his son, and in doing so he had inadvertently shut out God, and Larry could not take God’s place in his son’s life. And is seems to me that this is a danger we all can fall into: we see our loved ones hurting so we try to comfort them with the things we can give them instead of asking God for his guidance. And in doing so we can get in God’s way and actually make things harder for all concerned. In Elkanah’s case his desire to make things up to Hannah actually only made things worse, because it provoked Peninnah’s jealousy. Yes God had closed Hannah’s womb, but Elkanah’s solution was not what Hannah needed. You see in Penninah’s taunts we can hear the voice of the Deceiver, the one whose weapons are shame and fear, Satan. And His tactics appeared to be working well as Hannah becomes so downcast that she cannot eat. It was not the love and goodness of her husband, but the love and goodness of God that Hannah needed to be assured of. So it is that we find Hannah going to the temple to pray:
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazarite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.
Now it would be easy to write this vow off as the simply the bargaining tool of a desperate woman but in fact these word say much more than that. You see as part of the covenant agreement that Israel had with God, each firstborn male child belonged to God alone, and he was purchased back only by the parents giving certain sacrifices on his behalf. So in saying that her firstborn son would be God’s for life, Hannah was recognizing God’s sovereignty over her life and the covenant agreement that went with that.
Not only that, but the sons of Levite families were meant to be priests who served at the temple. So in offering her son, the son of a Levite, to serve the Lord for all of his life she was again recognizing God’s covenant commands. Having been brought up as a Nazarite her child would be as holy as she could arrange for him to be when he came to serve the Lord in his temple. Here was one whose heart wanted to serve the Lord. In this vow she was offering herself and her child in a wholehearted service to God and reaffirming her covenant relationship with God. In a nation whose priest had even gone astray, here was a woman who wanted to serve God with all she had.
Henri Nouwen was also a person whose heart was to serve the Lord. And as a world-renown Catholic educator and teacher he had a great deal of success in encouraging others in their faith. Yet one day, God asked him to leave that and become a house parent in the Le Arche community, an organization that gives homes to mentally and physically handicapped children. So he did. He left the world of the high flying speaker and entered a home where none of the people he was ‘father’ to knew of his fame and success. Believing that he would be serving them, Nouwen soon found that the shoe was on the other foot. When Nouwen came into a room he saw the faces of the children light up. Each day he was greeted with smiles and hugs, openly involved in the sorrows and success of the children, and generally made to feel like a valuable part of the community. Before long, Nowen found himself in the deepest pit of depression that he had ever experienced. In the face of the profound love and acceptance that these handicapped children had given him, Nouwen’s reliance on his ability to dazzle with knowledge crumbled and the loss was devastating. Yet it was in this breaking point that Nouwen experienced the unconditional love of God at the very core of his being and he understood that God can and does use the handicapped and wounded to do His will. Out of that experience came the wonderful book, The Wounded Healer, which ends with the statement that “the wound which causes us to suffer now will be revealed to us later as the place where God made his new creation in us most intimately known.
Similarly when Hannah began praying she was clearly at breaking point over her inability to have a child: unable to eat and drink, and weeping bitter tears. Yet at the end we see her promising God her first-born son! What she wanted so badly for herself she was willing to give back to God. And the book goes on to tell us that when she left the temple she “went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.” What a burden lifted, what a change of heart! Here we see the miracle of a heart open to God in earnest prayer. Feeling like a failure, Hannah still sought to serve God. Though fruitfulness had not yet been given to her, Hannah still hoped in the One who was the giver of life. Though her womb was barren, yet Hannah’s faith still flourished. And because of her faithfulness, Hannah’s heart was open to God’s instruction and her desire for a son was changed to a vision of a son who would faithfully serve the Lord as a priest for life. Her eyes were lifted from her apparent defeat to the vision and plans of God, and it was there that she found the peace she needed.
Another such faithful Mother was Susanna Wesley. Married to an Anglican minister, she was the mother of 19 children, eight of which died in infancy. In a household where hard work and stringent economy were the rule, it is said of Susanna, that when she felt the call or need to pray, she simply put her apron over her head and prayed and the children knew she was not to be disturbed. So into a household where prayer was a priority, John Wesley, the revival leader and founder of the Methodist church was born and raised. In a nation and time when the established church was floundering, one mother, the wife of a priest, remained before God in prayer, despite the difficulties of her life.
Likewise Hannah’s faith bore fruit, and she had a son, Samuel. And faithful to her vow, when he was still young, she brought him to the temple to serve with the priest Eli. And out of her faithfulness came Samuel, the great prophet and kingmaker and the last of Israel’s judges. From her faithful prayer there came not only the answer to her own barrenness, but the much needed spiritual leadership to guide Israel out of it’s own spiritual barrenness. Hannah was blessed with a great blessing for herself, her people and her nation. Out of Hannah’s faithfulness came much fruitfulness and God was glorified.
Well, though many of us here may not be looking to have children, most of us I would suggest, have some hopes and dreams that are yet to be fulfilled. Though we may not be suffering for barrenness, nevertheless we may have other burdens which are weighing us down or causing us pain. Though none of us (I hope) are in polygamous marriages, some of us may have relatives who seek to shame us or make us afraid of failure. These are the trials of this world still. So what do we do when to deal with these burdens and trials? How do we cope when our expectations are dashed, our hopes seem to fade away or our most earnest desires remain unfulfilled? Do we lash out at others like Penninah? Do we look for comfort in material blessings like Elkanah tried? Or will we go to the Lord and open our hearts to Him in earnest prayer? The choice is ours, yours and mine, and the choices we make affect not only our lives but the church, and the nation. Like Hannah, our faithfulness to God can bless others as well.
So today, if you are in the midst of a trial like Hannah was, let me encourage you to pour your heart out to God in prayer, and keep pouring it out till your view of life changes and you find the peace of God. Let Jesus open the eyes of your heart to God’s plan for your life. Let God’s glory and grace transform your barrenness. And if at the end of this service you would like Steve or I to pray for you, just come to the front row and we will be glad to do that.
Over and over again in the Biblical stories, we see the people of faith go through great trials and come out victorious. Real suffering becomes real victory in which God is glorified and his people blessed. The prayers of those in pain light the path to God for all to see. To live in this world is to experience some disappointment, some pain, some losses, but those that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. And God will grant them their heart’s desire. Faithfulness results in fruitfulness; let us glorify God in our faithfulness today.