Last week we looked at a story following the exodus from Egypt when the people had Aaron make a golden calf to worship while Moses was away on Mt. Sinai for an extended time receiving the Ten Commandments. About 200 years have passed from that time to today’s reading about Hannah and Samuel. If you are keeping up with the daily readings, you know some of the things that have happened during that time.
Due to their fearfulness about entering the Promised Land and facing the inhabitants, God decides that none of the generation brought out of Egypt will be allowed to enter the Promised Land other than Joshua and Caleb. This leads to the 40 years of wandering. Moses dies and Joshua is appointed the new leader, who leads the entering and conquering of the Promised Land. God takes a very front and center role in all of this.
As they move in to the Promised Land, the people are given sections of the land to live in by tribes, the 12 tribes of Israel being the descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob. There is not a central government but a group of separate tribes bound together in a confederation. From time to time when difficulties arise, God calls forth a gifted leader from one of the tribes to lead them all in overcoming those difficulties, usually enemies. Gideon, Samson, and Deborah are some of these leaders, who were known as judges. God is not as front and center during this period as the people scattered and become comfortable and don’t see the daily need for God’s help, so it is in times of crisis when they cry out to God that God acts. It is a discouraging cycle where the people turn away from God until disaster looms, then they cry out to God and God saves them; they are grateful, but in a short while they have reverted to unfaithful ways and the cycle starts over again. Maybe that sounds familiar.
The transitional figure during the next major movement in the history of Israel is Samuel, which brings us to today’s story. Samuel is the bridge between the tribal confederacy and a nation being formed; between occasional judges stepping forward to lead and a king ruling the nation on a permanent basis. Samuel is regarded as the last of the judges, as a priest, and as a prophet. But it is important to remember Samuel’s humble beginning and background, because in Samuel God is once again operating under the radar.
Samuel’s father was a man named Elkanah, who lived in Ramathaimzophim, a village in the hill country of Ephraim. Elkanah had two wives, Peninah and Hannah. He had several children with Peninah but none with Hannah. This was a huge issue for Hannah, because having children was critical for women in those days, for the survival of the family and the protection of the tribe. Peninah taunted Hannah regularly for her failure, and this struck to the core of Hannah’s being.
By this time the ark of the covenant had been situated at a sanctuary in Shiloh, which became the worship center. Priests would maintain this sanctuary and offer the sacrifices people brought, and the priesthood was a hereditary status so that the priest’s sons would succeed him after his death and serve with him until that time. Eli was the priest at the time of this story, and we are told that his sons were scoundrels and abused their positions regularly.
Elkanah brought his family to the sanctuary every year to sacrifice to the Lord. This particular year, Hannah prayed fervently to the Lord for a son, and she promised that if he gave her a son she would give him back to God. She prayed so fervently that Eli rebuked her for being drunk. She told him her prayer and he compassionately told her to go in peace and that he hoped that the Lord would grant her request.
Well, sure enough she became pregnant and gave birth to a son and named him Samuel. When he was weaned, probably around age 3, she brought him to the sanctuary and gave him to Eli to use in the service of God. I would dearly love to be able to see Eli’s reaction and read his thoughts as he was handed this child. But he took Samuel in and taught him the ways of serving God in a priestly role. Each year Hannah would visit and bring Samuel a new robe, and she ended up having three more sons and two daughters.
So there was nothing remarkable about Samuel’s family, other than his mother’s act of faith, of course, which we will come back to shortly. He was raised as a “ward of the church” if you will, trained to do those tasks which needed to be done which were beneath the priests to do. But this was not the fullness of the plan God had for Samuel’s life. God began to prepare Samuel for his calling by speaking to him even as a child, which amazed Eli in the same way that the teachers of the law would be when Jesus discussed theology with them in the Temple at age 12. And when Eli and his sons all died early deaths, Samuel had been prepared to step into the leadership void. Whereas previous judges stepped forward temporarily to lead Israel through crises, Samuel served as permanent judge for Israel all his life, riding a circuit and administering justice in every place. He was the unquestioned authority.
When Samuel got old he made his sons judges and gave them responsibilities. But they were scoundrels just as Eli’s sons were, and Israel would not accept them in Samuel’s place. The elders of Israel came to Samuel and told him this and asked Samuel to appoint a king. All the nations around had one, and they felt it was time for Israel to take this step to provide some unity and continuity and stability.
Samuel felt rejected by this, but God told him they were rejecting God, not Samuel. He allowed them to have a king but warned them about all the bad things that would come from it. Saul was anointed king. Saul was a big guy and looked the part of a king. But after a while Saul disobeyed God and was rejected as king, and God had Samuel anoint a new king while Saul was still living. This time God reverted to form by flying under the radar and anointing the last person anyone would expect to be king, and the children will take us through the story of David next Sunday in worship.
There are a lot of similarities between the stories of Samuel and the story of Jesus, and some of these are examples of the way God works at many points in the biblical history. I’ve mentioned the astonishment of Eli and the Temple authorities at the connections Samuel and Jesus had with God at a very early age, but it starts way earlier than that. It starts with their mothers.
Hannah stands in a line of biblical women who illustrate God doing the impossible by allowing a barren woman to bear a child. Sarah, Rebekkah, Rachel, and Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, among others, are in this line. In a society where such a premium was put on children, to be childless seemed the very judgment of God. You can imagine that not a day went by that these women did not dwell on this fact, filled with yearning to be fulfilled and validated in this way. For such a woman to have a child was viewed as a miracle from God.
So when Hannah finally had a child she was filled with joy and gratitude, and she sang a song. It is a song praising God for reversals, for turning the world upside down. After feeling for a long time as though she was in a deep and hopeless pit, Hannah now feels free of the burden and on top of the world. God has had compassion on the lowly and raised her up. God has seen the pain she experienced being taunted by her sister wife for having no children, and has silenced the taunts and brought forth singing.
Hannah could not possibly have known at the time that God would take this child born in Ramathaimzophim from the service to Eli which she dedicated him to and make him Israel’s greatest judge and kingmaker. But I don’t think she would have been surprised when this God who likes to fly under the radar continued to do such amazing and unexpected things with unlikely people.
With Mary God created a new mold, quite different from the barren woman mold. Mary is not even married yet, much less an old, despairing barren woman. She is young and full of hope and engaged to be married, and the world lies before her. And then an angel appears to her to tell her that she is going to have a baby and he will be God’s Son. God is doing a crazy, even more impossible thing, with Mary, and she consents to serve in this way.
There are some similarities between Mary and Hannah, though. Mary is from Nazareth, and the old saying was “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” She was from a humble family. While she didn’t have a sister wife taunting her about having no children, I feel sure she had people doing an even worse thing: whispering behind her back about her being pregnant and not married, maybe even pointing fingers and accusing her to her face.
At some point, though, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the barren woman who had become pregnant and would be the mother of John the Baptist. And when Mary arrived, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt with recognition and joy, and Elizabeth understood fully and called Mary the mother of her Lord. What affirmation and reassurance this must have brought Mary, and she, like Hannah, broke out in song!
Her song, like Hannah’s, is the song of a woman being lifted up by a Savior, who turns things upside down. Those who have lorded it over others with their power, their money, their arrogance, are brought low. Those who were at the bottom he has raised up, fed, even exalted. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.”
Mary was told more than Hannah about how things would go for her child, but the journey still had to be filled with lots of surprises, joys and disappointments, great pleasures and deep pains. Through her son God was continuing to work under the radar, through the outsider, not at all according to the preconceived notions of the Jewish people. And as God’s Son on earth, he continually went to the poor, the outcast, the diseased, the sinner, and acted to lift them up and make them into more than they ever imagined that they could be.
Abraham, the wandering Aramaean. Joseph, the despised brother sold to be a slave in Egypt. Moses, adopted into Pharaoh’s household, then exiled to being a shepherd in Midian. Samuel, dropped off at the sanctuary as a child to be raised by the priest. Are you getting a feel for the subversive ways in which God works to keep his promise alive and active? It’s not the way we do things and it’s not the way we would expect God to do things. Our eyes tend to be on the people with money and power, the people with the right bloodlines, the people who have the look of greatness about them.
To most everyone’s surprise, the son born to Mary was best described by these words from the prophet Isaiah: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53)
Paul said that the cross upon which Jesus died was a “stumbling block” for the Jews, who expected a conquering Messiah instead of a suffering Messiah, and “foolishness” to the Gentiles, for who could ever imagine a Savior who dies a criminal’s death? Paul wrote, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” (I Corinthians 1:26-29)
If we are going to find this theme from beginning to end in the Bible, maybe we should keep it in mind that God might continue acting in the world today in this way. Flying under the radar, working through people you wouldn’t expect in ways you can’t imagine. Lifting up those who are down in some way or for some reason, and giving them a new life, a new hope, a new joy, a new sense of gratitude.
The last hymn we are going to sing today captures this under the radar God perfectly. It is based on the Magnificat with an Irish melody, a surprising reversal in itself to communicate the surprising reversal it talks about. The name I like is “Canticle of the Turning.” When we sing it I hope you will think of Sarah, of Hannah, of Elizabeth, of Mary, and of the God who did wondrous and surprising things in and through them.
“My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great, and my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight and my weakness you did not spurn, so from east to west shall my name be blest. Could the world be about to turn? My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.” (Hymn 100) Amen!
David J. Bailey
October 16, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church