Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam. 1.9-11, 19-20; 2.1-10; Luke 1.46-55) [Sermon 10-16-2016]

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October 14, 2016 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, October 16, 2016. From our ongoing fall series at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA, “The Faithfulness of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.”

Texts are 1 Samuel 1.9-11, 19-20; 2.1-10; and Luke 1.46-55.

The resources I leaned upon for this sermon are:

Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1990); Francesca Aran Murphy, 1 Samuel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010); and Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament IV: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 – 2 Samuel, ed. John R. Franke (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005).

For those who would rather listen, an audio link is embedded below.


The Bible is about God, not us

Our story today began with a woman who could not conceive a child. The older translations called such women barren. Not very politically correct, is it? To reduce a woman to her womb, and then to mark that womb with the name barren. Like the countryside during a long drought. Like a salted field. Like a desert.

It was a time when men dominated everything, of course. And a woman’s value was measured by how many children she could give her husband. Moreover, a woman’s future depended on her children. If her husband died and left her a widow, without children, there would be no one to care for her.

So we first meet Hannah as a woman who is less valued in her culture because her womb is barren. To make matters worse, her husband, Elkanah, had a second wife. That wasn’t all that uncommon back then, though it’s never been an ideal arrangement. The other wife was able to give Elkanah children. This is a familiar story, too, if you know the Bible much. It’s the story of Abram’s wife, Sarai, and her servant, Hagar—who was Abram’s other wife. It’s also the story of Jacob’s wife, Rachel, and her sister, Leah—who was also Jacob’s other wife. That last one was a severely not ideal arrangement.

It’s bad enough that Hannah bore the shame of an unfruitful womb. It’s worse that she had to compete for the affection of her husband with another wife. Worse still, Hannah was at a huge disadvantage because she couldn’t bear him children. But you know what made the whole ordeal so diabolically cruel? Elkanah’s other wife kept provoking her in order to irritate her (1 Sam. 1.6).

This is where we need to back away from the human drama of this story and watch what God is doing here. It wasn’t in our readings today, but the storyteller says it twice. The reason Hannah was childless was the Lord had closed her womb (1 Sam. 1.5-6). Wait … God did all this to her?

Here’s the part where I have to give a disclaimer. If you’ve struggled or are struggling with not being able to conceive, please don’t hear this story and assume that God’s doing that to you. This story isn’t about you; it’s about Hannah. Anyway just because God closed Hannah’s womb doesn’t mean that God routinely goes around interfering with human reproduction.

So don’t assume this story is about you. It’s really not even about Hannah.

It’s about God. The Bible is always a book about God. It’s only ever about us after it’s about God.

In the Hebrew scriptures, a story about a barren woman is really a story about a threat to the promise God had made Abraham: Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them … This is how many children you will have (Gen. 15.5). Remember, when God made the promise to Abram, his wife was barren! Abram’s son and grandson—Isaac and Jacob—both married women who were unable to conceive at first.

Whenever you’re introduced to a barren wife in scripture, you should always watch for God to show up. Her unfruitful womb is an opportunity for God to be faithful to his promises and his people.

Isaac, Samuel, and Christ

So Hannah was unable to conceive because the Lord had closed her womb. But if God can close a womb, God can also open it again.

Hannah was with her husband Elkanah and his other wife at the Lord’s sanctuary in Shiloh. They came there every year to worship and sacrifice to God.

One night after everyone else had eaten dinner, Hannah went to the tabernacle. She was very upset and couldn’t stop crying as she prayed to the Lord.

Then she made this promise: “Lord of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the Lord for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.”

She begged the God who’d closed her womb to open it. To give her a son. To vindicate her, and make Elkanah’s other wife shut up. She prayed for God to give her a future. And if the Lord would open up a new future to her, she’d dedicate her future to God.

Hannah couldn’t get pregnant, but this story sure is pregnant!

Back in the fourth century, a famous preacher named John Chrysostom connected the dots from the story of Hannah praying for a son, to the story of the son God promised Abraham. Chrysostom reminds us that when Hannah prayed for a son, she offered to give the gift—her firstborn son, her hope, her future—entirely back to God. And amazed, Chrysostom said: “Truly here was a daughter of Abraham. He gave when it was demanded of him. She offers even before it was demanded.”[1]

If you’ve spent much time in the Bible, you know the story of the binding of Isaac. Isaac was the son God had promised to Abraham. He was Abraham’s hope and his future. He was also the faithfulness of God—God’s promise to Abraham made flesh. God came to Abraham and said:

Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and … [o]ffer him up as an entirely burned offering (Gen. 22.2). Abraham obeyed. He bound Isaac—God’s promise, his hope, his future—to the altar and was about to sacrifice him. But God stopped Abraham, and said: I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me (Gen. 22.12).

Isaac was a foreshadowing of Christ, because he is a Son whose life was offered to God. Likewise, Hannah’s son Samuel will be a forerunner of Christ. He, too, is a son whose life is offered to God—as a servant. But the fulfillment is always more glorious than the shadow. Romans 8.32 says God didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him? God offered his Son as a servant and a sacrifice for us. In faithfulness, Abraham and Hannah were willing to offer their sons, their hope, their future, to God. But God gives his Son to us so that we can have a hope and a future. Through Christ, God freely gives us all things.

God opened Hannah’s womb. And when he did, he opened up a new future for her. Her hope and future came to her as a son. When our hope and our future was as barren as Hannah’s womb, God sent us his Son Jesus, to make a future with hope for us all. Jesus is God’s faithfulness to us.

Hannah’s hope, and Israel’s

Our storyteller informs us—as an afterthought—that while Hannah offered her tearful prayer, Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. Hannah did not approach the Lord by going through the priest. The priest just happened to overhear the prayer. She lifted up her tears and her prayers directly to God.

I love what our friend Chrysostom makes of all this. He took note that Hannah, “finding no helper or ally here below … made her approach on her own.” Hannah knew that her hope, her future, “depended not on human help, but on divine grace.” [2]

So we are told that when they went home: Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son.

Hannah—with no helper, no future, and no hope—cried out to the Lord. And the Lord remembered her. You know what that sounds a lot like? The Israelites, when they were trapped in Egypt as slaves. With no helper, no future, and no hope. What did they do? They cried out, and their cry to be rescued from the hard work rose up to God. And what did God do? God heard their cry of grief, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exod. 2.23-24).

God heard. And God remembered. And because God is faithful, he raised up Moses as a liberator for his people, and he rescued them. God became their helper, and God gave them a future with hope. Only God could do that.

In the same way, God heard Hannah’s prayer, and he remembered her. And he helped her. He gave her a son. He gave her a hopeful future. God was the only one who could do it.

Hannah knew it, too. Our storyteller Hannah named her son Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.” The name Samuel means God hears. His very name tells the story of God’s faithfulness to Hannah. His name is a witness that God hears the helpless; that he remembers them and helps them; and that God gives them hope for a future when there is no hope in sight.

God did this for Israel. He did it for Hannah. And Heb. 5.7 says he did it for Jesus, too: Christ offered prayers and requests with loud cries and tears as his sacrifices to the one who was able to save him from death. He was heard because of his godly devotion. Jesus made himself helpless on the cross. The cross took his life—and would have cut off any hope for him to have a future. But God heard his Son’s loud cries and tears, and saved him from the grave by resurrecting him. God gave Jesus a future with hope. So now we can live in hope for a future with Christ. This is who God is. This is what God does.

That’s why it’s so important to see that the Bible is really a story about God. We will all experience a time when we are utterly helpless. When we have lost our hope for a future And when that happens, we cannot depend on our own resources. No human help will save us. The future belongs to God, and so we must put our hope in God, who is always faithful to hear us and remember us.

Jesus and the other H[anna]h

Our lesson today was written for people who were all out of hope. The books in our Bibles we now call Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were written by scribes deep in the Babylonian exile. God’s people had sinned against him and against each other so bitterly and for so long that God just let them reap the consequences of their sin. He stood by and let his people be defeated by Babylon; for their temple—the site of his presence with them—to be demolished; and their leaders to be taken as prisoners of war. Just as it was when the Lord closed Hannah’s womb, God had cut off all hope his people had for a future.

The story we heard today was written to people who cried out to God for a future that could only dawn when he forgave them and set them free. In Egypt, their enslaved ancestors had cried out to God, and God had remembered the promises he’d made to Abraham. Would God still remember? Would God be faithful, even when they were faithless?

Their prophets and psalmists believed that he would. They said:

The Lord has comforted his people and has redeemed Jerusalem … all the ends of the earth have seen our God’s victory. Israel, wait for the Lord! Because faithful love is with the Lord … He is the one who will redeem Israel from all its sin. (Isa. 52.9-10; Ps. 130.7-8)

The scribes who wrote down the story of God giving Hannah a son wanted to give the people the same hope that the prophets and the psalmists did. They wrote down those stories so that the people would remember God’s faithfulness. They wanted the people to remember—like we heard in our readings today—that God takes down to the grave, and raises up! That God brings low, but also lifts up high! The scriptures always remind us that our God is faithful, that he remembers his people, and he remembers his promises.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that when God sent his Son into the world to open up a new future with hope for us, an elderly prophet named Hannah rushed to meet him. Our Bibles call her Anna, the Greek version of the name. By the way, the name Hannah or Anna means “grace.” According to Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph had brought their firstborn son Jesus to the temple to dedicate him to God. Anna approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2.36-38). This woman named “grace” knew grace when she saw it! When she looked at the Son God offers to us, she saw a new future with hope. She saw the faithfulness of God.

It wasn’t in our readings today, but the storyteller says this about the son God gave to Hannah: the boy Samuel kept growing up and was more and more liked by both the Lord and the people (1 Sam. 2.26). Luke’s Gospel says the exact same thing about Jesus right after the prophet Anna meets him (Luke 2.40).

Like Samuel, Jesus is God’s promise made flesh. Like Samuel, Jesus teaches us that God hears our cries; that he remembers his promises; and that he is faithful to keep them.

Hannah’s prayer, and Mary’s song

The story of God’s faithfulness to Hannah was written during the days of the exile to Babylon. But the story happened during the time of the Judges. Israel’s Judges were warrior-prophets that God raised up to protect and lead his people. The days of the Judges were brutish, nasty, and not short enough. It was a lawless era out on the wild frontiers of Canaan. Over and over again in Judges, we hear the lament: In those days there was no king in Israel; each person did what they thought to be right. The Israelites were in danger from their Canaanite neighbors. But they were in even more danger from each other. Conflicts within Israel often turned into small-scale tribal wars. When Hannah brought her child Samuel to the tabernacle to dedicate him to priestly service, as she had promised God, she prayed a remarkable prayer that revealed her deepest hopes for her son. She asked God to raise him up as a mighty leader to deliver the people. That’s why the final words of her prayer are: May God give strength to his king and raise high the strength of his anointed one.

Hannah’s prayer began like this:

My heart rejoices in the Lord.

    My strength rises up in the Lord!

And as she continued to pray, she says:

Those who were filled full now sell themselves for bread,

    but the ones who were starving are now fat from food!

God raises the poor from the dust,

    lifts up the needy from the garbage pile.

    God sits them with officials,

    gives them the seat of honor!

This is not simply a prayer of a mother thanking God for her son. It’s someone who has experienced God’s faithfulness begging him to continue to be faithful, and set things right in the world. Just as he has made her world right again.

In the New Testament, Hannah’s prayer is given new life as Mary’s song. We heard that in our readings today, too. Like Samuel, Jesus was born into a time and place of helplessness, and hopelessness, when the future of God’s people was very much in doubt. As Jesus grew in his mother’s womb, she sang, like Hannah had before her:

With all my heart I glorify the Lord!

    In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.

He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones

        and lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things

    and sent the rich away empty-handed.

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,

        remembering his mercy,

    just as he promised to our ancestors,

        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.

Like Hannah, Mary knew that the son God had given her didn’t really belong to her. Jesus was God’s answer to Hannah’s prayer from so long ago: May God give strength to his king and raise high the strength of his anointed one. Jesus is God’s Messiah—the anointed king Hannah had prayed for. He is God’s promise to Abraham made flesh: all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you (Gen. 12.3). God sent Jesus to make everything right again. Through Jesus, we remember God’s mercy. So we can pray with Hannah, and sing with Mary. Because God is faithful.


[1] Homilies on Ephesians.

[2] Homilies on Hannah.

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