a sermon on 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 2:1-10
preached on November 15, 2015, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
It could have been the middle of the summer, but the days were dark and gloomy in Israel. The governmental structures to lead and guide the people had broken down, the religious institutions had become more focused on self-preservation than anything else, and the threats from the outside were as strong as ever.
It was not a time for singing songs of joy of any sort, especially not for Hannah. Beyond the struggles of the world around her, she bore the great weight of being childless. She had a faithful and loving husband who cared for her quite well, but the world around her demanded that she have a child of her own in order to be fully human. One truly inconsiderate person kept bugging her about it over and over again, and she entered a deep depression. Not even the gentle and loving presence of her husband—or extra gifts from him!—could comfort her.
She finally went up to the temple to pray. “O Lord, look on me! See my misery, and do not forget me. Give me a son, and I will offer him to be your faithful servant even from the first days of his life.” She continued in prayer, her words emerging silently from her heart with such great longing that she could not help but mouth the words. She sought a way out of her predicament, a new possibility for her life in those dark days, a chance to sing a song of joy for herself and for the world.
We know what it is like to be Hannah. Our pain and hurt may not be exactly the same as hers—we may not struggle with the same issues of being barren in a culture where bearing children was central—but we certainly know what it is like to struggle to sing songs of joy. When the world seems to be breaking down around us, when violence and terror strike so often, when friends and family die before their time, when we become paralyzed with fear, we join Hannah in those heartfelt prayers that things will be different, that the darkness will end, that the world will come together, that joy can be our song.
Hannah walked away from her prayer at the temple with uncertainty and confusion. She didn’t really know what to expect in response. Would God grant her petition? Would God give her a son that she would then give back to God as she had promised? Even the priest at the temple had confronted her while she was praying, concerned that her heartfelt prayers were an expression not of her strong spirit but rather some strong wine! When Hannah explained her anxiety and vexation to him, he sent her on her way with his own prayer that God would grant her petition. When Hannah returned home, her mind was more at ease. Something was changing. She and her husband soon conceived a son, and when he was born, she named him Samuel. Hannah could finally make joy her song.
Hannah raised her voice after Samuel’s birth to offer the song of joy and praise that concludes our reading this morning. She began by offering praise to God for the particular gift she has received—“My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God,” she exclaims—but her thanksgiving for the presence of God in her own life was only the beginning. Hannah moved beyond her own life to lift up words of praise for all that God does in the world to make things different and new and to show God’s way of peace, justice, and wholeness to all. “The bows of the mighty are broken… those who were hungry are fat with spoil… the barren has borne seven… the LORD raises up the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”
In her song, Hannah praised God for her gifts but made it clear that God was and is doing so much more beyond her, bringing justice for all people and offering a new way of life to the world, with a particular preference for those who are poor or in need. She sang because new life had emerged out of what seemed to be her barren womb—and because God continues to bring new life in all places that seem so barren and empty. Hannah responded with this song of joy because she had been a beneficiary of this incredible love, and her song expressed her deep gratitude for this incredible gift of a son and for God’s amazing power that is making all things new. Because of the blessings she received, because of God’s incredible work in the world, and because of God’s new thing that begins anew each and every day, Hannah made joy her song.
Even with the distance of several millennia, we too have the gift of sharing this song in our world and our lives. Amid the difficulty and challenge of our lives and our world, we can offer our praise to God as we see God’s presence revealed in new and deeper ways. Hannah’s song has been the model for countless others over the ages, most notably Mary’s song of praise as she fully embraced the gift that would come to her in being the mother of Jesus, and it can give us a basis for our praise, too. Just like Hannah, we too have had moments of incredible joy and blessing in our lives. We too have known God’s gracious and merciful response to our prayers. We too have seen God doing incredible things beyond our lives in all the world. And we too can sing a song of praise for God’s new thing beginning anew each and every day.
Our songs of praise in this place are a great place to begin, but they truly are only the beginning, just as this song was for Hannah. She not only sang a beautiful song—she took incredible and faithful action in offering up Samuel to the service of God. Like Hannah, our songs of joy need more than beautiful and catchy melodies—God calls us to sing praise with our heart and soul and voice, with the whole of our being, with all the gifts that give us life and breath, so that all creation might join our praise.
In these days, as we prepare for a new calendar year and bring a request for your support of the church in the next twelve months, I hope and pray that you will think of this as an opportunity for a joyous response. God is at work in our midst, and we have the gift of offering our response of joy and praise, not just in our words and songs and prayers here on Sundays but also in the gifts of time, talent, and money that support what God is doing in this place. Like Hannah, we begin our response with prayer for those things that so often seem to be missing from this journey of life together. We long for others to join us on this journey. We long for an end to the violence and strife that mark our world and occupy our attention. We long to be freed from worry about the mechanics of our life together. And we long for God’s new way to take more complete root in our midst.
Still, this is only the beginning of our response, for our prayers of deep longing soon turn to joy amid the great gifts that we have been given and are even more privileged to share. As we join in mission and ministry in this community and around our world, our joyful and faithful response empowers the church to bear witness to God’s love in so many times and places that go far beyond our imagination. And as we walk together, we find incredible signs of what God is doing in us and in our world to make all things new—and the astounding possibilities for where God invites us to join in!
The incredible thing about Hannah’s song —and our song of response—is that God uses these words of praise as a beginning for something new and something more. Just as Hannah offered the exultation of her heart, strength, and mouth, God works in and through the incredible gifts of our time, talent, and treasure to make all things new. God takes the little gifts we offer and expands them into something more. God joins our songs of praise in so many varied forms with those of others around us to continue the incredible things that God is doing in the world. In the coming week, you’ll hear a bit more about this story in your mailbox, about how you can join in Hannah’s song of joy and hope in our life together, and you’ll also receive a pledge card asking for you to consider what you can offer as part of a commitment to our song of joy and praise in this place.
As we consider our response to all these gifts and our commitment to our life together in this place over the coming year, may God give us strength to join with Hannah, Mary, and countless others across the ages, lifting our song of joy, thanksgiving, and praise for all that God has done and is doing in us and in our world to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.