May I speak in the name of the God who hears and blesses, Jesus Emmanuel and the Holy Spirit the inspirer and challenger. Amen
Have you ever longed for something with all of your heart? Have you ever desperately wanted something and it just isn’t happening? If you eventually received the deep longing of your heart would you be able to gift it back to God. That is what Hannah does in our passage today. She is blessed by the God who hears her and on receipt of the blessing sacrifices.
The story of Hannah is not an easy one. Hannah is one of the wives of Elkanah. Elkenah had two wives, Hannah is the favoured wife we are told that he loved her, and Penninnah is his fertile wife who bears him children. Yes, we are back to yet another story of a barren woman, desperate for a child, and Penninnah has a hint of a slightly more legitimate Hagar.
Hannah longs for a child and waits and waits. Before the passage that we have read today Hannah weeps before God begging for the blessing of a male heir (note the specificity, we will come back to it!) and we are told in the passage that God remembers her. Hannah will go on to acknowledge that God has blessed her in his hearing of her. How powerful that thought is, is it not always a privilege when we feel that we are heard, by anyone – but by God! As Hagar is named and acknowledged by God, so Hannah finds blessing in God hearing her. How many of us find a familiar trope in the longing to feel heard.
But this is where the plot thickens: Hannah has not been asked to do this by God but she make this curious vow which I don’t know about you but for me leaves me with more questions than answers. Hannah says: ‘O, Lords 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.’ In common parlance Hannah promises that if she is gifted a male heir she will gift the boy to the temple to repay her blessing. She doesn’t mean every sabbath, or every now and again, but he will be taken to the temple and left there, it is quite an incredible promise to have made.
I guess many of us will have experienced the longing of Hannah in some way in our own lives. We waited for 12 long years to have our children and we really were in a place of great longing and not sure whether this thing was going to happen for us. Until I eventually with much medical help had the twins I found the readings of all of these barren women acutely painful wondering and fearing that I was going to be declared barren too. Once I had given birth to my gifts from God (and I did receive them as such) I cannot imagine the idea of handing them back to God as a gift?
I have pondered a lot this week on what this giving of the child Samuel (meaning God who hears) is about. I don’t know the answers but some thoughts. I wonder if Hannah wanted a male child to be a mother or whether it was because she felt unstable in her relationship as the non-childbearing wife of Elkenah. I wonder if the birth of Samuel might have been more about elevating Hannah’s status in society than becoming a mother. Which would have been a real issue in her context. Hannah it turns out is another example of a very human woman, a woman of a time and a culture, being heard and blessed by God.
I find the story uncomfortable and difficult but I wonder whether it is at its heart about costly discipleship. Whatever the motivation there is little doubt in the text that Hannah and Elkenah are full of faith. Hannah is taking seriously the notion of being heard by God and being blessed by God and this not being something which we should take for granted but something which should be engaged in and that their should be some reciprocation.
Then there is this song of Hannah. It is interesting to note that Mary would have known these words of scripture and while Mary is not replicating Hannah she is echoing the words of Hannah’s song. In Hannah’s annunciation she sings of God’s saving power, she is part of the story of salvation, which Mary sings of the fulfillment of. But as we know Mary would not raise Jesus in his incarnation alone.
In comes Joseph. As we often relegate Mary to the meek and mild one we also too often view Joseph as the junior partner. The slightly dim not really there man in the nativity. Lets do some reclaiming of Joseph.
We are told in our passage that Joseph was a just man. We often read his seeking to walk away from Mary as a betrayal but Joseph we are told is looking for ways to protect Mary, to avoid her being shamed. Yes, he wants to divorce her but secretly to save her from the disgrace of the culture of the day. As Joseph is working out how to be faithful to God and also protect Mary from her shame an angel appears affirming what Joseph is to do, and Joseph simply does it. As I read the passage afresh this week I wonder whether the bit about not having an intimate relationship with Mary until after the birth of their son is not as traditionally read an effort to maintain for all generations the virginal status of Mary and rather about Joseph attempting to protect Mary as the carrier of God’s child.
Joseph says yes as Mary says yes, in faith and service of his God.
Both Hannah and Joseph share rich stories of promises and blessings. Both Hannah and Joseph respond to these blessings and promises with costly discipleship.
I wonder as we prepare for Christmas how many of us feel the cost of following Jesus. I know that in our congregation some have felt the cost of discipleship: fleeing from persecution because they have chosen to follow Jesus, giving so much time and energy to the life of the church when sometimes that is less than comfortable and people would like to step back. Please share other ways that you have experienced the cost of discipleship with us as you leave today.
I suspect that for many of us the cost of discipleship does not feel very costly at all. We share worship with a beautiful community who on the whole love each other and those who walk through our doors, many are here because they like the style of worship, the way things happen. While there is nothing inherently wrong with those things – more is asked of us.
Hannah and Joseph in the richness of their faiths, model costly discipleship, they model how when we are blessed we need to respond with our gifts, with our heart, with ourselves. Will we take on this challenge to ensure that there is cost or challenge in our discipleship this week.
I am reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that clever theologian who was writing fabulous theology at the rise of the Nazi party. Bohoeffer had escaped Nazi Germany not once but twice but held to the values of costly discipleship and went back and raised his voice against persecution. Bonhoeffer was willing to die in his holding to the Gospel. I am neither suggesting that we must die or leave our children at the temple but it is central to the gospel that there must be challenge or cost to discipleship – what will yours be?
I am reminded of words that many of us will sing this Christmas, indeed we are going to hear them very shortly: what can I give him, poor as I am, if I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb, if I were a wise person, I would do my part, yet what, but what I can I give God, give God my heart.
God calls us to Godself. Whoever you are whatever you have God wants you to respond to the blessings that we receive with the gift of our whole selves. Are you willing?
As we prepare in this last week of advent I ask whether you will spend time with God and with yourself. Will we prepare to receive the gift of incarnation, the beginning of the climax of the salvation story which started with Sarah and Abraham, is witnessed to in Hannah’s annunciation and song and is fulfilled with the birth of Jesus. Will you prepare to receive the gift of Jesus and prepare to gift yourself back? Seriously look at what you have to offer in service of the God who gifts us salvation in the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.
Stephen is going to play for us please listen and pray for God who hears us to speak to you. As you listen to the music truly take time to look at your whole self and pray that as we wait to celebrate God’s greatest gift that we will respond with our whole selves in service of the one who created us. Then as we sing the final verse please sing it as a prayer.