Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 15, 2015
1 Samuel 1:4-20 Commentary
It’s curious how often the purposes of God move forward not just despite familial dysfunction but sometimes even because of it. We’ve got a load of dysfunction coming up in the Samuel story through the shenanigans of Hophni and Phineas—and Eli’s hand-wringing inability to do a blessed thing about it all. But we’ve got nettlesome family issues right in this opening chapter, too.
The funny thing is that you wonder how things might have gone differently were it not for the dysfunction. It is, after all, possible that sans Peninnah’s needling of her, Hannah might well have accepted her husband’s well-meant and endearingly sweet statement “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” Maybe Hannah would have said, “You’re right, dear! I have so much to be thankful for. I love you. You love me. We surely do have each other and that’s enough.”
But any chance of that happening was nixed through Peninnah’s snottiness. You can imagine how it went: Peninnah and Hannah are talking when suddenly Peninnah says something like, “Well, gotta run—little Jimmy is eager to have Mommy read that new book we bought the other day. But you know how that goes. Oh, actually you don’t, do you? Pity. Oh well! Catch you later!”
Or, Peninnah and Hannah are folding laundry and Peninnah keeps asking Hannah to help her fold the baby’s onesies and little outfits. “Could you help me, Hannah? Now, this is how you fold a child’s outfit. I have to tell you because, of course, you have no reason to know, do you?” Then Peninnah would smile sweetly, flutter her eyes, walk away. And Hannah would be left to grind her teeth just before once again bursting into tears and dissolving into abject sorrow over her infertile condition.
When she could stand it no longer, she took advantage of a pilgrimage to the Temple at Shiloh to beg for some divine help. Hannah’s prayer may well be among the most famous in Scripture but what we sometimes forget is that part of the source of her misery was the teasing she had endured from her husband’s other wife. That is striking to recall because it hints to us that the purposes of God are not thwarted by—and sometimes can even paradoxically take advantage of—the foibles, wrinkles, and downright sinfulness of the human condition.
This idea is furthered in this particular story when you notice the loopy mistake that Eli made in assuming that Hannah was drunk and babbling right there in the middle of God’s holy place. It was probably an honest mistake, though subsequent chapters will alert us further to the fact that old Eli was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He tended to be, not to put too fine a point on it, a tidge on the slow side in terms of catching on to things or having the strength of character to react when he should have reacted.
Then again, given what we subsequently learn about Hophni and Phineas, Eli maybe should not be blamed for being on the lookout for drunken behavior—he’d seen altogether too much of it already. So Eli goofs, accuses Hannah of something bad, and then has to recant and back down. And maybe, just maybe, his blessing of Hannah and his priestly assurance that what she asked for would be granted stemmed at least in part from the fact that he was maybe overcompensating for his spiritual faux pas. You can imagine the color rising up Eli’s neck and up onto his face as he realized that the woman he had just accused of being a drunk was actually a pious soul who was pouring out her broken heart to God.
Eli, of course, has no clue as to what was the precise source of Hannah’s “great anguish and grief” because she does not spell it out for him. For all he knew she had been praying for the swift death of an enemy or that her husband would drop dead. He has no idea that she was asking for a son, much less that Eli himself would get saddled with raising the little guy once he was born and weaned. He had simply made a stupid mistake that embarrassed him and so maybe over-reached a bit in response as a way to compensate for the error.
Yet once again, out of this foible of the human condition—and from the flawed vessel that we soon learn Eli is—God manages to bring about something good in the birth of Samuel, who will go on to save Israel from itself and anoint its first two kings, the second of whom will be no less a towering figure than David himself.
It is strange how things go, even in the Bible. Anyone who thinks that the Bible presents straightforward stories in which the machinations of divine providence happen in miraculous ways the likes of which we could never possibly see in our world today had best pay closer attention to how things actually go in the Bible. The fact is that the work of God emerges from the cracks and fissures of ordinary people and their ordinary—and yes their sometimes tawdry—lives. Even some of the greatest movements of God’s plan of salvation happened as the result of people and events that were, all things being equal, fairly unhappy and unfortunate.
In the Year B Revised Common Lectionary, this reading from I Samuel 1 is paired in the Gospel with Mark 13:1-8 and Jesus’ words about how even the tragedies of life in this world (like wars, rumors of war, and earthquakes) somehow manage to be—in God’s sovereign hands—things that portend the birth of something new and good and not merely the death of all that we have ever known.
That’s good news for all of us who are able to fess up that our own lives are hardly straight lines that always move in the direction of the godly and the good and the pious. Of course, this is no excuse for sloppy living or behaving like a witch such as Peninnah (or for being as foggy as Eli) but it does provide a light of hope that our lives can still be vehicles for good, for the providential working of God.
It’s also a nice reminder that the plans of God are flat out not going to be thwarted. Not now. Not ever. Not by us. And not by our sometimes nasty neighbors or crotchety family members. I Samuel 1 is a lovely story for lots of reason. But just behind the loveliness and the lyric nature of God’s work are a lot of other things that are quite familiar to us as inhabitants of a broken world filled with people who can make our lives pretty miserable at times. We can see ourselves in this picture. Thankfully the Holy Spirit helps us to see God in that picture, too.
At one time or another, some of us have perhaps been tempted to pray for “a sign.” Maybe a few of us have been not just tempted to pray for a sign but we have petitioned God to show us something tangible that will help us make some big decision. “Oh, Lord, if she really is the right one for me, then let her call me in the next fifteen minutes!” “Dear God, if you want me to take this job, then give me some kind of sign so I’ll know–give me a thunderclap, a beam of sunshine, something to show me the way!”
Mostly it doesn’t work like that, of course. We’re even a bit suspicious of people who claim that God talks directly to them just about every morning at breakfast. Even if some ostensible sign is claimed by someone, we’re more likely to chalk it up to coincidence than direct divine intervention. “I was sitting in my car asking God for a sign and suddenly the light turned green! See!” Well, no, most of us wouldn’t see much in that.
Surely very few, if any, of us have ever recommended that people seek God’s will for their lives by letting a Bible fall open, plunking down an index finger, and taking a cue from whatever verse you happen to find. It is said that once there was a person who wanted to know God’s will and so he flipped open the Bible, blindly jabbed his finger at the text, and then read the verse, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” Since that didn’t seem to provide quite the direction he was looking for, he tried again, this time plunking down on the verse, “Go and do likewise”! All in all, not a very spiritually mature way to operate!
Of course, there are Bible stories that seem to lend credence to the idea that God operates through the doling out of special revelatory signs. Gideon had his fleece. Abraham saw a flaming torch once. Moses had the burning bush, and even I Samuel 1 seems to provide a kind of miraculous sign when Eli tells Hannah her prayer will be answered. And so on one level you could look at this story and conclude that this is another one of those “special” Bible stories that shows how God used to work in the lives of key biblical characters, even though he mostly doesn’t work that way for us anymore.
But if we look more closely, the working of God in even this story is a bit more mundane than we think. St. Teresa of Avila who once noted that “Christ dwells among the pots and pans.” It was Teresa’s way of saying that if we don’t bump into Jesus in the run of a typical day, we maybe won’t run into him much at all.
Thomas Merton once tried to make a similar point when he observed that a spiritual life is first and foremost just a life. If you want to be a holy or spiritual person, you need to be a person first, and what’s more you need to be the very specific person God already created you to be. The “spiritual” part of being a Christian is not way out there somewhere beyond the horizon waiting for you to arrive. It’s here, it’s now.
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