Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 15, 2015
1 Samuel 2:1-10 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
(NOTE: The Revised Common Lectionary occasionally substitutes an OT reading for a Psalm, as is this case on this particular Sunday in Year B)
While I Samuel 2:1-10 is not part of the book of Psalms, it’s like a psalm in that it’s a song of praise and thanksgiving offered to God. Since Hanna was unable to bear children, she’d vowed to give back to God any son God graciously gave her. So when God gives her a son whom she names Samuel, Hanna fulfills her vow by giving him back to God so that he can serve the old priest Eli in the house of the Lord. In that context, perhaps after bringing her son to God’s house, she sings our text.
Yet even as Hanna celebrates the birth of her son, she “rejoices” (1) not, as we might expect, in Samuel, but in the Lord. After all, as Walter Brueggemann notes, “It is Hanna’s joy but Yahweh’s power.” Hanna’s song highlights that mighty power. She sings of how God has lifted her horn high, probably referring to the strength God has graciously given her to conceive and bear a child. Hanna also sings of God’s salvation of her as well as God’s weakening of her enemies. What’s more, Hanna sings of God’s supreme strength and stable source of security.
This first part of her song invites those who preach and teach it to reflect on our own sense of both strength and weakness. It’s tempting, after all, for us to ascribe our health, wealth and wisdom to our own strength. It’s easy for all worshipers to forget that we’re all, in one sense, “infertile;” we’re naturally weak and unable to completely provide for ourselves without God’s care and blessing.
Brueggemann notes that Hanna sings not only of God’s power to transform, but also God’s willingness to intervene on behalf of those on society’s margins in transformative ways. That’s critical to understanding God’s work in our world. After all, the power to transform without a commensurate willingness to intervene would be what Brueggemann calls a kind of “haughty transcendence.” On the other hand, a willingness to intervene without an accompanying power to transform would be little more than a kind of sloppy sentimentality.
Yet while Hanna sings about this wonderful divine combination, she doesn’t actually sing this song to God. Her words are about, not to the Lord. While verse 1 calls our text her “prayer,” she seems to speak it to other worshipers and her fellow Israelites. In it she scolds people for their arrogance. After all, while they may talk both proudly and arrogantly, God alone, she insists, both completely knows people and evaluates their actions.
However, God also, Hanna adds, acts in ways that are consistent with that perfect insight. The Lord, notes Brueggemann, is neither deterred by human resistance nor overly impressed by human actions. In fact, the very laws of nature that God created don’t even necessarily deter God.
As Jennifer Green points out, we often think of the world as a closed, static place that relentlessly moves along on its own. Hanna, however, speaks of the world as the place where God is both willing and able to intervene in order to transform what God creates, including human lives. After all, if an infertile woman can have a child, who knows what else God can and will do?
In fact, verses 4-8a list some of those things God is willing and able to do. They relentlessly speak of God’s great “reversal” of human “fortunes.” Those verses use a lot of fairly familiar imagery to point forward to what, in fact, happens not only in the rest of Samuel’s books, but also in human history. God, after all, not only gives Israel a king; God also causes relatively tiny and powerless Israel to flourish in the world. Eventually, however, God again reverses relatively powerful Israel’s fortunes, largely shredding her and reducing her again to virtual powerlessness.
After all, God is not only incomparably holy and reliable; God is also incomparable in the attention God pays to people on society’s margins. So while the “reverser” of verses 4-6 remains anonymous, we infer that it’s the Lord who knocks down mighty soldiers while lifting up fallen ones. It’s the Lord who reduces the full to hiring themselves out for food while making hungry people full. It’s also the Lord who gives infertile people children while causing fertile parents to pine away. In fact, as Brueggemann points out, these verses speak of a complete reversal of fortune. It’s not that the both hungry and well-fed will be full and that the infertile will join parents in having children. It’s that the hungry and infertile will be full and “fertile,” while the sated and “fertile” will assume the bottom the needy once occupied.
Now if that’s not disconcerting, then perhaps nothing is. After all, many preachers and teachers of I Samuel 2:1-10 as well as our hearers are those who are well-fed and at the “top” of the chain. The idea of God somehow reducing us to hunger, poverty and other deprivations isn’t only disturbing; it may also be offensive. So those who preach and teach this passage to others who are also at “the top of the heap” must be prepared to deal not only with their own anxiety, but also that of worshipers.
Hanna explains why God causes these great reversals of fortune. She sings that God doesn’t just create everything that is created; God also cares for what God makes. God didn’t just set the earth “on its foundations.” God also sovereignly ensures that that those foundations, as Brueggemann notes, keep the creation from sinking into chaos. God does that, in part, sings Hanna, by providing for God’s children and silencing the wicked.
So people don’t flourish because we’re so strong or somehow “lucky.” We flourish only because God graciously causes us to flourish. God, after all shatters those who oppose the Lord. So those who somehow try to make it on their own struggle. God gives strength, not only to God’s adopted sons and daughters, but also to the king who is God’s anointed one. In other words, those who rely on the Lord finally receive the strength they need.
Eventually, of course, Mary sings a song that sounds a lot like Hanna’s. In Luke 1 that “infertile” woman magnifies the Lord because God has been as mindful of her “humble state” as God was of Hanna’s. God, after all, hasn’t just given Mary a child. God has also caused other great reversals of fortune.
The Revised Common Lectionary pairs I Samuel 2:1-10 with Mark 13:1-8. There the gospel writer describes the crises that are famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of wars. It suggests no mighty buildings or institutions, not even lofty societal status, can protect people from such crises. All of them eventually come crashing down, experiencing their own reversals of fortune. Only by God’s grace can God’s people prevail in such crises.
Those who preach and teach I Samuel 2 will want to explore when and how God reverses such fortunes. We see it, of course, in Israel. How else do we see it in Jesus’ own ministry? How have we seen it in Christ’s Church? How do we see God reversing such fortunes even now? And how might God carry that reversal out most fully in the new creation?
The concept of reversal of fortune has proven to be a fertile one for movie producers and writers. Among many examples of that is the 1983 movie, Trading Places. In it the Duke brothers frame Dan Aykroyd’s wealthy character for robbery, drug dealing and adultery. They also bail Eddie Murphy’s poor street hustler character out of jail and install him in Aykroyd’s former job as the managing director of their commodities brokerage house. This results in a reversal of fortune between Murphy and Aykroyd’s characters.
Among the interesting results of this reversal is the way each character quickly adapts to his new position in the hierarchy. Aykroyd’s character quickly becomes a desperate person who does nearly anything to survive, while Murphy’s quickly adopts the smarmy characteristics of a well-healed snob.
This might provide those who preach and teach I Samuel 2 an opportunity to reflect on the way reversals of fortune may affect even those whom God raises to the “top” of the scale. This would also serve as a good reminder that God doesn’t raise those near the “bottom of the heap” because of their superior character, but because of God’s grace.
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