Sermon on the Radical Prayer of Hannah, the Courage of Samuel’s Speech, the Humility of Eli’s Response, and the Invitation That It All Offers to Us
Last Sunday, and this next, while their righteous pastor Rev. Dr. Ben Stewart is gone for a few weeks, I’ve been asked preach at a local congregation here in Two Harbors: Emmanuel Lutheran Church.
Below is first a link to the audio of the sermon, and then its transcript.
I based the proclamation on 1 Samuel 3:1-20, but felt compelled to reference his mother’s Hannah’s song, which wended its way generations later into Mary’s song; and how Hannah’s hymn shaped his prophetic ministry; and how Hannah’s courage shaped Eli’s receptivity to Samuel’s words; and how Hannah’s and Samuel’s clarity about their God, and Eli’s spurred recollection of his God, facilitates both our courage to speak hard words and our openness to hear them too.
Peace to you in this Epiphany season!
Grace to you and peace from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God…There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil…He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor…”
Now, although you can’t see them and didn’t hear them, these words course through our text from 1 Samuel today. Indeed, they infuse everything in our passage exactly in the same way that a mother’s food becomes the child growing within her, for when Samuel’s mother Hannah was pregnant with him, she uttered this hymn in praise to God at the news that she would bear a child.
That’s to say that Samuel’s very growing essence was steeped in Hannah’s trust in God, and in her conviction that God was a God of justice, of righteousness, of compassion, a God who had preferential concern for the meek and for the poor…and who disdained those who with their wealth and power exploited the same.
It was baked into his very being.
Whether the crafters of the lectionary intended it or not, Psalm 139 draws upon like imagery, that of a God who works within a woman’s womb, knitting—itself a skill typically associated with women, and so here is a mother God who knits with intention one who lives all their days according to the ways of God.
It might seem strange to begin a sermon by referencing a passage that comes a chapter before the one on the day of the sermon!
But it’s impossible to gather even a little bit of the gist of a text if you don’t know the context, and there’s a lot of context here.
Briefly, it’s this: Hannah was married to Elkanah, who—as one was wont to do in those days—had two wives: Peninnah and Hannah. Peninnah had Elkahah’s children, but Hannah had Elkanah’s heart. Peninnah was no fool, and out of jealousy (though at another time, the story can and should be told through her eyes) she bullied Hannah to the degree that Hannah was bereft: she was without children, and she was taunted about it.
In despair, Hannah went to the temple to go before God to pleased for mercy in the form of a child. Of all people, there sat Eli the priest—the very same Eli we hear about in our passage today—who watched her while she prayed. And for what did she pray? She prayed that if God gave her a son, she’d give the son back to God to be dedicated to God’s service.
Trouble was, Eli, the priest, and one of the two men of the hour for us today, saw her praying lips move, but did not hear her words. Naturally, his first and in fact only go-to assumption was that she’d tipped too much ancient hooch back. “How long,” he patronizingly scoffed at her, “how long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” Suffice it to say that Hannah had more poise than I would have. “No…my Lord,” she said; how exactly she said that is not clear, but I like to imagine that she seethed through her deferential words, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.” Properly then chastised, Eli said the very words that sealed his fate and brings us to our text today. “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”
The next day, she and Elkanah conceived Samuel.
Once Samuel was born and weaned—we do not know how old he was—Hannah made good on her promise. She dedicated Samuel to God, and brought him to Eli, but not before reminding Eli (I like to think with a bit of holy snark) that it was she whom he had seen praying on that day, oh and by the way may I present to you the very son for whom I prayed.
It was at this moment that Hannah prayed another prayer, the one which I read at the beginning of the sermon.
And it was right after then, right after then, that we learn that although Eli might not have been so derelict in his fidelity to God, those sons of his? “Scoundrels,” Scripture says. They ate the cooked meat offered in sacrifices intended for God, and they demanded that raw meat be given so that they could render the fat rather than the priests to be offered in worship. They threatened those who were tasked with preserving the sanctity of the rituals. They mistreated the women who tended the holy spaces.
And Eli knew it.
Eli knew it, and while he spoke to his sons, crucially, he did nothing to put a stop to their offenses against the people and against God.
God noticed, and it ticked God off.
So God sent someone, first a nameless priest to alert Eli to God’s displeasure.
So, still a boy, along comes Samuel, now a dedicated servant to God and therefore to Eli the priest.
Three times God called to sleeping Samuel, three times Samuel thought it was Eli, and at that third time, Eli perceived that God was afoot.
So Eli commanded Samuel to return to his bed, and this time, to listen for and expect God.
Eager to please not just Eli the Priest, but the very YHWH, Samuel went back, laid down, and this time when God called him, Samuel eagerly said, “Speak, for your servant is listening!”
God did, and chances are that Samuel wished he hadn’t been so enthusiastic—a word that literally means in (en) God (theos)—to have God speak! Why? Because God tells Samuel to declare to Eli that, because of his sons infidelity to the Lord, and Eli’s lack of fire to call his sons out, that Eli’s entire family would be decimated.
Now if I were Samuel, I’d be tempted to put my head under the covers, try to go back to sleep, and hope that it was a dream. More or less, that’s exactly what Samuel opted to do: lay awake, eyes wide in the dark, until the morning to catch Eli over breakfast.
It’s worth noting that each time that the Lord called out to Samuel, Samuel eagerly responded, “Here I am!” But this time, when Eli summoned him, Samuel said the same words, but I imagine they sounded more like “Here I am…”
Eli asked, then, to hear what God said to Samuel. He’d set himself up for this moment all the way back when he blessed Hannah’s hope for a child, and again by blessing Samuel as a prophet. See, here’s the remarkable thing: Samuel, the vulnerable boy; Samuel, the one knit by God in his mother’s womb; Samuel, knit by the same God who was on long record (and still is) of speaking of truth to power through the meek; Samuel, whose mother praised God as the God of the vulnerable, of the poor, of the faithful; this boy Samuel had to tell Eli the venerated priest that his rule was a desecration!
Two key textual takeaways here:
First, Samuel did! He did as he was called to do: he told the truth to the one in power, reminding him of the way of God and his departure from it.
Second, Eli received the rebuke! He heard the truth and he accepted it.
How positively refreshing! there was no denial, no cries of fake news, of politically motivated moves; there was no defensive anger or threats of retribution. There was humility, and there was even gratitude that in the name of God, Eli had been called out and called back.
And so also a proclamatory takeaway here:
We, we gathered right here, we are rooted in the same tradition as Eli, as Samuel, and as Hannah.
In her commentary on the text, the Episcopal priest Callie Plunket-Brewton reminds us that it is Hannah’s prayer and her pregnancy to a prophet which are set at the onset of Israel’s period of tumultuous monarchs. Her words told of a God who “breaks the bows of the mighty” and “girds the feeble,” who feeds the hungry and “raises up the poor from the dust. Hannah’s prayer, says Plunket-Brewton, “represents the central focus of YHWH’s leadership of the people: concern for the poor and powerless, and judgment of those who prey on the vulnerable and abuse their power.“
And as for Samuel, says Plunket-Brewton, throughout his vocation as a professional truth-teller, he “warns [the people of Israel] against kings who seek after their own good more than the collective good of their people. A king ‘will take the best’ from his people and use it for his own betterment (1 Samuel 8:11-18). The ideal ruler of the people [Samuel reminds] seeks only the good of the people and reflects the concern of YHWH for the poor and powerless.”
Anyone who identifies as a person of faith and who votes—or chooses not to—in 2024 should hearken to the tale in this Sunday’s text because it is apt, it is prophetic, and it is cautionary.
See, here’s the thing: at any given point, we may find ourselves channeling Hannah, or Samuel, or Eli. We might be praying that that whom—an adopted child or child by birth—or which—an idea, a position, a vocation, a vote—which we usher into the world reflects God’s intentions for the world; we might be summoned to speak hard words to hardened people; and we ourselves might be people of power and privilege, the hardened ones, who need to hear and receive a harsh word of reprimand and reorientation.
We, of course, we are gathered here, we are steeped not only in the words and the faith and even the experiences of Hannah, Samuel, and Eli.
We are also steeped in the faith of Mary, who, when she learned that she was carrying a certain baby named Jesus sang another song, one which clearly echoes Hannah’s. It goes something like this: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants [like Hannah, Samuel, and Eli] forever.”
We are steeped and baptized in the words and the deeds of Jesus, whose entire ministry was dedicated to the preaching and the teaching of righteousness that was grounded in service, justice, sacrifice, mercy, welcome, humility, and unbridled love.
See, it is not too much to say that there are any number of leaders in the world who bring the audacity of Eli’s sons and the obnoxious passivity of Eli and the selfish greediness of Israel’s monarchs to mind.
Nor is it too much to say that the fear that Samuel felt when summoned to speak the Word of the Lord, and the courage that he found to do so, is known to many of us.
Nor is it too much to say that any number of us feel the despair of Hannah—be it, say, for the lack of a child or for the lack of a world which is safe for children—and yet who nonetheless trust that God is not just present, but active in this same world, stirring a word, stirring a deed, and stirring hope within us and from us.
We find grounding for our hope in the history of God with us—Emmanuel!—a history which Hannah, Samuel, Mary, and Jesus knew, trusted, and stewarded.
But as Christians, we also find grounding for our hope in, actually, the future.
We believe that Jesus is risen.
That means that we believe that death does not win: be it the death of a loved one, or our own death; the death of a hope or an ideal; the death of fear wielding its power and greed and power seeming to win again and again and again.
God told Eli that his corrupt family would end, and unpleasantly.
Jesus’ resurrection tells us that sin, death, the devil and all its empty promises will also meet their end.
That’s news that doesn’t just greet us when we meet our own demise, but when we are summoned to tell someone else that their unrighteous ways will, and should, meet their demise.
Embedded in here, actually, is good news.
Our God cares about the least of these, hears the meek, sees the arrogant, and reminds both the humble and the proud of the essence of who they are, and whose they are.
Our God frees us to speak words that to some sound harsh, but to others—the faithful, the humble, the receptive—are liberating.
Our God creates community which welcomes not only the poor and the meek, but also the sinners, and invites all into a life of mutuality, justice, forgiveness, and love.
Emmanuel in Epiphany.
God made manifest in honest speech, in the humility to hear, and in the hope to a return to the righteous ways of God.