I have a love/hate relationship with the lectionary. I love the theory of it—that over the course of three years congregations are exposed to the whole Bible. I am conservative enough to think all of it is in some sense “the word of God,” even the nasty bits, and that we do ourselves a disservice if we just pick and choose our favourite bits. (Having said that, of course, the current lectionary has already done some editing, and decided what bits are suitable for our edification. One friend of mine preaches the lectionary, but makes a point of preaching from the parts the lectionary editors in their wisdom omitted.)
The downside of the lectionary is that the average church member is highly unlikely to remember from week to week what was read in the four readings the week before (the OT, the Psalm, the Epistle and the Gospel), and are even more unlikely to be able to connect them. Most of us can’t juggle two balls at the same time, let alone four. (If you have grandchildren, you’ve probably tried.)
So (to take a random example) last week was: the end of the story of Ruth, plus Psalm 127 (Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain), plus Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees, plus Hebrews explaining the difference between the human and the divine priesthoods. And, if you’ve got that straight, this week you have to contend with: the miraculous birth of Samuel, plus Psalm 16 (Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge), plus some of Jesus’ teaching about the end times, plus Hebrews warning us not to neglect meeting together. And that’s just two weeks out of the fifty-two!
So . . . I looked at today’s readings and thought, What do I preach on? And, to be honest, I chose Samuel for the simple reason that it seemed the most accessible—which is hardly a good reason, but I’m just being honest here. But how do you prevent an isolated story like this becoming just a pretext for a preacher to say whatever they want? I think there are two controls, two hermeneutical principles, if you like.
- One control is the conviction that the Bible is ultimately a single book with a single story. Yes, I know, I know: there are many sub-plots, many eddies out of the main stream, different genres and different theologies—I know all that—but I am also convinced that there is a main stream. And that main stream, that single big story is the story of God at work, to do good in a world where there is a lot that is bad, to bring about restoration in a world where much is damaged. The story is the one that Jesus and the NT writers call Gospel or Kingdom—and it’s good news, even in the Old Testament.
- The other control is our own location in time and culture, with the concerns and questions that come from being where we are and when we are. And those are not irrelevant as we come to the story. We shouldn’t dismiss them as if God doesn’t care about them, but we shouldn’t absolutize them either, as though they are the only way to approach the text.
So what happens when we come to the story of the birth of Samuel that way? How is it on the one hand Gospel, and how does it speak to our world on the other?
Well, for a start, the central figure isn’t Samuel at all. Samuel becomes one of the major figures in the history of Israel, second only to Moses and Elijah. On his watch, Israel moves from being a theocracy to being a kingdom, and from being a loose federation of twelve tribes to being a nation. After the chaos of the Book of Judges, when “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jg 21:25), that’s a huge shift, and it changes everything for the people of Israel, right up to and even beyond NT times. So Samuel certainly is a great man.
But this story doesn’t begin with a great man. Instead, it’s about an insignificant woman—Hannah. And it seems to me that there is a Gospel principle right there. One way the Gospel works—one way God redeems the world—is through the weak and foolish things of the world. You can think of other examples: a great leader who spent forty years herding sheep, the youngest son of the family whom the father apparently forgot when it came to thinking about which of his sons were important; a great prophet who said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” And supremely, of course, a peasant labourer from Nazareth of all places—because, as we all know, nothing good can come out of Nazareth, right?
So here it’s a woman. And not just any woman. She is a wife—one of two wives, to be exact. And she has no children, which in that world is not only sad but carries the suspicion of failure, maybe even spiritual failure, maybe even sin. “The Lord has closed her womb.” Maybe that’s why Elkanah married a second wife. “Well, honey, looks like we can’t have children, so I’m going to have to get me a second wife, and hopefully she’ll do better. I hope that’s OK with you. Please be nice to her.”
And then she is married to a man who seems to be (how can we say this nicely?) at the least insensitive and at most a bit of a narcissist: verse 8, “Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” In other words, “Honey, why worry about children when you’ve got me?” Sure, Elkanah. You’re just great. And Hannah’s co-wife, far from being sympathetic, is triumphalist: “She used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb.” In other words, “What kind of wife are you—what kind of woman are you—when you can’t even have children?”
But there’s more. If we jump ahead in the story, when Hannah is pouring out her heart to God in her distress, Eli, the priest of Israel, the most important person in that society in the absence of any other leadership, accuses her of being drunk. Poor Hannah. What more can go wrong?
But the God of the Gospel is on the side of the sad, the misunderstood, the despised, the failure. Hannah is someone God can use: perhaps because she is desperate, perhaps because unlike most people she knows that only God can help her, and that gives God a foothold in the world.
Here’s a second thing about Hannah, and maybe it connects to the first. When God gives her the desires of her heart—a male child—what is her response? To give that gift back to God for God’s use. “I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he lives, he is given to the LORD.” I find this difficult to understand. I know that that was the deal Hannah offered: If God “will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death.” But even so: How is this even possible? Did she not care about the child? Obviously she did. But for her God’s work comes ahead of her personal preferences.
That’s a tough one, isn’t it? It’s not quite as drastic as God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but it’s in the same ballpark. And it’s also in the same ballpark as the widow putting her last few coins in the offering. And it’s certainly the same ballpark as Jesus saying, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mk 8:35) Yes, the Gospel works with those who are weak and foolish—that’s the good news—but it is also demands everything—whatever our everything is.
At the end of the reading, Hannah’s song celebrates this radical upside-down-ness of God’s Gospel. Incidentally, the lectionary omits the incident of Hannah leaving Samuel at the temple, so it looks as though this song comes straight after the birth of the child—which would be natural. We all rejoice at the birth of a child. But this is so misleading: the song is not a song of rejoicing at the birth, as you heard: it’s a song of rejoicing after she leaves Samuel at the temple, which is a very different thing! She’s not celebrating the gift of a child; she’s celebrating giving up that child. That’s not a natural response: that’s a supernatural response.
Let’s look at the song:
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. . . . The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. [Is she getting back at Penninah here?] . . . The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 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 honour. (4-7)
What she is doing—and I hate to turn poetry into prose—is to reflect theologically on her experience, and to extrapolate some overarching things about the nature of God and God’s work in the world.
The fact that she does that gives me confidence to ask: what does Hannah’s story mean for our world? You can’t always do that quite so directly with Bible stories, but Hannah encourages us to do so. I have two suggestions.
- First of all—and here’s where the cultural lens comes in handy—our culture urges us to listen to the outsider, to pay attention to the marginalized, to give an ear to the voices that have often been ignored. An, if I am honest, it is easy for those of us who are white, and middle class, well educated and (let’s say it) male, to get a little tired of this constant refrain. Give us a break! But I think Hannah says to us: You know what—I am one of those who was marginalized and despised and looked down on, and look what God did for me and through me! I would dare to say that this is not just a cultural shift but a Gospel shift. And if it makes some us—the Elkanahs and Penninahs and Elis of our world—uncomfortable, so be it.
- The second reflection is also trying to bring together the truth of the Gospel and the realities of our culture. And it concerns the church. It’s not news to anyone that the church has lost power and influence in the past fifty years. The media don’t consult church leaders for their reflections on the issues of the day. More and more church buildings are standing empty or being converted into condos and restaurants and (as I saw in Ottawa a few days ago) art galleries. A hundred years ago, C.S.Lewis’ brother Warren expressed concern that his brother had become an atheist, and he wrote:
it is obvious that a profession of Christian belief is a necessary a part of a man’s mental make-up as a belief in the King, the Regular Army and the Public Schools.
These days that “profession of Christian belief” would be seen as an intellectual and probably a moral handicap. It’s a disaster, right?
Wrong. Hannah reminds us that, Yes, in God’s upside-down kingdom, the mighty can be brought down from their seat, but that turning upside down can itself be turned upside down: Listen:
The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. (6-7).
If the church has been humbled—and the humbling is not over yet—maybe that puts the church in the place where God wants her—to be brought to life again, to be made rich again, to be exalted again. Not this time in terms of power and influence in society, but great and rich in Kingdom terms, Gospel terms: terms of humble service, passion for the poor and marginalized—those things that make for greatness not in the world’s terms but in Kingdom terms, greatness in the sense that Hannah was great.
Even here in Hamilton, I think we are seeing green shoots beginning to grow out of the dry ground of dying churches: Centre 541, A Rocha, Christians against Poverty, Eucharist Church, St Clair Church, Heritage Green Family Church, Micah House—and you can probably think of others. Great not in terms of power or influence or money—may they be spared those temptations—but great witnesses to the Gospel truth that through Jesus Christ, God is making all things new—and inviting all of us to that same greatness—the greatness of Hannah.
St Cuthbert’s Presbyterian Church, Hamilton
November 18 2018