Jan 4, 2008, Stewardship #1
Note: this is the first Sunday in our Stewardship season; the sermons in January will not follow the lectionary.
Longing & Giving
We read Hannah’s song; now let us set it in the context of the story.
The Family Context
As the story opens, Hannah is married but apparently cannot have children. She longs for a child.
Hannah’s husband, Elkanah, has two wives, as it turns out, and the other has given him children; sons and daughters it says.
This puts the other wife in a position to gloat – but she does more than gloat. The author calls her Hannah’s rival and tells us that she “used to provoke her severely and irritate her.”
Hannah was miserable, and longed for a future that seemed impossible.
This story starts with longing. Hannah’s longing is far deeper than merely the desire to raise a child – even deeper than the hope of ending the persecution and shame she experiences everyday.
She is longing for a future in which God will act in powerful and new ways – as we will see.
Every person here has longings that go deep.
Our longings are for something:
deeper than the value of our homes;
deeper than all our accumulated assets;
- deeper even that our hope for decent health.
We long for a future in which God’s good will comes to fruition – in our personal lives, and in the lives of our children and grandchildren.
We long to be at peace with all of our family members.
We long to be at peace with ourselves.
We are here today partly out of our longing to know we are at peace with God:
– to be in his presence,
– to experience his love,
– to find assurance of his care.
We enter this story sharing the longing that Hannah experiences.
The Annual Sacrifice
Every year, Elkanah took Hannah and the rest of his family up to worship and sacrifice at Shiloh where Eli the priest was serving.
As Elkanah, the patriarch of the family handed out portions of meat for sacrifice to his family members, he gave Hannah double in an effort to ease her pain. But her longing was not satisfied.
Increased assets had no impact on her longings;
– nor on ours.
One year as they offered sacrifice, Hannah poured out her longings to God in prayer. The author tells us that 10“she was deeply distressed and wept bitterly.”
As she prayed she made a vow to God, that if God would look on her misery and remember her, and give her a son, she in turn would give him back.
She would dedicate him from birth as a Nazarite, never to drink alcohol, never to cut his hair. She would dedicate him to God’s service at the shrine in Shilo (v. 11).
She must have been deeply moved as she prayed because Eli, the priest saw her praying, moving her lips silently; he conclude that she was drunk (v. 12).
The very first word we hear Hannah speak is “No.”
“No, my lord,” she replies to Eli, “I am a woman deeply troubled…I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord…” v. 15).
Hannah is helpless to change her barren condition – but she refuses to play the helpless victim. She acts; she prays, she makes a vow, and she says “No” to a man, in fact a priest.
There are two powerful forces at work here: one his her lack of control – she cannot fix her own situation of barrenness; it is completely beyond her.
But the second is her pro-active resolve to action; to do what she is able to do, and to do it with the resolve that even a rebuke from an authority figure could not intimidate.
In this way we are also like Hannah: so many of the facts of our lives are completely outside of our control – not just world events and crises, but also the decisions, behavior and words of even those closest to us.
We can barely even control ourselves.
But we are not helpless victims. We have ways in which we can act; we have opportunities to be pro-active about the future we are praying for.
Hannah was blessed with an answer to her longings. The Lord gave her a son.
What did she do with this enormous blessing? We see her again, being pro-active.
When he was weaned him she took him back to Eli the priest, and dedicated him to stay and serve in the house of the Lord.
Now we see that her longing is for more than a baby to raise – she relinquished that maternal role. She was longing for a future in which her son would be part of a new work that God would do.
She named her son Samuel, a name which sounds like he word meaning “he who is from God” because, she says, “I have asked him of the Lord.” (v. 20).
Notice; it was at the time of Samuel’s dedication to the Lord’s service (not at his birth) that we hear Hannah’s song of joy which we read.
Hannah’s song is indeed a song of joy over the birth of her son, Samuel, of course, but it is much more than that.
It is forward-looking; future-oriented; a song of hope.
It is because she believes that “There is no Holy One like the Lord…no rock like our God” (2:1-2), that she can assert that wrongs can be righted. Injustices can be reversed.
– The poor can be lifted up from the dust and the ashes (v. 8), those who were hungry can become well-fed (v. 5).”
– Inequities and crimes against humanity, she believes, can be reversed as God brings down powerful oppressors and instead, gives his faithful ones seats of honor (v. 8).
None of this has happened yet – including the praise that the formerly barren woman has born 7 children (v. 5) – Hannah will have more, we read, but at this point, she has only one.
What is remarkable is that Hannah takes this enormous blessing that she has received, and invests it in a future that she has the faith to believe in; one that is far greater than herself, personally.
That is why this story is such a challenge to us today.
We can identify with Hannah’s plight – she lives in stressful, uncertain times. Without a son, her future well-being could be in severe peril, especially with an unsympathetic rival wife.
But even in uncertain times, she offers her son to God’s service. She offers her blessings to God to invest in his future.
I believe God calls us all to do the same.
When we offer the fruits of our blessings to God, we are boldly asserting our hope in God’s future; the fulfillment of our deepest longings.
When we pledge to give a percentage of our income – and yes, I believe pledging is important – or shall we say, making a faith promise to give – when we make a faith promise to give away some of our resources to God’s service, we are being pro-active.
We cannot control other people or world events.
We will not live to see the end of poverty and hunger, sweat-shops and child-labor; but we can act in faith in God’s future work in the world, starting with our congregation here.
Hannah’s pledge, her vow, had the effect on her that our faith-promises have on us; they remove our giving from the realm of momentary whimsy, and put it into the realm of thoughtful, spiritually-centered decision making.
On the whole, though many are generous and faithful givers, this congregation has not been very good at faith-promises in the past. We can do better; we need to do better.
Our giving cannot simply be subject to the pressures of the moment – I know mine cannot – if I am to be faithful. There are always reasons not to give; always I hear that voice say, “but for just this month, we need it.”
I make a faith promise to help me shut-up that voice, because it is not the voice of faith in God’s future.
We are here today because we are people of faith, and people who have deep longings.
We long for a future in which God is powerfully at work in this world and in this congregation;
drawing people to know his love and mercy,
transforming people like us into fighters for justice and peace,
nurturing people like us into greater works of compassionate service, and devotion;
guiding us to be more humbly responsible for our planet.
We are so blessed – like Hannah.
– The fact that we are alive to day is a huge blessing.
– The fact that we are sitting here, in Gulf Shores, Alabama is a huge blessing.
How will we use our blessings?
As your pastor, I want you to know that our family will make a faith-promise this year again, to assert our faith that God has put these longings into our hearts for a reason; that the future is in his hands; that his future is good.
I long for this church to grow and prosper.
I long for us to be a powerful force for the kingdom of God in this community.
I long for us to be a greater beacon of light to people who are suffering, a place of healing for people who feel excluded.
I long for us to experience God’s presence and to be transformed by his Spirit into greater and greater ministries of compassion.
Believe with me in God’s future. Today, start considering how God wants you to use your blessings to assert your hope in his future of blessing, and the fulfillment of your deepest longings.