1 Samuel 2:1-10
1 Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. 2 “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 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. 4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6 The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8 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. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world. 9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. 10 The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.” (NRSV)
Have you ever had one of those moments—or events, or what have you—when you thought you had a fairly good grasp on what something was about, but by the time you’re comfortably in the middle of it you realize that you must have missed some big memo because you were completely wrong? And by that time all you can do is shrug with incredibly raw embarrassment and think It would have been nice to know this a while ago. It would have been really helpful for us to know this before we got to this point in our lives.
The movie Inside Out was one of those moments for me. I had seen the trailers. It looked great. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive. And we had just moved down here from Fort Wayne, so Joy and I decided we were going to treat the kids to dinner out and a movie.
Now, we never go to the movies, largely because we have three small children. Finding a sitter wasn’t always easy. We’d have to go to an early showing because bedtime at our house is what I imagine hell must be like. And going to the movies is no small financial investment. Honestly, candy, popcorn, and water, should not put a person back thirty-five bucks. If I want to afford the ticket to see the movie, I can’t afford to eat at the theater.
If I want a snack, I would have to break the rules and sneak my own food in past those signs that say, “NO OUTSIDE FOOD AND DRINK IS ALLOWED.” Honestly, as a language person I could rationalize it by saying, you know, that kind of simplistic phrasing could easily be interpreted to mean that you aren’t allowed to have food and drinks outside. Which I wouldn’t be doing. I would be taking it in to the theater.
Anyway, going to see Inside Out was a treat for our family. What neither Joy nor I realized about the movie beforehand, is that the trauma the little girl, Riley, goes through in the movie is because her family moved. I’m just saying, it would have been nice to know that ahead of time since my children had just left their friends behind in Fort Wayne. My wife’s family is from all over the place up there, so we said goodbye to them. We had neighborhood friends, friends at church, friends from Taekwondo, friends from college who lived in the area. And we had packed up and left them all behind.
So, as all five of us are absolutely sobbing because Riley’s pain is hitting super close to home, Joy leans over to me and says, “I didn’t know this was about moving.” And I said, “I didn’t either.” We watched that movie as five people who were deeply connected to Riley’s pain. We knew that pain because it was our pain. The trauma she experienced of feeling like her life is falling apart, that’s the trauma we were experiencing. Joy and I, we thought we knew what the movie was about. But it ended up being something completely different.
One thing I’ve learned in studying the Bible is that, just when we think we’ve got it figured out, God always has something new to say to us. And it’s not that the thing God says is necessarily new, it’s that we’re only hearing it—or receiving it with understanding—for the first time. It’s usually because we haven’t been listening. We make assumptions. We think we’ve got God figured out. So we get comfortable and we think we’re good.
We’re happy. God’s happy. Everybody’s happy.
But then we read something like Hannah’s Song, and it turns everything up-side down. It ought to scare the stuffing out of us, it ought to sound a little threatening to our comfortable complacency. And if it doesn’t, we might not be hearing it as we ought.
God is, and has always been, what we well-established, well-to-do human beings would label a trouble-maker. Even the prophets who spoke God’s word were called trouble-makers. When King Ahab went to meet Elijah, the king greeted Elijah by saying, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17b, NRSV). It’s one of the perquisites of being a pastor, I’m called to be a trouble-maker.
Hanna’s Song celebrates God as the great trouble-maker. Theologians call it divine reversal because it sounds more intellectual, but I like trouble-maker. God has a penchant for taking the systems of power we human beings so painstakingly create, and turning them on their heads.
The song makes the most sense in light of Hannah’s circumstances. She was one of Elkanah’s two wives. Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, had lots of children, daughters and sons galore. But Hannah didn’t have any children. Now, in that culture, a woman who could not have children was considered incomplete. Hannah lived and died over 3,000 years ago. This is a culture that is far removed from ours. Unfortunately, we haven’t entirely grown out of that thread of thinking even in 2015. It’s a lesser stigma today, but barrenness, whether by choice or circumstance, is a stigma nonetheless.
Back in Hannah’s day, barrenness meant God had abandoned you. God didn’t think you were worthy of the honor of children. Unfortunately, some women who can’t conceive think this about themselves. It’s distressing to not be able to have children when you want them.
What made it worse for Hannah was her husband’s other wife, Peninnah. She used to provoke Hannah, she would irritate her because of Hannah’s barrenness. Can you imagine having to endure that kind of mistreatment from your husband’s other wife? You’re already devastated about something, but then some cruel jerk keeps reminding you of it and provokes you about it. It’s no wonder Hannah wept.
Elkanah was a pretty good guy. He loved Hannah. So every year, when they went up to the festival at Shiloh, he gave portions of the sacrifice to Peninnah and her children, but he gave a double-portion to Hannah because he loved her. So Elkanah tried to make Hannah feel better. But then, in typical guy fashion, he said something boneheaded like this, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8b).
And all the women in the room said, “Thanks, sweetie, for discrediting my grief and making it all about you. Again.”
So Hannah did the only thing she could do. She prayed. She poured her heart out to God and asked for a Son. She was so deeply distressed that the priest, Eli, thought she was drunk and was going to throw her out. But she told Eli how anxious and vexed she was in her prayers. So Eli blessed her. And the remarkable thing is, when she got up and left the tabernacle, Hannah changed. She wasn’t sad anymore. She had already moved from grief to joy.
When they got home to Ramathain, Hannah became pregnant and later gave birth to Samuel. When Samuel was weened, Hannah took her son up to Shiloh and loaned him to the Lord as a nazirite. As soon as her end of this bargain she made with God is complete, that’s when Hannah lifts her voice to utter this incredible song of prayer.
Hanna’s Song celebrates her own, and every, reversal of circumstances through Divine Trouble-making. She who has been derided is now able to deride her enemies by rejoicing in her victory. It doesn’t suggest Hannah is gloating. Rather, it is Hannah’s rejoicing voice that derides her enemies. Hannah’s rejoicing in her victory—which came through God’s power—is enough to cause her enemy derision. Her enemy once rejoiced in her grief, but now Hannah is the one rejoicing.
This is a dramatic reversal of fortune, and Hannah’s Song pulls out all the stops. God breaks the bows of the mighty and makes the feeble strong. Those who were full have to work for their food while those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
She reminds us of what God is capable of. God can kill and God can give life. God can make us poor or rich. God can bring low and God can exalt. God can raise the poor up from the dust and the needy from the ash heap. God can make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
You see, God made the pillars of the earth, and God can rearrange them at will. For those of us in this culture, this can feel threatening. Those of us with pride, power, abundance, and honor might feel like we have a right to it all, but we don’t. Hannah echoes the words of Job: We come into the world with nothing, and we’ll leave with nothing. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Fortunes can change in a moment.
What’s critically important is our faithfulness to God and to each other, no matter who the other might be. What we find over and again in Scripture is that God is on the side of the weak, the powerless, the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. God insists that those who have resources should use them to welcome strangers and aliens, pilgrims and refugees. Not only are we called to help, but we’re called to be deeply connected to them. As deeply connected as my family was to little Riley as we watched Inside Out. There are people at risk and in need all over Mount Vernon.
If God is concerned with those who are oppressed, those who are voiceless, those who are beaten down, misused, cast aside, lonely, forgotten, and heartbroken, then our concern should mirror God’s. What can we do? How will we invest the short span of life we have in the vision of God’s kingdom?
I’m not going to give the answers in this sermon. Instead, I want to leave us with the question. We’re called to have brazen dependence and bold trust in God. We’re called to receive God’s word with gladness, and be eager to respond in faith and praise. So what is our response as Kingdom People? What are the ways we can be a community of faith that is at the center of our broader community?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV).