“Harmonizing With Hannah”
Chilmark Community Church
United Methodist Church
November 15, 2015
1 Samuel 1:4-20; 2:1-10
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Rev. Dawn Chesser, Director of Preaching Ministries for the United Methodist Church reminds us that there are many things to admire about Hannah. What she finds most compelling is Hannah’s audacity before God. “Hannah is frustrated with her situation. She expects God to hear her and to respond. She’s not going to sit back and try to be sweet and patient and wait for others to come around to see her point of view. She going to get in there and pour it all out before God — all of her years of pain, all of her sadness, all of her anger, all of her frustration over the oppressive position in which she is caught. She’s even willing to try bargaining with God if it will help.”
In her sorrow and distress and bitterness, Hannah goes to God and prays for a child. Her prayer is ecstatic. She stands and moves her lips without making a sound. Eli, the priest, is quite sure she is under the influence of wine. She sets him straight and Eli hears the passion of her desire for God’s attention. Eli reassures her of the possibility that God will grant her prayer. In time, the child, Samuel, is born. Hannah dedicates the child to the service of God – – and the grand saga of Israel takes a quantum leap as Samuel, priest and prophet, grows up to become a kingmaker for Israel.
In this brief part of a much larger story, God brings about a great reversal – bringing life where it did not exist – bringing justice for Hannah where it was absent – bringing joy where there had been bitterness and sorrow.
I want to pay attention to the song that Hannah sings in response to what God has done in answering her prayer and giving her a child. First and foremost, Hannah sings a song of gratitude: “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted (made even greater) in my God….there is no Holy One like the Lord….there is no Rock like our God….
Hannah prays…..God answers… By God’s grace, Hannah becomes pregnant. When her long awaited son is born Hannah sings to God in joy and gratitude. She is no longer at the bottom of the pecking order. She will no longer have to endure the insults leveled at her by Peninah – her heart leaps with joy – – she is the barren woman who has conceived and born a child. It is a deeply personal and moving song of gratitude for God’s gracious reversal of her barrenness and suffering.
But the song moves quickly from the personal to a decidedly universal and political note. Hannah sings: Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil…..God raises up the poor from the dust; God lifts the needy from the ash heap….the barren woman bears seven children – but the one who has many children is forlorn.
Hannah sings about a God who works in great reversals – – a God who makes the rich poor, who gives children to the barren women. She sings of a God who is powerful and who works in all of creation to bring justice to the world God has created. Hannah sings about a God who turns things upside down in order to make things right. Her song celebrates and gives witness to the power of God to create possibilities for the future that seem impossible through human resources alone.
I couldn’t help thinking about this God while reading the headlines of The New York Times and The Boston Globe this week. Both papers featured the story of a democratically elected government in Myanmar – a country that has been abusively dominated by a powerful military regime for many years. It seems as though that small land so ridden by corruption and violence for so long may be going through a great reversal. Might we see the hand of God in their history?
There are moral implications that flow from Hannah’s song. The God of reversals is a God who notices the difference between the faithful who attempt to cooperate with the Divine vision for humankind and those who do not. (v.9) While this idea of God as judge is often an uncomfortable notion for us to grapple with, for Hannah, it was a sign of hope. She lived in a time when the power of violence and corruption and oppression determined the direction of life for Israel. Hannah’s song is a song of trust in God’s power to transform the life and the social and political realities in which she lived.
In many ways, the world we live in today is not so very different from Hannah’s world. A short paragraph from the Interpreters’ Bible sums up the similarities:
“We live in a world that constantly evidences a belief in human might. Militarism, in its modern technological guise, made the 20th century the bloodiest century in human history; and still it is easier to raise budgets for weapons than for diplomacy. Consumer driven market realities determine our cultural preferences and appetites. Elections are influenced more by financial resources than by political ideas. Even in the church, energy often seems directed to issues of membership growth, institutional maintenance and popularity of programs than to the discernment of what God is doing in the world.” (from the NRSV New Interpreters Bible).
Hannah sings a song of hope for ancient Israel. Her song offers us hope us too. We need an assurance that a different reality is at work in the world from what we customarily acknowledge. We need to know that the language of “the 99%” and the “1%”, the ongoing violence in the Middle East, immigration issues around the world, and the battle for the welfare of the middle class are not divorced from the gracious concern and oversight of God.
At the beginning of Hannah’s story, she seems powerless. She is sad and depressed. Her husband doesn’t understand her. Her “sister-wife” taunts and abuses her. She prays passionately to God and her priest accuses her of drunkenness. Wherever she turns she is cut off from the fullness of life.
But still, she prays and then she sings with passion. Her song reminds us that power is not irrevocably tilted in favor of those the world defines as powerful. Those worldly definitions of power leave far too many human beings feeling powerless and without hope.
Hannah sings of a God whose transforming power can reverse the patterns of power and wealth. She sings of a God who does not accept the world’s power arrangements. She sings of a God whose might is not wielded in a disinterested fashion. God is heavily invested in the welfare of the weak, the powerless, the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed, the barren.”
Hannah’s song is the beginning of the lead up to the story of David finally being anointed as King of Israel – the king who will unite all the 12 fractious tribes of Israel – who will bring justice and peace to the land. Any king whom God will anoint and empower must serve the reversals of power that Hannah sings about.
In our own time, the people of God are called to identify and minister with those who wait for the great reversals – people who yearn for adequate housing, for a living wage, for safety for their children, for affordable education, for adequate health care, for freedom from fear. We are called to attend to the most powerless among us. But even more, we are called upon to trust in an invisible power that often seems to be absent or not strong enough to do the job of reversing the order of things.
For followers of Jesus, the melody of Hannah’s song is echoed in the song of Mary – known as the Magnificat (Lk. 1:45-55). On hearing that she is to bear a son, Mary sings about God: 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. Both songs see the power of God as transforming the world in behalf of the powerless.
Mary becomes a part of long tradition of singing women. She has an ancestry that includes Hannah who sings at the birth of Samuel. But there are other singers too. On the shores of the Reed Sea, Miriam, the sister of Moses, calls out the women to sing about God ‘s deliverance of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
The great judge, Devorah, sings of God’s victory when God shifts the balance of power against the Canaanites in the Book of Judges. (5:1) These women in our faith tradition were singers of new possibilities. They were singers of new communities and new power arrangements. The songs of the mothers remind us that our story as the church is part of the song God has been singing since the beginning of time.
We are rapidly approaching the season of Advent when we will be focused on the coming of Jesus for the healing of the world. Hannah’s song reminds us that the history of God’s healing and restoration and salvation did not just begin with Jesus – rather it was part of the history into which Jesus was born – – a history that Jesus inherited and brought forward, profoundly enriched by his life and teaching. Jesus in turn becomes part of the history into which we are born. As his followers, it is our sacred task to share in God’s great work of bringing into being a more sane and just and compassionate world.
It is our turn to take up the song – to give thanks to God for all that God has done since the beginning of time – – and to harmonize our voices with Hannah and MIriam and Devorah and Mary to sing of a God of justice who will continue working to transform this world until we become the kingdom God has had in mind since the beginning.
May God give us the strength and the wisdom, the courage and the faith, and the creativity to see our role and to take up the song.