So now I give him to the Lord
Message preached November 19, 2000
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon 1 Samuel 1:1-28
Take a moment, just now, and think about something you have really wanted in your life, past or present. Perhaps this is a goal you have previously, or currently are aiming toward. Possibly this is a possession for which to save, or a position for which to strive, or even a problem needing a solution. Could be this hope involves a relationship with another person. Maybe you have no realistic chance of ever coming near whatever this is that you desire, yet still it stands before you. Regardless, bring this aspiration to mind, this dream you have had.
Imagine the moment this desire is realized, whether it is a memory of an actual event for you, or a vision of some future point in time. Whatever it is you have wanted, figuratively hold it in your hands, grab onto it, marvel that this dream has come true ... (pause) ... Now, open your hands, so to speak, and let it go. Release it. Give it away.
Hard to do, huh? Well, good! You see, weíre now standing on territory occupied by this morningís scripture. The book of Samuel in the Hebrew portion of our Bible begins with a similar longing... Now, donít be fooled into thinking that this initial story is just about one particular woman. Mind you, she is a very real person, a fact we should not forget. Like I said last week of the widow of Zarephath, Hannah is not merely window dressing in a larger story. She occupies an important place, and tells her own story.
Even so, her story is really the story of Godís people. Allow me to back up a bit and view the panoramic drama of the Bible, at least a portion of it. In the flow of Biblical history, Godís people (you may remember) managed to get free from slavery in Egypt. A nightmare ended, a dream fulfilled. No sooner had they made it through the sea of escape, however, then they found themselves wandering in a wilderness, desiring a land of milk and honey promised by the One who had delivered them from Pharaoh. Finally, after many years of wandering, they entered into that promised land. Of course, the process of crossing over the Jordan river and making Canaan into "home" was more involved than a few wet steps. It took time. A lot of time, and many missteps. Getting what you want doesnít always turn out the way you imagined it would.
The Biblical book of Judges tells about the struggles of those who have arrived, only to find that what theyíve desired is still beyond their grasp. It ends with a horrible story of Godís people trying to live as God had taught them to live, but they get it all wrong. They do what they think theyíre supposed to do, as those who now "have it made" in the promised land, but they are still way off from doing right by God and by one another.
The Bible, in the order in which we have received it, then pauses to tell that marvelous story about a woman who got it right, a widowed outsider who does right by her mother-in-law, and arrives in the promised land, along the way nudging some of Godís people to also do right by God and by one another. From this little book of Ruth, we then move in the Bible into that historical narrative named for Samuel, a fellow who ushered in a whole new era in the story of Godís people.
Samuel is a pivotal character in the Bible. He was the last of the Judges, a priest of Israel. He also was somewhat of a prophet. When Godís people desired a formal, big-cheese of a King, so that they might be like all the nations around them, Samuel was there - the right-hand man of the real King (God). You see, the children of Israel had arrived. Their objective had been achieved, more or less. Except for some nasty neighbors, the promised land was theirs. Now, however, they wanted more.
Isnít that how it always is? Itís human nature to always be dissatisfied. On the one hand, this has served us well, prodding us onward to greater goals. Where would we be if we grew too satisfied with our lot in life? Probably back in some cave. However, on the other hand, constant dissatisfaction has led us into some strange places. As the New Testament book of James says,
"Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures." (4:1-3, NRSV)
Anyway, Samuel paved the road for an era of Kings. He was called by God to call others - first Saul, then David. The latter, King David, becomes the central character in the Old Testament, toward which the previous story had been aiming. Of course, in saying that, we need to name other names. As people of a new covenant, we profess that even the realized dream of a righteous king in David was aiming toward a greater fulfillment of a larger desire in the coming of a Messiah, whom we claim to be Jesus Christ. Letís name God as the truly central character in this whole story. On every page, in every life, we see the handiwork of an awesome God.
Which brings us back to Hannah. Enough of the bigger picture. We just need to know itís there, that her life is, as our lives are, not lost in the nitty-gritty of daily hopes and fears, dreams realized and desires unfulfilled. God is part of the little picture, hers and ours... Remember how we started this journey, thinking about something we have really wanted in our life, past or present? And then I asked us to let it go. Letís continue with that before you throw me overboard.
Hannah lived with such a dream. Is it wrong to so desperately want a child? That was her hope, and the source of her frustration, for it wasnít happening. Some of us have or are facing a similar predicament, a very real desire unfulfilled. We donít have to walk the same path as her and her husband, though, to know what itís like to be so frustrated. We can be infertile and barren in many other ways. As I said, Hannahís story is also Israelís story, for Godís people were going through barren times. You can wander in the wilderness even after youíve arrived in the promised land.
This drama of Hannah grips us, for we are there with her. Her desire is palpable. How many of us have prayed a similar prayer? "If only you would see me, Lord. If only you would remember me. That which I desire more than life itself is so out-of-reach. If you allow me to give birth to this desire, I will return him to you." ... Well, maybe we havenít gone so far as offering to give back to God that which we desperately want God to give to us. Then, again, maybe we have. This is a desperate prayer but, as it turns out, Hannah means what she prays.
You heard the story. The priest Eli thinks sheís a drunken spectacle, which should tell us something about how even the most holy and faithful of actions can be misinterpreted by others, even by those who should know better. "I am a woman deeply troubled," she tells Eli. "I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD. Donít see me as a Ďworthlessí woman. Iím just praying out of my anxiety and frustration." (1 Samuel 1:15-16) By the way, "worthless" is a better description of Eliís sons than of Hannah (see 2:12 - which uses the same word, beliyaĎal, in Hebrew), but thatís another tale.
Eli leaves her with a blessing, and that blessing conceives and gives birth to a son - what Hannah has desired with all her heart, through all her years of waiting. This is where I find the story almost too hard to comprehend. Itís not just because Iím a man and cannot fully know what itís like to carry and give birth to a child, no matter how much I try to understand. No, where I find myself caught is in how Hannah gives her longed-for son to Eli, once Samuel has been weaned. Granted, there are undoubtedly moments in the "terrible twos" that a parent may momentarily be ready to get rid of her child. But this is not the case here. Hannah is not desperate to be rid of this burden. She is fulfilling her promise to the Lord.
Samuel was a desire realized for Hannah. Later he became her promise to the Lord fulfilled. Of course, she didnít let go of her responsibility for Samuel, just handing him over to Eli, saying, "here, take him - you raise him, Iíve had enough!" No, she continued to be behind the scenes, caring for him. The truth is, though, that this desire realized, this promise fulfilled, was destined for an even greater purpose. For you see, no dream fully belongs to us. No goal is solely ours. No desire exists in and of itself for only you or I. God is involved in the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives, even the barren times, but there is a bigger picture that God is weaving together.
Think again about some of your own dreams, goals, or desires - past or present. Granted, we may need to do a little weeding to root out the lesser ones - those which, in retrospect, were or are pure selfish ambition. To be honest, however, thereís always a bit of selfishness even in the best of dreams. Even Hannahís desire. If we were so inclined, we could probably poke holes all through her story, couldnít we? Iím sure the "other" wife, Peninnah, did just that.
Still, what sets her story out from so many others is how she released her realized dream, that God might weave it into a larger dream. Had she done otherwise, there wouldíve been no story to tell. Furthermore, would her dream itself have been realized fully?... We look to this story when it comes to the task of parenting, for instance, and find here a truth about raising children. Our little ones do not belong to us, we say. They belong to God. Parenting is a process of letting go a dream, isnít it? If we hold on too tight, we stand in the way of God weaving our realized dream into a larger dream.
Thatís true not just of parents and children, but of life itself. God invites us to dream big, to aim high, to have exceptional goals, even in bleak times. Along the way, our awesome God also invites us to release our dreams into her hands, where they can be woven into a larger dream. God calls us, yes, to seek and find, but also to let go and let him work on the bigger picture amid the nitty-gritty of our daily lives. Dare we do that?
"The Lord gave me just what I asked for," Hannah said on that day in which she released her son, the fulfillment of her dream, into Godís hands. "Now I am giving him to the Lord, and he will be the Lordís servant for as long as he lives." (1 Samuel 1:27b-28 CEV)
If youíve been participating in the life of this fellowship, you recently received an invitation to make a commitment, a pledge of what you intend to return to the Lord financially in the year 2001. Of course, who knows what this coming year will bring. We have some dreams, based upon what we currently know. However, events may work out differently than our plans. Thatís life. Thereís always risk involved.
We donít consider these pledges to be legal documents. You will not be hounded to meet your commitment, though we encourage you to do so. In fact, only one person will see your pledge - besides God, that is. As you respond to this call, I invite you to think about your goals and dreams, as well as what this money represents for you, as you release it back into the hands of a higher power. God has been part of your story thus far, helping you through the nitty-gritty times. And God will continue to do so, in the process weaving your story, and our story, into the larger tapestry of faith.
As we sing the final hymn, I invite you (someone from your household) to bring forward your pledge and place it in this basket. By the way, none of us should be watching to see who does and who doesnít. This is between you and God. Let go and let God.... Shall we stand and sing "Lord, thou dost love the cheerful giver," #387 in your hymnal?
©2000 Peter L. Haynes
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