Statistically speaking, many of us are still eating Thanksgiving leftovers. Any turkey omelets for breakfast this morning? 79% of Americans say eating Thanksgiving leftovers is more important than eating that feast the first time around. If we consider ourselves average Americans, then we consumed close to 5,000 calories on Thursday alone. There were probably plenty of takers for ‘seconds’ and, if any of you understand the experience I often had with my grandmother growing up, not going back for seconds in some way diminished what you plated in round one. I hope you’re not too adverse to the word seconds today knowing you’re maybe a bit worn out with all of the eating by now.
But maybe you don’t naturally think of food when you hear the word, ‘seconds’. Maybe you first think of a particular length of time. Racecar drivers might dwell on how many seconds it takes to go zero to sixty in their racecar. What about second thoughts? Have you ever had second thoughts? I knew someone who said there was no such thing as second thoughts. “On second thought,” you might say – and he would respond, “You mean on thinking,” as in you clearly weren’t thinking things through the first time around. What about having second thoughts when it comes to our faith?
Today, we put a wrap on our gratitude sermon series we’ve been calling “Hallelujah Anyway.” We’ve been considering what it means to praise God even when we’re not feeling it. I hope it’s been a meaningful consideration for you thus far. With the tryptophan still lingering in many of us, we finish this series considering second thoughts and how we make good on our gratitude. We are quick to express gratitude for things when the ball of life bounces our way but how often do we follow through on the praise, on the action, on the promises we make when we actually realize the blessings we’ve been praying for.
We come alongside Hannah today… the prominent companion that opens the book of First Samuel. She may be thinking about ‘second thoughts’ now that she has birthed a son after being barren all those years. Desperate to have a child, she promised to entrust her son to God if she could just be given the chance… sort of like many Cubs fans promised a year ago in desperation when the World Series was in the balance. I wonder how many of them made good on their promises? Second thoughts? Hannah was faced with that very quandary. First Samuel opens by setting the stage for the dilemma by speaking of a man, Elkanah, who had two wives which is perhaps already foreshadowing of conflict ahead. Polygamy was accepted in the Hebrew Bible but many stories which exemplified it candidly point out the conflicts between the wives with the husband often getting caught in the middle. Solomon had some trouble with this reality. Having more than 700 wives and 300 concubines can do that to you. I would not have wanted to be Solomon’s pastor. Every week, “Pastor, what does your calendar look like tomorrow?” “I’m not doing another wedding for you, Solomon!” Of course there is the story of Rachel and Leah – both wives of Jacob. Rachel was deeply loved but childless while Leah was slighted but had children. All sorts of issues with these matters but such is our context and here it is… right in our Bibles. It’s a prime example of why understanding the cultural context of scripture is important to our understanding. Hannah’s marital situation was equally complicated as these others. The narrative shares that Hannah was Elkanah’s first wife and Peninnah was the second. While Hannah was unable to have children, Peninnah was quite fertile and regularly joked about this at the family dinner table.
Having children at this time was more than simply a desire to experience that kind of deep love a mother has with a child or about having cute Shutterfuly cards to send out at Christmas. The culture considered it shameful to be unable to have children– as if it was a sign that God did not favor you in some way. The lack of a son could later mean a widow’s impoverishment as well. So this is the dynamic of the opening narrative of First Samuel. A pious family – religious in their effort to make annual trips to Shiloh to worship and bring sacrifice to God – dealing with the regular issues of life that we do in our own ways. So they loaded the Winnebago and were making the trip to Shiloh. All of the obvious issues families deal with crammed into the family vehicle to make a trip. The kids pick on each other. Peninnah, perhaps always sensing she wasn’t the favorite wife, took plenty of shots at Hannah’s barren state because it was the only thing she had on her. Elkannah does his best to navigate the tension turning around a fair share of times to his passengers yelling, “Don’t make me pull this Winnebago over!” Anybody have any of those trips over Thanksgiving?
Anyway – we know the emotions were mixed. And after all of these years, I’m sure Hannah has some of those feelings like, “I don’t even want to go this year.” “I’m so done praying and praying and praying for a son and nothing… nothing but taunts and jokes.” Our patience wears thin… especially when we feel we lack any control, no one understands, and it seems even God will not respond to our cry. And so we drift away. It starts with missing worship one weekend. Next, it’s the prayer life. Maybe we drop off the serving role. It’s just too much. We start to look for a way out. “I don’t like the music anyway.” “His sermons don’t make any sense.” “Somebody else can serve the homeless meal.” “I just don’t feel it anymore.”
We met some of my family in Branson last month for Fall Break. We were shopping one afternoon which meant my brother and I held up a clothing rack for an hour or so and caught up on life. We talked about sports and kids and jobs and stuff from our childhood and then we talked about ‘it’. The stuff that really matters. The how-are-things-with-your-soul-lately sort of things. We grew up in the same house but life has spread us out in different ways. I’m always curious to see the church, religion, the faith through his eyes. We can be super honest with each other and I wonder if I’d see things more like he does if I had not answered the call to ministry. Grass is always greener stuff. Ministry has its challenges you know… just like any field does… but I’d be lying if sometimes I think about what kind of lay person I’d be if I wasn’t the minister. So I live vicariously through my brother. This particular afternoon we were talking about the future of the church – how things were changing – how people get challenged and inspired in so many different ways than previous times when the church was the main source for those things – including the main source of community building. “If people can hear the greatest sermon in the world at the click of a button now, why bother rolling out of bed and going to the neighborhood church to hear a mediocre message?” Or – “If you can hear the most beautiful worship rendition of your favorite praise song or hymn on a Face Book video, why bother getting to worship early to hear Gertrude, the lead soprano, sing off key with an ungodly pitchy vibrato?” I was understanding this sentiment when my brother surprisingly shut me down. “We don’t go to worship for ourselves,” he says. “Worship is not about what we can get it out of it. We go to worship to praise God whether we feel it or not. It’s not all about us.” And we went on to talk about the community we form when we gather and the support we need to offer others, etcetera, but that earlier comment lingered with me. It wasn’t a new idea, of course, but maybe what I needed to hear in the moment. Something to chew on. Whatever the case, Hannah joins the family caravan to Shiloh once again even though she wasn’t feeling it.
She wasn’t feeling it to the point of not only passing on seconds at mealtime, she wasn’t eating at all. Elkanah knows she’s hurting. “Oh, Hannah,” he says, “why are you crying? Why aren’t you eating? And why are you so upset? Am I not of more worth to you than ten sons?” Probably not the most helpful thing to say. Many of us have learned that lesson the hard way. Hannah nibbles on some of the meal but then slips away and entered the sanctuary. Hannah prayed to God and cried and cried inconsolably. Her soul was crushed. But then, she makes a bold vow to God: “God, if you’ll take a good, hard look at my pain, if you’ll quit neglecting me and go into action for me by giving me a son, I’ll give him completely, unreservedly to you. I’ll set him apart for a life of holy discipline.” Boom. Just like that she puts her biggest possible card on the table. Have you ever done that? “Get me out of this, God, and I’ll give my whole life to you” sort of prayer?
Eli was the priest on duty. He noted her desperate praying and after making this vow, Hannah continued praying, moving her lips without saying the words out loud. General practice at that time was vocalized prayer. Watching her, Eli jumped to the conclusion that following an SNL-like Thanksgiving horror-of-family-gathering featuring Adele’s “Hello,” Hannah must have given herself over to the Black Friday drink specials at McNelly’s. He calls her on it: “You’re drunk!” She says, “No, sir. Not a drop. I am just totally exhausted, defeated and empty-souled. I keep pouring my heart out to God for that is all I know how to do.” Eli, believing her spiritual angst, says, “Go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you have asked of him.” She goes. Back to the taunting of her sister-wife and the toil of life but with a different spirit – a new peace. She gave up her fast and her despair lifted. What happens? Lo and behold – Hannah’s pregnant. Ultrasound results taken to the baker who bakes a cake for the reveal party – guess what – cake is blue. It’s a boy. Her way forward rings of earlier childless women like Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel – and the later likes of JtB’s mother Elizabeth. She gives birth to a son. She names him Samuel saying, “I asked for him!” which is what Samuel means – “I asked him of the Lord.”
And. then. Hannah. Sings! Hannah’s Song, as it is called, has resonances to the later Magnificat of Mary, who sings with deep love as she carries Jesus in her womb. But now what? Hannah promised God that she would dedicate her son to the Lord – give him over fully to a life of ministry. Could she make good on her gratitude? Have you ever faced such a dilemma? You may have heard of the guy who was struggling with the thought of tithing of his salary – offering God 10% of his income to the work of the church. It used to be easier for him but he just got a big raise and that 10% seemed like a much bigger gift than it used to. He sought some advice from a mentor about it. His mentor said, “I see your dilemma. Let’s pray about it.” He started right in, “Lord, please reduce this man’s salary to an amount he feels comfortable tithing on.” A question for us, it seems to me, is this: Do we want to live in God’s story or do we want God to live in ours? Who’s the main character of this narrative? Is it me? Is it God? Jesus? How often do we expect to be the star when we’re really called to be the supporting cast?
Eugene Peterson speaks well to this regarding the book of First Samuel and, moreover, how we allow God to be a part or if we go it alone. Hannah’s story is not one we are to stand back from and admire, like a statue in a gallery, thinking we’ll never be able to live either that gloriously or tragically ourselves. No. Her story, and the others we encounter, are “immersions into the actual business of living itself: this is what it means to be human. This cluster of interlocking stories trains us in perceptions of ourselves, our sheer and irreducible humanity, that cannot be reduced to personal feelings or ideas or circumstances. If we want a life other than mere biology, we must deal with God. There is no alternate way.” And so what? We read our lives in the lives of Hannah and the rest of the folks we meet in scripture for that matter. “We read our lives with a sense of affirmation and freedom: we don’t have to fit into prefabricated moral and mental or religious boxes before we are admitted into the company of God – we are taken seriously just as we are and given a place in his story, for it is, after all, his story; none of us is the leading character in the story of our life.” Then Peterson says this, “The biblical way is not so much to present us with a moral code and tell us, ‘Live up to this’; nor is it to set out a system of doctrine and say, ‘Think like this and you will live well.’ The biblical way is to tell a story and invite us to “Live into this. This is what it looks like to be human; this is what is involved in entering and maturing as human beings.” We do violence to the biblical revelation when we “use” it for what we can get out of it or what we think will provide color and spice to our otherwise bland lives. That results in a kind of ‘boutique spirituality’ – God as decoration, God as enhancement. The biblical narrative will not allow that. In the reading, as we submit our lives to what we read, we find that we are not being led to see God in our stories but to see our stories in God’s. God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves.”
Knowing this, Hannah combs through any second thoughts – as we are apt to do as humans. But she ultimately makes good on her gratitude. She commits to God what she promised she would and her faithfulness shapes the rest of our story of faith. What do you need to make good on? When it comes to your part in God’s narrative – how will you give of yourself in gratitude? It’s not only our call and the challenge of our own faith but, like Hannah’s faithfulness, ours will also have an impact on the faith narrative for generations to come. Let’s make good on gratitude. Stick in there even when the picture isn’t clear. It’s the Hallelujah Anyway-s that ultimately open us to Hallelujah! in every way.
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 General exegetical background for this text from 1 Samuel supported by published periodical, Homiletics. Credit to Senior Writer, Bob Kaylor.
 From The Message: Intro to the book of First Samuel. Eugene H. Peterson. NavPress. Colorado Springs. 2002.