1 Samuel 1:1-20
Filled With Good Things
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1 Samuel 1:1-20
Filled With Good Things
Rev. Amy Butler
I don’t know how it was at YOUR house on Thanksgiving Day, but at my house growing up, Thanksgiving was one of those Norman Rockwell kind of holidays . . . at least my Mom did her very best to make it seem so.
Mom would cook for days, making all sorts of special dishes. She have all of us kids working on homemade place markers to decorate the table. All the good china would be dragged out of the buffet and cleaned . . . and polish the silver! We all had to sit and do that before every Thanksgiving dinner.
I remember my Mom getting up very early in the morning to put the turkey in, because it was likely we’d have a huge group and she was usually cooking the largest bird she could find. We’d all be pressed into service, ironing the table cloth, setting the table, bringing in the flower arrangements, answering the door. Finally, when everything was ready and we were all assembled together, someone (typically Mom) would make some sort of Thanksgiving speech.
Usually it went like this:
“Today is Thanksgiving Day. This is a day that we remember all the many things God has given us and celebrate the fact that our lives are filled with good things. Before your father prays, everyone sitting around the table is invited to share one thing they are thankful for this year.”
From what I understand, this exercise is not limited to my family, as many of you do the same sort of thing at your house. Thanksgiving is a time for celebration, a time to remember all the good things with which our lives are filled.
And it must not be all that much fun, I got to thinking this week, if your life DOESN’T seem filled with good things . . . if you are having trouble thinking of what it is you might be thankful for this year. In fact, come to think of it, all my years of Thanksgiving celebrations at my parents’ house, I have never heard anyone say (in response to my mother’s group exercise) anything like, “I have nothing to be thankful for this year” or “Can’t think of one thing . . . sorry.”
The reason for that, of course, is that we would never break decorum to say something like that, but the truth of the matter is that for some of us, at some time or another, devastation and heartbreak seem to be the defining characteristics of our lives, not thankfulness filled to overflowing with good things. You know what I mean?
Such was the case for Hannah in the first chapter of 1 Samuel. The portion we read tells the story of the annual trek to Shiloh, where the whole family would engage in rigorous celebration. Doubtful they gathered around a roast turkey, but the parallels are there. They all packed up and traveled to be together for a time of celebration. And their own expressions of thanksgiving and happiness were expected, just like ours are at Thanksgiving, only back then there were actual laws prohibiting crying or sadness during this time of celebration at Shiloh.
Tough, then, for Hannah.
All she could concentrate on, despite the circumstances, were the words echoing in her head. And they were devastating, heart-breaking words that God “had shut up her womb.”
Promise, possibility, value, life . . . slammed shut by what they understood to be an inexplicable act of God. They were circumstances that colored every part of her life and made her wonder at the inequity that filled everyone else’s life with good things . . . and left hers empty.
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Let me show you what it was like. “There was a certain man of Ramathaim . . .”, the story begins.
You have to understand that this man was descended from great men of old, men who had left their mark on the people of Israel through their progeny.
Men like Zuph, the Ephramite, who was a member of the tribe of the Levites, holy men of God. And his son, Tohu, a man who took the responsibility of being fruitful and multiplying very seriously, who took wives and bore children to populate the nation of Israel. And one of his sons was Elihu, who continued the tradition of his family by adding to the tribe, tents and flocks, families and crops to add to the bounty of Israel. He was the father of Jeroham, who by that time was part of the Establishment—the holy tribe of the Levites, commissioned as the chosen people of God. And it was Jeroham who was the father of one of the main characters in our story: Elkanah.
By this time in the life of this family, five generations into it, Elkanah was a man who commanded respect. Like his forefathers, he was a member of the tribe of Levi; a man of means; a man respected and admired in society. The trip to Shiloh every year would be one of great anticipation for someone like Elkanah; he could worship in the temple, sit in the marketplace, show off his wealth and success.
And part of that success was Penninah. She’d been a very wise choice in a wife, as she produced child after child for Elkanah’s household. Traded for a high price she was showing her value as Elkanah’s tents filled with the sounds of children’s voices; as the work grew lighter with more hands to help; as he was assured again and again that his legacy would continue . . . that someday his portrait would join the gallery of beloved ancestors who preceded him. And Penninah knew she’d been a good choice for Elkanah, even if he didn’t really love her. She was able to provide what every woman in her position lived for: children to give her status and to insure her stability. She was proud of her accomplishments, sure that they indicated the blessing and approval of God.
And then there was Hannah.
Elkanah loved Hannah and he really didn’t need children from her, anyway–he had plenty from Penninah. So he couldn’t see what the big deal was . . . why it seemed that Hannah was so distraught, all alone and sad . . . after all, she was his favorite!
But the fact of the matter was: while Penninah’s tents were filled with little voices, Hannah’s were silent.
While children ran around the camp and climbed into Elkanah’s lap to pull at his beard, Hannah knew in her heart she had not contributed to the legacy Elkanah was building.
And while the value of legacy was being assured over and over through Penninah’s childbearing, Hannah could hardly summon any happiness at all because the one thing for which her heart ached and ached seemed so far out of reach. Her life didn’t seem full of good things . . . it seemed glaringly empty.
It was more than unfair; it was torturous. In the world in which our Bible character Hannah lived, there were only two ways a woman could attain any status or have any value in society. She could be either a virgin, preserved as a commodity to be traded for a bride-price that could make or break her father’s fortunes; or she could be a mother, producer of healthy children to carry on the family name, work in the family business, assist in the rigorous running of a nomadic household.
Other than those two possibilities, a woman was worthless, good-for-nothing, wholly lacking in any redeeming qualities. No points at all in Middle Eastern society for being a witty conversationalist, I’m afraid.
Married to a man of holy status, a Levite, elevated to potential heights in society, Hannah suddenly faced great and unbelievable emptiness. Radically unequal, desperately unfair. God “had shut up her womb.” (CHARACTERS LEAVE)
What kind of Thanksgiving are you looking forward to this year? Will you be up at the crack of dawn to get the turkey in the oven? Will your table be groaning under the weight of the plenty? Will you be animatedly asking what everyone is thankful for, leading the conversation around the table . . . or will you be groaning internally in agony as you survey the plenty all around you and think deep in your heart that your life is empty? Does it seem to you that, in this time and place of plenty, your life is arid and unyielding? Like Hannah, does it seem like the scales are weighted against you and your portion is rather measly?
Maybe not . . . maybe so. Regardless, all of us know what it feels like to be empty when all around, everybody else seems fully satisfied and deeply content. What, then, shall we do?
On this Sunday before the Thanksgiving holiday, I think it only appropriate to look closely at what HANNAH did, and then follow suit. Everyone was out celebrating but Hannah in her agony could only think of one place to go . . . to the temple. A woman in agony, praying in deep distress at a time when everyone else was celebrating . . . well, this was something that would surely be noticed, and it was. The priest Eli thought she’d been partying too much, in fact. It was a terrible, low and pitiful place to be: a woman in ancient Israel, married and unable to have a child. Hannah turned to the only place she could think to turn in her desperation: to God.
When the truth came out, when Hannah poured out her grief and emptiness in the presence of God, somehow the bleak outlook she’d had before then changed. And in turning, before she even got the answer she so desperately longed for, she was finally able to see that her life was, indeed, filled with good things. Filled, piled high, overflowing, lavishly supplied . . . with everything she needed. In her desperation she came to God, the One she knew to be more powerful than any other; she heard the words of the priest, Eli: ‘Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.;’ and then the text says: she went to her to the place she was staying, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
Her countenance was sad no longer.
Wherever you’ll gather for Thanksgiving this year, I’m inviting you to follow the simple and powerful example of Hannah and view your life, not through the circumstances that make it seem empty, but rather through the lens of God’s goodness filling your life with good things.
Even if, when the question is asked around the dinner table, you can’t think of one single thing to be thankful for, the weight of your pain is so heavy, then turn to the one who can balance out the scales of utter inequity and lift your countenance from sadness to hope. The place to turn, as Hannah did, is to God.
What are you thankful for? Can’t think of much this year? Close your eyes and listen to the prayer of Hannah from chapter 2, words of Thanksgiving she prayed after God lifted her countenance and she was able to see her life filled to overflowing with the gifts of God:
I’m bursting with God-news! I’m walking on air. I’m laughing at my rivals. I’m dancing my salvation. Nothing and no one is holy like God, no rock or mountain is like our God. Don’t dare talk pretentiously— not a word of boasting, ever! For God knows what’s going on. He takes the measure of everything that happens. The weapons of the strong are smashed to pieces, while the weak are infused with fresh strength. The hungry are getting second helpings . . . the barren woman has a houseful of children . . . . God puts poor people on their feet again; God rekindles burned-out lives with fresh hope . . . . Our God will set things right all over the earth!
Open your eyes now to see your life, filled to overflowing with the goodness and promise of God.
For this reality . . . or for this hope that we cling to, even in the most desolate times, I can only think to say this morning: thanks . . . thanks be to God. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006, Amy Butler. Used by permission.