The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

A MOTHER'S GIFT

Delivered St. Paul 5/14/00
Text: I Samuel 1:1-11
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If there were ever a day that felt like Mother's Day to Hannah, this was it. This was the day she would get to see her son, Samuel, for the first time since last year. Each autumn, Hannah and her family would make the pilgrimage from their home in Ramah to the religious center of the nation in Shiloh for the Feast of Tabernacles - the annual celebration of the harvest, a time to renew the covenant between Israel and her God - one of the three holiest festivals of the Hebrew year. To be sure, Hannah was a religious woman, but religion was not so much on her mind THIS day as was her boy.

Even though Shiloh was only twelve miles to the east of Ramah, the journey had taken two days. The narrow, rocky roads that wound their way among the limestone hills and fertile valleys made travel slow and laborious. Caravans never move quickly. To Hannah, this one seemed to have been mired in molasses. The questions of children raced through her mind: "When will we get there?" "How much farther?"

Now they had come to the crest of a ridge, and just below, the travelers saw their destination. Surrounded by hills except to the southwest, the high desert sun washed over the roofs of Shiloh. Here and there a few fig trees dotted the landscape. Pastures and watering ponds were scattered nearby. There, in the center of the town, were the courts of the Tabernacle, where the children of Israel had been gathering for worship since the days of Joshua. It was there she would see her son.

As the caravan wound its way down the slope, Hannah found her thoughts going back to the pilgrimages of years gone by. She had been to Shiloh many times. As a girl she had come with her parents and frolicked with the other youngsters. As the demure, blushing bride of the prosperous Elkanah she had laughed happily with the other wives each day at the well. But as time passed, Shiloh had lost its lustre for her. After all, this was a time of national Thanksgiving, gratitude for the harvest. But Hannah had no harvest - no children - and, in fact, now had a rival in her own house. Elkanah had taken himself another wife - all perfectly legal - a man had a right to have children to work with him in the family enterprises, to provide security for his old age, to insure that his name would remain alive even after his death. Elkanah had married Peninnah who had proved as fertile as the richest valley.

For a devout women like Hannah, this had been an especially difficult trial. To have no child was not only a disappointment, but seemed to mark one as dishonored by God, as unworthy of any part in the promise to Abraham, "In you [and your offspring] all the families of the earth shall be blessed."(1) The laughter and shouts of Peninnah's children at play had wounded Hannah's ears. The sight of Elkanah tossing the little ones in the air and bouncing them on his knee which should have been such a joy had been instead perpetual pain. At times, in quiet moments, Hannah thought of Sarah, the wife of Abraham and mother of the nation, and the pain of childlessness she bore for ninety years before the birth of Isaac. Would Hannah too have to wait ninety years? The annual journey to Shiloh for a time of Thanksgiving. Indeed. "Thank you, God...for nothing."

Perhaps the yearly pilgrimage would have been easier on Hannah if Peninnah's mouth had not proven as productive as her womb. Oh yes, Peninnah knew how to give her husband joy, but she knew even better how to give her rival pain. Any sisterly drops of the milk of human kindness toward Hannah had long ago curdled and gone sour. Peninnah knew she was not Elkanah's favorite, so she made up for the bluntness of his affection with the sharpness of her tongue. "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," and Peninnah was living proof.

As the caravan moved to the edge of town, Hannah could not help but remember her misery in this place five years ago. For some reason her sense of failure that year was particularly acute. Those daily trips to Shiloh's well had given Peninnah the chance to make Hannah an object of derision like never before. The women at the well still laughed and gossiped, but no longer WITH Hannah, now ABOUT her. It was Elkanah's NEW wife with whom they had talked. Elkanah had noticed and tried to assuage Hannah's unhappiness. Peninnah noticed too, which just made things worse. Peninnah's snide remarks and pointed barbs became even more vicious.

At the meal after the sacrifice, in an effort to comfort Hannah, Elkanah gave her a SPECIAL portion of the meat. Meat was seldom eaten in a Hebrew household (it was a luxury item in a peasant economy) so this was a rare treat. It did not matter. Hannah could hardly taste it. No one can taste when they are choking back salty tears.

Thanksgiving, Hannah thought. She could have cared less about raising grain or grapes or livestock - she wanted to raise a CHILD. The tears had begun to flow uncontrollably. Elkanah asked, "Hannah, why are you so miserable? Am I not more to you than ten sons?" Through her sobs, Hannah shot back a glance at her husband that said, "You Foolish Man!" And with that she ran off, her meal still on the plate.

Hannah remembered wandering aimlessly in the camp. No one spoke to her; no one ever spoke to a woman walking in public not accompanied by her husband. With no sense of shame she allowed the tears to continue. Everyone knew her humiliation anyway. What difference would this make?

Suddenly, Hannah found herself at the door of the Tabernacle. God's house. GOD's House. As she stood there, Hannah began to mumble her distress through her tears. "Why has this happened to me? Where have I failed you that I have not had a child? Why must I be continually afflicted with Peninnah's tongue? Do you care at all about me? Please, Lord, please, please, please. If you will only give me a child, I will give him back to you for his whole life." Over and over she repeated her prayer, hoping against hope that the God who had shut his ears to her through all these years would finally grant her request. She was pitiful.

In her pain, Hannah did not notice that someone besides her God was listening. Eli, the High Priest, had been near the doorway all along. He had watched in silence as this distraught figure stood mumbling and finally spoke. "Woman, you are drunk. Go home and sober up."

Startled, Hannah looked toward the direction of the voice. She saw that it was Eli, old now and infirm, but still a man who deserved great respect. With firmness and dignity, and yet in perfect courtesy, Hannah repudiated the charge. "I have not been pouring wine; I have been pouring out my soul."

In an instant the High Priest knew his mistake and felt ashamed of his rude and unworthy remark. He realized that here was a decent and God-fearing woman. In a tone of apology he sent her away with a benediction, which seemed to convey to her that her request finally would be fulfilled.

As the caravan continued to wind through town, wending its way past the stalls of the bazaar, Hannah walked a few paces behind her beloved Elkanah. The memories continued rushing back as she reflected on that fateful evening. With the perspective that only time brings, she could admit to herself with embarrassment that her prayer was a rather selfish one. Hannah had been concerned for Hannah, for her status in the eyes of her husband and community. Her goal was not so much that God might have another servant on earth as it was that her womanhood might be vindicated. Instead of asking God for strength to make the world a better place, Hannah had simply sought a better place for herself in the world as it was. She smiled now as she wondered if God ever had the luxury of working with pure motives where human beings are concerned. No matter. That was God's problem.

Hannah remembered that when she and Elkanah returned home to Ramah that year, nature had taken its course, and before time for the return to Shiloh for the next annual feast, she had given birth to Samuel. She missed the trip to Shiloh that year...and the next and the next. She had told her husband about her vow of returning the boy to the service of the Lord. God had taken her on as a partner, as, in a sense, God does all mothers. Hannah felt that it would be unworthy to take the lad to the Tabernacle without planning to leave him there. No, neither she nor Samuel would celebrate the feast until the boy was ready to begin his training.

The caravan of pilgrims had now made its way to the Tabernacle precincts. Hannah's heart raced as she took in the sight once more. She remembered the family's journey last year, the conversations she had had with her young son in preparation for his new life. She had taught him the rudiments of the nation's faith: that God had created them and the whole world, that God had chosen the Israelites for a special task, had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and guided them to this promised land. She had told him of the great heroes of the faith: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. She had told him of Moses in the bullrushes, Joseph and his coat of many colors. She had explained her own years of despair, her pitiful prayer, and her promise to God. She told that little lad that his very life would be a perpetual witness to the fact that God exists, that God hears prayer, and that God answers. Samuel was a witness that the Creator God was also a caring God.

It was just one year ago that Hannah met Eli again. Her words were few and well-chosen. She reminded him of their last encounter but made no allusion to anything unpleasant between them. She simply explained that God had given her Samuel; now she was giving him back.

It was very hard for Hannah, of course, as it would have been for any loving mother. For three years, Samuel had been her constant companion, had warmed her heart with his smile, had amused her with his prattle, had charmed her with his engaging little ways. How could she part with him? Would he not miss her too much as she would miss him? Shiloh was not a very attractive place; Eli was old and feeble; Hophni and Phineas, Eli's sons who had taken over the priestly duties, were beasts. Nevertheless it was God's house, and if a little child should be brought to it, God would take care of the child. Already Samuel was God's child. God would be with him. God would give Hannah strength enough to fulfill her vow.

The time came to make Samuel's commitment official. Elkanah led a bullock to the north side of the altar of burnt offering, in the court before the door of the Tabernacle and bound it to the horns of the altar. Slowly and reverently, Hannah and the young Samuel approached. The mother reached down, took Samuel's hand and laid it on the head of the animal to affirm it as the boy's representative. Suddenly, with a swift blow, Elkanah killed the animal. Its blood was sprinkled and its limbs burnt on the altar. One year ago it had become official - Samuel belonged to God.

The pilgrims had now arrived at the Tabernacle. Old Eli, despite his failing eyesight, had made Hannah and Elkanah out among the mingling crowds. He beckoned to them as they approached and greeted them with warm words and delighted them further with a glowing report of their son. No wonder Eli offered a wish of more children for them. The High Priest sent one of the servants to fetch the lad.

Hannah waited nervously. Would he remember her? After all, he was so young when last they had seen each other. Would he be angry or resentful at her for leaving him to live with Eli? She had tried to explain, but had he been old enough to understand? Her hands clutched and unclutched at the package she held. She had brought Samuel a gift.

Suddenly, here he was. Their eyes met. He was taller. That would be expected. His hair was longer, but that was expected too - after all, part of his mother's vow was that he would be a nazirite (no haircuts - uncut hair was the age-old symbol of consecration to God's service). Hannah could not control herself - her face exploded into the broadest grin she had ever had. She opened wide her arms in welcome, and watched as two short, spindley legs began flying across the dirt courtyard. As he reached Hannah, he fairly dove into his mother's arms. They held each other and hugged and hugged and hugged as if they would never let go.

There was no conversation for a moment or two. Then Hannah told him she had brought a present. Over the past weeks, her fingers had flown as she weaved the cloth and cut and stitched to provide something for her boy - a long tunic to be worn over his liturgical garments, the kind worn by men of position. She had decided that she would make him a new one each year. Just as the pilgrimage was the nation's annual tradition, this would be their own.

Mother and son had a wonderful visit. It would go all too quickly as such joyous reunions do. But for Hannah, the journey to Shiloh would never be a misery or a chore again. She would be back next year - another Mother's Day - and she would bring a gift.

But Hannah had already given her boy the best gift that a mother could. She had prepared him for a life that would see him become the spiritual leader of his people for over forty years, presiding over their feasts, interceding for them before the Lord, and serving as judge and arbiter in practical affairs. Hannah had given her son the gift of the knowledge of God. Would that every mother might do the same.

Amen!


1. Genesis 12:3

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