There is a caricature of the “Christian Life”, sometime propagated by Hollywood, sometimes by TV Preachers, that says that a person who has a messed up life can bring all their problems to God and, snap, things are going to be perfect. The birds will sing, you’ll always find a great parking spot, and your team will always win the big game. Well, unfortunately, this is simply not true. “Bad things happen to Good People,” accidents happen and the Moundbuilders occasionally have a bad game. It’s true that we can bring all of our pain and sorrow to God and he can rebuild our lives, but unfortunately it usually doesn’t happen overnight.
We pick up our story today here, in the book of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament:
They’re living in hard times—a couple hundred years ago their people, the Israelites, came from slavery in Egypt where they were being oppressed. They are ruled by a group of people who are known as Judges—not really a king, not really a priest, but they’re called by God and given insight into what God wants to do with this group of people. A woman, Hannah, is married to a man, Elkanah, who loves her very much. She’s got two problems, however. Problem #1: she is barren and has been unable to have children. The only thing worse is problem #2.) Elkanah is also married to another woman, Peninniah (they used to do that in those days). Peninniah isn’t her husband’s favorite, but she feels vindicated b/c she has a slew of children. Each year when they go up to make sacrifices, Hannah makes an offering to the Lord and prays before God. The typical way that they prayed included them gathering in their place of worship praying aloud. However, this particular year, Hannah was so overcome with grief over her barrenness that she poured out her heart before God in silence, moving her lips, but not able to express her prayer verbally. This caught the attention of Eli, the priest, who noticed her abnormal behavior and even accused her of being drunk! Hannah even offered her son in service to the Lord, as a Nazarite, never to cut his hair or give him wine to drink. That was the ultimate offering, it seemed, to give him back to the God that gave him first to her once he turned 3 years old. After she explained her situation, he blessed and said, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition that you have made to him.”
They’re living in hard times—the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not wide spread. Eli, the old priest tried to be faithful, but the task felt too big for him. He had just been warned by a man of God about the bad behavior of his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They served with him, receiving sacrifices and conducting religions ceremonies which made matters worse. They skimmed a little off the top of the sacrifices, taking more than their fair share and cutting into what was supposed to be offered to the Lord. No only that, but they also copied the practices of those in the land of Canaan that they were trying to replace and had sex with temple prostitutes—not quite the example that you want your children to set when you’re the religious leader! Eli was grateful for one thing, though, that’s for sure: Samuel, the boy who had been serving with him the last couple of years was sure an answer to prayer! Eli remembered that he had first thought that his mother was drunk, praying like she was with her lips moving, but no sound coming out! At second glance, she prayed reverently, desperately even, imploring the God of the Universe to grant her one prayer: to have a child. Eli was grateful for Samuel’s ministry among them. It seemed almost a “do-over” to him, an opportunity to discuss who the God of Israel was, to teach him of God’s mighty acts in bringing them out of oppressive Egypt and to carry on the work of God.
This story isn’t turning out well at all! Our hero—Samuel—is thrown a curveball and given an unglamorous task! If we were writing the story, we might write the story differently:
- Hannah—God blessed her with a child, Samuel, and he did grow up to be a faithful servant of God, but she didn’t have to give him up at age 3. He matured on his own and chose to follow God as a priest.
- Hophni & Phinehas—They repented of their wicked ways and once again were used by God to minister to the people.
- Eli—He saw the repentance of his sons and died and old, happy man.
- Samuel—He lived his life knowing that he was an answer to prayer, feeling blessed and lived his life in response to God.
These things COULD have happened, but they didn’t. We often have the desire for things to turn out with a fairytale ending, but they often don’t.
So how do we live God’s call in the hard times?
We learn a lesson from Hannah. She gave up her son in service to the Lord. She didn’t try to make excuses to God. And she didn’t know if she would ever have any more children. But she remained faithful to her promise to dedicate her son to God’s service. We learn from Hannah that living with integrity—keeping one’s promise—is one way to live God’s call in hard times.
We learn a lesson from Eli. While Eli was reluctant to confront his sons about their bad behavior, he did maintain an open heart to God. He taught Samuel to be able to hear God’s voice and even encouraged him to share openly with him about the message that God had given him, even if he knew that it would be at a personal cost to him. We learn from Eli that pointing others to God is one way to live God’s call in hard times.
We learn a lesson from Samuel. Samuel did not get a say in whether he would be raised in service to the Lord. He was handed over as a 3 year old to be shaped and formed by the priest Eli. And yet, Samuel was obedient. He acts heroically when he is faithful despite the fact that he really has been dealt a difficult hand. We learn from Samuel that God speaks to us when we are listening and sheer obedience is the way to live God’s call in hard times.
We even learn a lesson from Hophni and Phinehas. While it may seem that you’re living a self-indulgent life without any consequences, eventually sin and obedience catches us to you. We learn from these two guys that God has a standard and we are to keep it even in hard times.
The rest of the story:
Hannah went on to miraculously have more children—3 sons and 2 daughters—and was blessed for her willingness to serve God faithful. And Samuel, despite his difficult first task, went on to live a blessed life with all his enemies slain by just a simple nod of his head. His rule as a judge ushered in a time of peace and harmony for the people of Israel and his team always won….Uh-oh, there’s that tricky caricature, again! The first part about Hannah is true, but that’s not quite what happened. Even though he encountered many difficult days in his life, Samuel did grow up to be a figure in the history of Israel that ushered in a new period: the Monarchy. He anointed the first king, Saul, and then the Greatest King, David, preparing a new chapter in the lives of the people of Israel. His faithful mother would never have known that day when she prayed desperately for a child that her son would grow up to play such an important role in the history of Israel! That he would become a mouthpiece for God during a time of much silence. That he would speak words of truth to King David, preparing him for his role as the unifier of Israel (even a unified Israel lasted for only a brief time).
We’re living in hard times. We often feel tossed and torn by the pressures that come our way. We have relationship pressures, academic pressures, and financial pressures. We vacillate between silence of God and steps that seem impossible to follow. The word of the Lord seems to be apparent to everyone around us except for us! We try to pray, but our prayers feel as though they hit the ceiling and never reach God’s ears. We compare our faith to those around us and seem to never match up. We ask forgiveness for the same thing over and over again, never quite feeling like we’re back in God’s good graces. And we forget that in the hard times, God is present here with us.
It’s good that we don’t write the end of the stories. It’s good that we learn how to live out the call of God in the hard times. It’s good that God has left us with the image of a Savior that endured difficulty, and we can look not only to what Christ did, but also to what he is doing in the world today.