[This sermon, here in shortened form, was delivered at Community of the Savior in Rochester, Nov. 18, 2018. The texts were 1 Samuel 1:1-20 and Mark 13:1-8.]
Birth pangs! “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” What is a man doing speaking of birth pangs? I think it belongs to women that have borne children to speak of birth pangs. And Jesus, a single man—what does he know of birth pangs? I guess men that care for and about women know a little about birth pangs. Male obstetricians. Some fathers that have stood by their wives during birth pangs. And someone who listens to women as Jesus does.
Now, Hannah desperately wants birth pangs. But they won’t come. She is married to a good man named Elkanah, but he also has another wife. It seems to me that God never ordained polygamy or plural marriage, but it happened rather frequently in Old Testament times. And it still does in parts of the world today. I suppose it usually had to do with producing a lot of children to serve the family business, like a farm, or populate a sparsely populated land or add numbers to a movement. But it was and is never good. In Old Testament stories of polygamy—and there are many—it invariably leads to strife and discord. And so it is that Elkanah’s other wife bears children and regularly reminds Hannah that Hannah doesn’t. They called it being barren and, while that is a stark word, the sting of wanting children and not being able to birth them was even a more bitter pill. Hannah is a barren woman and feels the sting daily. This is Hannah’s poverty: she is barren.
As 1 Samuel begins, the family is going to make sacrifices to the Lord and then having a harvest feast. It probably is the Feast of Tabernacles, which celebrates God’s faithfulness in the harvest, akin to our American Thanksgiving. This feast of fruitfulness simply re-enforces to Hannah that her womb is unfruitful. And the other wife keeps reminding Hannah that she is barren. She provokes Hannah year after year. It becomes an unbearable hurt.
In church life today, things like this can still happen. People, seemingly well-intentioned, can say to married couples without children, “When are you going to start a family? Have you considered adoption? Maybe have a glass of wine before you go to bed and let it relax you.” Ouch! Every married couple is a family. Every single adult is family. Every widow and widower is family. Everyone in the body of Christ is family. Jesus makes that clear. But we sometimes think of family in ways contrary to Christ’s understanding. And he never married or fathered children, but what a family is his.
Hannah knows the look, the whispered word in the fellowship hall, that reminds her she is barren. What does she do about it? The right thing. She takes it to God.
“She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly…. Eli thought she was drunk…. “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord.”
Her praying is intense and tenacious. There are times when we may bring some concern to God and simply lay it before God and walk away in complete trust and peace. Wonderful. There are other times when our praying will be like Hannah’s: intense and tenacious, filled with bitter and desperate tears. Both forms are heard by God; both are acceptable. In Luke 18 Jesus tells about a widow pleading for justice day and night until the frustrated judge gives her justice. Jesus holds her as another model for tenacious praying. Hannah prays with the active faith described in Hebrews 10: holding fast, provoking, approaching the throne of God’s grace with confidence that her cries are heard. Hannah prevails in persevering prayer. She is a woman of grace and grit, beautiful inside and out.
Our Bible was written in patriarchal times and many biblical narratives reflect that. But God has always had a better plan: male and female sharing God’s image and God’s work. We find it at the very beginning in Genesis 1 and, if we take off our patriarchal blinders, we find it everywhere in scripture. God has always been calling and using women and men to share in Christ’s body and labor together in God’s work. To all the names of women God used that we know, there are the thousands and millions whose names are not recorded. We are in their debt. Again and again, God used them to keep the salvation story alive.
The state of women’s leadership in the global Church today is mixed. About half of the great Church denies full leadership to women. That troubles me greatly. The founder and first general superintendent of Free Methodism, B. T. Roberts, the namesake of the college not far from here, was in favor of ordaining women, but didn’t see it take place in his lifetime. He wrote Ordaining Women: Biblical and Historical Insights in 1891. The impact of his writings eventually prevailed in Free Methodism, but long after he died. In 1974 woman were finally ordained as presbyters/pastors, just 83 years later.
My life has been nurtured and influenced by amazing and strong women at every stage. My mother, who died two years ago just after her 101st birthday, was a strong woman, filled with grace and grit. Her mother brought her to this country when my mother was a six-year old. Their border crossing of the Atlantic was dangerous. My grandmother was violently ill and did her best to hide it so she and her children could live in this land of welcome and opportunity. She made it. She never learned much English, but I have glorious memories of helping her make pasta in an Italian kitchen in this new land. She was an amazing woman, filled with grace and grit. God allowed me to marry a beautiful woman of grace and grit. She bore us two beautiful daughters, filled with grace and grit. (Whenever we had a dog it was a male, just to give a little balance.) Rachel’s mother was a pioneering pastor in the wild west in the 1930s, a gifted woman of grace and grit. My closest pastoral colleague worked alongside me for 25 years, a woman of grace and grit. My life journey and my faith journey have been formed and nurtured by amazing women of grace and grit. All these women were and are beautiful inside and out, filled with grace and grit. I am the richer for knowing all of them. Their fingerprints are indelibly imprinted on my soul.
The lectionary, daily and Sundays, has had me thinking of such women of late. I read of how God used Esther to save her people. I have read of Naomi and Ruth. They were not barren, but bereaved of their men. Naomi models trusting God even in bitter times and experiencing God’s mighty working through her Moabite daughter by marriage. Ruth, from Moab—a foreigner to Israel, and outsider!—is mentioned in Matthew 1 in the genealogy of Jesus. These are women of grace and grit. God has always been using such women to keep God’s story alive.
I mean no put down to my gender, though I love this nugget from Sojourner Truth. “Where did Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him.” In fact, there was a good man alongside Mary, named Joseph, a silent man who stood by Mary in challenging circumstances. The Apostle Paul concludes an often misunderstood passage about women and men: “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12) My life has also been nurtured and shaped by godly men, but not quite as much as by godly women.
God hears Hannah’s desperate cries, and in due time, she has her own birth pangs and births a son and names him Samuel. He becomes a key player in God’s salvation story, a consummate leader. He was born of a woman of grace and grit. That was a desperate time in Israel, with the mighty Philistines threatening them from without and the priest Eli’s two corrupt sons threatening Israel from within. God begins the rescue of Israel not with a mighty warrior, but with a barren woman, a woman of grace and grit. Hannah stands in a long line of graced and gritty women that take hold of their birthright and experience God’s favor and pleasure.
Birth pangs! “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” God in Christ is doing a whole new thing. Jesus us building a whole new Temple, not of cold stones but of warm believers with hearts pulsating with new life. Birth pangs signal new life on the way. Jesus is making everything new. Praise be to God in Christ. And thanks to women like Hannah.