Published by Michael Bigg on Sun, 18 Nov 2018 19:03

The text of Mike's sermon preached on 18th Nov 2018 (2 Before Advent)

1 Samuel 1:1-20

 

I was going to start this sermon by telling a story. But then I thought that the story we heard from 1 Samuel 1 speaks for itself. It’s so full of vivid human experience and includes so much of the difficulty, ambiguity and pain of human relationships.

There’s Peninnah who is, by all accounts, a terrible bully. She lords it over her fellow-wife, deliberately provoking bitter tears with a steady stream of cutting comments and reminders that she has children. And yet Peninnah is probably someone who is also hurt. She sees her husband’s deep love for Hannah and the pain that is caused by Hannah’s childlessness. She is jealous. She knows that no number of children of her own will be a substitute for the kind of love that she envies between Hannah and Elkanah. If ever there were an argument against polygamy it’s this story.

Then there’s Elkanah. Here’s a man desperately sad at beloved Hannah’s childlessness. “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” On one level, of course Hannah loves her husband in a way that ten sons would never exceed. On another level, Elkanah can never fill the hole left by the dashed hopes and dreams of motherhood.

Elkanah seems stuck in the middle of his wives. He cannot heal Hannah’s hurt and is either blind to or wilfully ignorant of Peninnah’s cruelty.

And then there’ poor Hannah. One imagines that year by year she not only puts up with seeing her rival pregnant again and facing her taunts, but she probably also gets endless unwelcome advice or insensitive commentary.

“If you want to get pregnant then you should try this… it worked for me!”… “I hear that Peninnah’s pregnant again… don’t worry dear, it’ll be your turn next”… “What have you done that made the Lord close your womb? Do you need to repent of something?”… “How come you and Elkanah haven’t had any children? You’d make a wonderful mother!”

The misguided. The mischievous. The thoughtless. The helpful. It’s all there and makes for a pretty miserable time of things.

 ***

I’m sure none of us would be a Peninnah; deliberately goading or taunting another to the point of bitter tears. But the thoughtless comment or unsolicited advice is something I’m sure many of us have been guilty of, and something we could all do without.

But what I really want to talk about today is the risk of the conspiracy of silence. For every unhelpful comment Hannah probably experienced someone who said nothing and pretended not to notice the problem.

We live in a culture that does not always make it easy to admit weakness, or failure, or just plain misery. How many times has someone asked how you are, and you’ve said, “Oh, fine. Bearing up!” as a euphemism for “things are awful”.

How many times has someone said to you “Oh yes, I’m fine!” and you’ve detected that all is far from fine, and yet you’ve smiled and moved on because you don’t want a potentially difficult conversation?

We are not called to be a people who are fine all the time.

We are called to be a people who can live in the light of Jesus Christ and be empowered to be radically honest about how things are. It’s not easy, by any stretch, but it’s hard to grow when we deny the reality of our present situation.

I think we are called to end the conspiracy of silence that so often suppresses pain. It is often this silence that allows the misery of childlessness to continue with no place to share the load. It is this silence that can allow domestic violence and abuse to continue unchallenged. It is this silence that can make us avoid visiting the sick and grieving because we don’t want to intrude or don’t feel we can carry the burden of another’s pain. Let it not be so with us.

We live in a broken world. There’s a strong possibility that someone you know is suffering through domestic violence, maybe even someone in this church. There are not many who are untouched by the grief of death or life that never was. I would be surprised if anyone here knows no-one suffering from the pain of broken relationships.

That’s not an invitation to pry or get gossip. But there may be a friend for whom you are the right person to ask: “You seem a bit down today – would you like to talk about it?” or “You seem sad about Peter’s death today – can I pray for you?”

***    

Let’s go back to Hannah and her prayer. Note that she really pours her heart out to God, so much so that Eli assumes that she must be drunk.

God is a good father who weeps with us and longs to give comfort to His hurting children. If you are suffering then, like Hannah, you are invited to pour out your pain to God, the living God who hears, and understands and loves. If you know of the suffering of others, then you are invited to cry out to God for them.

Let’s look at Eli. He blunders in with an unhelpful accusation, but how quickly he recovers! I wonder whether the old priest has observed the interactions of Hannah and Peninnah and has jumped to the conclusion that Hannah has taken her problems to the bottle.

But note what he does when he realises his mistake. He doesn’t pry and ask for details. He offers her a simple prayer that she may go in peace and that God grant you what you ask of him”. Without making a big fuss he acknowledges her pain and holds it before God.

That’s all we’re asked to do. To intercede: “God, this is miserable. Give peace and fix this, please”.

It’s often said that a problem shared is a problem halved. I’m not sure that’s true of many problems. But a problem shared is a problem vocalised – it is given a reality that it may not previously have had. A problem shared is also a problem heard and a problem cared about.

There are no guarantees. Hannah does not go away with the firm assurance that she will have a child. But her countenance is lifted up nonetheless. In her case, her desires are fulfilled. Thanks be to God! It is not always so.

As the family of the baptised we are called to face the reality of the world’s pain and our own pain. We are called to bring our pain into Christ’s light and to let God do His work. We are called to invite others to take that brave step too. Amen.

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