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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

November 1, 2012

 A Lesson in Listening

1 Samuel 1:4-20; Mark 13:1-8

             This story is a treasure.  “There was a certain man whose name was Elkanah who had two wives: one was named Peninah and she had many children; the other was Hannah, who had no children.”  Have you ever noticed how much God loves such stories?  No plot seems to grab our God’s attention quite so much as one where the human family has run out of options and comes to the very edge of despair.  I say God loves such stories because God’s Word tells us so many of them.  Abram and Sarai are old, and Sarai is barren, and in their old age they still do not have the child they were promised.  The Hebrew people are slaves in Egypt, working under a death sentence, and they find themselves on the run up against the sea as the armies of Pharaoh close in for the kill.  A man named Joseph learned that his betrothed, Mary, was pregnant with a child that could not possibly have been his, and being a righteous man, he decided quietly to divorce her.  And of course, there is that account of the would-be Messiah whose lifeless body lay in a borrowed tomb for three days.

             Anybody who pays any attention to the Bible knows that God has the exasperating habit of bringing hope out of situations where everyone else is depressed and falling into despair.  Indeed, just when things are at their darkest, it seems this God is most apt to do something entirely new.  Just at the awful point of despair, this God creates hope and life.

             So Elkanah had two wives.  Peninah had children, and Hannah had no children.  To make matters worse for Hannah, Peninah used “to provoke her sorely, to irritate her….”  “So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her.”  “Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.”  So one day Hannah went up to Shiloh, the place of worship.  “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly.”

             Hannah had run out of human options.  She was in the pits, and this is often where prayer gets interesting, and surely where we begin to grow.  Psalm 130 puts it like this: “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.  Lord, hear my voice.  Let Thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications….”  Have you ever been there with the Psalmist, or with Hannah?  Have you ever been in a place where all you could do was “cry out of the depths” and “weep bitterly before the Lord?”  If you have, then you know something of prayer.  Walter Brueggemann calls prayer “faithful waiting.”

             So many of my deepest prayers come from places of pain and fear and brokenness, and most often leave me waiting, forced to trust in the goodness of God.  Maybe it is only “out of the depths” that we learn really, truly to pray.  Maybe it is not until we come to the end of ourselves that we finally make room for God.  A.W. Tozer said, “When you empty yourself, God rushes in!”  So note how honest and how utterly broken and dependent upon God Hannah is in her prayers.

             Secondly, though, even as personal and intimate as Hannah’s prayers are, there is nothing narrow or selfish or parochial about them.  Hannah is clear about her pain over being barren, and out of her barrenness she longs for a son.  But in asking God for this son, Hannah is anything but self-serving!  “Remember me, do not forget Thy maidservant, but give to Thy maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life….”  The name she gives to the child is Samuel, which can mean “asked of the Lord.”  But in Hebrew, the same verb can also mean “borrowed.”  The son Hannah “begged and borrowed” from the Lord she willingly offered back to the God who created and granted him!  Indeed, as soon as the child is weaned, we are told, she will offer the child back to the Lord, to be raised by Eli, the priest.  Hannah does one of the hardest and most difficult things good parents always have to do.  She let go of her child.  And Hannah does so sacrificially, giving Samuel to the Lord to use him as God will.

             Hannah is not just a model for us of someone who knows how to pray out of the depths of her own pain and honesty.  She is also a model for us of unselfish generosity.  For Hannah, prayer is sacrifice to the Lord, as the child she longs for she gives back to the Lord to serve purposes larger and grander than her own.  Her prayers begin with her pain and her deepest longing, but they rise to much higher places and purposes.

             “What is prayer?” asks the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God for things agreeable to His will….”  Prayer is personal.  It is about your desires.  But it is never private, and never finally can be selfish, or self-centered, because prayer is finally not about you.  At its deepest center, prayer is about God.  We pour out the desires of our hearts, but always “for things agreeable to God’s will.”  Jesus teaches us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

             Two weeks ago we stood at the Western or the Wailing Wall, the holiest place in Jerusalem for Jews, and as such, a holy place to Christians as well.  Jesus in our text this morning said that “not a stone” of Herod’s Temple “would be left standing.”  He was dead right.  In 70 a.d. the Temple was destroyed.  Not a stone of it was left standing.  All that is left are the great stones of the wall to the Temple Mount on the Western Wall.  Orthodox Jews and their children, as well as their children’s children, crowded the Wall as we visited it, all of them reading from the Torah and praying to Yahweh, facing west, many of them like Hannah weeping in their prayers.  People write their prayers on pieces of paper and place them in the cracks of the ancient wall.  Men rock as they pray, putting their whole selves into their prayers.  I prayed Psalm 130 at the wall, and then Psalm 90, and then Ephesians 3:14-19, all Biblical prayers I have learned by heart.  I sang two hymns that have become for me prayers.  And then I listened.  I placed my hands on that ancient wall and prayed for the reconciliation of the world and listened.  And in my poor and fading grasp of Hebrew, I could hear what these men of prayer were praying.  I could make out that one man’s prayer was from Psalm 122.  “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!  May they prosper who love you!  Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers!”

             Hannah prays to God for something she clearly wants, and then she turns her answer to prayer, Samuel, over to the Lord so the Lord can use Samuel to anoint David King, and that child of David, Jesus, could save and heal the world.  Save us from small and narrow prayers!  Let us pray for the things that God wants and wills for this troubled planet.  And let us live for them as well.  We all become what we pray.

             Oswald Chambers said, “Discouragement comes when we insist on having our own way.”  Peace comes only when we can say with Jesus, “Nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done.”

             A few years ago, Connie and I took an all-day walk in our nation’s capital.  Miller and Turner always make fun of Connie’s love for travel books, and this walk came right out of “The Book.”  We started at the Watergate and went to Kennedy Center listening to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address again, then on to the Mall to the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool, where Martin Luther King stood in 1963 and thundered, “I have a dream.”  Then we visited the Vietnam and Korean War Memorials.  Later we walked along the Tidal Basin on our way to the Jefferson Memorial.  We stopped at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.  I was arrested by the striking image at the beginning of something that his public never saw.  It is a life-size sculpture of Roosevelt sitting in his circa 1930’s wheelchair.  Above this breathtaking sculpture are these words of Eleanor, “Franklin’s illness gave him strength and courage he had not had before.  He had to think the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons – infinite patience and never ending persistence.”

             I know as surely as I stand here today that many of you stand painfully, trembling on this side of unanswered prayer.  May God give to you in your prayers those gifts that sustained and strengthened Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “infinite patience” born of hope, and “never ending persistence” born of the conviction that “the Lord is good.”


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