Pastor Lecia Beck
25 June 2023 — Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana
What Do You Desire?
1 Samuel 1:1-18
There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters, but to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb.
Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. So it went on year by 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. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk. So Eli said to her, “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. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”
Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went her way and ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
Some of you have met my pup Lola. She’s a 5-year-old ball of energy who is overly enthusiastic about every person she meets. And this is a gospel that I don’t want my pup to ever hear. I don’t want her to hear that other dogs get crumbs from their masters’ tables – she may come to expect some for herself. Like most dogs, Lola wants a bite of everything I have. Some things that she wants are good for her, but there are other things that could hurt her. Anyone who has a dog knows that you can’t trust a dog to desire the things that are good for them.
But what do you desire?
This may feel like a strange question to consider in church because, like Lola, many of us were taught that our desires cannot be trusted. Somehow in learning to honor God and place God above all else, we learned that our hearts cannot be trusted, but they will only lead us astray. We don’t want to become people who care only for themselves and will run over anything and anyone in their way, so we decide not to trust what we want. Yet today, we have two stories in front of us, all about desire.
As creations of God, which God declared very good, I believe that God has placed desire in our hearts. In his podcast, the Eternal Current, author and worship leader Aaron Niequist points out that for many Christians, the picture of who we are is shaped by the story of Genesis 3, humanity’s fall and the entrance of sin into the world. Yet before that comes Genesis 1, the story of creation, including the creation of humanity in the image of God. While it is true that we are sinful beings who turn away from God, perhaps even more true is that we are the imago Dei. (1)
And so I ask you, what do you desire?
Right now, your desires may be simple, like Lola’s. It may be something like you desire another cup of coffee or lunch. Or it could be big things for you and your family – for cancer in remission, for financial security, for time together. Or maybe you desire the transformation of the world – that all people would have a safe place to live, that everyone could access the healthcare they need or that all people would be free to openly love who they love without fear.
What do you desire?
While we can be self-deceived or led astray in our desires, much of our desire is God-given, but admitting our own desires to ourselves can be scary business. If I know what it is I am longing for, then I am opened up to disappointment if that longing is never realized and I am forced to wrestle with God, just as Jacob wrestled with God in the desert.
Admitting our desires to others can be even more precarious.
Peninnah knew the desires of Hannah’s heart and used them against her. In their world, a woman’s worth was determined by the male children she bore. Bearing sons to their husband, while Hannah did not, Peninnah earned the favored status, at least in the eyes of others, even if her husband preferred Hannah. I wonder if Peninnah’s taunting of Hannah came from her own pain of unmet desire for the affection and regard of their husband.
Elkanah simply dismissed Hannah’s desire, telling her to just be grateful for what she has – him. When he asks “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he diminishes her desires. Dr Valerie Bridgeman, professor of homiletics and Hebrew Bible wrote, “His love, it would seem, is passionate in spite of her inability to produce an heir, the ultimate success of women in a patrilineal, patriarchal society as pre-monarchical ancient Israel was. [Yet], the answer is “no,” he is not better to her than 10 sons, because her honor and security are tied to childbearing.” (2)
If she became a childless widow, like Naomi and Ruth, she would be placed in a perilous situation, dependent on someone to act as her kinsman-redeemer.
And so Hannah took her desires to the temple of the Lord. Yet while she took this God-given desire and laid it at God’s feet, the depths of her desire were misconstrued by the priest, by Eli. He cheapened her anguished longing by calling her drunk.
Looking at Hannah, we could see that desire is dangerous. She is overcome and cannot eat. She spends her time praying fervently that God will grant what she desires. While we are inclined to skip through to the conclusion of her story, this is where we are left today. She has received a blessing from Eli, yet she is still childless and her desires are unmet.
Do you dare admit what it is that you desire?
Sometimes, I am afraid to take the deepest desires of my heart to God because I am afraid of how God will – or will not – respond.
In the Gospels, Jesus is known for asking questions – people have counted over 300 of them and his most frequently asked question is some variation of “What do you want me to do for you?” “What are you seeking?” The Jesus of the Gospels cares about what we desire.
Yet, sprinkled throughout Scripture, we hear the idea that those who do good, those who love God, will be blessed while those who do evil will not. This principle pervades our world’s ideology that you get what you deserve. Jesus’ initial response to the Canaanite woman that we heard earlier makes it sound like she does not deserve to have her desire fulfilled, that she is not worthy to have her daughter healed.
But that is not the whole story of scripture. Perhaps Jesus needs to pay more attention to his own teachings. Just a few chapters ago, Jesus himself taught that it’s not only those who are good enough that are blessed, saying “God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (3)
And just a few verses before what we heard today, Jesus talks about how duties to family are a better measure of a person’s faithfulness to God than their adherence to tradition. Now he met a mother who cares for her child and simply dismissed her request, initially talking past her to the disciples to declare the limits of his mission.
As Biblical scholar Richard Swanson said, “Jesus should listen to himself more often.” Perhaps even Jesus had to learn to live out the Gospel fully.
In this Canaanite mother’s persistence, she made her desire known to Jesus and it was answered. But Hannah’s story is unresolved.
You may know the difficulty of being left without resolution like Hannah, with deep longing for a future that seems like it will never come. You have done everything you can and now you just have to wait, but waiting is difficult. The grief of unmet desire can be debilitating. Fearing the unfeeling responses of others, our longing can become a lonely place. And alone in the waiting, we can begin to question our own desire, whether we are longing for the right thing or if we deserve it. It can make us question ourselves and our worthiness, to the point where our unanswered longings feel like a grave, a place of no hope.
The grave is a terrible place to be, but, as followers of Christ, we proclaim that the grave is not the end. We are a resurrection people, who believe that, when faced with death, God will bring about new life. While the death of Good Friday moves into the seemingly endless Holy Saturday, resurrection will indeed come. We trust in a generous God who can make a way in the wilderness, make the desert burst into bloom.
So what do we do as we wait?
We persist in our asking, not relenting until we have received justice like the persistent widow. We argue for what we know is right like the Canaanite woman. We wrestle with God like Jacob.
We sit in the darkness with others who yearn, ready to hold hope for them when their own hope is waning, so that when the light shines in the darkness, we can remind them that the darkness will not overcome it. We tell these stories of God’s faithfulness, when prayers are answered and desires are filled. And when God finally calls one forth into new life, we are ready to jump forth to unbind them and celebrate, just like Lazarus’ friends outside his tomb.
And so we pray, Grant us faith to believe you will provide a future where we see none, that bitterness may turn to joy, and barrenness may bear life.
(3) Matthew 5:45
Pentecost 4AW: 1 Samuel 1:1-6, 9-18; Psalm 113; Colossians 4:10-17; Matthew 15:21-28