Sunday, March 3, 2019

HANNAH, THE MOTHER OF SAMUEL--WHAT IS THE SIZE OF YOUR ROBE?

I think probably every mother, or any woman who wants to be a mother, must feel at least a little bit of empathy with the woman of this story. Her name was Hannah, and her story is this:



Hannah had no children. She was barren. I know that in these days, there are some women who do not want children, but this was almost never the case in those days. Even in those rare cases when a woman really did not want children, if they indeed did have a child, their perspective on this immediately changed. The child to whom they had given birth became their center of existence and the object of all of their joy.

It is this sentiment that I believe a man can never understand fully. I love little babies and little kids as much as any man. It makes me happy to see a little one and it is a great joy for me to hold a little baby in my arms. But my love for these little lives can never compare to a mother’s love. There is a level of love in a mother’s love to which I shall never attain.

Imagine then, the sadness that Hannah felt when she could not get pregnant. Try to imagine the emptiness that she felt when she saw other mothers caring for their little babies and seeing other infants feeding on other mother’s breasts. It was agonizing and heartbreaking for Hannah.

In such anguish was she, that one day, as she was in the temple of the Lord and praying for a baby, the priest saw her lips moving in silence, and thought that she was drunk. He reprimanded her, telling her, “How long will you make yourself drunk? Put away your wine from you!”

But Hannah was not drunk. She had been praying these words: “O Lord of hosts, if you will look on the affliction of your maidservant and remember me. Do not forget me! If you will give your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life.”

Thus, when the priest Eli scolded her for being drunk, she told him that she had not been drinking wine, but that she had instead been pouring her heart out before the Lord.

Hearing this, Eli said to her, “Go then in peace, and may the God of Israel grant your petition.”

Hearing these words, Hannah answered, "Let your maidservant find favor in your sight."

She then rose from where she had been prostrated before the Lord and went on her way. Her face brightened, and she was no longer downcast.

The Barren Woman is Given a Child

If you have been somewhat successful in imagining the anguish of this young woman in being barren, try now to imagine her joy when, some time later, she began to have suspicions that she was pregnant. I am quite sure that when she first thought she might be with child, she did not dare to believe it. When one has been disappointed so often in life, he or she does not easily allow themselves to depend upon the first signs that their dreams have a chance of coming true. However, after several weeks, it became obvious. Hannah was with child.

Then, in her time, she gave birth to the long-awaited and much anticipated child—an infant son. She named him Samuel. “Because I have asked the Lord for him,” she said. The name means, “God has heard.”

Every year the entire family would go up to the house of the Lord to offer their yearly sacrifices and to pay their vow. However, after Samuel was born, Hannah did not want to go.

She told her husband, “After Samuel is weaned, I will bring him. At that time, I will leave him there to fulfill my vow to the Lord. Our son will stay and serve the Lord there.” 

Samuel Presented at the House of the Lord

I do not know how many years she kept the boy at home. Two or three years seems to have been the usual time of weaning a child in those days, but the weaning that Hannah referred to may have meant some additional things as well, so it is difficult to say how old Samuel was when she brought him there. But he was little. He was still a little boy.

In the year that she and her husband brought little Samuel to serve in the temple, they brought with their son also some sacrifices—a tribute of flour and a three-year-old bull. Along with these, they brought something else. Hannah brought a “jug” of wine. This was not a small bottle of wine that you might bring to a dinner party, but a “jug,” and quite a large one at that. The notes that I read said that it could have been as much as six gallons of wine.

This is what Hannah brought to the priest who, when she was praying to the Lord some years earlier, had accused her of being drunk. I do not know if it was common to bring wine for the priests, but this is the only time that this is mentioned in the Bible.

I think that it was Hannah’s gentle way of showing the priest that she was the same woman whom he had first accused of being drunk, but for whom the Lord had answered her prayer.

But if she was showing a little humor and even levity in this act, she was very serious about fulfilling her vow to the Lord. Her prayer shows this. It is like a song: 

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in the Lord.
My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies, because I rejoice in your salvation.
There is no one holy like the Lord, indeed, there is no one besides you.
There is no rock like our Lord… 

The song continues. In it, Hannah expresses her confidence in the strength and power of the Lord, and also in his goodness. God had answered her prayer, and she placed her trust in him. True to her word, when she returned home, her son stayed and served in the house of the Lord. 

A New Robe for a New Year

If you have not already become enthralled by this young woman Hannah, you are about to now. She may have left her child at the house of the Lord, but he never left her heart. Seemingly, she and her husband only made the trip to the temple once a year, and this at the time of the yearly sacrifice. Every year, she would make a robe of the kind that was worn in the temple, and bring it for her son.

I am sure that she looked forward to this event all year. Every year, she would try to guess how big her little boy had grown so the robe that she was making would fit him. Every year she would have to estimate how much he might grow in the following year so that there would be enough “growing room” in the robe. Every year, there was the “fitting.”

“I hope this robe is big enough…and not too big!” 

The priest prayed for her and her husband, saying, “May the Lord give you children in place of the one that you have dedicated to the Lord.”

The Lord did give them more children: three sons and two daughters. We know that no child could ever “take the place” of another, but it certainly must have been a comfort to have other children running around their home. 

Anticipating Growth

That is the story. There are a couple of teachings that can come from this narrative, but I would like to use this illustration of the annual robe that Hannah made for her son to speak of something that is often missing in the lives of Christians. 

When Hannah made the new robe for Samuel every year, she tried to anticipate how he would grow during that year. Perhaps some years, the child did not grow as much as she thought that he might and she made the robe too large for him. However, in other years she may have made it too small. Samuel had grown more rapidly than she had expected.

But presumably, every year Samuel grew. Imagine how disappointed—no, how worried Hannah would have been if she returned at the end of one of the years and saw that Samuel had not grown at all during that year. This would have been extremely upsetting to her.

We expect children to grow. That is what they do. If they do not grow, then we know that something is wrong. 

The Same Robe, Year after Year

Why is it then, that so many Christians do not grow in their spiritual lives? And possibly even more disconcerting, why is it that we do not even think that this is unusual? I do not have any statistics to back up my impressions, but it seems to me that the great majority of Christians in the United States, as well as in other countries where I have lived, never do grow very much in their spiritual lives.

If they are truly Christians, they have learned what it means to believe in the work of Jesus on our behalf for the forgiveness of sins. A new birth has begun. But then they stop. They do not grow. Their understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ never increases; it never develops, and never matures. It stays in an infant stage.

For far too many Christians, their faith means that they go to church a few times in the year, and…well, that is about it! They never study the primary text of the Christian faith, and they never put themselves under the teaching of greater understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

They remain infants. They wear the same robe year after year because they do not grow. Then, because they wear the same old robe, they complain that it is beginning to smell stale. They complain that the Christian life is musty and archaic. For excitement in their lives, they instead look to the world. They are not growing in their Christian lives, so they become more interested in growing in the ways of the world. 

Innocence in the Ways of the World

This was not the Apostle Paul’s advice. He said that we are rather to be blameless and innocent in the ways of the world, and that we be above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. We are to be as lights to a world that needs spiritual guidance (Philippians 3:15).

Being innocent in the ways of the world does not mean that we remain unaware and naïve in this life, but rather our innocence should be in the sense that we remain blameless despite what the present culture of the world is. This type of innocence does not happen by remaining spiritual infants, but can only come about by growth in our understanding.

Paul said, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

That is also what Jesus meant when he told his disciples that when they minister in the world, they would be as sheep in the midst of wolves. “Therefore be shrewd as serpents, but as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

This is not naïveté or gullibility, but instead innocent in the sense that we should remain blameless despite the presence of wolves. 

Are You Waiting for Communicable Virtue?

This maturity comes from effort and from study. It can only come in that way. We cannot catch it from another person as if it were a cold or the flu. Have you ever noticed that it is only the bad things in life that we catch from other people—never the good things? There are communicable diseases, but not communicable virtues. The positive things in life can only be attained by work and dedication.

This was Paul’s desire and constant prayer for the people in the churches where he had worked. For instance, he wrote these words to the people of Colossae: 

Since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may walk in a manner worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:9-10) 

We have to work to grow in spiritual understanding. If we do not apply ourselves to growth, we find that we are wearing the same old robe, year after year. We never allow ourselves to grow, and then we complain that our relationship with God has become stale, like an old smelly garment. 

Our Example of Jesus

When Jesus was a newborn child, he was totally dependent upon his mother for all of his needs. In his humanity, Jesus was not unlike any other baby in the sense of being dependent, even though he was also God incarnate. But of course, Jesus did not stay an infant.

In the gospel of Luke, we read about the time when Jesus was twelve years of age. The family had been in Jerusalem, and when they were on their way home to their own village of Nazareth, Mary and Joseph discovered that Jesus had gone missing. They returned to Jerusalem to look for him, and after frantically searching for him, they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers. He had been there the entire time, “both listening to them and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46).

Even Jesus, in his humanity, entered into studies of faith. He did not stay an infant, but as we read, “The Child continued to grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40 NAS). 

A Life that Grows

All life stagnates if it is not nourished. If we learn anything about our natural environment, it must be this. It is for this reason we give food to our animals and nutrients to our gardens. It is for this reason we ourselves eat. If we did not, we would languish and die.

Yet somehow, despite all of the obvious examples around us, we expect our spiritual lives to thrive, even though we do nothing to nourish it. Our lives will never grow in this way; they will never mature. We will remain spiritual infants, having never grown in our understanding, and never increasing in wisdom.

Paul once complained to some of the people to whom he was writing, “Brothers, I could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but to men of flesh, as to babes in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it” (1 Corinthians 3:2).

This is not how the Christian life is to be lived. It is not how your life is to be lived. A life like that becomes stale and languishes. Rather than that, “We are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ” (Ephesians 4:15) 

“Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2)

“Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18)

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