October 30, 2011

Courageous Mothers

I want to start out this morning with a question: how many of you are sitting in this room because of the faithfulness of your mothers?  The reality of our present culture is that more often than is right, dads abdicate their great spiritual responsibility and let moms worry about those kinds of things.  For a lot of folks in this nation and I would even wager this church, they have what faith they do because of the influence of their mom.  The likelihood that a family with a mom who does not seek to be intentionally honoring of God is itself going to be honoring of God is slim.  And so, as we continue our series, Courageous Families, this morning, I want to focus our attention on the role moms play in leading families to pursue the diligent faithfulness necessary to honor God.  I want to talk about this with the help of a story.  It is the story of a mom whose faithful obedience to the life God called her to has literally changed the world.  And I’m not talking about Mary.  Instead, I want to tell you the story of a mother who was not even in the family lineage of Jesus.  As we work our way through it, we are going to see just what exactly is the role moms can play in creating God-honoring families.

As we get into this woman’s story there are a few things you need to know.  She was married, but she didn’t have any children.  This was a problem in her day because there had to be a son to carry on the family name.  Culturally, when a man’s wife couldn’t bear him a son, he could take on another wife for this purpose.  Well, this woman’s barrenness had lasted many years and so her husband did in fact take on a second wife.  Besides all of the obvious strife this would have introduced into the family, this new wife got pregnant with ease and soon bore the man several children.  To make matters even worse, she taunted our heroine because of her barrenness.  And her husband was no help.  Oh he loved her alright, he showered her with favoritism, but he just couldn’t understand the depth of her anguish.  “Am I not of more worth to you than ten sons?” he would ask when trying to cheer her up.

That’s a rough beginning of a story.  You know, most stories begin with everything going well for the main characters.  But that’s not real life.  Thankfully, the Bible isn’t shy about portraying life in all its grim reality.  In any event, what we learn right off the bat here is that this woman didn’t have any children while her husband’s other wife did.  As we have talked about before, a woman’s value in the ancient world was directly connected to her ability to bear her husband children and specifically sons.  Thus, if a woman could not have children for whatever reason, she was seen as cursed by God and stripped of what little cultural value she did have.  The blight of barrenness was a big deal then.

Yet not only was this woman dealing with barrenness, but her rival wife regularly reminded her of this fact.  Worse still, the other woman would lay on an especially thick layer of taunting when they went to Shiloh to worship as a family.  You can almost hear her biting words in the text: “Our husband may favor you, but God clearly doesn’t.  Someday he is going to wake up to just how worthless you actually are and give me the love that I have earned by my fertile womb.”  Almost harder than her words was the painful fact of the second wife’s presence.  She served as a constant reminder of our heroine’s failure in her duties as a wife.  And as if all that weren’t bad enough, again, her husband was clueless.  They were all gathered at the worship barbeque—people would bring a sacrifice like a lamb or a bull, offer the fat and entrails as a burnt offering to God, butcher off a slab of ribs and a roast or two to feed the priests, and have a feast with the rest—she was looking miserable and he had the nerve to ask why she’s upset.  This makes him a double bozo because 1.  It indicates he knew about the mistreatment she received at the mouth of the second wife and did nothing about it, and 2. he’s dumb enough to think that saying something like, “Am I not of more worth to you than ten sons?” is going to make her feel any better.  I’m sure part of her wanted to scream: “Of course you’re not better to me than ten sons.  The reason for my misery is my inability to produce a son for you.  If you were really better than ten sons you wouldn’t have taken her as your wife in the first place!”  Come on, ladies, even if you weren’t violent by nature, how many of you would be rolling up your sleeves to knock your dopey husband for a loop right about now?

This woman was in a rough spot in her life.  And yet, where did she turn?  Did she get bitter?  Did she respond to her rival’s taunts in kind?  Did she pop her husband in the mouth and tell him where he could take his extra portion of meat?  No.  She didn’t do any of those things.  The text tells us that she regained her composure and ate with the family.  She took part in the worship experience and carried on with life faithfully.  But, she also did one thing further than this: “Then she pulled herself together, slipped away quietly, and entered the sanctuary.”  She didn’t take out her pain and frustration on the people around her, she took them to God.  She entered and once there, let loose the torrent of her emotions on God.  “Crushed in soul, [she] prayed to God and cried and cried—inconsolably.  Then she made a vow: Oh, God-of-the-Angel-Armies, If you’ll take a good, hard look at my pain, If you’ll quit neglecting me and go into action for me By giving me a son, I’ll give him completely, unreservedly to you.  I’ll set him apart for a life of holy discipline.”

Think for a minute about what she’s doing and saying here.  First, it sure seems like she’s bargaining with God.  We have all been taught and the Bible seems to make pretty clear that bargaining with God is a risky proposition.  Yet out of the depth of her emotional turmoil she takes the risk.  Indeed, what else does she have to lose?   As an aside, not all attempts to trade human fidelity for divine action are bad.  God knows the heart of the one making the request and can’t be goaded into anything He doesn’t want to do.  It is better to be honest with God out of the depth of our brokenness than it is to try and hide from Him what is really in our heart.  Second, consider the weight of her promise.  The thing she wants more than anything else in the world is a son and she is promising that if God gives this to her she will give it right back to Him.  What on earth is the point of asking God for something you intend to give right back?  This is the subject of another sermon, but for now, such a request/intention pairing might be the result of an incredible level of gratitude.  Third, look at the title she uses for God.  The Message translates it “God-of-the-Angel-Armies.”  This is more familiarly translated “Lord of Hosts.”  It is literally “Yahweh of the Armies.”  This is a military title for God.  It reflects His absolute power and might and sovereignty.  Why would she address God in this manner?  I’d wager that not many in this room have addressed Him similarly when you’ve come to Him with a complaint or a desperate plea.  Our tendency is to appeal to the merciful, loving, caring God.  Not the God who can wipe out His enemies with a single thought.  Yet, the God we serve is one and the same.  He is tender, caring, and compassionate, but at the same time He is unapproachable in holiness, unequaled in power, and unparalleled in sovereignty.  She is recognizing God as sovereign over all things including her barren womb.  She is making a request to the man in charge to affect a change in her circumstances.  And if He will respond with faithfulness, so will she.

Well, the senior priest who was sitting in a place of honor at the entrance to the sanctuary watching all this happen was apparently unaccustomed to such an emotional display of worship before the Lord (and given that folks then understood the idea of the Warrior God better than the Buddy Jesus God this is no surprise), and so he condemns her for drunkenness.  This charge came out of the fact that she came to the sanctuary from the worship barbeque going on outside.  He even goes so far as to coondemn her as worthless—the very state of value she was seeking desperately to change.  Consider the courage it took for her to stand up for herself rather than wilt in the condemning glare of this godly man.  She protests that she’s not drunk, but rather “a woman hard used.”  Literally, she identifies herself as a “tough-spirited woman.”  In other words, she has faced a lot in life and is still moving forward with faith that God is going to take up her cause.  There is certainly a sense of brokenness here, but this is co-mingled with strength.  She describes herself further as crying out to God from the depth of her unhappiness and pain.  Another translation would have her identifying herself as irritable and provoked by God.  With these words she was putting herself in the same category as folks like Job.  She’s not just weepy, oh-woe-is-me sad here.  She’s hurt and angry, she doesn’t see any reason for it, and she’s going to do something about it.  Let’s be honest: She’s using some language here that probably makes some of us uncomfortable.  You just don’t talk to or about God like this.  Yet here it is.  Now, this could be a place where something negative is simply being presented without negative editorial comment for the purposes of story continuity.  But, the context of Scripture-at-large puts her squarely in the camp of those faithful few who were seeking God to such a degree that they were able to be totally honest with Him even if it was ugly.  And to a person when they were able to honor God with the gift of their whole self, He returned the favor.  As a bonus, He usually granted their request.

As it turns out He does so in this situation.  The next morning the family worshiped together one last time and returned home.  The text tells us that the husband slept with his wife and “God began making the necessary arrangements in response to what she had asked.”  The more literal form of this is “God remembered her,” but that phrase connotes something passive in our minds.  In the ancient Hebrew mind, to remember something was to actively bring it to the forefront of one’s consciousness and to create an environment in which it couldn’t be forgotten.  This is so cool.  Everything here begins and ends with God.  Indeed, if we are going to have God-honoring families, this must necessarily begin and end with God.

Well, the woman’s pregnancy goes fine and she delivers a healthy baby boy.  And once she weaned him (which in this culture happened between ages two and three), she honored her promise by taking him to Shiloh where he was to stay.  A great worship celebration accompanied this joyous, but painful, promising keeping event.  By the way, let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that it was somehow easy for her to now give up her only son regardless of what she promised God.  This would be like Lisa and I giving Noah up or Barrett and Staci giving up Izzy or Dan and Angie giving up Hannah or April and Mike giving up Lane or Crystal and Curtis giving up Allen.  I think they would all agree with me in making it clear that you can have my son (or daughter) when you pry him from my cold, dead hands.  Yet give she does out of her diligent faithfulness.  Making this even more difficult was the fact that senior priest’s sons who were carrying on the family business, so-to-speak, had turned Shiloh into a spiritual sewer.  The text says that they “were a bad lot.  They didn’t know God and could not have cared less about the customs of priests among the people.”  They were putting on a mild show of religiousness and yet flagrantly scooping—not merely skimming—off the top of the church budget for their own needs.  Later we are told that they would use their power and position to abuse their female co-workers.  And yet give she does out of her diligent faithfulness, in confidence that God is going to do something good with this incredible gift.

So then, let’s get to the question that led us into this story in the first place: what part can moms play in the shaping of God-honoring, courageous families?  What does this story in particular add to this conversation?  Well, I see six principles here that I think highlight the answer for us.  First, this woman possessed a keen awareness of her great need for God.  Consider the beginning of her story again.  It is hard for me to think of a more convincing scenario in which a woman has been pushed to the brink of herself than this story does.  Yes, another woman’s story might contain great degrees of physical turmoil which is terrible, but come on: a woman’s greatest emotional and relational need is to know that she has value.  Everything in her life from her barrenness to the emotional abuse of her abundantly fertile rival wife to the loving cluelessness of her husband were cultural signal flares proclaiming her utter worthlessness.  Her husband would have been both legally and culturally entitled to throw her out on the side of the road like a piece of trash.  And yet instead of collapsing in on herself, buying into the lies of her culture, embracing the bitterness she surely felt, and turning this fury on those around her, she turned to God out of her great need.

Second, this woman didn’t try to be someone she wasn’t.  Let me explain what I mean.  The obvious truth here is that she wasn’t happy with her circumstances.  I think we can all agree that they were terrible.  Accepting who you are doesn’t mean you have to pretend that everything is okay when it isn’t.  We live in a culture today that crams into the minds of people from children on up that in order to be happy and of value you have to pretend that you are someone other than you really are.  Women get told a thousand times a day in a thousand different ways that who they are isn’t good enough.  Godly mothers understand who they are as a function of their unique creation by God.  And they don’t let the circumstances of their life impact or define this identity.  Here’s the truth moms: if you aren’t content with your identity and your value, there’s no way on earth you are going to be content with the identity and value of your family or its members.  There’s nothing God-honoring about that.

Third, she was honest with God and cried out to Him out of her place of greatest need.  One of the lessons taught in the church today with unfortunate frequency is that we should only come before God when things are going well.  We take the same drive to present ourselves as calm, cool, and collected to the world around us to our relationship with God.  We rarely come to the point of honestly sharing our heart with Him.  Mothers dedicated to raising God-honoring families break from this trend and come to God from out of their places of need.  What they are acknowledging here is a belief that God is big enough to handle their darkest issues.  Only those with a heart willing to trust by faith in God’s righteous character are able to pour themselves out similarly, thus establishing an important pattern for their families to follow.

The next two principles go together: she recognized and praised God for His actions on her behalf and honored the promises she made to Him.  When this woman poured her heart out to God even to the point of bargaining with Him, God responded.  He gave her the son she pled for with such desperation.  The temptation for many of us at this point would be to push God back to the sidelines since we have received what we sought.  But she didn’t.  The centerpiece of her story is actually an incredible song of praise in which she eagerly gives God the glory He is due.  But she didn’t stop there.  She had made a promise to God and she kept it.  Godly mothers recognize that if they make a promise to God, they keep it no matter what.  No matter the cost, they keep it with the faith that God honors those who honor Him by keeping their word.  This kind of a wife and mother is possessed of a diligent faithfulness that will bear fruit in her family.

The final principle is perhaps the most difficult of the bunch.  She put her family back in God’s hands.  I just hinted at this by talking about her keeping her promise to God, but this goes one step further.  One of the rules experienced hikers know and follow with near religious devotion is that you don’t get between a mother bear and her cubs.  God creates mothers with a special concern for their families.  Fathers love their families, but in a way different from mothers.  Mothers very naturally want to protect their families and guard them against everything, including God.  The tough truth of our families, however, is that they are not ultimately ours.  They are a gift from God of which we are but stewards.  He is entitled to take them back any time He chooses.  Godly mothers, mothers who are diligently set on leading their families to honor God in every way actively give their families back to God.  How this happens depends on the situation.  It can be as dramatic as taking a child to a monastery to be raised as a servant of God, but my guess is God doesn’t call many to that.  More often it is the active acknowledgement to God that He is sovereign, that your family is His to do with as He pleases, and that you are set on facilitating that in any way He has equipped you.  Godly mothers diligently put their families in the hands of God because of their confidence they are better off there than anywhere else.

Now at this point in the message, you might perhaps be wondering who this woman is we’ve been talking about all morning.  The woman’s name is Hannah.  Her husband’s name was Elkanah and the priest’s name was Eli.  For you Biblical scholars who are already putting two and two together, her precious little boy was named Samuel.  Samuel went on to become the last and greatest judge of the people of Israel.   He led the people out of the period of spiritual darkness described at the end of the book of Judges.  If you’ll recall, he was the judge who anointed David, establishing the royal lineage that led right to the feet of Christ.  Growing up to be a devoted follower of God who could lead a whole nation to return to Him in such an environment as was present in Israel during the period between Joshua’s death and the reign of David was no easy task.  Samuel grew up in a cultural environment that was not so different from what our families dwell in today.  A whole lot of folks gave following God what the culture said was their due diligence, but truly faithful, God-honoring families were the exception, not the rule.  For Samuel, God certainly did the work to see Him become who He did and generally to keep His plans for human history on target, but how did He do it?  He did it through a faithful mother.  He did it through a mom like Hannah who practiced a diligent faithfulness.  The same diligent faithfulness Moses described to the people of Israel.  It was no accident that Samuel grew to be who He did.  We don’t know Elkanah’s role in Samuel’s life, but given the cultural circumstances it probably wasn’t great.  What we do know, however, is that he had a diligently faithful mother who was possessed of the kinds of character traits that radically increased the likelihood of his turning out as he did.

Here’s the takeaway from all of this:  Diligently faithful moms can produce diligently faithful families.  Moms: you are important to the kingdom beyond your imaginations.  You have the opportunity to have a direct hand in seeing the kingdom made manifest on this earth through your faithfulness.  Diligently faithful moms can produce diligently faithful families.  Though the Messiah has already come, who knows what may result from your diligent faithfulness.  Hannah could not have guessed that her son would anoint any king, let alone the most important king in the history of the nation save his descendent.  Diligently faithful moms can produce diligently faithful families.  May you follow in Hannah’s footsteps and experience her blessings.