Bargains

Sorry there’s no recording this week!

We’ve heard the first part of this story before. I know. I’ve preached on the first part of this story from this pulpit before.

There was a man named Elkanah, who had two wives: Peninnah and Hannah. In a world where a woman’s worth was measured by the children she bore, Peninnah had many children… and Hannah had none. That didn’t matter to Elkanah. He loved Hannah. But it mattered to Hannah.

So Hannah went to the temple in Shiloh, and she tried to strike a bargain.

“LORD, if you give me a son,” she prayed, “If you give me a son, I will dedicate him to you. I will hand him over to the temple.”

Today, we’re beginning a four week sermon series on prayer. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to look at a few of the prayers in the Bible. We’re going to learn from the prayers of people who came before us. And, hopefully, we will learn how we can be better pray-ers, ourselves.

The scripture that Chris read is Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving. I’ll get to that in a minute. But it starts here, with a kind of prayer we know well. It starts here, with the prayer that tries to strike a bargain. “God, if you just do this thing for me… I will do this thing for you. I will be a better person. I will be who you want me to be.”

I’ve prayed that prayer over big things.

A while before my dad died, while my mom was on a much-needed vacation on the other side of the world, by dad had a trans-ischemic attack (a sort of miniature stroke). There were DNRs and all that, but the dementia unit he was in played it safe and sent him to the hospital and called me.

So I went to Bloomington to hang out with my dad (who I’m not sure remembered me, and who slept most of the time) in a hospital room (where I couldn’t do anything). And I don’t know quite what my dad needed in that time, but I was present. And that counts for something. A pretty good chunk of ministry is just… being there.

I don’t know quite what my dad needed in that time, but what I needed was for him to live a few more days. I didn’t want him to die while my mom was on vacation. So I tried to strike a bargain.

Dad, just a few more days. God, just a few more days. That’s it. A few days. And I will be a better person.

I don’t know if that worked. My dad went back to the dementia unit. He lived a few more weeks. My mom and my brother and I were able to be there with him during his final hours. Maybe God agreed to the bargain.

But I don’t think I’ve become a better person, so…

To be entirely fair, I’ve also prayed that prayer over little things. It is often tempting to try to strike a bargain with God.

I’ve never been in Hannah’s position, desperate for a child and willing to do anything to have one, even give him up to a life in the temple. Maybe some of you have. But whether we have or not, we know this prayer

“God, if you just do this thing for me… I will do this thing for you. I will be a better person. I will be who you want me to be.”

After Hannah strikes her bargain, she has a son, Samuel. He’ll be important. He’ll be a prophet. He’ll play an important role in the creation of the Israelite monarchy and the transition from King Saul to King David. But Hannah doesn’t know that. She only knows that God kept his end of the bargain. So, once he’s old enough—but while he’s still very young—she takes him to the temple in Shiloh and hands him over to God.

And she prays the prayer that Chris read for us this morning. She does notpray, “Thanks be to God… who kept his end of the deal.”

No. She prays about who God is:

My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God… There is no Holy One like the LORD…

The LORD makes poor and makes rich. He brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor…

He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail… The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.

The God who we worship is a God who humbles the powerful and lifts up the lowly. The God who we belong to is a God who guards the feet of the faithful. And here’s the thing: there is no bargain to be struck; there is no deal to be made; there is no trading to do. There is nothing that I can offer to God that will make God do what I want.

Let me say that again: There is nothing that I can offer to God that will make God do what I want.

We live in a world of bargains. We live in a world of deals. We live in a world of transactions. We live in a world where a lot of our prayers begin with, “God, if you just do this thing for me…” and end with, “I will do this thing for you.”

And in that world, it can be hard to imagine another way to pray. Hannah’s prayer shows us another way to pray.

I don’t know if Hannah believed that God had answered her prayers by keeping his end of the bargain. But I think that what happened is that God heard Hannah’s first prayer and knew that she was low. So God did what God does and turned the tables.

I don’t believe that God answered my prayers by keeping her end of the bargain. But maybe what happened is the God heard my prayer and knew that I was low. So God did what God does and turned the tables.

And I know… I need to be careful here. God answered Hannah’s prayers. Maybe God answered my prayers. Maybe God has answered your prayers. But I also know that we all have prayers that have not been answered. I know that we all have prayers that have been answered with a “no”. I know that we have all had those times when we feel like God has disappointed us.

And when we feel like God has disappointed us, it can be hard to see who God is. When we are still low, it can be hard to believe that God lifts us up. When we are sitting in the dust, it can be hard to believe that God raises us up. When we are still in the ash heap, it can be hard to believe that God lifts us up. 

When we are still lost in the darkness and the wilderness—and, especially, when we have been lost for a long time—it can be hard to believe that God is there, guarding our feet, guiding our ways, and walking alongside us.

Hannah was starting from a place of gratitude. Hannah was praying a prayer of thanksgiving. And because Hannah was coming from a place of gratitude—becauseHannah was praying a prayer of thanksgiving—it was easy for her to see who God is.

Hannah does not pray, “Thanks be to God… who kept his end of the deal.”

Hannah’s prayer would be true if God kept his end of the deal. Hannah’s prayer would be true if God hadn’t kept his end of the deal. Hannah’s prayer would be true if there was no deal, if God simply had mercy for a woman who was desperate for a son.

And there’s beauty in that. When God has lifted us up, when God has raised us out of the dust, when God has lifted us out of the ash heap, we can pray Hannah’s prayer as a prayer of thanksgiving. And when we are sitting in the dust, or waiting in the ash heap, or lost in the darkness and the wilderness, we can pray Hannah’s prayer as a reminder of the hope that waits for us.

Because that hope is also true. Thanks be to God!

Let us pray:

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.

There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.

Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.

The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.

The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.

The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed. Amen.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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