Sunday, November 15, 2015

His, Ours, and Mine: the Pronouns of our Praise, 1 Samuel 2:1-10

I began the sermon by telling the story of 1 Samuel 1. If you want to hear my rendition you can go and listen to it at Otherwise, I encourage you to read chapter one before you read what's below.
2 Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the Lord;
    my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies,
    because I rejoice in my victory.
“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 barren has borne seven,
    but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
    he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
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.
10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
    the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
    he will give strength to his king,
    and exalt the power of his anointed.”

What does this song of praise teach us?

1.     The praise of one is hope for all.
There are six initial “my”s in verse one (my heart, my strength, my God, my mouth, my enemies, my victory) that quickly end and shift to broader pronouns, like ours, and peoples, like the poor and barren, and ultimately gives way to global and heavenly praise. What’s interesting is that scholars have noticed that vs. one is the only original piece of this song and that the other nine verses are a royal psalm of thanksgiving that appears in some form at numerous points throughout the Old Testament (2 Samuel 22:2-7, 28, 51; Psalms 113, 45, 72; Luke 1:46-55). In other words, this might initially have been Hannah’s praise but it was never simply her song. It was always “theirs.” She appropriates a song already known in Israel; a song that had already been sung by others.

The praise of the people of God is always personal but never individualistic or solitary. It’s always meant to be public. It’s always about God’s care and love for people and aims to encompass promises for everyone. And this is important because I have to say that I often wince a little at these types of songs, this type of praise, in which God is heralded as the almighty because God has intervened in a particular situation. Please hear me. I’m not saying that I doubt God’s almighty power or love. It’s just that my cynicism and experience with my own hurt and the unanswered prayers of others often makes me want to say to the Hannah’s, “We’ll that’s great for you but what about me? What about them? What about their barrenness? Why haven’t I been raised up?” And Hannah responds, “Sing with me.” We need to be reminded that Israel’s song, our song, my song, is that, as it says in vs. 9, “He will.” He will come through. He will make things right. He will. And we need the Hannah’s in our midst to bear witness to the fact that what they have experienced miraculously in the present, by God’s sheer grace, is what will be shared by all. When my father called and told me that my mom had cancer, so many years ago, I wept out of terrible fear that my mom would soon be gone. My friend Elaine May came to me and said, “Jon, I have good news. My mom had cancer over ten years ago and she survived it and is currently alive today. Let my mom be your mom.” She was saying, “Let my hope be your hope. My victory be your victory.” That’s what songs like Hannah’s do – they allow the joy and praise of others to help us have hope.

That’s always been God’s way of offering goodness – the election of Israel was never meant to be divine favoritism it was always meant for the nations (Genesis 12:3). We need to be reminded that Hannah’s gift was given for a reason more than her own happiness and she sings this song not upon becoming pregnant but when she gives her son away to God for the service of others.  Praise, in other words, always comes with a purpose. Friends, what we say of God matters for everyone, what we thank God for should be available to everyone, because this God is not first and foremost “my” God or even our God. This God, Hannah reminds us, is simply God – there is no other. So our praise is meant to buoy those who have no reason to give praise and what we praise should be understood as signposts of God’s judgment that will eventually come to the “ends of the earth,” vs. 10.

What am I trying to say? Little kids say “mine” and want to claim ownership, control, and sole rights for whatever they want. This is “my toy,” “my cake,” “my candy,” etc. And we all know, sometimes painfully, that someone’s “mine” may not be “ours.” That someone’s “mine” is stated to cut others out. Of course, I know a few adults who think this way as well. Hannah’s song – her personal story of miraculously giving birth which quickly which moves to broader blessings for the world reminds us we need to reverse our thinking. It’s His world, the song declares  – it’s about global redemption not simply about personal salvation. And what’s His he graciously allows us to call “ours” and, in the end, “mine.”

This is why we need story sharing because the story of God’s goodness that someone experiences in the present may not be ours today but it can be “ours” in the present, and “mine” in the end. What brings us hope is that all of God’s gifts may not be fully present but they are on their way. So what praise do you need to offer today which might give someone else hope for tomorrow? We need your stories to sing!

2.     The praise of One is a challenge for some.

In the first point, the praise of the one referred to Hannah and then to us but now it shifts to God. And God is the main subject, the object and the actor of this hymn (vss. 6-10). This God has the power to transform reality and the willingness to intervene. God is the incomparable one, the rock (vs. 2), the truly knowledgable one (vs. 3), the great demoter and promoter (vss. 4-8), and the lord over life and death (vs. 6). 

Praise of God acknowledges that God is not distant but active in our midst and that this God addresses us, makes demands of us. And this should be where we find ourselves a bit more sober. In vs. 3 Hannah’s hymn reminds us that praise is also about how we behave and the song admonishes us to guard ourselves against pride and arrogance. Why? Because what puts us on the wrong side of God, or places people’s lives in jeopardy, is not thankfulness per se but pride. It’s when we think we can do life on our own or blame others solely for their own fate. Pride is the killer of praise and at root to what the Bible means by “injustice.” Beware! We should heed Hannah’s warning to Eli, “Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman . . .” (1 Samuel 1:16).

We need praise because otherwise we feel that we are the authors of our own success and we think that we are untouchable. And it is often “untouchable people” who believe they can get away with anything. If God is sovereign – then watch out, particularly when you credit your success to yourself. If we listen to the song, maybe there is nothing more dangerous than to say, “Look, I did it all by myself.”

What follows then is a recounting of a series of stunning reversals that no one could have predicted or enacted: upending military might, overturning biological destiny, toppling the problems of poverty and exploitation of the poor and even the issue of death itself. These are God’s actions, God’s will in motion – and frankly it’s a reminder that God’s fierce love is a bit scary. It reminds me of the dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and the children in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe

“Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King. I tell you.”

For many of us there is also a struggle here – but isn’t life complicated, we ask? Does every bringing down and raising up happen at God’s whim? And we want our praise songs filled with footnotes. Now the Bible is a complicated book and even Jesus acknowledges complicated agencies of people, circumstances, events, etc. But, what the Bible acknowledges in its praise, the songs that we are given to sing, tells us something very important. God will not allow even complexity to stand above him. And this God will bring justice, he will help the poor, the shamed, the broken, and so we who sing his songs better do so as well. We are never commanded to understand God – we are, however, to trust him and praise him.

3.     The praise of One is about where you stand.

What would lead God to do this? Why does God answer Hannah?  Why does he help the poor, the weak, and the dying? What motivates this God? In Hannah’s song one preposition makes all the difference - “for.” In that word “for” the hope of God’s people – the hope of the entire world -  and the power of God are forever joined! God will do this, the song reminds us, not because we are good but because the world belongs to him. As Emma and Bob sang, “All the earth is yours.” What this means is that our end is not predicated primarily upon our behavior, though God takes that seriously. It’s predicated on God. This God – the song declares “will judge the ends of the earth” and “judgment” is the Biblical way of saying, sometimes delightfully and sometimes painfully, “What God wants, God gets.”

And this God, the song declares, will “guard the feet of his faithful ones.” Notice that it doesn’t say “successful ones.” We aren’t called to be successful, we are called to be faithful – faithful to the One on whom our success hangs. But why feet? Why not heads or hands or hearts? Maybe good rock climbing technique can help us understand. 

When you first begin climbing people tend to overgrasp – to use their hands and forearms primarily to secure themselves to the wall or to rock – they think that this is where their strength lies and where control is best found. But anyone who has climbed for a while understands a different reality – that your most trusted asset and strongest tools are your feet. Good climbing is won or lost with feet and good climbers will always shout out to one another, “Trust the feet.” In this context of praise, “to trust the feet” is to recognize that what you stand upon is much stronger than your own ability to hold on. It’s to understand that your security is not based upon your weapons, whether personal or national, your fate is not determined by what’s natural or biological, your livelihood is not secured by wealth and ability – your life is not guarded by what you can grasp. It’s guarded by him. So what determines your life is not what you hold on to but who you stand with, the sovereign God. This God will win.

And to stand with God is to stand with God’s anointed. The song ends with the promise of God’s anointed – God’s means of judging the earth. And where does this anointed stand? With the feeble, the barren, the poor, the outcasts, those whose lives needed help – he came for the sick, he said. So where should we stand? Where should we set our feet? With God’s anointed and who will that have us standing with – those in need. When we praise we are reminded that our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Jesus is God’s judgment and certainly we can give God praise for that.

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