Sermon: "Broken Dreams Before Not-So-Silent Altars" ~ 1 Samuel 1
Note: This sermon was preaching at a Wednesday Evening Bible Study at Bruce Outreach Center in Westernport, MD.
One of those stories which has wormed its way into our public consciousness is Les Miserables. Most of us know the story, whether it’s in a film, the smash Broadway musical, or the book, for those brave enough. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict once imprisoned for theft, and his lifelong journey of redemption. One of the key turning points in his life is when he is entrusted with the care of an orphan girl named Cosette. He devotes his life to raising her and loving her as if she is his own child. During his last visit with her, after many years apart, he says, “I thought I would never see her again….I was saying to myself: It is all over. There is her little dress, I am a miserable man, I will never see Cosette again, I was saying that at the very moment you were coming up the stairs. Wasn’t I silly?…But we reckon without God. God said: You think that you are going to be abandoned, idiot? No. No, it shall not come to pass like that. Come, here is a poor man who has need of an angel. And the angel comes; and I see my Cosette again! And I see my darling Cosette again! Oh! I was very miserable!” It sounds like something Hannah might say in our passage today.
Hannah reclines at the dinner table with her family. Her husband, Elkanah, prays over the meal: “Oh Lord of hosts, we thank you for your gifts to us. Thank you for my wives, my children, and the promises you have made to our people. You have given us this feast, here at your Temple. May it strengthen us and keep you in our minds.” He then begins to slice the tender, juicy meat of the sheep they had sacrificed that day at the Temple of Shiloh. He carefully places each succulent lamb chop on a plate beside bread, nuts, and figs. He passes each plate to his wives and children. Everyone notices Hannah’s plate is larger than the others, especially catching the jealous eye of Peninnah. She begins to go around the table, asking every one of her children whether they are enjoying their meal. Each time she asks, she glances at Hannah, waiting for her reaction. Hannah bites her lip, holding back tears. The family’s annual pilgrimage to Shiloh is not the time to make a scene. She merely stares, not looking at any of the children. She stares at those who are not there, children she thinks she will never see.
Peninnah draws her attention back to the table. “Hannah, if you aren’t going to eat that, my children could certainly use it.” Elkanah touches Hannah’s arm with his hand. “Hannah, aren’t you going to eat something?” he asks. Hannah replies, “I’m not hungry.” “Well then, there is enough for my children to have seconds,” Peninnah retorts. Hannah can’t hold in in any longer. Tears begin to pour from her eyes. “Every. Single. Year,” she whispers between her sobs. “Oh Hannah, aren’t I enough?” Elkanah says as he puts his arm around her. Hannah kisses his cheek, but everyone sees the tears still in her eyes. She whispers to herself, “But am I enough?”
The next day, she goes to the Temple before their journey home the next day. She says nothing to the priest by the door as she enters. Instead, she collapses before a silent Ark of the Covenant. She looks up at the silent altar and begins to plead to God as if she sees him sitting there: “You’ve done it before. Sarah was old, but you gave her Isaac. You opened Rebekah and Rachel’s wombs. Remember me too. Deliver me from this evil. I can’t even give my husband a son. Who will care for me in my old age? What do I have to give you besides these broken dreams? I know you have all the resources you need at your disposal. Give me a son and I will give him to you.” Still, the altar is silent.
As we listen in on Hannah’s prayer, it is easy to admire her vow. A great preacher in the 4th century, John Chrysostom praises her: “She was unremitting in prayer and supplication, and what was most remarkable of all, showing in particular her love for God, was the fact that she was not simply anxious to have this very child for herself but to dedicate the fruit of her womb to God, offer the first fruits of her own womb and receive the reward for this fine promise.” We admire her vow, but her prayer sounds like many of us. Broken dreams before silent altars.
I think of a man like Robin Williams. Here is a beloved comedian and actor. He seems to have everything, talent, money, fame, a family. All of that comes to an end with the presence of Lewy body dementia. Faced with a future of paranoia, delusions, depression, memory loss, and the certain loss of his comedic art, he took his own life. His wife said, "Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it ... He kept saying, 'I just want to reboot my brain.'"
Broken dreams before silent altars. It seems they’re all around us. The diagnosis from the doctor. The children who fall short of the hopes we had for them. The massive credit card bill in the mailbox. The end of a life at a young age. The pink slip from a boss. The divorce papers on the dining room table. Broken dreams before silent altars. We all know what that feels like. What are yours? What are your broken dreams before silent altars?
And we wonder, “Where is God? Has He forgotten about me?” We spend hours of our days praying, but our cancer is still there. Our children continue to make train wrecks of their lives. Our bank accounts are still oppressed by debt. Our loved ones are still in the ground. Our jobs are still terminated. Our spouse still hasn’t come back home. God seems to have left us there. Broken dreams before silent altars. He seems to not be listening. Broken dreams before silent altars. He seems to have forgotten about us. Broken dreams before silent altars.
Hannah continues her own prayer, mouthing the words she says in her heart. The priest, Eli, notices her. He briefly glances outside. He notices his son, flirting with another one of the women visiting the Temple. He sighs. Broken dreams before silent altars. At least he can take care of this woman. Eli quickly makes his way over to Hannah, still silently blubbering out her prayer. “Ma’am,” he says, “it’s early in the day and you’re in the house of God. Why do you feel the need to come here drunk?”
“I’m not,” Hannah stammers. “I just HAVE to pray. I haven’t had anything to drink. There is no where else for me to go with this pain.” Eli smiles at her and, in his voice, the altar breaks its silence: “Go in peace.” So they journey home, but it seems the voice of the not-so-silent altar is loud enough to be heard miles away. Eli does not see her again for several years. When he does, she is carrying a young boy with curly brown hair named Samuel. Her husband hands Eli the reigns of a bull, ready to be sacrificed to thank God for this child. Eli takes the bull to the altar and sacrifices it there himself, sprinkling the blood on the ground. Then Hannah says to Eli, “God has given me the son I asked for because He is kind. And now, God takes Samuel back as his own. God did not leave him with me very long, but I know He has plans and dreams for him.”
God certainly does have plans and dreams for this young boy we know as Samuel. In a day when even the priests do not listen to God, God speaks to Samuel. In a day when no one hears from God, God gives Samuel His words for all His people. In a day when there is no one to lead God’s people, God sends Samuel to anoint a young boy named David with a promise to give him a throne that lasts forever. And one day, when God enters the world Himself, He comes as a child of David, as heir to the throne that lasts forever. We celebrate the birth of that child every Christmas. We know Him as Jesus. You see, when God gives to Hannah the son she asked for, he isn’t just answering her prayer. He is preparing the world for the day He would step into it. He doesn’t just give Hannah Samuel. He gives everyone His very self.
He already began to answer our prayers when He gave Samuel to Hannah. His work in her life still speaks to us. Preacher John Chrysostom said, “she experienced the Lord’s lovingkindness….the remedy for that depression depended not on human help, but on divine grace.” He is preparing to take our broken dreams before silent altars on Himself, to die on that altar as a once-and-for-all sacrifice and to rise to give us peace. He still speaks. He is our not-so silent sacrifice on the not-so-silent altar.
I think of another man with dementia, my grandfather. God called him to be a pastor at a young age, a call he fulfilled for nearly 60 years until his death. The last days I spent with him are as vivid as if they are happening now. He sits in his green recliner, rocking back and forth, looking at the empty couch across from him, smiling at the person he thinks is sitting there. And he says, “Do you know Jesus?” He smiles when he hears that the person does, in fact, know Jesus. In his delusions, God is there, vividly bringing the good news of Jesus. In his broken dreams before not-so-silent altars, God is speaking to him, encouraging His scared child. “Go in peace.”
In today’s text, God is not promising to give you everything you pray for. What he does promise is the fact that He is actively at work, creating peace and hope, even out of broken dreams before not-so-silent altars. Today, God says, “‘You think that you are going to be abandoned? No. No, it shall not come to pass like that.’ In your cancer, I am showing the world what faith in Jesus looks like. Go in peace. In the train-wreck of your child’s life, I love her as a Father. Go in peace. In your debt, I am generous. Go in peace. In the death of your loved ones, I am sowing the seeds of resurrection. Go in peace. In the loss of your job, I am calling you to something else. Go in peace. In your divorce, I stick by you. Go in peace. I hear your prayers and child, I have plans and dreams for them. I’m not going to give you just what you ask for. I’m giving you me. Go in peace.”
As we come here with our broken dreams, we come to a not-so-silent altar. God still speaks, though not in the way we expect. When He speaks, He invades our world to never leave. He speaks hope and life whether we are listening or not. And His voice can be heard miles away from this not-so-silent altar. So friends, may the living Jesus invade your broken dreams before not-so-silent altars. Go in peace.