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Year After Year

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Its amazing what we can learn when we pay attention to the world around us. Sometimes epiphanies come in powerful and unusual ways. I have this vivid memory from almost 10 years ago on Mt. Antero in central Colorado. On these backpacking trips that we take with the teens, we take 3-4 hours on one of the days in the back country and set them out by themselves around our camp site by themselves for time alone in the wilderness with God. I had sat down beside this mountain stream and as I read, I picked up and flicked little bits of bark, pine needles, leaves, and pine cones into the stream in front of me. Over the first bit that I’d been doing that, I hadn’t payed much attention to the bits of nature I was throwing into the stream. At some point though, I looked up and noticed this little swirl in the stream in front of me that was absolutely full of the stuff I’d been tossing in and it just couldn’t seem to escape. It was stuck right there in that swirl, cycling through the same cycle over and over and over. I reached into the water, cleaned the debris out of the swirl there in the water, and began tossing in the bits and pieces again to watch what happened, and sure enough, all the small pieces I threw into the stream got sucked into and trapped in that swirl. As I sat there thinking about it, I wondered how often I’d been pulled into a cycle without even realizing it, how often I ended up going through a cycle day after day after day that I didn’t choose so much as I wound up in- the patterns, habits, attitudes, that I repeat over and over again that don’t help me grow spiritually, don’t help me mature, don’t improve my relationship with God or others, but I keep doing simply because I always have, because I haven’t come up with anything else, or because I haven’t figured out that it isn’t helpful or holy. Today as we begin a new year and a new series in the book of 1st Samuel which is also the LTC book this year, I think it is helpful to examine those cycles, those rhythms, those patterns and habits that we find ourselves in that keep us from going on, going forward, going where we need to in our lives of faith.

1 Now there was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the highlands of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah. He was from the tribe of Ephraim, and he was the son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph. 2 Elkanah had two wives, one named Hannah and the other named Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah didn’t.

3 Every year this man would leave his town to worship and sacrifice to the LORD of heavenly forces in Shiloh, where Eli’s two sons Hophni and Phinehas were the LORD’s priests. 4 Whenever he sacrificed, Elkanah would give parts of the sacrifice to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. 5 But he would give only one part of it to Hannah, though he loved her, because the LORD had kept her from conceiving. 6 And because the LORD had kept Hannah from conceiving, her rival would make fun of her mercilessly, just to bother her. 7 So that is what took place year after year. Whenever Hannah went to the Lord’s house, Peninnah would make fun of her. Then she would cry and wouldn’t eat anything.

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The New Revised Standard Version Samuel’s Birth and Dedication

1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD. 4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8

1 There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.
Year after year. Year after year after year. Hannah hopes for, prays for, begs God for this cycle to end. And yet year after year it doesn’t. Her prayers aren’t answered. She doesn’t find relief. She is continually tormented by someone who has what she wants, who is who she wants to be. Unmerciful insulting and torment that she receives constantly- verbal abuse compounded by the fact that Hannah sees Peninnah receive the very thing Hannah wants. Being stuck like that takes it toll. The burden Hannah bears isn’t one she chose so much as one she found herself under. She’s on a merry-go-round, unable to get off. And after years of this, Hannah becomes more and more desperate. Look in vs 9.
3 Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the LORD of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the LORD. 4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

9 One time, after eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah got up and presented herself before the LORD. (Now Eli the priest was sitting in the chair by the doorpost of the LORD’s temple.) 10 Hannah was very upset and couldn’t stop crying as she prayed to the LORD. 11 Then she made this promise: “LORD of heavenly forces, just look at your servant’s pain and remember me! Don’t forget your servant! Give her a boy! Then I’ll give him to the LORD for his entire life. No razor will ever touch his head.”

She’s at that point where she’s trying to cut a deal with God, making promises contingent on her receiving what she’s praying for. “Give me a son. If you give me a son, I’ll dedicate him to your service for his lifetime.” And so here she is, pouring her heart out. Hannah only sees one way out of this cycle and is aware that God holds that key, and yet no matter how much she asks God for release, she continues life in that trap year after year after year. Her prayers get so desperate that the Priest, Eli, thinks she’s drunk and tries to shoo her out of the Lords House there in Shiloh. And I just want pause and recognize that though the circumstances may not have been identical, many of you understand what it feels like to trapped in that type of cycle, desperately wanting out, begging God for things to change, and yet it seems like nothing does. You understand Hannah. You understand her suffering. You know her pain.
And yet in this encounter with Eli, words of hope are spoken. Eli’s probably not the first person to ever offer a prayer on her behalf- “may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked,” but those words in that setting and from that person provide Hannah enough comfort to eat some food, take some joy, and journey home.
And then scripture says that “The LORD remembered her.” Eventually, Hannah gives birth to a boy named Samuel who she dedicates to God as she promised. God remembers her. God breaks the cycle. And because of God’s inbreaking, Hannah offers up what is one of the most beautiful prayers recorded in scripture.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989), .

2 Then Hannah prayed:

My heart rejoices in the LORD.

My strength rises up in the LORD!

My mouth mocks my enemies

because I rejoice in your deliverance.

2 No one is holy like the LORD—

no, no one except you!

There is no rock like our God!

3 Don’t go on and on, talking so proudly,

spouting arrogance from your mouth

because the LORD is the God

who knows,

and he weighs every act.

4 The bows of mighty warriors are shattered,

but those who were stumbling

now dress themselves in power!

5 Those who were filled full

now sell themselves for bread,

but the ones who were starving

are now fat from food!

The woman who was barren

has birthed seven children,

but the mother with many sons

has lost them all!

6 The LORD!

He brings death, gives life,

takes down to the grave,

and raises up!

7 The LORD!

He makes poor, gives wealth,

brings low, but also lifts up high!

8 God raises the poor from the dust,

lifts up the needy

from the garbage pile.

God sits them with officials,

gives them the seat of honor!

The pillars of the earth

belong to the LORD;

he set the world on top of them!

9 God guards the feet of his faithful ones,

but the wicked die in darkness

because no one succeeds

by strength alone.

10 The LORD!

His enemies are terrified!

God thunders against them

from heaven!

The LORD!

He judges the far corners of the earth!

May God give strength to his king

and raise high the strength

of his anointed one.

Hannah, as a person who understands what it feels like to be the worlds doormat sees the work of God as uprooting the status quo, giving power to those from whom it has been withheld, shutting the mouths of the proud, righting the wrongs of the world. Hannah, who experienced years of God’s silence doesn’t hold those years of unanswered prayers against God. She simply celebrates the work of God. The vicious cycle she was stuck in has been broken by God, she has been set free from her pain.
I think it is important to recognize as we immerse ourselves in passages like this that there are people in our midst who are in the middle of that pain and aren’t seeing a way out. And they are sitting next to people who have been in that spot, have felt that burden, but God broke that cycle. And they’re sitting next to people who are trapped and don’t even realize it. And they are sitting next to people who have yet to spend a moment in that spot in life but at some point will feel as if the burden they carry will crush them. Some may experience all of that and then some.
The lesson I think there for all of us from Hannah, no matter what stage we are at, is that we should cling to hope. Year after year after year. We may feel as if we are greeted with silence, and yet we can still pray, still hope, still beg, still pour our hearts out knowing that our God is a God who remembers us, who knows us, who cares for us, and that moments will come for us in life, maybe tomorrow or maybe in the future, in which we will be able to celebrate the work of God.
Some of us are entering a new year in which we will think we hear from God is silence, and the cycle we want out of will continue for another year
Some of us are entering a new year in which we will continue to be trapped and not even realize the harm
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