A little over a year ago, I was talking to a parishioner about my sermon, and he said to me, “Oh yeah, as soon as I heard them talking about a woman in the lessons, I knew that would be what you preached on!” At first I laughed, because he was not wrong. In general, I am often drawn to stories of women in scripture. But the more I thought about his comment, the more I wondered why I am drawn to them. I suspect most people would assume I am drawn to women in scripture because I am a woman. There is probably some truth to that assumption. But the bigger reason I am drawn to women in scripture is because when women are featured in scripture (which is infrequently, and rarely with a name attached), something notable happens. I am not necessarily drawn to those stories because of a sense of camaraderie; instead, I am drawn to those stories because they are a signal – a signal that we should perk up and listen to what dramatic thing is going to happen.
The last few weeks two women have done that for us: last week, Ruth captured our imagination, and this week, Hannah captures our attention. The women capture our attention for different reasons. Ruth is a loyal daughter-in-law, who sacrifices everything to follow Naomi. She endures hardship, discrimination, and uncertainty about her future before her life settles into some sense of normalcy. Hannah, on the other hand struggles with fertility. For any families who have been through the journey of infertility, Hannah’s story probably rips at the tenuously healed hole left in your heart. If you have known infertility, then you probably have known people like the brutal second wife, the clumsy, loving husband, and the clueless priest. For those familiar with grief work, the people in Hannah’s life evoke a basic prayer, “God deliver me from well-meaning friends.”[i]
Now, I could spend all day talking about Hannah’s story this week because her story evokes so many things in us: the grief and trauma of infertility, the pain of those who taunt us, the frustration of misguided counsel, what prayer means and what we believe about unanswered prayers, and even the sacrifices we make with children. But this week, something more macrocosmic has been tugging at me. You see, despite the heart-wrenching, relatable story of Hannah, something much bigger comes out of her story. The miracle child she is given she dedicates to God. After all her suffering and pain, and although God restores her to value within the community through her baby boy, Hannah gives Samuel away. We know she does this because she bargained with God to have a child in the first place. But what is more significant is her child is not just a baby boy. Samuel is one of the most prominent figures in scripture. Samuel is the last judge of Israel, who helps God shepherd in the era of the kings.[ii] And even more prominently, the important king he anoints is the legendary King David.
The same thing happened to Ruth last week. After her dramatic tale, we learn that she is also blessed with a baby boy, who we learn at the end of the book will become the grandfather of (you guessed it!) King David. So in the course of two weeks, we meet the great-grandmother of King David and the mother of Samuel, the judge who will anoint King David. The two women are not contemporaries, but they bear two of the most prominent men in Holy Scripture.
So you may be sitting there thinking, “Okay, we have two stories of two women who produced two important figures in Scripture. Big deal!” But that is just it: this is a very big deal. Holy Scripture could have started both David and Samuel’s stories differently. They could have both started with stories that began, “Once upon a time there was a man named…” But neither of their stories start that way. Through Ruth’s story and Hannah’s story we learn that their beginning – in fact, sometimes their grandfather’s beginning, matters. The tales of these two women are not just idle tales. They are stories with implications that impact generations.
For Ruth, we need to know that David is descendant from Ruth for a few reasons. One, David’s birth from a foreigner (and not just any foreigner, but the detested Moabites!), tells us that not only is our king from an impure lineage – in fact our Messiah, Jesus Christ, comes from that same lineage. Later, when we see Jesus’ ministry expanding to all people, we begin to see the expansion not just one of generosity – but based in Jesus’ very genealogy. Second, Ruth’s parentage is important not just because she is an outsider. Her parentage is important because she is one of the most righteous, faithful, loyal, self-sacrificial exhibitors of loving-kindness we meet in scripture. In fact, her loving-kindness, her hesed, is the akin to the loving-kindness embodied by and attributed to God.
For Hannah, we need to know that Samuel comes out of a place of barrenness. You see, by being the last of the judges, he finds the entire people of Israel are in a place of barrenness. The weight of foreign powers is upon them, they feel a sense of anxiety and abandonment by God, and they long for relief. Samuel offers them the same relief he offered his mother Hannah. Likewise, the monarchy being born in such emotion and in such surrender to God is significant. Samuel’s birth “springs from a place of trust, a place of humility, even a place of mystical union.”[iii] The conditions surrounding Samuel’s birth will shape the tenor of the entire monarchy.
But perhaps more significantly, the stories of these two women are mirrored in stories we will hear later in Advent. Elizabeth also shepherds in a messenger of God – John the Baptist. She bears John in her old age. And just like faithful Ruth, faithful Mary will bear the child of Jesus – a child descendant from Ruth. And what’s more, as we heard the canticle of Hannah today, praising God for the revolutionary thing God is doing through Samuel’s birth, so Mary will sing a song almost identical to Hannah’s, proclaiming the revolutionary thing God is doing through Jesus’ birth.
So why have we walked through these women’s stories? Because our stories matter. The journey we walk, the suffering we face, the challenges we overcome, the people we encounter, the life we stumble our way through matters. All of those things not only shape who we are, but they also shape our understanding of God. That same story also shapes what God does through us. So when we encounter the person whose parents divorced at the same time in life as our parents divorced, we find ourselves in a place to uniquely witness God’s love. When we encounter that person who was infertile or lost a pregnancy like we did, we find ourselves in a place to uniquely witness God’s love. When we encounter that person who lost a parent or a spouse or a child too soon, we find ourselves in a place to uniquely witness God’s love. Our story matters in the ways in which our story can transforms someone else’s story – and even God’s story here on earth.
But our story matters on an even broader level. In Hannah’s song or canticle we heard today, and in Mary’s canticle we will hear in late Advent, we see how God transforms stories into global action. Their canticles are songs of social upheaval, songs of justice. Both talk about how the poor are raised up and the rich are sent away empty. Both talk about how the powerless are raised up to power, and the barren are made prolific. Just a few weeks ago, I talked with our youth about how voting is a Christian action – that our votes as persons of faith reflect our understanding of how the kingdom of God can be enacted on earth. We acknowledged that two Christians might vote quite differently, but the point is that God is not absent from public life, from justice, and from peace. Our stories help us transform the world from a place of anger, division, and mistrust, to a place of respect, dignity, and truth.
I do not know what God is doing in your story. I do not know how God is using you to affect those around you or make an impact more broadly. But what I do know is that God intends you for goodness and invites you to step into that goodness. We know that God does not act in our lives meekly: of the four women we talked about today, we saw barrenness, suffering, isolation, misjudgment, shame, and societal displacement. But through those dramatic stories, God acted dramatically. I suspect God can do powerful things through us too when we let God work through our story. Amen.
[i] Martin B. Copenhaver, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 292.
[ii] Thomas D. Parker, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 296.
[iii] Marcia Mount Shoop, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 292.