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September 8 lesson: Faithful During Grief

September 02, 2019
For the fall quarter, we are using the Cokesbury Adult Bible Study for Fall 2019. It follows the Standard Lesson Quarterly, based on the International Sunday School Lessons (ISSL)/Uniform Series. 

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Faithful During Grief

Fall Quarter: Responding to God’s Grace

Sunday school lesson for the week of September 8, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard


Lesson Scripture: I Samuel 1:1-2:10
Key Verse: I Samuel 1:17

Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”

Lesson Aim: to understand the experience of grief and the important role of prayer as a faithful response to it.

Geographical context
Israel has now settled in Canaan. The city of Shiloh is central in this narrative. It is the first capital of Israel. Shiloh is central to the location of the tribes in Canaan. The time period predates the building of the temple in Jerusalem. Shiloh was one of the main centers of Israelite worship during the pre-monarchic period, since the Tent, Shrine, and Ark of the Covenant were present there. The people made pilgrimages there for major feasts and sacrifices.

Background information regarding worship in Israel
The tabernacle had been built under Moses’ direction from God (Exodus 26) to house the Ark of the Covenant. The tabernacle remained at Shiloh for 369 years. It was at Shiloh that Eli and Samuel ministered (1 Samuel 3:21). According to 1 Samuel 1–3, the sanctuary at Shiloh was administered by the Aaronite high priest Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. According to this account, the young Samuel was dedicated by his mother Hannah there, to be raised at the shrine by the high priest, and his own prophetic ministry is presented as having begun there. Hophni and Phinehas are noted as malicious in their dealings with those who came to the shrine to offer sacrifices (1 Samuel 2:12–17). Resource used

Historical and theological reflection introducing the narrative
Sadly, women were most often treated as property in the O.T. era. To gain an understanding of how difficult it was for the wife to engage in the task of running the household, read Proverbs 31:10-31. The highest purpose given to women in the O.T. was that of childrearing, especially giving birth to a son. If she did not conceive and bear a son her life lost meaning in the community. The religious worldview of the Jewish people can be stated simply: if a person is healthy, prospers, and owns the niceties of life, they live in God’s favor. God is rewarding them for a virtuous life. However, the inverse is also true. If a person is sick, poor, or lacking in some important area of life, God is punishing them. They must have done something to fall out of God’s favor. Consequently, a woman was often given a bill of divorce and sent on her way if she could not bear a son.

Hannah has not given her husband a son. Thus, Hannah is in a state of devastation in the tabernacle. Most likely she participated in a ritualistic meal such as Passover. The narrative does not reveal the season or nature of the meal. Following the meal Hannah stood and began weeping deeply. She undoubtedly was so upset she could not eat. The text reads that she stood after “they” had finished eating. Sobbing is probably the proper word to describe the depth of emotion she feels. She is crying and praying simultaneously. Her weeping would stand in sharp contrast to the joyous meal they were enjoying. Hannah has lost her appetite and the emotional wellspring from within reveals itself. It is difficult in our current culture to fully grasp how worthless Hannah felt. The community would label her a failure, and most likely she believed it. She would have believed she lived outside God’s favor and her barren womb was the penalty she paid.

Her husband Elkanah had another wife named Peninnah who had birthed children. Peninnah taunted Hannah mercilessly. Bullying remains a serious problem in today’s schools. It can also be a problem in the workplace. It is devastating to the victim and strips all self-esteem and self-worth away. Hannah is being bullied, and horrifically. Her prayer is a desperate prayer. The emotion the reader senses from the text is that Hannah has borne all the taunting, cultural shaming, and judgement a person can stand. Her emotions are unraveling and she stands before God with a broken heart, pleading for God to bless her with a son. Though Elkanah loved Hannah, he lived disconnected from her pain. In 1:8 we can hear this emotional disconnect. Elkanah asks, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted?” The last question he asks in his questioning of Hannah reveals just how severe the emotional distance is: “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” Consequently, through this emotional chasm echoes another expression of grief: loneliness. Hannah must feel utterly alone. Where is God? Where is my husband emotionally?

What elements in life give you a true sense of purpose? Are their elements and dynamics within our culture that leave you feeling inadequate, less than, worthless? Can you recall an experience of devastating heartbreak in which you felt utterly alone?

Theological and experiential reflection upon I Samuel 9-20:

I Samuel 1:9
Elkanah has led his family to Shiloh for a religious feast. The narrative indicated he is a faithful man who participates in the worship experiences related to the tabernacle. The text reads that Hannah stood and began to pray and weep. Eli, the high priest, is sitting in his chair near the doorpost of the tabernacle. From this important position he offers counsel and help to those who come. He overhears Hannah. Hannah is not just in anguish, she is in deep anguish. Her weeping is not controlled, for she weeps bitterly. Experiences of grief and utter heartbreak numb us to cultural rules and expectations. Hannah isn’t embarrassed. She hurts too deeply to be embarrassed. Her pain is all she feels at the moment and she has no one with whom to share her pain. She chooses to turn to God. Perhaps she believes the sincerity of her prayer can lead to her regaining favor and God answering her prayer.

One night during my church’s family supper a woman entered, weeping. She wasn’t acquainted with anyone, only her grief. She came because we were a church and we were her last resort for some measure of peace. As we might expect, many, in their humanity, were curious and simply stared. However, I made my way to her and learned of her loss of a child. She truly felt no one understood her pain and she entered the church because the lights were on.

Have we ever come to God as a last resort? Have we spoken in a manner we would never speak if not for our pain, or behaved in a way that normally would embarrass us?

I Samuel 1:10-11
In Hannah’s prayer we can hear the deep plea of her soul. There are three words: look, remember, and not forget. She asks God to look upon her grief, remember, and not forget her. Among all the people of Israel she would feel forgotten, alone, unworthy of notice. But, she is desperate in her grief, asking God to please remember his servant. It is important to note that Hannah does not envision God serving her, but her serving God. The answer to her prayer would prove an act of grace, nothing more.

What is the nature of our prayers in sorrow? Have you ever felt you have to do or say something special to gain God’s notice?

I Samuel 1:10-11
Hannah made a vow. One of the repetitive questions I’ve been asked when teaching Genesis is why Isaac could not take the birthright back from Jacob who stole it from his brother Esau. The answer is really not that difficult. In the world of the Jewish people, and much of the near eastern world, words were creative. Notice in the creation story in Gen. 1 and 2 God “speaks” the world into being. Once something was said, a course of action was already underway and could not be stopped. Isaac had pronounced the birthright and nothing Esau could do would help him regain it. Hannah makes a promise, offers a vow unto God that will be binding. Sadly, giving our word to someone has lost a sense of the sacred in public life. We have adopted the phrase “contracts are meant to be broken.” However, it was not so in Israel. Hannah will vow to give her son to God and God’s service the entirety of his life.

How sacred is giving our word, making a promise, or entering into a vow? Are we determined to ensure that promise is kept? How have you witnessed the creative power of words, both constructively and destructively?

I Samuel 1:11
The firstborn male is always dedicated to the Lord (Exodus 13:2; Lev. 27:26). Jesus himself was dedicated in such a manner. In the New Testament church we give our child to God through baptism. Baptism in our tradition involves two Cs: Conversion and Covenant. If a person is not a Christian as a young person or adult we baptize them into the membership of the church. When a child is baptized we enter into a sacred covenant with the child, parents, or guardians. We promise to do all in our power as the church family to help the couple rear their child in the faith. One day they will embrace their baptism as their own at Confirmation. Therefore, the dedicating of our children to God as an act of thanksgiving, love, and covenant is an ancient practice that continues to be important today.

Hannah, however, was, in essence, bargaining with God. When someone feels unworthy or unnoticeable our fallen nature begins to bargain for God’s attention. Hannah was basically praying, “If you bless me with a son I will give him back to you.” Having ministered to those dying and to families in painful grief I am well accustomed to the temptation to bargain, to gain God’s attention, that our prayer might be answered. However, God already knows the number of hairs upon our head, our great joys, and our deepest sorrows. Hannah’s language implies that her son will live as a Nazirite. It is among the high callings to which Hannah could place upon a future son.

How seriously do we take our vow related to infant baptism? Specifically, what can we do to help that family rear the child in the faith and the church? Have you ever been tempted to bargain with God, or gain God’s attention through a promise when suffering grief?

I Samuel 1:11-16
Hannah’s grief is so painful she finds it difficult to use words. In Romans 8 Paul reminded the early Christian church there are moments when we do not know how to pray. The Holy Spirit thus intercedes with groaning and utterings too deep for words. This is exactly what is happening to Hannah. Eli the high priest overhears her mumbling and rushes to judgement. He accuses her of being intoxicated. One of the reasons Jesus was emphatic that we do not judge another is that we do not know their story. We do not always know what is happening in their life, or the pain they carry. The holy tabernacle was not a place for drunkenness, but neither was it the place for such judgement. Hannah was seeking comfort and guidance. Thankfully God uses Eli to bring hope to Hannah, in spite of his rush to judgement.

Is there an occasion in which we can recall rushing to judgement? How did we feel upon learning we were mistaken? Have there been moments in which we were wrongly judged? How did we feel after another made a misguided assumption about us?

I Sam. 1:17-20
Eli’s prayer and benediction upon Hannah gave her comfort and hope. Upon returning home she became with child. Though this was a painful experience for Hannah, God used it to bless not only Hannah and Elkanah, but all of Israel. Her child Samuel would become one of Israel’s major prophets/judges. Her grief was turned to joy. Samuel would be used of God in the future to help transform Israel’s grief into joy and hope.

Lesson Summary
One of the beautiful rays of light in our faith is hope. Hope is knowing the reality that God is present in every moment of life, transforming and using that moment for God’s high purposes. Thus, no moment in life is wasted, not even grief. While in the depths of grief it is difficult to see goodness or believe that our loss and sorrow can be transformed and used. However, the Bible consistently reveals that God is present in our deepest sorrow. Many of the great redemptive moments in scripture arise from human pain and suffering. God hears our prayer. Even if our sorrow is so great we struggle to articulate what we feel, and even if it blinds us as to knowing what we need, God hears our prayer. God hears not only our words but the cry of the heart and soul. In John 11 Jesus so deeply felt the grief of Mary and Martha he wept. That moment of grief led to Lazarus being raised to new life. Jesus understands our grief, and will in time bring new life to each of us.

Prayer
Almighty God, though you are creator of all, you choose to know us. Though you order all things by your power, you care for us. We give you thanks that you are aware of our grief and sorrow. We trust you, even in the darkness. For we know that our weeping may only endure for a night, for joy will come in the morning. In Jesus name, Amen.

Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at craigrikard169@yahoo.com.

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