Skip to site content

The Pillars of the Earth

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 18, 2012.                                                           

1 Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-25

Washington is nervous. Have you noticed?

The best analogy I can think of is an old western. Congress and the White House are like the cowboys of old, drovers on a long, dusty, dirty cattle drive. Our current fiscal situation is like that herd of cattle, and our political leaders are confronted these days with the unenviable task of turning the financial herd of lumbering cattle before it heads over what has come to be called “the fiscal cliff.”

Tax breaks, employed during the Bush administration, are scheduled to end in January while taxes, implemented largely by the Obama administration, are due to increase. If this happens, so say the experts, we will be thrust yet again into an economic recession, perhaps even worse than the one we experienced in 2008. We will have gone over the fiscal cliff.

That may be an oversimplification of how and why this has come about – I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert on politics or economics or taxation – so don’t hold me hard and fast to my previous explanation. But for the most part, as I understand it, there it is.

One thing is for certain, and cannot be debated: Washington is nervous. And my guess is that you are too.

The question is, is there a situation in scripture that can give us some guidance in these uncertain times, some hope that we are not in this dire situation all by ourselves, and certainly are not entirely at the mercy of a convoluted and divided Congress? If there is, strangely enough, it might just be found in the life and testimony of a woman who lived on the other side of the world thousands of years ago. That her personal experience found purpose and meaning in her understanding of God’s intent for her life, and that it has been preserved for us to consider all these years later, is truly remarkable.

But first, we need to set the groundwork for her story, because on the surface of it, there’s really very little, if any, reason for us to put confidence in her words of faith. Let’s talk for a moment about this woman named Hannah.

Hannah lived in a day and age in which her people were facing something far more dire than just a fiscal cliff. Their very existence was being threatened. Here’s why… Political instability formed the loose set of rules by which she and her people lived. The people of Israel were still living tribally, tied together only by their rather nebulous yet single devotion to their God, a devotion that could vary from village to village, and tended not to be very strong at times. This was one of those times.

It was a time of transition and change. The Hebrews were flanked by the Philistines, who were more powerful from a military standpoint. Not only that, the Philistines were slowly but surely invading the cultural and religious life of the Israelites with their devotion to their god Baal. Added to this mix is that the one, central thing that brought the tribes of Israel together, their loosely-based religious devotion, is centered in the temple at Shiloh.

The priest of Shiloh is the old man named Eli, and everyone is aware that Eli has lost his grip. He is no longer effective as a priest, at least the kind of priest that can keep things in check.

Thursday, at a luncheon for a few area ministers, Fitz Hill, President of Arkansas Baptist College, drew the distinction between a leader and a manager. Eli was definitely not a leader, and now his management skills have eroded considerably. There is corruption in the house of Eli and everyone knows it. Eli’s sons, who are also priests, are using their positions immorally, and as the story is told, God has plans to use the Philistines to set things straight.

The problem is, any time the Philistines are involved, when things are set straight you have to know it will be done in a most violent and bloody fashion. The Philistines simply don’t know how to do it any other way.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, a childless woman brings her personal problems to the Lord. Let this be a lesson to us. You would think that God would have his hands full with all the political instability in the world – in every generation! – that God wouldn’t have the time to bother with our petty little personal issues when there are such big problems afoot. In other words, why should God be concerned about your out-patient surgery when Hamas and Israel are shooting at each other, and once again the entire Middle East is in an uproar?

Indeed, a lot of people feel that way. But sometimes, God uses those petty little personal issues of ours to respond to the really big circumstances of our world, if for no other reason than personal testimony of faith, forged from the fire of difficulty, can inspire whole nations to act. The story of Hannah is a prime illustration of that.

Hannah, the second wife of Elkanah, who lives in Ramathaim, the hill country of Ephraim, in desperation journeys to the temple at Shiloh to bring her petition before God. While in the temple, she makes God a promise. If God will open her womb and give her a son, she will dedicate her child to God’s mission and purpose for his people Israel. The way the story is told, God does just that and Hannah gives birth to a son. She names him Samuel, which means “name of God,” and as soon as the boy is weaned she takes him to Shiloh and places him in the care of the old priest Eli, the very one whose sons are so corrupt, the very one who has lost his grip on the leadership and management of his people.

Now, why would Hannah want to go and do something like that? Wouldn’t it stand to reason that she, Hannah, could do a better job of raising her son than could this old man who has proven his inability to control his own sons? Of course it does. But a promise is a promise, and she had made covenant with God to do this very thing. And God evidently has determined to use her son as the one who will bring the kind of political and religious stability that Israel needs.

The passage we read earlier is Hannah’s song of gratitude, given to God in response to his providence and care. In the face of the Philistines, who are encamped at the borders of Israel and are ready to bring them into submission – which, I remind you, will result in a very bloody situation – Hannah reminds her people that…

The pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,

and on them he has set the world.

Do we, in the face of all our world’s uncertainties – the fiscal cliff, the Middle East in an uproar, a divided Congress and cries of secession – need to be reminded of this message?

The pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,

and on them he has set the world.

Yes, I think we do need to be reminded of it. The question is, do we believe it when we are reminded?

To consider Hannah’s statement of affirmation and praise outside its context would be unfair to the difficult, bitter, and painful path that led to it. Sometimes, that is the best, or at least most effective, path to prayer. It is once you have sojourned through the really hard times of life, and can look back to see how God has led you through them, that you need most to express your gratitude to the One who has walked beside you in your painful journey. It is with that backward look that you have a greater appreciation for what prayer means when it has been forged from pain and bitterness.

The narratives in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, are not fairy tales. The story in this context that captivates the children is that of the child Eli hearing a voice in the night, which he takes to be that of his old caretaker Eli. Eventually, we know it to be the Lord calling Samuel to give the old priest a message. But it is not a fairy tale; we understand that. What we might not want to consider, nor want to believe, is that the Bible – again, especially the Old Testament – does not hesitate to put God right in the middle of, and personally involved in, situations like this. The question is, are we willing to do the same when it comes to the middle of our circumstances? Is God involved with us? Does God care?

The LORD, we are told – not told just once but twice – has closed Hannah’s womb. This is not just a physiological situation, it is theological, at least as far as the writer of this story is concerned. God has something in mind by doing this, and God is using Hannah and her painful situation to play it out.

Does that bother you? I confess that I struggle with this. The way the story is told, it appears that Hannah is a puppet in the hands of a manipulative God, that God is behind the stage of her life pulling the strings. Couldn’t God have let her in on what his plan is for her life and for the existence of her people? Every once in awhile God could have said to her, “This is what I have in mind, Hannah. It’s going to take awhile. Be patient and eventually I’ll give you children.” But that’s not how it happens.

God did that with Abraham and Sarah. He kept making the promise. Admittedly, the odds didn’t seem to be in their favor, because of their old age, but God had fairly regular conversations with Abraham during the years of promise and uncertainty when they too were childless. Be patient, Abraham, your children will one day outnumber the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the beach. Be patient, Abraham, be patient.

Did God tell Hannah anything like that? Not according to the way her story is told. God is as silent as can be as far as we know. And Hannah continues to wander down her bitter and painful path of barrenness. Every day, when she goes out in the yard to dry her clothes or prepare a meal, she sees her husband’s children playing. Not her children, her husband’s children… by that terrible woman, the spiteful Peninnah, the other wife. These children look like her beloved husband, but they also bear a strong resemblance to her mean-spirited rival, and the bitterness continues to swell up in Hannah’s heart. Every day, every day, it is like this. Imagine the heartache she must have experienced.

All the while, God knows what will happen, but does not inform Hannah of his plans. It is only when Hannah makes a deal with God that she gets what she wants most in her life. Only when she dedicates her yet-to-be-conceived son does God finally give in and open her womb.

When you think about it this way, it is no wonder that Hannah said…

The pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,

and on them he has set the world.

She had no choice but to believe that. But we do… have a choice, that is. Thomas Parker has said that “God’s creating and redeeming power is at work in, with, and under the circumstances, decisions, action, and outcomes of all the events of our lives.”1 He wrote that before last week’s election. In fact, I suspect he wrote it before the election four years ago. In a time when a lot of people – too many people – actually want to secede from the Union, when it appears we’re headed for a fiscal cliff, when demagogues and elected officials are at each other’s throats and the extremes, on both the right and the left, are talking so loudly that no one in the middle can hear… do you believe, as did Hannah, that…

The pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,

and on them he has set the world?

That’s pretty good theological insight, if not a wonderful piece of imagery, coming from a tribal, peasant woman who lived thousands of years ago. She believed it because of her personal experience with God. And when push comes to shove, whether we go over that fiscal cliff or not, the only thing we are left with is the understanding and belief of how God has personally come to us.

This is a season of giving thanks. It seems to me that Hannah’s grateful spirit could inspire us, regardless of what the future brings, to realize that it is God who holds our destiny in our hands, not Washington. And as God is said to have opened the womb of this barren woman, may he now open our hearts and minds to believe that nothing can happen to us but that God is there, showing us what it means to follow him, the One who put the pillars of the earth in place.

There are times that come along, O Lord, when we need extraordinary faith. Now is such a time. It is our prayer that our faith would be built on the bedrock of our gratitude to you, the One who has set the pillars of the earth in place. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.

Notes

1Thomas D. Parker, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 209.