Sunday's Old Testament passage seems far remote from our modern culture, yet it contains some very topical themes.
- the jealousy and bitterness between rivals for someone else's affections;
- the deep-seated need felt by many people for children, and their pain and sadness when this need is denied;
- the conviction that God is in control of our lives and can change things, for better or for worse;
- the tendency to make assumptions about other people based on the flimsiest and most superficial evidence;
- and the idea that some people are worth more or less than others, in this case that women are worth less than men.
The deep-seated issue of our biological imperative to have children is another issue which remains as central to human life as ever. It drives the whole fertility industry, including practices - such as the storage and discarding of human embryos and assisted conception for older women - which some Christians have found distasteful and even unethical. This Bible passage reminds us that, at all times, our attitude should be coloured by the very great hurt which infertility causes to couples. This doesn't give scientists a licence to sanction any and every kind of intervention in human conception and gestation, and we need to remain vigilant about innovations such as designer babies, conceived to fix the medical problems of their brothers and sisters, and surrogate parenthood, but it does mean that we should always begin our thinking about this issue from a position of profound sympathy and compassion for couples who cannot have children and who need assistance with conception and pregnancy.
Someone told me the other day that the belief that God is in control of every aspect of our lives, and shapes what happens to us, is the one aspect of the Muslim faith which he finds hardest to understand and accept as a Christian. I was puzzled by this, because - of course - it's also a Biblical idea. It finds expression in Christianity in the teaching of St Paul, later expanded and amplified by John Calvin who became the main leader of the Reformed tradition. It is one of the thirty-nine articles of faith of the Church of England, and it also features in this passage. When things go wrong for us, when our ambitions are thwarted or tragedy strikes, surely it is comforting to know that God is still in control of our lives, mending the broken threads and weaving them together to repair the picture and make it beautiful and complete.
What is very difficult, however, is the notion - also found in this passage - that God deliberately does harmful things to us, such as closing Hannah's womb. I think that's a sub-Christian idea. I prefer to believe that God neither inflicts harm on us nor makes the best things happen to us, but that God works with us to use the circumstances of our lives creatively to bring about as much good as possible. I suspect that is how our prayers are answered.
Hannah went away from her encounter with Eli in the Temple convinced that her prayer had at least been heard by God and hopeful that it would be answered, and she did indeed conceive a child and has become one of the Bible's greatest exemplars of faith. But was it really a supernatural intervention that made her pregnant? Was it a change of heart by a God who had previously closed her womb and who now knew that it was the right time to open it? Or was it one of those cases where, freed from her burden of anxiety about becoming pregnant, Hannah found that it happened naturally and unexpectedly after all?
Eli proves himself to be a disastrous pastor in this situation. He allows his prejudice to shape his perception and makes a totally unfounded assumption about Hannah based on the flimsiest and most superficial evidence. Confronted by a deeply troubled person who was pouring out her soul silently to God he jumped to the conclusion that she was drunk, just as the bystanders thought that Jesus' disciples must be drunk when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Eli failed to look beyond her desperate appearance to the truth concealed within. But we should hesitate to condemn him, shouldn't we. because we live in a deeply superficial society which judges people by appearances every day. Why else are we so much more lenient towards beautiful people than plain people? Why else are Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee - from the radio era - the last of our prime ministers who were bald? Why else do women who wear the hijab, and men who wear long beards and prayer caps, face daily prejudice and hostility? Why else do older people make immediate assumptions that young people are a danger to them, and why do younger people assume that older people will be boring and out of touch? All of these attitudes are wrong and unchristian, not least because they lead to the idea that some people are worth more or less than others, and we know that isn't true because Jesus said it isn't true. St Paul got it right when he said that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free person, for all are one in him.
In our Old Testament lesson we see Eli the priest falling short of his calling and almost coming between a supplicant and her God. In the New Testament lesson we see the opposite. We see a high priest who never fails because he completely identifies himself with God. This complete identification is symbolised here by his place at God's right hand, doing God's bidding. But also, he never fails because - unlike Eli - he continually identifies himself the worshippers. His spirit writes God's laws in our hearts and minds so that we no longer need to remain stuck in the vicious cycle of sinfulness, failure, guilt and repentance which the ancient system of cultic sacrifices did nothing to address. However, Jesus' identification of himself with us did involve a sacrifice, for he died standing alongside us and seeking to demonstrate God's love and forgiveness.
On armistice day Radio 4's Today programme celebrated one small act of heroism and self-sacrifice. While the trench warfare raged overhead, armies of sappers dug underground, trying to undermine the enemy's most entrenched positions and make room for a breakthrough above ground. It was terribly dangerous work and one day five men were buried in the tunnel they were digging when the roof caved in behind them after an explosion in one of the trenches above. Colleagues worked desperately to save them and eventually made a hole big enough to pass through a pipe which they used to pump air and water to the trapped men. Then the hole was made large enough to pass food through to them and finally - after several days - it was made wide enough to allow three of the men to crawl to safety. But one of the men had broken some of his ribs and couldn't get through. A colleague, Sapper William Hackett, who was a miner from Nottinghamshire, refused to leave him until the hole was made wider still. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, there was another roof collapse, and both men were trapped again. Their companions spent another four days trying to rescue them, but in vain.
William Hackett was awarded the Victoria Cross for his decision to remain with his injured colleague when he could have crawled to safety. His refusal to leave the man alone cost him his life. It was a remarkable thing to do, and an inspiration for us all - but, of course, this is what Jesus did, too. The Letter to the Hebrews says that he gave his life as an act of solidarity with human beings, so that we would not be left alone in our predicament, constantly falling short of the wholeness and perfection which God requires, constantly prey to weakness and self-centredness, but would be able to cross the divide that separates us from God and find completeness in him. That is why the example of Jesus, and the example of people like William Hackett, should provoke us to love and good deeds, always encouraging one another.