“The Book of Life”Dr. Brett Patterson 1 Samuel 2:18-20 & 26; Colossians 3:12-17 Year C - First Sunday after Christmas Day
Perhaps at some point, you have read a biography. In our time biographies tend to be massive books, with many pages. We expect to invest a good bit of time studying the family tree of the individual in question. We understand that a person’s grandparents and even great grandparents have influence. As we make our way through the biography, we expect to see how the person interacted with parents, siblings, spouses, friends, teachers. We read about disappointments and failures; modern biographies make certain that we are aware of a person’s weaknesses.
However, we also read about successes, the reasons why we are reading a biography about this person, and not his neighbor down the street. Good biographers have dug to find revealing letters, diary entries, interviews, or the testimony of acquaintances, friends, and even enemies. By the time we make it to those last chapters, we feel that we have to a smaller degree lived a notable life.
You may or may not like reading biographies, yet have you ever thought of your life as a book? Each day you are writing a new section. Sometimes we say that a significant decision opens a new chapter in our lives. We may have had certain dreams about what kind of story we were living, where our lives would be going. We might have had grand dreams of becoming rich or at least becoming a success in the professions that we took up or the positions of service in our community that we chose. We thought that we would have a loving marriage, faithful friends, and a long and happy life.
Some people may have been able to write the stories that they originally dreamed, but many of us find that there are forces in this life that are considerably beyond our control. We enter this world in a context that we do not get to choose. The choices and dreams of others, though sometimes complementing our dreams, more frequently come into competition and conflict with our own. We have to make adjustments. Mistakes happen. Tragedies shatter our plans. Betrayals set us back. If we have a moment to pause to consider, we may find that we are not all that happy with the book that is being written. We doubt our own worth. We wonder what life is about.
The passages this morning ask us to consider again what the purpose of life is. We begin with the story of Hannah. 1 Samuel presents her as a woman who is deeply disappointed with the way her life is going; she does not like the story that is being written. She has a loving husband, but she shares Elkanah with another wife Peninnah. Polygamy was the practice of the time, and here it ignites a particularly nasty soap opera in the family. The text simply reads, “Peninnah had children, but Hannah was childless.” We see the recipe for trouble. And in a sad, inevitable way, life becomes very difficult for Hannah; Peninnah becomes a rival, not a friend, tormenting and humiliating Hannah because she has no children. This is not the life that Hannah would have chosen for herself. She, though, must face it year after year. Peninnah’s vicious teasing brings Hannah to tears. Elkanah tries to comfort her, not knowing what to say.
At one of these low moments, Hannah makes her way to the Tabernacle, to the holy place where the Israelites worshipped. Here in deep distress, she opens her heart to God. She feels that she can no longer handle the disappointment; she cries out to God for help. She is willing to negotiate with God; she understands she should not just come to God, asking for something without understanding her responsibilities. She does make her vow: if God will remember her, not overlook her, and will send her a child, then she will make certain that this child will be dedicated to the Lord’s service.
We know that God honors this request. Can you imagine how Hannah feels when she discovers that she is pregnant? Can you imagine the excitement? She no longer has to play second-fiddle to Peninnah. God has answered her prayers. In time she does give birth to a son, whom she names Samuel, which means “I asked the Lord for him.” As she hold the child in her arms, as she grows close to him and enjoys the blessings of motherhood, she then must ask herself if she is going to keep the vow that she has made. The text does not record any doubts, although she does request that she have the time to nurse the child. When he comes of age, she does take him back to the very place where she prayed. She stands again in the very spot where she had wept bitter tears, yet now presents Samuel to Eli. Samuel will grow up here and train to be a priest.
It must have been a difficult moment for Hannah, yet at the same time, we see that she offers up a different prayer entirely at this moment. The prayer begins, “My heart exults in the Lord, in the Lord I now hold my head high; I gloat over my enemies; I rejoice because you have saved me. There is none but you, none so holy as the Lord.” She speaks about reversals in life: The Lord “lifts the weak out of the dust and raises the poor from the refuse heap to give them a place among the great, to assign them seats of honor.” God has shown her favor, and Hannah will not forget.
When we tell this story, we often stop here, yet 1 Samuel does give us a little bit more about the story of Hannah. We learn that she returns every year that she is able to see Samuel and to give him a cloak that she has made. She stays devoted to the plan, and Samuel, despite the sacrifice of only seeing his mother for these short times, does benefit from growing into the priesthood. He does find favor with God and with his fellow Israelites. God will use Samuel in mighty ways–in no small part because of Hannah’s faithfulness. Eli acknowledges this sacrifice and blesses the family each year. God also blesses Hannah with other children–with three more sons and two daughters–they will not replace Samuel, but each child allows Hannah to share her love and faith. She can celebrate her calling into motherhood. God blesses her beyond her request.
When we look at Hannah’s story today, we see both dark chapters and triumphant ones. We know that she herself would not have written such hardship into her book, years of disappointment and distress, years wondering if she was worth anything. All those moments when she could not look at Peninnah or even Elkanah without feeling sick to her stomach. In those low moments, she turned to God in prayer.
After years, and by God’s grace, there was a reversal. Hannah’s life changed. New chapters were added. There now were opportunities and blessings before her. She could have gotten lost in this new life, dismissing the promises that she had made in her desperation. She, however, pushed aside such temptations and remained faithful. She made the sacrifice, when it was time, to hand Samuel over, and at this point she lifted up a new prayer. She praised the Lord for His faithfulness. She praised the Lord for turning her life around.
In the dark chapters of our lives, we do not sense that our lives have a purpose. We lament the struggles that we face, turning anywhere there is a distraction. We feel locked into a situation that we cannot change. The book of our life has become a burden. Yet in these low moments, what are we supposed to do? Hannah took her frustrations to the Lord, and she made her own covenant.
The Apostle Paul in Colossians reminds us Christians that we are supposed to approach life in a similar way. We are to come to God in all humility to discover the discipline needed to live a life of faithfulness, to shape the books of our lives in positive and constructive ways, allowing God to use our stories as blessings for others. For this transformation to take place, though, we first must come in humility to Christ. We have to admit that when we pulled the pen out of God’s hands and demanded that we write the story of our lives that we made a thorough mess of things. We have authored dark chapters, filled with envy, bitterness, and destruction. We have given in to evil desires–lust, malice, slander, and all sorts of idolatries.
In coming to Christ, though, we put to death that old life. We cannot erase chapters once they are written, but by God’s grace, Christ will deliver us from the full penalties of these actions. In admitting that we are sinners, we no longer seek to dodge our responsibilities; we learn to live in God’s forgiveness. We learn that new chapters can be written, in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ washes us new, fresh, clean, so that we can be children of the covenant, so that we can share fellowship with the living God.
As God’s people, we are to live in a new way. Each day we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, humility, and patience. We are to forgive as God has forgiven us. Love is to be our primary mission and guide, as we seek to serve in God’s Kingdom. We find new life as we recognize that we are part of God’s story. God is the author, and we are to celebrate each new chapter that comes.
There will still be hardships in this life, but when our expectations change, when we become aware of the larger context of God’s majestic acts, we save ourselves much grief. We also find that our lives do have a purpose; we celebrate the relationship with God and the relationships that we have with other people. Then the peace of Christ will rest on us. We will learn what it is to be thankful for all these blessings. We will have hope in the midst of life’s chapters, both dark and triumphant. The Lord will be able to bring reversals, such as Hannah celebrated: to bring peace where there was grief, to bring love when there was loneliness, to bring new life where there was decay.
There may also be long years when we are called to shoulder heavy burdens. The call to holy living is not a guarantee of a life of ease, a book filled with no challenges, no conflicts, no second-guessing. Hannah still had to make sacrifices after God blessed her with a son. Each year when she saw Samuel and brought him the new cloak that she had been working on for months, she would have to turn around and leave him there–even if he were to call her “Mom” and ask if he could come home. She would have to instruct him again in the promises that she and God had exchanged.
Through the struggles, though, we do find opportunities to touch the lives of others. God does show us that our lives do have meaning, when we live in fellowship with God’s Spirit. The story of our lives may not be written into long biographies to be sold at the bookstore or gathered in the library, yet God is attentive to each page, and God would have us celebrate the lives that we are given, to make them count, to make the world a better place.
Each day we grow a little older. May we also grow a little wiser. As we move into a new year in the coming week, may we endure the hard times, to be the faithful remnant who finds deliverance on the other side.
May we allow Christ to guide our hands as we together write the stories of our lives. May we do so always in response to God’s movement in the world, realizing that our stories are always branches off this larger story, the ongoing adventure of God’s love for humanity. God gives us opportunities each day.
May we speak and act always in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to our God and Father through Him. Then the books of our lives will matter; they will be beautiful works of art, offering testimony to the Almighty Author of Life!
About the writer: Dr. Brett Patterson is a South Carolina native, having grown up in the Lowcountry and pursued a B. A. in English at Furman University. After receiving an M. Div. from Duke University, an ordination from the Baptist Church of Beaufort, and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, he taught biblical studies, theology, ethics, and church history at Meredith College and Anderson University. In 2009, through encouragement from the CBF of SC, he entered into full-time church ministry. He and his wife Stephanie currently serve as pastors for First Baptist Church of Lake View, SC. He is particularly interested in ecumenical efforts and in theology and the arts.
Scripture and Music
Year C – First Sunday after Christmas Day
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Once in Royal David s City
O Sing a Song of Bethlehem
Gentle Mary Laid Her Child
What Child Is This?
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly
He Is Born, the Divine Christ Child
Go, Tell It on the Mountain
Good Christians, All Rejoice
We Three Kings
Sing We Now of Christmas (Richard Zgodava, Fred Prentice)
Christmas Day (Gustav Holst)
Every Valley (John Ness Beck)
Sing We Noel (Noel Goemanne)
Hodie (Healey Willan)
A Wondrous Mystery (Lloyd Pfautsch)
What Child Is This?
O Holy Night
Away in a Manger
Mary, Did You Know