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Encouragement: A Mother’s Tears

May 10, 2009
Sermon:  May 10, 2009
Text:  I Samuel 1:1-20

When my dear wife, Clare, saw the title of the sermon, “A Mother’s Tears,” she asked, “Are you really sure that Sunday’s sermon is going to be about encouragement?”

I answered, “Yes, I think it will be.”

The Lord has laid on my heart this particular topic for today.  I hope you will consider it to be, indeed, a sermon on encouragement. 

The Scripture text, which comes from I Samuel 1, gives us the story of Hannah.  Hannah, along with her husband and others in her family, goes to pray at the temple in Shiloh, located in the northern section of Israel.  The name Shiloh means “tranquility.”  If you want tranquility, hardly any place could be better than opening your heart before the Lord with worship and prayer.

Shiloh is not really a place of tranquility for Hannah, however, because she is in distress.  This woman and her husband, Elkana, who loves her very much, want to have a child; but she has been unable to conceive.  The custom in that day gives Elkana the permission to take another wife.  Elkana does just that, taking as his wife the younger woman named Peninnah.  Her name alone, which means “fertility,” adds insult to Hannah’s injury.  She mocks Hannah because she is childless.  In addition, Peninnah flaunts the fact that she has the ability to bear not only one child, but several children. 

Great strife exists within the family, especially when they go to Shiloh for those regular times of worship.  As is the custom, each person in the family offers a portion of the sacrificial meat.  Elkana divides the meat so that each of his wives gets a portion and then each of his children receives a portion.  He gives Hannah two portions, a practice that neither solves her misery nor her problem.

I want to pick up the story at Verse 9 and read for your hearing some of the important verses in this passage of Scripture.

Once when they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up.  Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the Lord’s temple.  In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord.  And she made a vow, saying, “O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” 

As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth.  Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving, but her voice was not heard.  Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long will you keep on getting drunk?  Get rid of your wine.” 

“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied.  “I am a worry who is deeply troubled.  I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord.  Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my anguish and grief.”

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

She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.”  Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast.          

Following this time in Shiloh, when Hannah returns with her husband to their home in Ramah, she conceives a child. She gives her baby the name Samuel, which means “the Lord has heard,” because God had heard her prayer. 

We pick up the story at Verse 24:

After Samuel was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour and a skin of wine, and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh.  When they had slaughtered the bull, they brought the boy to Eli, and she said to him, “As surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord.  I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I have asked of him.  So now I give him to the Lord.  For his whole life, he will be given over to the Lord.”

 This dear woman, who weeps with tears, longs for a child.  She prays anguished prayers, prayers punctuated by tears as she asks God to give her a child.  Then God gives her the blessing of Samuel.  Hannah has tears of joy, I am sure, when little Samuel is born.  The very fact that she gives her child a name that means “the Lord hears” is an indication of her faith.  When God grants her request, Hannah does exactly what she had promised.  She dedicates Samuel to the Lord.  Hannah’s mention to no razor ever touching his head is a reference to an important Nazarite vow that simply says, “This child has been dedicated wholly to the Lord.”  She takes Samuel as a young child and turns him over to Eli the old priest, committing and dedicating him.  Hannah must have certainly had some tears at this point, but her commitment is strong.  From this point on, Samuel lives and serves in the temple and eventually becomes a key figure in the Old Testament.  He serves as a transitional figure, considered to be the last of the Judges and the first of the Prophets. 

You will notice that all of the great epochs of the Bible begin with the miraculous birth of a child.  You know the story of Isaac during the time of the Patriarchs, the story of Moses at the time of the Exodus, and the story of Samson at the time of the Judges.  Now Samuel is here at the beginning of the period of Prophets and the monarchy.  The New Testament epoch begins with the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, both miraculous.  Beginning each epoch in this manner is a way in which God demonstrates His power in human life and His desire to change things, to make a difference, to enter into new covenant with His people. 

As you might understand, I cannot help but think about our own story when I read the story of Hannah.  Some of you have heard me say that Clare and I very much wanted to have children.  We were told at one time that we would never have children biologically.  We went through the experience of miscarriage twice, a total of three times, but twice before we ever had a child.  The first time we lost a child through miscarriage, we somewhat brushed it off and thought, That can happen to anybody.  The second time was very difficult for us.  I remember Clare weeping and saying, “I can’t even have a baby right.”  She was devastated. 

I was so disappointed that I went out into the woods.  I made a fist and spoke to God with words of anger: “Lord, I don’t understand this.  I don’t understand why people around the world have children like rats and don’t even want them.  We want a child so much but cannot have one.”  I saw no flash of light from the sky, heard no audible voice; but God spoke to me, deep within my heart.  He asked, “Kirk, how do you think you are ever going to be a parent until you learn to hurt?”

            This experience was a turning point in my life because I realized for the first time that God Himself, as our Father in heaven, experiences pain.  I had never thought of God hurting before.  I had always thought of God as being beyond that.  Knowing that God Himself suffers as a parent is an important concept to me. 

Today, we had the observance of a Parent/Child Dedication.  These parents have dedicated their children, saying that they are going to rear their child according to the guidelines that the Lord decrees in His Word.  My guess is that even these parents who brought their children this morning may have had a tear in their eye.

Clare and I know that, too.  When our first child was born on Christmas Day, we had tears of joy.  It is what happens when parents are granted this kind of request from God. 

The very history of Mother’s Day grew out of an experience of violence.  Julie Ward Howe, the author of the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was the first to think of having a Mother’s Day in this country.  This country had experienced great strife during the years surrounding the Civil War.  Mothers had suffered the loss of their sons.  Many families had been affected by the casualties.  In 1870, Howe called for a day to be set aside as Mother’s Day for Peace.  She wanted to recognize the importance for mothers everywhere to do everything possible to bring peace on this earth. 

Anna Jarvis, a contemporary of Julia Ward Howe, was an Appalachian mother from West Virginia.  In 1858, she had also attempted to create a Mother’s Day, though for a different purpose.  She wanted to improve sanitary conditions in the workplace.  Her daughter, also named Anna Jarvis, pushed to have a national day set aside.  She was successful in getting a memorial day for women.  In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day. 

Just a few years later, this second Anna Jarvis said that she regretted ever pushing the idea because Mother’s Day had become so commercialized.  The day had become all about flowers and candy and cards.  She said Mother’s Day was never intended to be a sweet and sentimental day to honor mothers.  It was supposed to be a day in which mothers prayed for peace within the world.

I shall never forget the day that Menachem Begin, President Jimmy Carter, and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt concluded the Peace Accord at Camp David.  I remember watching on television as President Carter quoted the Beatitudes:  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).  I remember President Anwar Sadat’s words: “In my quest for peace, I had a secret ally.”  During a long pause, everyone must have wondered who his secret ally was.  He continued, “The Israeli mothers were my secret ally because Israeli mothers do not want their children killed in conflict any more than Egyptian mothers do.” 

Mothers long for the safety, for the wellbeing, of their children.  That is part of a mother’s heart.  Two mothers, one Protestant and the other one Catholic, were tired of seeing the children of Northern Ireland killed.  Their efforts finally brought peace to Northern Ireland. 

Clare and I live in a home built by my grandfather in 1937.  My grandfather built, at the front of that home on one side, a little parlor specifically for my grandmother.  Mammy’s Prayer Parlor, we called it, was modestly furnished.  Every night after supper, my grandfather would read the Bible in that room, and the family would kneel and pray.  It was in that room that my grandfather and grandmother prayed for three sons who were in World War II:  one in the Normandy Invasion, one serving in the Pacific, and one shot down in a bomber over Germany but landed in Switzerland.  At the same time, another son was a missionary in South America, and one son-in-law was a prisoner of war in Germany.  The walls of that little parlor are saturated with prayers of my grandparents.  That kind of praying comes with anguish.  It comes with tears. 

Weeping is part and parcel of motherhood.  All we have to do is look at some of the more notable women of the Bible.  They must have certainly had tears. I imagine that Eve shed tears of remorse for her sin.  I am sure that when she found out about the conflict between Cain and Abel, when she learned that one son had killed the other son, there must have been great weeping on her part.  I cannot imagine the tears of a mother weeping over that kind of strife, that kind of violence within the family. 

Think of the tears of the mother in the parable of the prodigal son, a mother who is completely behind the scenes.  I am not sure why Jesus did not mention her.  Maybe she was deceased, but my guess is that she is in the background.  Imagine the tears of that dear woman, watching the conflict of the men in her life – an older son who is self-righteous, a younger son who is rebellious, and the father who is torn between his two sons.  She watches as her husband gives to their younger son his inheritance and witnesses this son leave home.  She waits and waits and waits for his return.  How many tears do you think she shed? 

Think of the tears of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Consider when she discovered she was to have this baby.  Think of the suffering and ridicule from the community of Nazareth she knew she would endure.  Do you think that knowledge was accompanied by any tears?  Think about that pondering heart, which we see from the very moment of his birth. Do you think any tears were shed at his birth in that stable out back in Bethlehem?  What about the time he was lost for three days when he was twelve years old?  Mary and Joseph finally found him in the temple, talking to the elders.  Mary questioned him, “Son, didn’t you know that your father and I would be worried about you?”  He responded, “Didn’t you know that I would be about my Father’s business?”  Luke has a great line there:  “They did not understand.”  Do you think Jesus’ parents shed any tears over that incident? 

At one point, people thought Jesus was possessed by the devil, Beelzebub himself.  When Mary and his brothers went to bring him home, Jesus refused to go with them.  Instead, he asked the crowd around him, “Who are my mother, my brothers, my sisters?  It is you, you who do the will of the Father.”  Do you think that might have evoked tears from his mother? 

What about the day she went to that hill called Calvary?  She saw that her son had been beaten within an inch of his life and was now nailed to a Roman cross.  Do you think Mary shed some tears there?  If we look at Mary, we see a lot of tears, as we do in many mothers. 

Ruth Bell Graham, in a book called Prodigals and Those Who Love Them, tells a story about one of the great figures in church history, St. Augustine.  She said that what impressed her most about St. Augustine was not all of his theology but his mother, Monica.  Monica wept for her son because he was so wayward.  If there was ever a prodigal, it was Augustine.  Involved in all kinds of unholy living, even ascribing to a heresy within the church, Augustine turned his back on his mother’s faith and went his own way. 

Desperate, Monica finally went to a bishop and begged him to speak to her son.  The bishop was reluctant, knowing that Augustine was skilled in debate and rhetoric.  Though he thought it impossible to convince Augustine, he finally agreed because the mother was so persistent.  Ruth Bell Graham writes, “Monica pressed him with entreaties and tears.  At last the bishop, annoyed by her persistence and moved by her tears, answered with a roughness mingled with kindness and compassion, ‘Go.  Go.  Leave me alone.  Live on as you are living.  It is not possible that the son of such tears should be lost.’” 

Ruth Bell Graham says that in her family of five children, the family she and Billy Graham had, two children were wayward.  One was them was Franklin, who preached here in Spartanburg not too long ago. 

Mothers understand what it is like to have a wayward child.  My grandmother said, “When children are young, they will step on your toes.  When they are old, they will step on your heart.”  Mothers shed many tears. 

A special fellowship, a special bond, exists among parents who have lost children.  Since the book When Grief Comes has been published, a steady stream of parents has come to our office here.  I have also received a lot of correspondence.  Just last week, a mother in Missouri wrote to tell me how much the book had meant to her.  Somebody had given her a copy of When Grief Comes when her son was killed in Iraq.  Can you imagine how much her letter meant to me?  Those are special tears. 

After Erik died, Clare said that her other children did not see her cry.  She said she learned to cry in the shower because it is not as messy.  That is also when she gave up mascara.

Young mothers, old mothers, all mothers who have lost children understand.  Their tears are tears of love.  Their tears are tears of prayer.

I heard a story about a young mother who had delivered a child in the hospital.  The pediatricians had told the parents that the child had many problems and that they did not expect the baby to live.  The mother, a Methodist, called for the Methodist chaplain.  When he arrived, the baby had already died.  The mother, weeping and holding the child’s body, said, “I so wanted you to come and be here to baptize my child.”  He tried to reassure the mother, saying, “Your child has already been baptized.  Your child has been baptized with your tears.”

Even among Baptists who believe in total immersion, we can understand that every single one of us has been baptized with a mother’s tears.  Unofficial to be sure, informal perhaps, but we have all been baptized with our mother’s tears. 

Let us ask Clare’s question, Where is the encouragement here?  How is this encouraging? 

I read a poem yesterday by Wendell Berry, a poem written to his mother, in which he tells how much he appreciates her forgiveness.  He talks about the fact that she was willing to forgive him, even before she knew what he had done wrong.  Christian theological terms call that provenient grace, grace ahead of time.  He said to his mother, “Your forgiveness is like the divine forgiveness.”  When you look into any mother’s eyes and see them glistening with tears, when you look into any mother’s eyes and see them about to brim over, remember that the love there is a reflection of a much higher love.  It is a reflection of the love of God, “love divine all love’s excelling.”  The tears of our mothers give us a look, a glimpse, into the very heart of God.  He does feel pain.  He does feel joy.  God Himself, as a divine parent, loves us more than we can imagine.  If you have been one of those fortunate people to experience a mother’s love, you have had a little foretaste of the love of God, fully revealed in Jesus Christ.

Have you experienced that love in your own life?  Have you accepted that love?  If not, could I invite you to accept Christ Jesus, the love of God?  Could I invite you to acknowledge his presence in your life and accept him as your Savior? 

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2009
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