Problems, Prayer and You

Delivered May 12, 2002 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Theme: How do you deal with what seems to be an insurmountable problem? This sermon reflects on how one woman did just that 3000 years ago.

Sermon Text:
Mark 13:1-8
and 1 Samuel 1:1-20
1 There was a certain man from Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill
country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son
of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. 2 He had two wives; one was
called Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.
3 Year after year this man went up from his town to worship and sacrifice
to the Lord Almighty at Shiloh, where Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were
priests of the Lord . 4 Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice,
he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters.
5 But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the
Lord had closed her womb.
6 And because the Lord had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her.
7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of
the Lord , her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.
8 Elkanah her husband would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping?
Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
9 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.
10 In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord .
11 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.”
12 As she kept on praying to the Lord , Eli observed her mouth.
13 Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice
was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk
14 and said to her, “How long will you keep on getting drunk? Get rid of your wine.”
15 “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled.
I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord .
16 Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying
here out of my great anguish and grief.”
17 Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you
what you have asked of him.”
18 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.
19 Early the next morning they arose and worshiped before the Lord and
then went back to their home at Ramah. Elkanah lay with Hannah his wife, and the
Lord remembered her. 20 So in the course of time Hannah conceived and
gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I asked the Lord for him.”

Today I would like to talk and preach about giving our problems to God. When we heard today or perhaps in the past few days about Jerry’s decision to abandon us, I mean to take another call, you know I am kidding, and realize that if the way is clear he will be off duty to Central in about a month and then tie that to my recent announcement about a July departure, some might think of that as a problem. Of course, some may not because they are focused not on circumstances or people, but on the God of all instances. Some people see a circumstance and immediately panic. Others see potential and opportunity. I am reminded of a speaker’s actions at a government symposium on risk taking. The speaker selected an individual from the audience and said to her, “Imagine an I beam 40 feet long across the floor in front of the podium. If I gave you $20 would you walk across that I beam?” The woman said, “Yes.” “Suppose” the speaker continued, “that the I beam was suspended between 2 buildings 50 stories in height. Now would you walk across it for $20?” This time the woman said, “No way.” The speaker persisted, “Now suppose that I am on top of one building and dangling one of your kids over the edge and you are on the other building and I say to you if you don’t walk across that I beam, I am going to drop him. Would you then walk across that I beam?” The woman hesitated ever so slightly and then replied, “Which kid have you got?” Now that is not a good Mother’s Day illustration, but one might say that that mom saw an opportunity where others might have panicked. And that’s the choice we always have when problems come our way. Now let me ask you this question. Do you think that you have experienced all the problems that you are ever going to have? That’s a no brainer. Of course not and we need to learn or be reminded of how God’s people from the past learned to deal with seemingly insurmountable problems.

The main character in our Old Testament lesson is Hannah. She had a very difficult problem that troubled her to no end. From the text we can see that she experienced depression, disappointment, relational conflict and family abuse, because she could not have children. In those days a man could have two wives. The man’s name was Elkanah. His other wife Peninnah. Every year Peninnah would ruin the family’s trip up to Shiloh, probably saying something like this to Hannah as all of her son’s and daughters were all around her – “Too bad you don’t have any children to keep you company Hannah. You must have done something awfully bad to merit this treatment from God.” You know, in that culture this was seen as a curse and a judgment of God. The phrases of the text say it all. She wept and she wouldn’t eat. Her heart was sad. There was bitterness of soul. She wept much. She called herself a person of misery. She was deeply troubled. She poured out her soul. Great anguish and grief was the way she described her experience. In other words, she’s a believer with a problem. But the scriptures teach us that we can overcome despair and difficulty and sometimes even our problem, when we give our problems to God in prayerful surrender. So, do you carry a weight, a heavy burden this morning. Are you anxious about a current problem maybe related to health or relationships? Or are you feeling beaten down by a long-standing problem that just won’t seem to go away. You have a friend in Hannah. Or, is it possible that you may have elevated someone or something to a higher position than God? If so, then listen because I would like to simply point out five very brief principles about problems from this story today.

The first point is this – Just as some solutions are due to God’s direct intervention, so are some problems. Look at verses 5 and 6 in case you missed it the first time. The phrase comes back to back at the end of verse 5 and verse 6. “The Lord had closed her womb… and because the Lord had closed her womb…, God closed Hannah’s womb. Not all problems are the result of poor choices, the ill intent of others or the environment. Sometimes God is up to something. I think God is up to something at Central Presbyterian Church. Sometimes God is directly responsible for what is happening. However, we have no idea which problems are like that and so we have no right to say to people, God must be punishing you, or you must have done something awful or just accept this as God’s will. So sometimes problems are because God is up to something.

Secondly, some problems last a long time. Verse 7. “This went on year after year. But Hannah remained faithful to God. She kept going to worship. She kept making the trip. She kept praying.” Faithfulness is not just for a season. God’s promises may seem as though waiting on them is like being in the desert, dry and lifeless. And yet, deserts are full of life that we can’t see. Waiting for one season’s downpour. I heard about one variety of frog that will bury itself for up to 25 years waiting on the one year that enough moisture will come so that it can raise it’s young. The promise of fulfillment in God is always there and never fails. Peter said it. The Lord is not slow about his promises as some count slowness.

Thirdly, not only is God is up to something and not only do some problems last over time, often our problems are designed to change us. Look at verses 9 and 10. When they had finished eating and drinking at Shiloh, Hannah stood up and then in bitterness of soul she wept much and prayed to the Lord and made a vow. She went to the temple. Who knows how long Hannah might have gone to the temple and prayed, “Oh God please give me a child so that I can show Penninah that she is wrong, so that I can get back at her.” God got Hannah to a place of change and so with us, God will take problems and use them as a lever to get us into a different posture, to shake us out of our set ways, to get us as one poet said to “stop hugging harbors”. God’s problems move us to change. Hannah realigned her prayers and selfishness began to slough off and detach.

Fourthly, Some problems are often tied to God’s larger plan, so that many people will benefit, not just us. Now I have no verse to cite, but the context historically tells us that this could be so. The book before 1st Samuel is Ruth, but the real historical context is mentioned at the end of the previous book – Judges, chapter 21, verse 25. “In those days Israel had no king. Everyone did as he saw fit.” See that’s the sense in Israel at the time. There was a collection of loosely knit tribes beset by predators, and to make matters worse it was a time of moral and spiritual decline and emptiness. This is emphasized in the text when Eli the chief priest can’t discern the difference between someone pouring their heart out to God and someone who is drunk. God is at work bringing the prophet of his choosing onto the scene. God was not only answering one woman’s prayer, he was fulfilling his deeper purpose in all of Israel. God works in history through a mother’s prayers. And every time that we act faithfully, even in the midst of our problems, we never know the ripple of grace that it will effect later for others and many will benefit.

And lastly, our problems are best dealt with when we give them to God in surrendered prayer. I am not just talking about sending a quick prayer up or wringing our hands. I am talking about a moment of surrender. Now for those who don’t know our Lord Jesus Christ, the most important surrender that we have to make is to ask the Lord Jesus to enter our heart and take control. Sometimes our problems drive us to that point; how many people have shared that they have come to know Christ out of deep desperation? But even for Christians, Jesus says, “Come to me, Come to me all ye who labor and are heavily burdened and I will give you rest.” He says, “Come to me” and the emphasis there is put your problems at his feet.

Hannah was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and she wept bitterly and she vowed a vow, she poured out her soul, she gave her problem to God. Out came her anxiety and vexation. She learned that God was truly there. Look at the end of verse 18 – “she went her way and ate something and her face was no longer downcast.” Please note the chronology. It wasn’t that her face was no longer downcast once her prayer was answered, her face was no longer downcast when she poured her heart out to the Lord. And that is what God is calling us to do today.

I can think of times in my own life and I am sure you can think of times in your life when God has had to bring us to our knees, but in that moment of surrender everything changed. Wayne Oats wrote a paper, a little pamphlet called, “How to live with a problem that you can’t solve.” He mentions a number of things. But I just want to share with you number seven on his list. He says when you are faced with a problem that you can’t solve, do what you can do. Do what you can do. One thing that Hannah teaches us – she what she could. We can give our problems to God no matter how long we have suffered, how bitter our tears or how many people are provoking or irritating us. Jesus is the one who can enable us to do that very thing. So the question is, we will rise in faith with Hannah? Will we come again to the Lord Jesus or will we stew in our own self-pity? God is calling each and every one of us to bring barrenness of any sort to God. What door does God want you to knock on today that seems closed or locked? Come and give your problem to God. You may receive healing. You may receive what you need. But you know, your spirit like Hannah may be healed even before your problem is solved or your prayer is answered.

Look at how the text closes in verse 20. “She named him Samuel because ‘she asked the Lord’ for him. In Hebrew Samuel means “heard of God”, and the God who hears us has promised this. Listen. “Fear not for I have redeemed you. I have summoned you by name. You are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. And when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. And when you walk through the fire, you will not be burned since you are precious in my sight and I love you. Don’t be afraid for I am with you.” Give your problems to God today.

Let us pray. Gracious Lord, we do give our problems to you. We take a step of faith even as we sing one of the most beloved hymns of all time. We pray Lord Jesus that we would understand what it means in this very minute to experience your friendship. For we ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.