Feb 10, 2014

Gimme patience right now!

1 Corinthians 13:4-8a

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. (NIV)

Sermon Scripture: 1 Samuel 1:12-20

There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”

Ah, patience. As you may know, Dahmon and I have been traveling through a series on the 9 fruits of the Spirit as listed by Paul in Galatians. Last week Dahmon spoke on peace. We've also discussed joy and love. This week we move to patience.

Patience. Authors in the New Testament have a habit of using Old Testament figures as examples for patience (James cites Job, for example), and we shall do the same here. In the Scripture reading for today, we read about Elkanah.

Now, Elkanah was a man with two wives: Hannah and Peninnah. Here we find him and his family during their yearly pilgrimage to the temple in Shiloh to offer worship and offerings to the Lord. According to the Scripture, Hannah was the picture of dejection and miserableness because she was barren. Peninnah, after all, had “sons and daughters”, and delighted in lording them over Hannah – the text says she provoked Hannah severely.

Children in that time were status and assurance for the future. Being barren threatened Hannah's very life for two major reasons. 1) Under the law of the time, Elkanah could legally divorce her for not bearing him sons and fulfilling her role as a woman, and 2) if Elkanah were to die suddenly, Hannah would have no male to support her. For Elkanah's part, he had no male heir from Hannah, which was disastrous for his part of the family tree.

Anyways, Hannah was miserable because she could not bear children. To rub salt in an already open wound, the fact that Hannah's name is listed first when the wives are mentioned likely means that she was Elkanah's first wife. Though polygamy was not uncommon during their time, some scholars think it is likely that Elkanah took Peninnah as a wife after Hannah proved unable to bear him sons.

And bear him sons Peninnah did...but where did that leave Hannah?

Miserable. Not eating. Weeping. Worrying Elkanah, who responded to her in love despite the fact that she could not bear him sons and despite the fact that she was surely hard to be around.

Poor Elkanah! Surely his was not a peaceful life, as one of his wives was constantly dejected and lamenting her condition, while the other was gloating and being difficult to the other! Imagine what his home life must have been like – this is like living with sibling rivalry to a whole new level!

Yet he responded to Hannah with nothing but a love that went against the divorce that his culture said would have been perfectly permissible...even expected. Scripture says Elkanah would do his level best to show Hannah how much he loved her: when he was doling out special portions of a particular food, he gave twice as much to Hannah as he gave to Peninnah. He tries to encourage her to eat, to not be so sad. He loves her so much! He even asks her if he isn't worth as much to her as ten sons, indicating that she is such to him. It seems like he did this every year....

He loved her dearly and showed it despite the fact that she was barren in a society where being barren did not mean whole. Where being barren was grounds for divorce.

Elkanah is the one at whom we are looking today as an example of patience.

What do you think about when you hear the word “patience”?

Patience is often defined as “the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset.” Patience is enduring under difficult circumstances, exhibiting self-control and calm in the face of distress and/or waiting for something. In this context, patience was Elkanah loving Hannah through the difficult situation and showing her that love despite her less-than-whole societal status in a society that said he could ditch her with no repercussions for not giving him sons.

Isn't this what God does?

Despite all of our shortcomings, despite us constantly demanding and requesting things of God in the midst of our despair, despite society saying that we are not whole, or somehow unclean, or not worth love and patience, despite our abundant impatience, despite all of this God says “I love you and let me show you how!”

God responds to us in love when the world says He shouldn't.

What if part of patience, not all of it – but part of it, is exactly that: responding to a situation in love rather than frustration when the world gives you every right be frustrated. “The fruit of the Spirit is patience.” Part of the fruit of the Spirit is responding to a difficult situation in an unexpected way, one saturated with love and grace and lacks impulsive reactions that we later regret.

I have a younger brother named Daniel. I love him dearly, but he tries my patience...and don't siblings (spouses, friends, children) know just exactly how to push our buttons to try our patience!

A few years back, my parents were living in Arizona. My brother and I decided to drive down there from MN to visit them for Christmas. It was a great drive...but when you put two people in a car together for several days and add a flat tire, patience wears thin! On our drive back home (which took 3 days), one of our tires was losing air...fast! Whenever we stopped for gas, we had to add air to the tire. Obviously something was wrong, but it wasn't until we stopped for the night that we saw the problem – a nail. We had some fix-a-flat...but then started arguing over who was going to put it into the tire. I wanted to because I'd never done so before and wanted to learn a new skill. Daniel wanted to because he had done so before and he just wanted to go in the hotel and get some sleep. In a beautiful display of lack of patience with one another, our argument escalated until we were screaming at each other and I was literally stamping my foot in frustration like a three year old having a tantrum. My brother grabbed the car keys and reared his hand back like he was going to throw them in the bushes. I grabbed his hand and said “STOP!”....and we paused.

Now, people often tell me that I have infinite patience, but in that moment I was fresh out of it for my brother. I was tired and angry...so was Daniel. Two people provoking each other mightily had taken a molehill life circumstance and turned it into a mountain because we were responding to each other in anger. Doing so had at that moment robbed us of our love, joy, peace...and patience. I let go of Daniel's hand and turned around for a moment to recollect myself, and to pray...for patience. With God's help, I was then able to face my brother again and explain why I had gotten angry, apologize, learn from it, and move on. Eventually we took turns putting in the fix-a-flat, but that wasn't the point. The point was that we needed to reorient ourselves to God in the middle of a very frustrating, patience-robbing situation.

Elkanah was in the midst of a frustrating, patience-robbing situation. One of his wives was despondent and refused to be comforted despite his best efforts. His other wife was intentionally being irritating and gloating about her children. And this was a situation that endured for a long time. Scripture says “so it went on year after year.” Imagine the scene – constant bickering, little peace, loud noises!

But what was his response?

Scripture does not say that Elkanah divorced Hannah for not bearing him sons, which was certainly his right under Hebrew law at the time. It does not say that he yelled at the women for arguing. It says that he responded in love. He responded to a despondent woman by showering her with love instead of losing his patience. He persevered in showering her with that love - “so it went on year after year”.

This is one aspect of what Paul is talking about when he says patience is fruit of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit working in us is available to help us cultivate the practice of responding to a difficult situation in love rather than anger, frustration, etc.

I'm not saying this is easy. Turning away from my brother and reorienting myself through prayer instead of clobbering him wasn't easy – and goodness knows I've clobbered him in the past. I'm sure it wasn't easy for Elkanah to consistently respond to Hannah in love (at least according to what we know about him from Scripture).

The key is that patience as fruit of the Holy Spirit means that it is something that God wants to help us develop, and that He lives out in us. He is ready to help us show that persistent love in any situation. Patience is that pause, that deep breath, the “mommy time-out” to calm down before responding to a child who has been irksome. Patience is the husband who responds to his crabby wife not by hiding from her or being crabby in return, but by listening, hugging, and asking what can be done. Patience is the love response when the crabby response is easier.

Patience is recognizing that we do not have to depend solely on our own strength to show persistent love. We can lean on God, recognizing that He is the source of a love that defies societal expectations. That is kind of what Jesus is all about.

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