Sunday 10 March 2024 Mothering Sunday
Gratitude, Giving and Service
1 Samuel 1:20-28; Colossians 3:12-17; John 19:25b-27
Context: a Mothering Sunday service in a Baptist Church in a small town in England, with a congregation of largely middle-class people covering a wide age range
Aim: to show that gratitude to God should be a central motivation for Christian living
In the mid-1960s I was one of a group of fifteen students returning home after a conference in Oslo. We had time in Copenhagen as we waited for our train to the Hook of Holland. Walking around the city, we became increasingly hungry, especially as we passed several vans selling hot dogs. To our dismay the sellers would not accept the only coinage we had, sterling. I noticed an elderly man following us. When I caught his eye, he came up to me and said, ‘You English?’ On hearing that we were he said, ‘Churchill was a great man! He saved Europe.’ As proof of his gratitude to Churchill and the British nation for what they had done, he bought hot dogs for this group of hungry British students twenty years after World War 2. This incident impressed on me the power that gratitude can have.
1 Samuel 1:10 says that when Hannah went to pray in the temple she was ‘deeply distressed’ and ‘wept bitterly.’ Perhaps only another childless wife can really understand the depth of Hannah’s anguish, though one should not underestimate the anguish of a childless husband. Hannah’s anguish was deepened by the fact that in her culture many saw childlessness as evidence of God’s disfavour. There were also the taunts of Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah. However, it is not hard to imagine Hannah’s joy when her prayer was answered, and she gave birth to a son. In her prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 she speaks of exulting in Yahweh (the LORD), praising him for his knowledge and power, and especially because he ‘raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap.’
Strong emotions can make us self-obsessed and blind to wider considerations. Not so with Hannah. She recognises that the root of her joy is Yahweh’s favour towards her, no doubt contrary to Peninnah’s taunts, and is grateful for it. The name she gives her son, Samuel, means ‘his name is God.’ This may seem strange, but could be an ascription of praise to Yahweh, that by answering her prayer he had shown the power expected of God. Or it may be declaring that the boy belongs to God, like a son named after his father.
Her gratitude is expressed in action. This is emphasised by a remarkable wordplay in 1 Samuel 1: 27-28. Here English translations use three or four different words (NRSV: petition, made, lent, given) but in Hebrew these are all variants of one verbal root (sha’al), so stressing the interconnectedness of the string of events. Gratitude leads to giving. When the child has been weaned, which is after two or three years in her culture, she ‘lends’ him to Yahweh. This indicates that he now belongs to God, but she does not give up her relationship with him, as 1 Samuel 2:18-19 shows.
The form that Hannah’s giving takes is significant. She wants to show her gratitude to God in a practical, lifelong, way and does so by consecrating her son to the service of God in the Shiloh temple. She could not have expected that he would become one of the great leaders of God’s people, Israel.
Paul calls us to lifelong service of God, saying ‘whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ (Colossians 3:17). The Christian life is to be motivated by gratitude to God for what he has done for us through Christ. Indeed, Paul has just said we should always praise God ‘with gratitude in your hearts’ (v 16). On several occasions Paul uses gratitude to God as a motivation for Christian behaviour. Another notable one is his appeal to be generous to those in need because, ‘you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor’ (2 Corinthians 8:9). As Christians we should love and serve others, not because they deserve it, but out of gratitude for what God has done for us.
How much more should we show gratitude in word and deed to those who do deserve it? Today we remember in particular our mothers. John 19:25b-27 presents us with the example of Jesus. Amidst his agony on the cross he remembers what he owes to his mother and ensures that she will be looked after for the rest of her life.
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