One of the painful results of everything that has happened over the past few months is that many people have had a difficult time providing for themselves and their families. That has been truer here in Nevada than anywhere else in the United States. Numbers published this week show that Nevada's unemployment rate was over 28 percent in April, the highest ever in any state. Many of those people received unemployment checks, but not everybody did. Not everybody is eligible, and many of those who are eligible still haven't received anything. You probably have an opinion about whether it has been worth it for that many people to be unemployed to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But whatever lessons you think our society should learn from this, the pandemic can help each of us to learn how difficult it is for us to provide for ourselves at any time.
There doesn't have to be a novel virus spreading for you to get sick. Or you could be in an accident and get hurt. A natural disaster could strike; what if the recent magnitude 6.5 earthquake near Tonopah had hit one of our large cities? Any number of things could happen that could cause businesses to close and people to lose their jobs. We who work to earn a paycheck, or who worked for years to earn enough to retire, may often think that we have been providing for ourselves all this time. But things could have been different, such that we and those in our families couldn't work. Then who would have provided for us?
But we don't only have physical needs. We have emotional and mental health needs. The condition of our society has caused people a lot of anxiety and sadness. You can't simply pay to get rid of those. Even more important than all of those great needs, we've got spiritual needs, too. Even if you have enough money saved up so that you never have to worry about having enough food or a home to live in or anything else, you can't buy the forgiveness of sins. There's nothing you can pay for freedom from guilt. Where can you work to earn eternal life for yourself? Who is going to provide those needs for us?
Today we meet a woman from the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel who understood that she couldn't provide for herself what she needed. Her name was Hannah, and she desperately desired to have a child. But she wasn't physically able to conceive. A child isn't merely a physical need. There were also emotional and spiritual aspects to her condition, too. One aspect of her situation was that her husband was also married to another woman. And this other wife had children. And she taunted Hannah for years to the point where Hannah was so sad that she couldn't eat. This problem touched all aspects of her life.
Where would she turn for help to provide for her needs? Hannah prayed to the Lord. This was before the temple was built in Jerusalem. The Lord's tabernacle, which was the precursor to the temple, was in a place called Shiloh. Hannah went to the Lord's house and poured out her heart in prayer asking the Lord that if he would give her a son, she would dedicate her son back to the Lord to serve him all his life. This shows that her desire for a child was not a selfish one. It's not that she would just feel better if she could be a mom. She genuinely wanted to be a blessing to other people through the child that she would bear. When the high priest saw how she was praying – her prayer was silent, though her lips were moving with the words as she prayed them – he accused her of being drunk. But she explained that she was praying, and he blessed her. After entrusting her needs to the Lord, she went home feeling much better. And the Lord heard and answered Hannah's prayer! She conceived and gave birth to a son, whom she named Samuel!
In spite of the obvious flaw in his behavior, that he was married to two women, Hannah's husband Elkanah actually was a faithful believer in the Lord. Every year he took his entire family to worship the Lord at the tabernacle, probably at the time of the Passover celebration. Old Testament ceremonial law required that the men go for the sacrifice, but every year he took his whole family to be blessed at the festival. Yet after Samuel was born, Hannah decided that she would not attend until it was time for her to dedicate her son back to the Lord. That's where our reading from 1 Samuel chapter 1 picks up:
When the man Elkanah went up with all his family to offer the annual sacrifice to the Lord and to fulfill his vow, Hannah did not go. She said to her husband, “After the boy is weaned, I will take him and present him before the Lord, and he will live there always.”
“Do what seems best to you,” Elkanah her husband told her. “Stay here until you have weaned him; only may the Lord make good his word.” So the woman stayed at home and nursed her son until she had weaned him.
After he 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 asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” And he worshiped the Lord there. (1 Samuel 1:21-28)
When Hannah decided not to go to the festival, it may have sounded like she was having second thoughts about dedicating Samuel to the Lord's service. But she had no intention of breaking her promise. She simply treasured every moment that she could still be with her little son. And when he was weaned at about three-years-old (at that time they weaned their children later than most of us do), Hannah took Samuel to the tabernacle. The bull that she took was the required sacrifice for the oath that she was taking. The wine and flour were gifts for the priest and his family. When she spoke to Eli, the high priest, she reminded him of their conversation from a few years earlier, and she told him about how the Lord had given her what she prayed for. Then she entrusted Samuel to Eli so that he might grow up serving in the Lord's house.
So, after Hannah prayed, the Lord provided her with a son. And with that son, Hannah provided one who would work for the Lord. Through Samuel, who grew up to be a prophet and a judge and carried out many of the priestly duties, the Lord provided for the spiritual needs of all his people. The people of Israel needed a spiritual leader, a shepherd, like Samuel, because there were no other prophets at that time, and the sons of the high priest were wicked. This time of unfaithful leaders in Israel was sort of like our time of pandemic, because it showed the people of Israel that they needed a shepherd to provide for them. The Lord used Samuel to provide for their spiritual and physical needs.
What do you need the Lord to provide for you? I know several families like Hannah's, who pray for children, because for some reason known only to the Lord, they haven't received that gift. I know other families who are blessed with children, whose prayer is that the Lord would provide for all the needs of their children. All of us, children and adults, have many complicated needs that may be hard to categorize as physical, spiritual, or something else. Right now, with the pandemic, physical needs may be on the forefront of our minds. After all, we're praying that we don’t get sick! And we're praying that all who are out of work can still buy groceries! But spiritual needs are apparent now, too. After all, we haven't been able to gather together in church for over two months! Some of you have been sick, and your pastor hasn't been allowed to visit you!
If you haven't had much of a prayer life in the past, there are certainly things to pray for now! It's kind of sad, though, when it takes something like a pandemic to show us that we need the Lord to provide for us. Or will it take something worse to show you? Eventually something will happen that will make you recognize that you can't provide for your needs. Will it take you losing all your physical abilities to show you that you need him? Will you have to be close to death to realize that you have spiritual needs? Will it be too late before you recognize that we need a Shepherd to provide for us?
As the Lord provided Samuel to the people of Israel, we need the Lord to provide a priest for us. We need a greater leader than Samuel. Though he sacrificed to the Lord and though he prayed for the people, he couldn't pay for their sins. He couldn't remove their guilt. He couldn't earn eternal life for them. Yet we have a faithful High Priest who has done all of that for us. We heard Jesus pray in John 17 that he would give eternal life to his people. Then he made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross to pay for our sins. His sacrifice was worthy, because he was the truly perfect sacrifice. And because his life was perfect, he earned eternal life for us. Now he has ascended into heaven and there he continues to pray, speaking to God the Father on our behalf. There he continues to use his ruling power to provide everything we need.
Since God gave his own Son for us, we can be certain that he will give us everything we need. So ask him! Pray to him! And trust that he will provide for all of your needs! Ask him for every spiritual need, every emotional need, every mental health need, every physical need, and every need in between. Pray for little things. And pray for big things. And when he fulfills your needs, appreciate these blessings from him!
May I ask you to pray about a certain need that we all have? Please pray that we will be able to gather again soon at church. I know that we may have different understandings about whether it is safe to return now. Some of you think it is, and others of you think that it may not be safe for a while. I don't mean to tell you that you should feel safe about returning to church right now. I would certainly respect your judgment about that. I am also not asking you to favor one politician's plan over another's. I am asking you to pray that it will be safe for us to be together soon. Please pray that the Lord will continue to provide us with improved health, and that he will also provide us with the opportunity to gather in person around his Word and encourage one another in the faith. We are blessed that we've been able to participate in online services. But we all have the physical/spiritual/emotional/mental health need of being together and showing our love to each other. God is the one who provides for our needs, but he does that through people. We need each other. I can't wait to see you.
Psalm 23 says, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul." The Lord nourishes us with his Word. He refreshes us with his sacraments. He has restored us by taking away our sins and giving us eternal life. He gives us rest, because although we can't provide for ourselves, he provides everything. We need a Shepherd who provides for us. The Shepherd who provides for us is Jesus.