Over these weeks from Genesis we’ve come all the way from the story of creation, of floods of scattering of nations down to the story of one man and one woman. Abraham and Sarah.
They are called by God to set off on this journey from the known to the unknown. They are promised a future.
It is only by leaving that they know that the promises made on their lives will be fulfilled.
Last week we heard Abraham and Sarah are getting much older and have no offspring.
They believe that despite everything there is nothing left for them.
At the end of last week Abraham is told to look up at the heavens and to number the stars. If he wants to understand the magnitude of God’s promise and blessing count the stars. The affirmation that God is God. The one who gives the promise is the one who makes it believable.
So we’ve been hearing the unfolding of the story of promise and blessing, and in a way it has been quite easy listening to that story, almost romantic as we hear of Abraham and Sarah. But today we hear from scripture something that is much more difficult.
And we are reminded I think in today’s scripture of a lesson that is perhaps more consistent with the actions of Jesus in the New Testament. While God may have had a chosen people and his preferred plan, God is also the God of the outcasts. God has other things going on in the mess that develops in this family.
Today we focus on Hagar. Hagar was an Egyptian slave girl who is brought into the drama of the story. She is chosen to be a surrogate mother, I don’t think she has any choice, and she is given to Abraham as his property by his wife, so that she, Hagar, can provide infertile Sarah with a child.
So Hagar and Abraham have a baby called Ishmael.
After this Sarah treats Hagar so badly that she takes off into the desert and after an encounter with God she decides to return to Sarah and Abraham.
Years past and finally miraculously, Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac.
And this where our story begin today.
The Birth of Isaac
21 The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. 2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ 7 And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’
Hagar and Ishmael Sent Away
8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.[a] 10 So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
It’s an ugly scene. Not an easy story. Neither Sarah nor Abraham come off as the noble characters we like to make them out to be.
And the first thing we think is, why is this story here at all? It’s just bad press isn’t it?
It would be easy to miss out the stories that tell how badly treated was a slave girl forced to be a surrogate and then finally cast out by what sounds like a very jealous Sarah into the desert.
I remember watching a science fiction movie where the technology enabled people to erase the bad memories of their lives so that they could just remember the happy times.
Probably, and I’m guessing here there are parts of our own story that we might sooner remove or forget.
I wonder what that would mean. Would we just take out the bad memories, the sadness, the mistakes we’ve made, the stupid things we have said and done, the memories of who we have hurt. The regrets for decisions not made. The meetings we forgot we had with those Russians to decide on help with the next general election.
What bits would we have the mad scientist remove from our memories.
And then we would have to remove those things from the memories of everyone else as well.
I know this sounds fantasifull, but today in scripture and at other times as well we have really bad stories.
The execution of God’s son that’s the worst story.
And if we stand back from all these good average and terrible stories we find in scripture, we are being told that God is present. Mystery and sovereignty. Never abandoned. Even when people do the worst imaginable things.
Hagar and Ishmael are there. Sarah and Abraham and now Isaac.
Instead of easing the complicated relationships, they get worse. Sarah observes Ishmael playing with the much younger Isaac... Whatever happened, Sarah saw Ishmael as Isaac’s competitor for the promises of God. And suddenly, she insisted that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert.
In fact if you read the text carefully it has a slightly contemporary ring to it. Sarah’s disdain for the fertile slave girl is shown in the fact that she never refers to Ishmael or to Hagar by name. She says, “Banish the son of this slave girl.” Sarah refers both to Ishmael and to Hagar only by social status.
Abraham was understandably hesitant. Like any parent, he loved both his sons, and he probably cared deeply for Hagar as well. But Abraham finally relents when he gets a special word from God that Hagar and Ishmael will be taken care of by God.
Hagar and Ishmael are sent forth to wander in the wilderness of Beer-sheba until their meagre provisions are exhausted. Racked with thirst, she casts her child under a bush and sits down a bowshot away so that she will not see him die.
And here God shows that he is not only with the Isaac/Israel lineage. God demonstrates his Divine care and mercy for those who are outside the special Covenant relation in two ways.
First, the angel of God informs Hagar that God has heard the child’s cry, and that she should arise and take the child’s hand, for “I will make him a great nation” (21:18).
And secondly, Hagar’s eyes are opened so that she sees a well of water nearby from which she and her child may drink. Ishmael grows up under divine protection, becomes an expert bowman, marries an Egyptian woman, has twelve children and becomes the father of a great nation himself just as God promised. Ultimately all of those who follow Islam would trace their heritage back to Abraham through Ishmael.
The good old days
This great unfolding through Genesis of God’s plan. So we’ve been following this story but the text suddenly takes this detour, leaving the history of the chosen ones to follow the lost and the outcasts. The God who chose the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of all the tribes and peoples of the earth.
The message is not just about nations and tribes; it’s about people, about individuals, about us. When all have forsaken and forgotten us, when life has passed us by and all around us is a desert, and our dreams are over there dying under a bush. That’s when we need to remember this old story. We need to know that God sees the tears of an outcast woman and an abandoned child. We need to know that God hears us even when we feel godforsaken.
So the story has these layers.
How we speak about others.
Is she Hagar or the slave girl. To Sarah she is the slave girl. To God she is Hagar. The slave boy or Ismael. To Sarah the son of the slave boy to God Ishmael.
Everyone has a name to God. You, me. Those who suffer and afraid. Never just the refugee or the patient or the consumer everyone has a name to God.
The church, God and faith only for the perfect family and religious person. Or the church and God in the mess and complexity of life. A faith relevant and present even in the muckiest times.
A God who is only working when I’m good and virtuous or a God present and active even when I act and do things that are terribly wrong? However angry or hurt or guilty or regretful, there is a bigger story a larger promise being made and told and realised in our lives.
A God blessing just one history or blessing many histories. Abraham and Sarah and the story of Israel but then we have Ishmael and Hagar. And the blessing god speaks over their lives. I will make a great nation of him, God says.
Was God not present in our lives before we heard about Jesus; was God not present here before Samuel Marsden showed up 200 years ago?
A doomed sinner or one who God loves, who Jesus has died for. A person for whom God is already present in their lives. We say to all people created in God’s image, you look so much your Father.
Abraham, Sarah, Ismael, Hagar. God with those cast out and with those part of the main story. Blessing being with both.
Behind all this is a bigger less self-centred vision. There is something more for us. Another story to be told over our lives. For this to happen it is about becoming more vulnerable it is about broadening our understanding of who things how God works. It is about overcoming our fears and insecurities and even our sense of our own unworthiness.
Going out into the desert or taking up our cross or dying to an old way of thinking and living. It’s about losing life to gain life. And that what’s Jesus does. And asks us to do the same as well. AMEN
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