June 25, 2017
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Lissa Wray Beal
Sermon synopsis: Genesis 21:8–21
The family of Abraham is a mess, a file a family counselor would mark “difficult.” Some of the problem can be credited to the long–ago culture in which they lived by norms other than God’s.
But that is not the source of all the mess. In an effort to fulfill God’s promise (not trusting God to do it in his time and way), Abraham and Sarah used Hagar as a concubine. Ishmael was born. Then, Sarah and Abraham did have a child, Isaac. The two women lived as rivals in the same home. There was pain, conflict, and abuse (see Genesis 16).
Today’s story shows that the problems have continued. They are worsened by concerns over inheritance rights, and some kind of affront as Isaac plays with Ishmael (the word suggests Isaac mocks Ishmael). Sarah demands Ishmael and Hagar be sent away. Abraham is distressed, but when God tells him to do as Sarah demands, Abraham complies. Despite the provisions Abraham supplies, Hagar and Ishmael are soon in trouble in the wilderness. She leaves her son to die, weeping at a distance so she won’t see his last moments.
So, how is this story Good News? We can’t write off as “just the Old Testament.” The Old Testament is part of God’s word, so part of the Good News.
I suggest there are 2 ways this story is Good News for us.
The first is that it serves as a mirror to our own lives. We might not live in the same situation (individually or as a family) as Abraham’s family. But we all can think of instances of similar jealousy, oppressive or uncaring action, guarding our own interests even though harming others, not trusting God’s timing. We live in a world where we see the tragedy of refugees (like Hagar).
This passage is Good News as it shows us how messed–up we are, alongside Abraham’s family. As individuals, as families, and a world–family, we are broken. And when we realize this, we are ready to receive Good News.
This passage is also Good News as it shows us God’s character. We might be troubled or ponder the fact that God aligns with Sarah’s demand. But we can’t accuse God of neglecting Hagar and Ishmael.
God might well be removing them from the ongoing harshness of living with Sarah’s jealousy. But once they are in the wilderness, and at their deepest point of need, “God heard” the cry of Ishmael. This is a fascinating phrase, because, in an account in which Ishmael is never once named, “God heard” is in Hebrew, “yishma–el.” It is the name of Ishmael, which means “he hears.” God hears and rescues this Egyptian slave woman and her son, sent away by Abraham. God hears, and provides for them: immediate needs (water). But also a promise for the future. God says, “Lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” And God is “with the boy” – just as he is “with Abraham” “with Isaac” “with Jacob” and “with Israel.”
In the promise to Ishmael, we are reminded that God does not send Hagar and Ishmael away empty–handed, or without protection. . . or even without blessing. God is working his promise through Isaac, but for Ishmael he also provides a promise of nationhood. Ishmael is also Abraham’s son, and God honours that relationship. He blesses Ishmael.
God is working a promise through Isaac, that all the nations will be blessed. In this passage, that promise is coming true even in the life and family of Hagar the Egyptian.
This passage shows that we are all broken. And in this brokenness, God long ago made a promise: that through Abraham’s descendant, all peoples – Jew and Gentile, male and female, young and old – would be blessed. That promise comes true in Jesus Christ who alone heals our brokenness.
The good news of this horrible family story is that God meets and saves even the outcast. He is with the broken: the Hagars, the Abrahams, the Sarahs—with us. He does not leave us to our broken lives, but Ishmael – God hears, and meets us where we most need him. He provides life for us. And we live.