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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hagar and the God Who Hears (Genesis 21.9-21)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
February 26, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "Forty Days and Forty Nights" (Callahan)
Hymn of Praise: "The Old Rugged Cross" (OLD RUGGED CROSS)
Hymn of Praise: "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" (Guitar arr.) (ST. CHRISTOPHER)

The Word in Music: "This Lonesome Valley" (Susan Slade, flute) (Price/Besig)
Offering of Music: "Grace in the Wilderness" (Heaslip/Redman)

Hymn of Sending: "All I Have is Christ" (Jordan Kauflin)
Postlude: "O God, Thou Faithful God" (Karg-Elert)

Hagar and the God Who Hears
Text: Genesis 21:9-21

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a “season” of the church calendar that tells God’s story throughout the year. The traditional text to study is that of Jesus being tested in the desert before beginning his public ministry that led to the cross on what we now call Good Friday. And that will be a text we look at next Sunday as we see more connections between God’s story in the Old Testament and God’s story in the New. But today, and in the other weeks leading up to Easter, we will be looking at Lenten themes in Genesis.

Last December we saw the many parallels between Abraham and Sarah’s story of waiting for God’s promise for a people and the birth of a child and the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph and God’s people and the birth of the Messiah in the baby Jesus. Between now and Easter we will pick Abraham and Isaac’s story back up from Genesis 21-22, and we’ll see themes parallel to those in Jesus’ life as we look at themes of wilderness, testing, obedience, and God’s faithfulness.

Today we start in the camp with Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, who is now two or three years old, but we quickly move to the important story of Hagar and Ishmael, the son she had with Abraham before the birth of Isaac. There is a lot going on story-wise, but I want to focus in on one important theme that runs throughout the Old Testament, and emerges strongly in the New Testament, and that is God’s heart for the world. 

Mocking (vv. 9-14)

This part of this story starts out with what could be a scene out of any ordinary family. An older brother – in this case, 15 year old Ishmael – is making fun of his toddler baby brother, Isaac. While this may have been the tipping point to ignite a family crisis, there is a lot of history behind this. Abraham is the old patriarch of the family, the one to whom God has spoken and made the covenant promises. After years and years of not being able to have children with his wife, Sarah, they followed local custom and had Hagar, Sarah’s serving girl, have a child with Abraham. That was Ishmael. And if you’ve read Genesis, you may remember an earlier incident where Sarah became jealous of Hagar and drover her away. As she fled, Hagar encountered the Lord, who told her to return to Sarah and also promised her many descendants. Hagar returned calling God “The God Who Sees,” both because God saw her condition and because she lived to tell about it.

After Ishmael was born to Abraham, he raised him as his heir and included him in the covenant through circumcision when the boy was 13. When God promised a son through Sarah, Abraham laughed and showed his love for Ishmael, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” (Genesis 17:18) So yes, Isaac was the covenant child of promise who finally came through a miraculous birth. But there was some family tension there, particularly with Sarah, mother of the newborn Isaac.

So, when Ishmael was mocking the toddler – who knows how, maybe saying that he shouldn’t be the true heir; maybe saying his mother was old. Actually, the Ancient Greek Old Testament says that Ishmael was only “playing” with Isaac. Regardless, it was too much for Sarah and pushed her over the edge. Look at verse 10 – Sarah refused to recognize Ishmael as a son of Abraham and she said to Abraham, “Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” She refused to even name them, refused to “share” any hint of inheritance, family, promise, or blessing. So that was Sarah’s tipping point and response. “Send them away so that I don’t have to deal with them or hear them mock me or my son again.”

Notice two other responses in these early verses. In verse 11, we read briefly, but poignantly of Abraham’s response. He is a man caught in the middle – “the matter distressed Abraham greatly because of his son.” Which son? Was he distressed that Isaac was being teased? Was he distressed that Sarah wanted him to disown and banish Ishmael, the only son he had known for 13 years and the one he had marked as a child of the covenant? I think the text is intentionally vague and reflects the confusion in Abraham’s own heart and mind.

And look at verse 12 – God speaks to Abraham as well. This is, perhaps, the hardest perspective to understand, for God tells Abraham to listen to his wife. The hard part is that Sarah clearly seems to be responding out of jealousy, hurt, and anger. But that doesn’t mean that God is. If anything, we learn later in Genesis, that God is able to take what human beings mean for harm and bring blessing out of it. So don’t be distressed that God seems to be condoning Sarah’s behavior; I don’t think that is the case. Rather, God is consistent with everything we have already read in Genesis. He upholds the covenant with Abraham – “Remember, Abraham, Isaac is the child I promised you; it is right to guard and love this gift I’ve given you.” But God is not done… “I will take care of Ishmael; I will make a nation of him, because he is also your descendant and I have blessed you.” It’s not unlike the original story in the Garden: God has a plan; we depart from it; God is not worried or undone, but pursues humanity anyway. Isaac was God’s plan, and God will bless him; Ishmael was Abraham’s backup (or disobedience, if you will), and God will bless and pursue him as well.

The end result of this scene, however Abraham ended up understanding it, was that he gave Hagar and Ishmael some provisions and sent them away. 

The Place of Abandonment and Loss (vv. 14b-16)

All that really is backdrop to the heart of today’s text, which begins halfway through verse 14 with Hagar’s perspective. At that point, she “departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba.” She was expelled… kicked out. And she wandered about. She wasn’t journeying across wilderness to get somewhere; she was simply wandering around lost in spirit and purpose. She and Ishmael continued to wander until the water was all used up and then she sat down for them both to die. Her last pleading prayer, if you want to call it that, was weeping out loud, not wanting to see her son die in front of her. Such loss! And for what reason? She had not sinned extravagantly against God or Abraham. Her son had made fun of Isaac, but come on, he’s a 15 year old boy; is that cause for this?

The bottom line is that I think Abraham and Sarah did not see a place in the covenant family for Hagar and Ishmael. I think there WAS a place, but in their human sinfulness, they could not see it and drove her out.

And I’m torn this morning. Do I point us to the failings of Abraham and Sarah and challenge us about all those we keep or drive away from the Church through our own behavior, attitudes, or indifference? Or do I acknowledge that some of you feel like Hagar this morning, wandering around in your own wild place and feeling like your reserves are just about used up. Maybe your weeping prayer is to not have to see the end.

And let me not fail to acknowledge that we are surrounded – in this neighborhood, in our greater community, and in the world – with example after example of Hagars and Ishmaels, who are wandering, lost, and in need of God’s help. 

God Hears and Provides (vv. 17-21)

Look at verse 17. Here is the Good News! “God heard the lad crying.” Keep reading… “The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is.’”

This is the heart of this story – this is the Gospel. God has heard the voice of those crying where they are. And where are they? They are outside the camp, outside the family, seemingly outside the covenant and everything else that God has named holy. And it’s not even clear that Hagar or Ishmael were praying or calling out to God. They were simply crying and at the end of their rope. AND GOD HEARD THEM.

Don’t miss that! That is a vital part of the Gospel that we cannot miss. The Gospel isn’t the story of good people finding their way to God; it is the story of a good God finding His way to lost people. That includes Hagar, Ishmael, Abraham, Sarah, the struggling family we don’t yet know down the street, the end-of-your-rope folks sitting in here today, every one of you, and me. The good God hears you where you are.

Remember, too, Hagar’s earlier experience with God. She had already experienced God as the One who Sees. And now, God is the One who Hears.

And God is the One who Provides. This will become so very clear in the next chapter, which we will study over the four weeks leading up to Easter. There, Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac to the Lord and in the end God provides a Lamb in his place. We will come up to Easter and see that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God is the One who Provides – over and above what we need.

What happens through Jesus is prefigured in what happens with Abraham and Isaac. And what happens with Abraham and Isaac is prefigured here in the wild places with two outsiders and outcasts. The Lord hears and sees and provides. God says to Hagar in verse 18, “Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” And God led her to a well and they were able to get water. And they survived and thrived and grew a family in that land. Oh, and did I mention? Ishmael’s name means “God hears.”

Now this is not a prosperity gospel word to you who feel like Hagar. I am not saying that God will cause you to win the lottery, give you all you ask for, or anything like that. But God hears and sees you and will provide out of wisdom, mercy, and grace. What that looks like specifically for you, I don’t know; but I do know the character of God and the testimony of scripture… that there is no place you can go, wander, or hide where you are beyond the reach of God’s love. Nowhere. 

People Who See and Hear

In terms of interpreting this story and where it leaves off, we are left with an interesting dilemma. It is true that Abraham and Sarah continue on and are blessed to become the parents of God’s chosen people. And we have seen that God saw and heard and provided for Hagar and Ishmael in the wild places. But we are also left with the apparent selfishness of Abraham and Sarah and the resulting breach between them and Hagar and Ishmael. Is God done with them? Is seeing, hearing, and providing for isolated people the end of God’s story?

It is not. Remember again that God’s covenant with Abraham was not just to bless his family and descendants, but through them to bless the whole world. And this was a reflection of God’s love of all the peoples of the world.

The story of the New Testament and what God brought about through Jesus Christ was to fulfill all that was intended in that original covenant. Now Hagar is to be reconciled with Sarah through Jesus. Ishmael is to be reconciled with Isaac through Jesus.

Is that too theological for you? Here’s what this means…

God’s intent has never been for His people to be self-contained and oblivious to the rest of the world. Jesus said that he did not come to take his followers OUT OF the world. Rather, like him, we are to be IN the world (just not OF it), because God loves the world. The role of the Church is not to be the fortress of holy perfection but the sending station of those whose heart reflects the heart of God. In other words, we are sent outside these walls to be a people who hear and see those who are struggling, lost, and alone and we are to be a people who provide the hope of Christ.

The Church is the covenant people of God, blessed to be a blessing. And the New Testament model for that is found in Galatians 3:28-29 – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.”

One might read today’s text and assume that church folks are Abrahams and Sarahs and our neighbors are Hagars and Ishmaels. And to be sure, there is a tendency in the Church to hole up and purify and shut out folks not like us.

But listen – I am preaching to Hagars and Ishmaels this morning because I assume the rightness of our mission. I assume that if we are really being the Church God intends that we are so actively engaged in the lives of our neighbors and the world that we will welcome the lost and hurting and outsider IN. And I am assuming that we understand ourselves to be such a gathering of those who have or are lost, wandering, struggling, or afraid that rather than fleeing the camp, you may find this place exactly where you want and need to be this morning.

I am presuming that if we really are a lighthouse to the lost and a searchlight for the struggling that there will never be a week where Hagar and Ishmael are not seated somewhere near you. And there will never be a week that we do not leave here intent on being a people that see and hear hopelessness and a people that provide the hope of Christ.

So whether you need to be reminded of the God you serve or whether you need a word of hope this morning, hear the Good News:

God sees you and hears you; God loves you and has provided for you, most completely in and through His Son, Jesus Christ. That is news we celebrate and share lavishly here and it is news we don’t hoard and keep to ourselves, but carry out with us to the world God loves. Amen.

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