There is an incontrovertible truth out there, perhaps second only to the one called Murphy’s Law, which everyone knows: The Law of Unintended Consequences. I see by your nods that you are at least somewhat familiar with it. I preached on the Genesis 21 passage at LutherCrest this past Wednesday, and I spoke about how we make a huge mess of things when we try to help God or when we do not let God be God in our lives. It provoked a number of interesting discussions after the service. Those not interested in meeting Hannah and David were very interested in pleading their case that their particular sins, their particular failures, made them unworthy of salvation. It was a particularly disturbing set of discussions, I must confess, in light of the fact that some other pastor had been through the week prior teaching them that they were all going to die and go to hell until Jesus returned to pull them out. This pastor seemed to have confirmed their worst fears at a very vulnerable time in their lives. As one lady laughed with me after we had worked through some of this, many of the residents are like her, closer to two feet in the grave than one! The idea of going to hell and hoping that Jesus would one day come and rescue them played into their fears that they are unworthy, that they are the unique ones for whom Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross was not enough!
Our reading in Genesis today should speak to that unspoken fear. Sarah has acted like anything but a saint up until this point in the narrative. When God first promised her that she and Abraham would have descendants that numbered like the stars in the sky or the sand on the beach, how did she respond? At times she scoffed at God because of her advanced age, at another times, though, she took matters into her own hands. Sometimes, that meant lying to kings; at other times, that meant treating a servant like a piece of meat. In a story that makes many of us uncomfortable, Sarah offered her maidservant Hagar to her husband Abraham. The story makes us uncomfortable because we know that Hagar could not really say no to her mistress’ offer. Abraham fathered a child with Hagar, whom he named Ishmael. Eventually, and not surprisingly, God kept His promise. Despite her advanced age, Sarah conceived and bore a son to Abraham, whom he named Isaac.
You and I can easily imagine the excitement, the joy. Both remained childless until they were nearly 100 years old. Having raised seven of my own, I’m not sure that the joy would overcome the work at that age. But I can well imagine the joy and wonder at such an event. The joy and wonder should have even been deeper because it signified to her that God had kept His promise. God had chosen her and her husband to be the head of a new nation. Now, against all the odds and all that they understood about nature, the beginning of that promise had been fulfilled. Yet, how does Sarah respond?
Our story picks up with her response. A couple years have passed. Ishmael, the son of Hagar and Abraham, is playing with her son Isaac and making him laugh. Ah, the horror! Can you imagine, two kids playing together and laughing! We laugh a bit at that idea, but that seems to be Ishmael’s great crime against Sarah. Sarah is upset about this and demands that Abraham cast out Hagar and her son. Now, we men can totally understand how Abraham must have felt, right? None of us have ever done what our wives told us and found ourselves in trouble, have we? Yes, I know ladies, that’s a two way street, but there is a reason that hurricanes were named only after women until the late 70’s.
All kidding aside, what has happened? God made a promise to Abraham and Sarah. Did they believe the promise? Not really. Sarah assumed that she was too old to bear children. So, she took matters into her own hands and told Abraham to sleep with her maidservant. Can you imagine that discussion? And, lest we blame Sarah only for a lack of faith, Abraham could have said no. True, it might have cost him some peace for a while, but he could have accepted God’s promise and chosen a wiser course. Now, the very thing they wanted to happen, the very thing they tried to make happen, is enraging his wife. She wants Ishmael gone. And Abraham is apparently praying about it. God tells Abraham to do what his wife says, that He will not forget the boy and the slave woman. So, wonderful Father Abraham, that magnificent saint of old, gives Hagar some bread, a single water skin, and her son, and tells her to leave. He does not remind his wife that Ishmael is the product of their “helping God.” He does not remind his wife that such a decision will likely cost the woman and her child their lives.
The rest of the consequence of Sarah’s and Abraham’s decision play out with God once again acting to keep His promise. Once the bread and water are gone and Hagar’s strength is played out, she sets the child down and goes about a bowshot away. She fully expects for her son to die, and she cannot stand the sound of it. Neither can she forget him and leave him. She simply watches from a distance and calls out in anguish to this God of her mistress and master.
Can you imagine her prayer? Lord, I was obedient to my mistress and master and look what it got me? Lord, if you are so merciful, why do you let us die from exposure? Why not kill him and me quickly? Lord, why am I being punished for my obedience? Why is my child punished for my obedience? As He promised Abraham, the Lord hears Hagar’s complaint and acts to save the boy and his mother. God tells her to take Ishmael’s hand and do not let go. He promises to make a nation of her son, too. And then, in confirmation of His power, He unveils a well of water which she uses to refill her skin and to slake Ishmael’s thirst. Eventually, we are told, Ishmael grows. He becomes an expert with the bow. Once old enough, Hagar finds her son a wife in Egypt. And from that marriage comes another nation.
I shared with the LutherCrest congregation that the result of this promise in the creation of what we now know as the Arabs. Think on that for just a second. In my life, countless hours have been spent by world leaders trying to reach an accord between the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac. There have been some modest successes, but overall, failure has far outweighed those successes. Sometimes, well meaning Christians will ask why they all can’t get along. Now we know the answer. Any of us have any family strife because of favoritism? Have any of us favored one child over another and experienced all manner of family fights? Perhaps a few of us were favored or, seemingly, ignored in light of another sibling. What we see playing out in the Middle East is simply family dynamics on a massive scale.
All of that brings us back to the so-called Law of Unintended Consequences. Do you think Sarah could have ever imagined, when she first told Abraham to father a child on Hagar, that her offer would lead to strife some three to four thousand years later? Do you think Abraham could have ever foreseen that consequence when he agreed to Sarah’s demands to cast out the child and Hagar? In the classic sense of the term, Abraham and Sarah shared a hamartia. Though the term will be picked up by Paul, as in his letter today, to describe sin, it was originally an archery term, “Missing the mark.” In the Greek tragedies, it signified a simultaneous belief and disbelief in the promises or oracles of God. Oedipus may have had the most famous hamartia, but Sarah’s and Abraham’s are no less tragic. Both agree to leave Ur and head to the Land that God will give them. Along the way, He promises to make of them a great nation. And from that point forward, they experience the struggle of faith.
Do Abraham and Sarah believe God? They sure believed Him enough to leave their ancestral inheritance in search of the Land He promised. Do they really believe that He can keep His promises to them? Not so much. Sarah scoffs when informed she will conceive. No wonder! She is well past the change of life for a woman. Imagine your own thoughts, those of us ladies of a certain age, if God said you were going to conceive at age 99! Of course, God’s promise was not just the child; He promised to make a nation of their descendants. Sarah and Abraham understandably thought God needed help fulfilling His promises to them. Kings sometimes kill the spouses of those whom they desire, as one of their heirs named David can attest. Elderly women conceiving is its own challenge that seemed to require a maidservant. Finally, if both sons were present, might the one infringe on the inheritance of the other? We can understand their belief and disbelief, even as we criticize their behavior.
You and I, though, have even less reason not to trust God. Abraham and Sarah stand at the far beginning of God’s covenant and mercies. At times, I am sure they thought themselves crazy for trusting the voice that said “Go.” You and I, though, live on this side of the fulfilled promise of God. Christ has died! Christ has risen! Sarah and Abraham could only trust the voice they heard. You and I have the testimony of the Twelve, of the women, and of the countless saints who have come since. We have every reason not to fail to trust God. We know! We absolutely know His power over death and His power to redeem our sins! We know!
And yet, how many times in our lives will we evidence that same belief and disbelief as evidence by our spiritual matriarch and patriarch? How many times will we turn our aim from God’s will, God’s plan, to our own? How many times will we shoot blindly at a target of our own making?
One of the wonderful lessons of this story, brothers and sister, is that our lives are not ruled by the Law of Unintended Consequences. Our lives are ruled by the loving, merciful God who, despite our failures, despite our sins, desires nothing more than to draw us to Himself. He desires that kind of communion with us so much that He was willing to die for each one of us, just as He promised Abraham and Sarah so long ago. Often forgotten in these stories of Abraham and Sarah is the story of the smoking fire pot. We might criticize Sarah and Abraham and later ourselves for our failures to keep God’s instructions, but God knew all this about us before He ever created the world! The covenant which God swore to Abraham was common in those days. What was unique about that covenant, though, was that God made Himself the ultimate One responsible for the failure of their descendants and our inability to keep the terms of the promise. In effect, when God passed between those animals, He pledged to Abraham and Sarah that, if they or their heirs ever failed to live up to the covenant, He would pay with His life. He would pay the price for their and our failures. He would pay the price for all failures. Now, in this time after the fulfillment of that covenant, all He asks is that we seek Him, aim for His target, and trust in His ability to see us through all things.
By virtue of that pastor’s focus on hell and of this reading, the group on Wednesday spent a great deal of time reflecting on those times where they believed and disbelieved God’s promises. Hopefully, at various times in your walk with God, you have done the same thing. Have you tried to help God out with a better way of doing things? Probably. I know I have. Have you ever forgotten His promises and found yourself scrambling to work yourself out of a particularly difficult jam, perhaps using methods upon which your Lord would frown? Most likely. I know I have. Have you ever found yourself scoffing at the Lord’s promises to you, certain in your own belief that you are uniquely unredeemable in God’s eyes? There is no real need to answer that question, is there? Each of us struggles with that belief and disbelief. We want so desperately to believe that our Father in heaven loves us deeply; yet we find so hard to accept that He died for us knowing our sins before we were ever born. It is an amazing thought, is it not, to be that loved, that cherished. Like conceiving and giving birth at near 100 years of age, it defies all the world accepts and expects.
There is a strong temptation, brothers and sisters, to skip from Isaac’s birth to his near sacrifice in next week’s readings. We want so badly to focus on the mountaintop experiences of our faith. Yet the story related in Genesis, as told by God to Moses, included this deep descent into Sarah’s treatment of, and Abraham’s acquiescence to, one of the results of their failure to trust God. More’s the pity when we ignore it. Scripture is replete with stories of God’s mercy. In particular, Scripture is full of stories of God forgiving those whom He has chosen for their sins and their failures, and then His use of them to grow His kingdom. Whether we are speaking of Sarah & Abraham, David, Peter, Paul, or ourselves, it does not matter. His power to redeem all things, even death, is greater than ours. We may think we live under a cloud, we may think Murphy has dominion over us, we may think the Law of Unintended Consequences governs our lives. The glorious truth is that His mercy, His truth, His grace rules our lives, if we will but give up the reigns and the idea that we can do things better. In the end, as Jesus reminds us today, you and I are of incredible value to our Lord. Why not quit flogging yourself and start seeking His will for you.