Early in the week, I had landed on Matthew and the divisions that Jesus names as a result of faith in Him. It’s a difficult passage for many Christians, and so it is worth us spending some time discussing His words. But, I found myself in an interesting conversation yesterday with a couple other clergy about the passage from Genesis. The conversation began with a deacon asking us if we ever preach on anything other than the Gospel. Me, being typical smart-alecky me, said of course not. The other clergy was a bit more pastoral and asked what she meant. She went on to state that she had been taught in her deacon class that they should always preach on the Gospel. Such was fine, at least the first time or two through the lectionary, but after a while, you know, it sort of . . . I think the words she was looking for was “gets boring,” but she realized what she was saying and did not want to say it. Then I got a bit more serious and reminded her that the Gospel is in every book from Genesis to Revelation. After a reminder of Jesus’ words about Him being the focus of everything written in the torah, the prophets, and the psalms, I shared how I get a little disappointed that I don’t hit the Old Testament enough. She asked what I meant. I told her that if 60-65% of God’s word is in the Old Testament, shouldn’t our percentage of sermons on the Old Testament near that 60% figure? After all, Jesus preached exclusively on what you and I call the Old Testament, right?
After some further conversation, the deacon asked me if I was preaching on the Old Testament this week. I told her no, I was preaching on division this week from Matthew. She laughed at me and my earlier enthusiasm. So I told her I did preach last week on the Genesis passage and the accompanying excitement and my children’s lack of enthusiasm regarding that sermon. “So,” she asked, “if you were preaching on it this week, how would you preach on it and bring it back to Jesus?” I did. And all our responses was that it was the start of a decent sermon. The other priest joked that he wished we had had this conversation on Monday or Tuesday so he could flesh it out for his own sermon. The deacon joked that it was better than hers for today. And the more I thought and prayed about it, the more I liked it. So, if you were expecting me to preach on division, which is apropos to our life at Advent right now, you are apt to be disappointed.
So, a bit of background for those of you who missed last week. We are in the end stages of a 25 year unfolding of God’s covenant with Abraham. Those of us who cruise through the lectionary or never hear sermons or teachings on Genesis miss that important detail. We like to think that Sarah and Abraham are paragons of faith. We sometimes like to think that they are superheroes of faith. We like to think that they made no mistakes in their walk with God. And, yet, the Bible points out the successes and failures of our matriarchs and patriarchs and saints to give us hope and encouragement. Just as God can overcome their failings or mistakes, He can overcome our own. The people about whom we read in the stories are normal, everyday people like you and me. And because we only get these high and low parts of their faith walk with God, we sometimes forget that we do not get the mundane details of 25 years.
It’s made worse, I think, by the fact that our lesson today comes between the final unveiling that Sarah and Abraham will give birth to an heir the old fashioned way last week and next week’s reading which tells us of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice the result of that covenant, Isaac, on the altar at the request of the Lord.
Today’s reading deals with the consequences of a couple of those big mistakes. Looking on this side of the covenant with Abraham, you and I know that God intended for Sarah and Abraham to give birth to a son. Isaac’s birth is, seemingly, the big goal of chapters 12-21. Of course, when Isaac is born, there’s not too much fanfare in Scripture regarding his birth. It’s almost as if Isaac’s birth is no big deal. We even skip it in our lectionary reading. Last week we read that God promised them a son within a year; this week we read that the promised child is weaned. As many of us know, there’s a bit of life that happens between trying to have a child and getting to a point that the child is weaned!
Early in our reading, though, we read that Sarah was annoyed by the presence of the son of Hagar. If we do not know the story, such an annoyance may seem like no big deal. But Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to bear a child. That’s right. Sarah made Hagar sleep with Abraham in the hopes she would conceive. Hagar does conceive. And their relationship deteriorates from the moment of that realization to this point. Sarah is not being very saintly; heck, Sarah is not being very understanding. Hagar had no say in the matter. Her mistress gave her to Abraham for the purpose of producing an heir. One of my colleagues on the Rome Consultation thinks of Sarah as the first pimp in Scripture. And now, because Hagar did what Sarah demanded, Sarah is mad. Several chapters earlier, we learn that Sarah abuses Hagar when Hagar is pregnant. Hagar eventually responds by fleeing. While in the wilderness, though, she encounters God, who tells Hagar to return and suffer Sarah’s abuse. God promises Hagar that her son will grow up strong and the father of a great nation.
Now, Sarah has finally given birth to a child. She sees this son of Hagar playing with her son Isaac and demands of Abraham to cast out the son and the mother. Abraham is understandably distressed and rather weak. He was dubious when Sarah came up with this plan originally. He is the father of this child whom Sarah hates. Yet he is only distressed greatly. God speaks to Abraham in his distressed moment and instructs Abraham to do as Sarah asks. God promises to bless the boy because he is Abraham’s son, too.
Sarah’s desire is basically a death sentence for Hagar and her young son. Remember the desire of Abraham last week to get the angels to turn aside for a break. It is a dry hot land for as far as the eye can see. All Hagar is given is a skin of water and some food. Add to that the possibility of any bandits, and this is a situation ripe for a bad ending. Not unsurprising, the food and water run out. Hagar is devastated at what this means for her son. If you have ever had a child suffering in a hospital or killed in a car wreck or diagnosed with cancer, you can well understand the emotions plaguing Hagar. Rather than listen to the whimpering and suffering of her son, she places him beyond her ears but still stands watch.
It is at this most desperate of times that a truly unique thing happens. God speaks to Hagar . . . for a second time! That’s right. God speaks to this woman outside the covenant for the second time. We who like to think that God is predictable and cares only for His people and usually only speaks with men speaks to the woman who will become the matriarch of the people we know as Muslim. If you have ever read Jesus’ encounters with women in Scripture and wondered what caused the God incarnate to speak with them, it has always happened since the beginning! But that’s another sermon. In today’s God speaks to a woman who is outside the covenant family for the second time! It seems to me we get a couple of important lessons in today’s readings.
The first lesson is made more obvious by its absence. If you are reading this passage or paying close attention to my sermon, you might notice that the name of Hagar’s son is only mentioned once in this passage. Ishmael. God hears. Part of Hagar’s struggle, and our own, is the question of whether God knows or cares what is happening to us. Hagar lives on the other side of the Cross and Resurrection, so we should not be too surprised by her questioning or doubt. Or to be fairer, you and I know that the ultimate sign of God’s care and concern for us was the life and ministry and death and Resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Yet even though we live on this side of His incarnate ministry, how often do we find ourselves despondent at life’s circumstances? In that way we are very much like Hagar. Remember her first encounter? It is there that she names God the God who sees. Now, however, she renames Him as God hears.
The application to our modern lives and modern work in His name is rather obvious, but I think it bears repeating. How often do we wonder whether God hears our prayers? How often do we wonder if He is paying attention to those issues that keep us up late at night? How often do we think God must not be really paying close attention to us? Or too distracted by weightier matters than to worry about our own issues? Or simply disappointed with us and our behavior? How many of us Adventers have been praying to God for some kind of provision, some kind of sign, some kind of acknowledgement that He has not forgotten us in His grand plan of salvation? How many have asked me if I worry that He is deaf to what we are going through?
Ishmael! God hears! God hears and sees everything! Even more amazing, God cares! Those of us in the Church, the modern people of God, like to think we have God all figured out. He loves His favorites, which always includes us, and He hates our enemies. The truth is, of course, that the covenant He swore with Abraham and Sarah was for the purpose of Abraham’s and Sarah’s people and ultimate seed of being a nation of priests, a light unto the world! God did not make this covenant with Abraham and Sarah because they were special or remarkable; God made Abraham and Sarah remarkable and special because He chose them. In spite of them. All of this choosing and covenant swearing and oath making was for the purpose of redeeming the world. Think John 3:16, just not as eloquently. God engages in this selecting so that He might better woo us all, even slave women outside the covenant! But if He is concerned with those outside the covenant, just how more attentive must He be to those with whom He has sworn a covenant?
Think of it this way, though we are always treading dangerous ground when speaking of God anthropomorphically. If God hears the cries of a slave woman outside the covenant, how much more attuned must His ears be to the cries of you and me, to whom He has bound Himself through baptism? How much more attuned must His ears be to the cries of His sons and daughters, who are in His Son Christ, than the “stranger?” Just because He does not answer us the way would like Him to does not mean He does not hear or care. We know of His loving are for each of us because He sent His Son to us.
The other important lesson for us today involves a bit of politics. I have already alluded to this lesson in my discussion of enemies. We on the inside of the Church and Church politics are so sure that our desires and wants and wishes align with God’s that we are sometimes deaf to the truth claims of those on the margins. Now, hear me clearly, I am not claiming that those outside the Church will gain the salvation of their souls through a means other than Christ. Quite the contrary. I am saying, though, that some outside the inner cadre of the Church or even outside the Church may well have some special revelation or truth to share. When setting missions and casting visions for a church, we like to turn to those who are like us for their ideas. Too often, politics being politics, we like to think that we, and people like us, are the favorites of our Father in heaven. Yet time and time again God ignores the normal human way of doing things. In Genesis alone, how many times does God pass over the firstborn son when swearing the covenant with the next generation? You and I, therefore, should be more attuned to those on the margins when we are really working for God.
How does this play out at Advent? Do we given equal weight to discernment? Or do we listen to the “special” voices that we think are most like us? Do we recognize that God cares as much and can speak as easily through a teenage boy? A widow? A young child? A middle aged middle manager? A non-Adventer? When trying to serve other’s in Christ’s name, do we ask how we can best serve them? Or do we tell them what we think they need or should want? I see the squirming. It makes us uncomfortable to think that God chooses people not like us. Yet that is the beauty of all His work, right? God swore this covenant with Abraham not because He wanted to squash all of Abraham’s enemies, but because He wanted to use Abraham to woo the world. Similarly, He sent His Son Jesus Christ our Lord not to condemn the world, but to redeem it. He sent His Son so that we would realize that He is wooing each and every person we might encounter in our daily life and work.
The truth is, brothers and sisters, in reality, you and I have far more in common with Hagar than we do with God. We have nothing which merits Him paying attention to us, except our love and thanksgiving for His work in and through us. And it’s that desire for Him which causes Him to see, to hear, and to reach for us always. It’s that same tender care for all the children of the earth that causes Him to send you and to send me in His name, that all might be drawn into His fatherly embrace.