GOD’S UNBREAKABLE PROMISE
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 25, 2017; 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Genesis 21:8-21; Matthew 10:24-39
“As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation
of him also, because he is your offspring.”
Lots of people think Christianity and family values are closely linked together: and so they are. But there are times, as we’re reading the scriptures, when the family values we encounter aren’t exactly those we’re used to. This is most often true of the Hebrew scriptures: especially the Book of Genesis.
This morning’s lesson — the tale of the slave Hagar and her son, Ishmael — is one such passage. It’s a tale of biblical people behaving badly. And it’s all the more troubling because of who it is who’s doing the bad behaving. It’s none other than Abraham and his wife, Sara.
Last week in worship, we read the most famous story about Abraham and Sara: how God had promised Abraham children. God had earlier promised him that his descendants would be numberless as the stars in the heavens.
There was only one problem. Abraham set out on his epic journey of faith when he was in his 70s. He and Sara had, as yet, no children. But then, as we heard last week, God promised Sara would bear him a child.
Well, Sara’s so bowled over by this news that she bursts out laughing. But God tells the two of them it’s no joke. And what do you know, but a short while later, Sara discovers she’s expecting. Eventually she gives birth to Isaac, the long-promised heir. In that boy’s blood, God’s covenant with Israel flows, even down to the present day.
But there was a problem intruding on that sweet little family drama. Abraham already had a son and heir.
That boy’s name was Ishmael. His mother wasn’t Sara. His mother was a woman named Hagar, a slave in Abraham’s household, a serving-maid to his wife.
Take a moment, now, and step back. Consider the full scenario I’ve just laid out. There’s a certain “ick factor” that goes along with the story of a man in his 70s sleeping with a young woman who’s not his wife, and who in fact works for him. No, more than that: she’s owned by him.
Even more bizarrely, all this happened at the instigation of Sara. She and her husband were desperate to see God’s promise fulfilled. Sara felt certain she couldn’t so it — have a child at her advanced age. And so she called in her maid, Hagar, and ordered her to become the surrogate mother.
What choice did poor Hagar have? She was a slave. Her body was literally the property of her master and mistress.
Well, maybe we can explain the bad behavior away because of the cultural differences. This was a polygamous society: it was not unusual for a prosperous man to have many wives. It was also a slave-owning society: and the dark little secret in every slave-owning society was that it wasn’t at all unusual for a man to command a young, attractive slave to join him in his bed.
Even if you accept the different-culture explanation, what happens next in our story — years after the birth of Ishmael and a much shorter time after the birth of Isaac — is not morally acceptable by any stretch of the imagination.
Sara — who’d once engineered the birth of Ishmael to give her husband an heir — grows jealous of the young son of her serving-maid. One day she sees Ishmael playing with the baby Isaac, and the sight of the two of them together makes her blood run cold.
There’s no doubt Isaac is the legitimate heir — Sara, after all, is Abraham’s legal wife, so her son takes precedence over his older half-brother. But not if Isaac dies. In that case, her husband’s illegitimate son could inherit.
No one knows how old Ishmael is at this point in the story. He’s certainly not a baby. Some think he could even be a teenager. What if Ishmael realizes one day that — if Isaac’s out of the picture — he inherits everything? What if, when he’s playing with the baby — as he is today — he arranges for his half-brother to have a little accident?
It’s not that Ishmael’s thinking such a dark thought. It’s that Sara thinks he could be thinking it. She finds herself watching him like a hawk. Can she ever feel her son is safe when this potential competitor is in the camp? Sara can’t put that paranoid fantasy out of her head. She decides Ishmael — along with his all-too-attractive mother — has got to go.
Sara goes in to Abraham and demands that he send Hagar and Ishmael away. The scriptures tell us, “The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.” But he caves in to Sara’s demand. He does nothing to stop the dreadful plan.
It’s at this point God speaks to Abraham and tells him to go ahead and do what Sara’s asking. “Don’t worry about it,” God says. “I’ve given you Isaac as the heir of the covenant. As for Ishmael, I will make of him a great nation as well.”
So, Abraham gives Hagar a loaf of bread and a waterskin. He sends her, along with her son, out into the desert.
There’s no way these meager provisions are adequate. Under the scorching desert sun, the water doesn’t last them a day. In no time at all, she and Ishmael are dying of thirst.
He’s in worse shape than she. Hagar lays him down in the shade of a small bush and sits down a short distance off. She can’t bear to watch her son’s life slip away.
It’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of scripture. What a terrible thing it is, for any mother, to look on her dying child and know there’s nothing she can do to save him!
Miraculously, God intervenes. “God heard the voice of the boy,” the Bible says. The Lord sends an angel to reassure Hagar, to tell her God’s covenant is still in effect. Ishmael will one day be the father of a great nation.
Then, God points Hagar in the direction of a nearby well. “God was with the boy,” the scriptures go on to say. He grew up in the wilderness, an expert hunter. When it came time for him to marry, his mother found him an Egyptian woman to be his wife.
We don’t hear much more about Ishmael after that, but there’s plenty about him in the teachings of Islam. Muslims believe the Arab people — and Muhammad in particular — are descended from Ishmael.
This is a story about God’s promises: how even Israel’s great patriarch and his wife fail to understand how rock-solid those promises are. Lacking in faith, they hedge their bets. They allow their doubts to rule them.
The first time they do this is when they grow impatient with the lack of an heir. They force poor Hagar to bear Abraham’s child. The second time they doubt is when Sara laughs, ridiculing God for that ridiculous announcement that she will bear a child. The third time is when she fails to trust God’s promise to protect Isaac. Sara takes the protector role into her own hands, convincing her husband to send his firstborn and his mother on a death-march into the wilderness.
The Book of Genesis says God has the situation well in hand, all along. But, having heard the promise, even Abraham and Sara — those paragons of biblical faith — can’t bring themselves to trust God completely.
Isn’t that the dilemma for us, as well? We hear God’s promises in scripture and want them to be true, but we don’t always live as though that’s so.
There are two things I’d like to say, today, about God’s promises. The first is that they’re bigger than we can ever imagine. The second is that they’re more reliable than we dare believe.
First, let’s look at the bigness of God’s promises.
We’ve all got a natural tendency to think of God’s promises as not very big at all: as referring mainly to ourselves. That’s not the way it is in the Bible, by and large. God may speak to individuals like Abraham, but it’s always for the purpose of capturing the hearts of an entire people. It’s not so much about Abraham and Sara, Hagar and Ishmael, as it’s about the whole people of Israel.
It’s true even in the New Testament. The Prologue to John’s Gospel tells of how Jesus “came to his own people and his own people received him not.” That’s “people,” plural; “people” as in nation. Of course, Jesus calls individual disciples, but that’s in service to a larger mission. On Pentecost the disciples quickly learn what the Holy Spirit’s equipping them for: to bring the good news to entire nations.
Lots of people today are doing DNA genealogy, swabbing a bit of saliva from inside their cheek and sending it off to a lab for analysis. A report comes back a few weeks later. It tells them what parts of the world their ancestors came from.
It’s a mighty big view, covering large swathes of the planet. That has inspired people to turn inwards and explore their family tree, using new tools now available on the Internet. Those who begin that kind of project quickly realize what a vast undertaking it is.
Here’s what I mean. Everyone has two biological parents, four grandparents and eight great-grandparents (that’s going three generations back). With every generation before that, the number of our ancestors multiplies exponentially.
Count five generations back, and you’ll list 32 direct ancestors. Ten, and you’re up to 4,096. By the time you reach the 20th generation, you’ve topped a million: that’s 1,048,576 ancestors, to be exact. Your family tree is looking a lot more like a forest.
When the Lord promises Abraham his descendants will be numberless as the stars in the heavens, God really means it.
It’s a promise that belongs to all of us — for you and I, my friends, are numbered among Abraham’s descendants. God’s promises are bigger than we can ever imagine!
The second point I’d like to make today about God’s promises is that they are more reliable than we dare believe.
We all have a tendency — don’t we? — to imagine the worst. Life’s going along just fine, till we hit a bump in the road: and then we convince ourselves everything’s falling apart.
Whatever happened to God’s promised covenant? Whatever happened to Christ’s promise to be with us always? It’s often a lot harder for us to hold fast to God’s promises on a cloudy day than in the bright sunshine.
You may remember a famous episode in the life of the prophet Elijah. After winning the contest with the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel, his enemies gang up on him and he has to flee for his life. He ends up hiding in a cave on the side of a mountain. When God catches up with him and asks what he’s doing there, Elijah gives the Lord a sob story to end all sob stories. “They’ve all deserted me,” he complains. “I, I alone am left.”
God says, “You’re a little off with your numbers, Elijah. I’ve got 6,000 more people just like you, who haven’t bowed down to Baal.” Elijah did what you and I so often do: he ditched God’s promises and imagined the worst.
I had a time in my life when I came close to doing that. Before I got cancer, I somehow believed — quite irrationally — that I was so living in God’s favor that nothing bad could ever really happen to me. I’ve responded to God’s call, I said to myself: so God will surely reward me with a long life so I can have many years of service.
It’s hard to keep up that kind of magical thinking when you’re hooked up to an IV machine in the chemo suite. Yes, cancer was a bit of a faith-crisis for me — it is for just about everyone — but one day, in the midst of all that, I began to adjust my thinking. Maybe the cancer diagnosis itself was a part of my ministry. Maybe the Lord had some lessons for me to learn. Maybe I was being equipped by that experience to be of service to others.
It’s actually an asset to ministry to be a cancer survivor. Every time I sit down and talk with someone who’s struggling with a new diagnosis, there’s an instant, mutual recognition — a rapport — based on our common experience. Back when I began that journey, I started writing a blog called A Pastor’s Cancer Diary. I started it for practical reasons: to control the messages going out about my health, so the information you all were getting would be accurate. It quickly became a way to voice my joys as well as my fears. I’m not nearly so active in posting new entries as I used to be, but it continues to amaze me how many people from all over the world find their way to it somehow.
Far from being all washed up, I was beginning a new phase of my ministry. God’s promises proved more reliable than I’d dared to believe!
So, God’s promises are big. They’re reliable. And finally, from a Christian standpoint, I’d like to add that they’re one thing more. God’s promises are fulfilled in a very personal way in Jesus Christ.
The Book of Acts tells how, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter gave a powerful sermon to the assembled crowds, explaining what had just happened and what God had in mind. At the end of it, the people asked, “Brothers, what should we do?”
Peter replied: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
He continued: “For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
For you, and for your children, yes — but also for all who are far away. The promise is not only for Isaac, but also for Ishmael. Once God extends the promise, God never calls it back.
You can count on that, in your own life: I promise.
But what I promise isn’t so important. It’s what God promises that counts.
Let us pray.
Remind us, loving Lord,
that, no matter how often we may forget it,
we remain children of the promise.
Though we may wander at times through dry and desert places,
you show us where the hidden springs are found.
You lead us through the dark valley
to the green pastures and the still waters,
to the place where souls are restored.
Thank you, Lord, for your promise never to leave us
nor forsake us. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.