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Terra Bella Presbyterian Church Aug. 6, 2017
Genesis 16:1-4; 21:8-14; 17:16-18; 20-21 Galatians 4:21-31

As I was studying in Genesis, I noticed something that hadn’t struck me before, and I found it curiously funny. I suspect you all know the story of how God promised Abram a son. Well, you’ll also recall that God waited a long time before delivering on that promise – in fact, it took decades. Meanwhile Abram’s wife, Sarai, had long since exceeded her childbearing years. She didn’t want Abram to be disappointed. So, she thought of a way to help God along, and that’s what we read about in Genesis 16:4-5:

“. . . Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his (second) wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.” So now Abram had a son, but it’s this next part that gets me: “When she (meaning Hagar) knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress (Sarai). Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘YOU are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in YOUR arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises ME. May the Lord judge between YOU and me.”

Don’t you just love that kind of reasoning? The real problem is between Hagar and Sarai – a problem which Sarai initiated – even if she did have good intentions. However, Sarai now blames Abram who simply did as his wife requested. But wait, it gets even better as we see what many would consider the typical husband’s response in such situations.

Abram tells his wife, “Your servant is in your hands; do with her whatever you think best.” Loosely translated, that means, “I can’t deal with this. Go do whatever makes you happy.”

It’s stories like this in the Bible that constantly reassure me that they’re REAL stories about REAL people. Human nature hasn’t changed very much in the last ten thousand years. If there’s a moral in all this, it’s probably: “Be careful what you ask for.”

With understanding in mind, I’ll get on with my sermon which is the story of Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael and Abram – a story about how people deal with issues of faith … especially when our faith is being tested by God’s providence. So, let’s begin with:

Here’s a good Definition of God’s Providence: “Providence is the continuous activity of God in His creation by which He guides and governs His creation for His people’s good and His own ultimate glory.”

When it comes to our understanding, one of the most difficult aspects of God’s providence is His sense of timing. The other difficult part to grasp is God’s methods . . . the people, the places, even the events that occur that often challenge our deepest faith that there really is a God. And even more – that God really does have a plan, a divine and wonderful plan in which all His children are redeemed and reconciled to Him. As much as we may think we understand, we’ve each known those lonely and dark hours when we can’t seem to make any sense of it all.

I heard a story years ago that was reportedly true. It took place at Stanford Hospital. A small child named Lisa was suffering from a rare disease. Her only hope of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her five-year-old brother. Apparently, her brother had miraculously survived the same disease and had acquired the necessary antibodies to combat his sister’s illness.

To the best of his ability, the doctor explained the situation to Lisa’s brother and asked if the boy would be willing to donate his blood to save his sister. The boy hesitated for just an instant, but then he said, “Yes, I’ll do it, if it will save my sister.”

After making all the preparations, the boy was laid in a bed next to his sister, and the transfusion began. Soon he started smiling as he watched the color returning to his sister’s cheeks. Then his own face grew unexpectedly pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, “Will I die quickly when my blood is all gone?”

That’s what it means to have a heart filled with unconditional love. It’s also what it means to know the heart of God through the sacrifice and victory of Jesus Christ. God’s providence, His plan for our redemption, was born of just such a heart of love. As the prophet proclaimed, “God moves in mysterious ways; His wonders to perform.”

The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar is a story for people who wonder where God is when nothing seems to make sense; when there’s promises but no apparent fulfillment. It’s a reminder that God does have a plan, and it is not up for negotiations. It’s a plan that’s tailor made for each individual person – Jew or gentile, slave or free – and it’s a plan born of God’s irresistible love and intention to gather all of His lost sheep back into His fold.

It’s also a story of the relationship between one father and two mothers. There’s a story about a Junior High science teacher who lectured on the properties of magnets. Then he gave his students a quiz. The first question read: “My name begins with an “M,” has six letters, and I pick things up. What am I?” Half the kids in the class wrote, “Mother.”

Well, I can’t argue with that. It’s true that it’s usually the mothers who pick up the pieces of our younger lives and help us make sense of them. In today’s story of Sarai and Hagar, it was the mothers who had to do most of the picking up and changing as they struggled to make sense of God’s divine providence in their lives.

Did you ever notice that Abram, according to the Book of Genesis, didn’t receive his first revelation of God’s promise and plan until he was 75 years old? Along with the news of his becoming “the father of a great nation”, he was also instructed to leave his home in Haran. Of course, he obeyed and, by the time he was 100 years old, he had received six additional revelations from God. Each one spoke of his fathering a nation. Repeatedly he was told to pack up and move, but after 25 years of promises and still no child, wouldn’t you start being a bit skeptical? Sarai was. Well, that’s where Sarai finally steps in as we heard in this mornings’ scripture reading.

Remember, Sarai was with Abram all along. No doubt Abram shared each of God’s revelations with her, and she had lots of time to think about God’s promises as she packed and unpacked for each move; and all the while she was painfully aware that her biological clock had stopped ticking many years earlier. It’s small wonder, then, that she suggested her maidservant, Hagar, to be the mother for Abram’s promised child? After all, none of the previous prophesies mentioned who the mother would be, and we’re all aware how creative women can be in solving problems.

Was this an oversight on God’s part? Or perhaps it was an intended omission so that Sarai would do exactly what she did? She offered Hagar, her servant, to be a surrogate mother for Abram’s child. She could not have fore seen, however, the far-reaching consequences of such a union.

As you recall, Abram told Sarai to treat Hagar in whatever manner she thought best. Consequently, Sarai began to mistreat Hagar miserably. Scripture doesn’t give us the details, but whatever Sarai did, it was enough to make Hagar, still pregnant, run away. But God had a plan, and He sent an angel to Hagar near a spring in the desert. He told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her. I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.”

The angel then told her more: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone, And everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Now if you’re familiar with Arab – and especially Muslim-Arab history – then you know that the angel’s prophesy has been quite accurate.

Hagar did as she was instructed, and she bore Abram a son named Ishmael. This happened when Abram was 86 years old. When Abram was 99 years old, God made a covenant with him. He told him that his new name was to be “Abraham” “. . . for I have made you a father of many nations”. The covenant was to be sealed by the circumcision of all males among Abraham’s family as well as servants and slaves. Sarai, too, was given a new name. She was to be called, “Sarah” because God intended to give her a son, and she would be “. . . the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (17:16)

It was at this time in the story that we see something of Abraham’s feelings for his son, Ishmael. Previously, we’re only told about the animosities between Sarah and Hagar, but now, in a prayer before God, Abraham says, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety? If only Ishmael might live under your blessing.”

Then God replied, “. . . as for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” (17:20-21)

Just as God had promised, Sarah gave birth to a son whose name was Isaac. As Isaac grew older, the day came when he was weaned from his mother, and Abraham held a great feast for the occasion. Ishmael, however, was seen to be mocking Isaac during the feast. As a result, Sarah said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

Scripture again tells us of Abraham’s feelings for Ishmael as it says: “The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, ‘Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

Abraham did as God told him, and he sent Hagar and Ishmael away. While in the desert, Hagar and her son almost died of hunger and thirst, but such was not part of God’s design. Scripture says that, once again an angel of God appeared to Hagar and preserved both Hagar and her son. Because this, too, was part of God’s providence, we’re told that:
“God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.”

This story contains many lessons for each of us as Christians today. For me, I was especially struck by how often the words of Sarah, although often sounding whining and even heartless, nevertheless were guiding Abraham’s thoughts in the right direction.

While Sarah thought she was helping by giving Hagar to Abraham, she also realized very quickly that strife and jealously were the unfortunate side-effects. When she insisted that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away, it was God who told Abraham to listen to Sarah’s advice. There could, after all, be only one son and heir to God’s covenantal relationship with Abraham. I’ve heard it said many times that this story points to Ishmael as the father of the Arab nations and Isaac as the father of the Hebrews. Considering the ethnic conflicts in the Middle East today, this story points to the mysterious ways in which God continues to reveal His divine providence. God told Abram: “ALL peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul points to this story to explain the difference between the traditional laws of earning grace and the new law of “grace by faith alone.” Hagar had been a slave and maidservant. As believers in Christ, Paul argues that, “we are not children of the slave woman but of the free woman.” Being under the Law of Moses is no different than being in slavery. The Law of Moses dictated how one must earn God’s good grace. We were slaves to the Law. In Jesus Christ, however, we are free from the Judgement of the Law in the moment that we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. By God’s Providence, we are chosen to become fellow heirs to His glory. We were chosen before the world began, and each day we are given new opportunities to learn just what that means. To be “chosen” doesn’t mean that we have a free ticket to ride God’s chariot to paradise. Rather, it means we have a special relationship with our Father by our faith in the saving grace of His Son Jesus Christ.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul made this very point. The Galatians were demanding that anyone wishing to become a Christian still had to be circumcised. But Paul declares, “In Jesus Christ, neither circumcision nor un-circumcision has any value.” “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Abraham loved both of his sons, and God honored that love by prospering both. Only one son, however, could inherit the special covenant with God. It was a covenantal gift from God. Neither Abraham nor Isaac earned it. But by faith, they accepted it. As we mature in our relationship with Christ, so also does our love and understanding of God’s divine providence. With maturity comes change.

There was a couple that had been married for 50 years and sat reflecting one day. The wife said, “Things have really changed. You used to sit so close to me.” “Well, I can remedy that” said the man, moving next to her on the couch.
“And you used to hold me tight,” she added. “How’s this?” he asked and gave her a hug.
“Do you remember you used to nuzzle my neck and nibble on my ear lobes?” she asked. At that he jumped up and started out of the room. “Where are you going” she asked. “I’ll be right back," he called, "I’ve got to get my teeth!”

We all change as we grow older, and by God’s grace, we also hope to grow wiser and be more loving. There are two kinds of sons and daughters in the world today. There are the children of slaves and the children who have been set free. Those who have heard the Word of Jesus Christ and rejected it remain slaves by their own choice. But those who have heard and accepted Christ are set free by God’s grace.

Please join with me now in prayer: Heavenly Father, teach us, we pray, to be more like Jesus each day. Teach us to bless and pray for those who may be cruel to us. We bless them and do not curse them. Therefore, our love abounds more and more in knowledge and in all judgement. We remain sincere and without offense until the day of Christ. We are filled with the fruits of Your righteousness. Thank Lord, in Jesus’ precious name. Amen.