The Sermon About Hagar (Not that Hagar)

Below the fold is a written version of my (John’s) sermon from Sunday, June 25, 2017, in which I talked about the expulsion of Hagar (not Hagar the Horrible, Hagar the biblical) and her son Ishmael, and the fact that in God’s eyes no one is disposable.

SCRIPTURE: GENESIS 21:8-21

8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. (NRSV)

 

SERMON

I was so happy that Clark chose the hymn “Deep in the Shadows of the Past” for one of our hymns this morning. That first phrase, “Deep in the shadows of the past, far out from settled lands, some nomads traveled with their God across the desert sands,” describes the setting for this passage so aptly.

This is an old story. Found from deep in the shadows of the past. It’s a story that was told and retold long before it was written down because it’s a story much older than written Hebrew. And once it was written down it was rewritten and rewritten for centuries. It’s an old, old story, and there are some parts of the story that reflect that. For example, we’re told that Abraham puts Hagar’s son, Ishmael, over her shoulder as she heads out into the wilderness.

And yet if you read the story up to this point, you’re struck by the point that Ishmael has to be at least fourteen or fifteen years old. fourteen or fifteen is a little bit too old to be carried on your mother’s shoulder.

Somehow over all those centuries of telling and retelling, writing and rewriting the story the details have become a bit fuzzy. And yet this story has much to tell us.

God is determined to set the world right, and God is determined to do so through Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. But God starts this whole plan at a pretty late stage in Abraham and Sarah’s lives.

The two of them were already well up in years, Abraham was already seventy-five when God appeared to him and said that he and his wife would have a child and that child would have children and those children will have children until their descendants are as numerous as the stars in the sky and that through their offspring God would redeem the world.

It’s a great promise. I’m not faulting the promise, it’s something, but it’s especially something when you’re seventy-five. Are any of you seventy-five? Does the timing of this promise sound a bit late to you?

Nonetheless, God tells Sarah and Abraham, this childless couple, that they will have a child in their old age. And trusting in God, they wait for that child to come. One year follows another, and soon enough it’s ten years later, and Sarah is no more pregnant than she was when God first came.

And since neither one of them is getting any younger they take things into their own hands, and Sarah offers to Abraham her servant girl, her slave girl, Hagar. The Lord has been slow to provide, so they step in. Hagar is given to Abraham as a surrogate for Sarah and Ishmael is born.

But Ishmael was not to be the child of the promise. Ishmael was not to be the child God had planned to work through for the salvation of the world.

Abraham was eighty-six when Ishmael was born. Years later when Abraham was a hundred, Isaac was born, and there was great rejoicing. But now a few years later Isaac is being weaned, and Sarah looks over and she sees Isaac playing with Ishmael and Sarah doesn’t just see a nice familial scene, Sarah sees a threat. Ishmael is the son of Hagar, the servant/slave girl, and Isaac is the son of Sarah and the child of promise. But both of them have Abraham as their father. As the first born, Ishmael would get the bulk of the inheritance. Sarah seems to have worried what would happen to Isaac (and to her) when Abraham was gone. And so she goes to Abraham and demands that they both be cast out.

Now, you may have noticed that I’ve sidestepped the whole issue of Hagar’s surrogacy. That’s problematic, but I don’t have time to go into that today.

For today’s purposes, it is enough to note that the same Sarah who had offered Hagar to Abraham that he might have a son now tells Abraham to send Hagar and her son away.

She is fearful and perhaps jealous, and she doesn’t care that much about Ishmael because Ishmael is not her son. But Abraham does care. Ishmael is Abraham’s son. And so Abraham talks to God.

And God says don’t worry about it; I’m going to take care of it. So Abraham takes some bread and a skin full of water, and he gives these provisions to Hagar, and he sends them out into the wilderness. But before long the water in the skin is used up and Hagar feels like they’re both going to die.

She doesn’t want to watch her son die. And so she puts him under a bush in the shade, and she moves away so that she won’t have to see and hear him suffer. Then she lifts up her voice and weeps. At that point, God heard the cry of the boy. And the angel of God calls to Hagar from heaven and says God has heard the voice of the boy.

And when she looks up she sees a well. God opens her eyes, and she sees a well, and she fills the skin with water, and she gave the boy a drink, and they both live. They not only live, they flourish. He marries and becomes the ancestor of a great nation.

That’s the story this old, old story but I believe that it still has things to say to us today.

I have three things I want to share with you of what I think we can take away from this story.

First: the role of God is already taken. There is a God. It’s not us.  Abraham and Sarah hear the promise of God that they will have a child. And when God takes longer than expected they wanted they take matters into their own hands, and Sarah offers Abraham Hagar. And that leads to problems for them later on. It also leads to problems for us. Problems arise when we take things into our own hands. Problems arise when we try to do what should be left to God. [1]

Second: In God’s eyes no one is disposable. At this point in the narrative, Sarah has no more use for Hagar. Sarah has no more use for Ishmael after Isaac is born. While they continue to present a threat, they have both become expendable and unnecessary. Sarah just wants to get rid of them and eliminate the possible threat they present to her own son, Isaac. But no matter what Sarah or anyone else thinks, in God’s eyes, no one is disposable.

As one of the Bible commentaries put it: “The God who watches over history also watches over outcasts.” [2] And so when you feel like an outcast, remember that God is watching over you.

Third: Pay attention to what God is doing in your life. It says then “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” The impression we have from the text is that the well was there the whole time. Hagar simply hasn’t seen it. What she needed had been there.

Now I’m not saying it wasn’t a miracle. When an Angel calls down to you from heaven that qualifies as a bonafide miracle. A miracle that has to do with drawing Hagar’s attention to what God has already done, to what God has already provided. God is at work in our lives.

We all too often forget the first point (that the role of God is already taken) and so often when God does something in our life instead of recognizing that God did it, we take the credit for ourselves. If we can but open our eyes, we can see God at work around us in all the ways we are cared for and provided for and given life.

Remember this story. Let it carry on in your memory. Become part of that chain that reaches back deep into the shadows of the past. Remember that God is God and we are not. Remember that no one is disposable. And remember to pay attention to what God is doing in your life.

Amen.


[1] Please note two things: #1: I’m speaking of taking the role of God upon ourselves in a general sense. And #2: Even if I was speaking more specifically, modern infertility treatments are not the same thing as giving your servant/slave girl to your husband to impregnate.

[2]  Fred B. Craddock et al., Preaching through the Christian Year: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary — Year A (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1992), 332.