We’ve traveled with Abraham from his initial covenant conversation with the one true God, to the birth of Isaac. Quite a journey.
But a funny thing happened on the way to baby Isaac, and we find out a little more about that story today.
This is the story of Hagar and Ishmael. Ishmael, in case you’ve forgotten, is Abraham’s first child.
Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian slave. Sarah, despairing that she would ever have a child, did something that was very common in that time, when having a child was of paramount importance – she gave Abraham her slave and said, “Since I’m not having any luck giving you a child, take Hagar and sleep with her. Maybe then you’ll have a son.”
Now, it’s important to remember that God had already promised Abraham, way back in chapter 15, that he would have children. But we get to chapter 16, and Sarah is still without children – no surprise there, since she’s older than she was in chapter 15 – and the two of them are getting nervous. Abraham is a wealthy man in goods and he wants an heir so he doesn’t have to leave all those goods to a servant.
And Abraham and Sarah get a little impatient. Surprising, since before God had told Abraham he would be father of a great nation, they had seemed resigned to being childless. Sarah gives Abraham her maid, the Egyptian girl Hagar – note that there is no mention of how Hagar feels about all this – and Hagar becomes pregnant by Abraham.
You’d think that Abraham would be happy. You’d think Sarah would be happy, because this was what the plan was. But it turns into a soap opera of the first order. Although this was the common practice of the time – servants being surrogates for infertile rich women – Hagar doesn’t follow the plan. She starts to look down on Sarah, essentially saying “Look what I could do and you couldn’t.” Not surprisingly, this makes Sarah pretty angry. She complains to her husband. And he shrugs and said, “She’s your servant; do what you want with her.” Not the most sensitive response, is it? So Sarah treats her badly, and Hagar runs away into the desert – not knowing how she would get bck to Egypt, not knowing how she would even survive - what was she thinking? – There, an angel tells her to go back. The angel says she will bear a son, and he will be named Ishmael, meaning “the Lord has listened to your distress.” Hagar should submit to Sarah, and Ishmael will grow up to father his own nation, and will be quite the feisty guy.
So Hagar goes back, gives birth, and everything settles down for a while. Then the baby Isaac, the miracle child, is born to Sarah. This is where we ended last week, and we begin this week with that child, Isaac, being weaned – something that would make him about three years old in that culture. Weaning was a big event back then, because it also marked the successful survival of a baby through the period when he was most likely to die. So Abraham throws a party. And Sarah sees the little one playing with that stepbrother of his, Ishmael, who is a teenager by this time, and it suggests in the text that Ishmael – whom the angel had warned would not be the most agreeable sort – is teasing him – it’s unclear in the Hebrew whether Ishmael is merely playing with Isaac, or mocking him. Sarah , though, clearly sees it as a problematic relationship. She is like a mother bear defending her cub. Ishmael is also a threat to her son’s legacy as the next in the line of generations that would be a great nation, as God had promised. So she demands that Abraham throw out “this slave woman” and Ishmael, out into the desert just as when Hagar was pregnant with the boy.
But this time, unlike the last time, Abraham doesn’t simply acquiesce; he is greatly troubled. He loves Ishmael. But God says to go ahead and do what Sarah asks, because she is Isaac’s mother, and Isaac is the one who would be part of the covenant people. Ishmael will have his own rich legacy, the father of his own people, but God tells Abraham that this next step is necessary. So Abraham fills a wineskin with water and takes a loaf of bread, giving it to Hagar, and sends them out into the desert. Not very much in the way of supplies for someone who is expected to wander through the desert to who knows where. Does Abraham really think this will sustain Hagar and Ishmael?
Remember this part of the story. God tells Abraham to do something that on the face of it is inconceivable – that word again – to listen to Sarah, to send his firstborn and the child’s mother out into the desert. God says he will make the child the father of his own people, thus saying he will protect him – how he will do that isn’t specified – because Abraham has fathered this boy. And Abraham trusts God and does as he is told, without complaint or argument. There seems to be no doubt in Abraham’s mind as he fills that meager wineskin full of water and hands it to Hagar with the loaf of bread.
So Hagar trudges out into the desert with her obstreperous teenage boy in tow. It doesn’t take long before the water and bread are gone. She knows they are going to die. She tells her son to sit down under a bush, hoping to provide him at least a little shade, and then walks a good distance away. She doesn’t want to watch her son die of dehydration and heatstroke under the relentless desert sun. She sits, and she weeps, as any mother would.
And suddenly Hagar hears a voice of an angel, saying that God has heard her son’s cries. God has plans for this boy – the same plans that God told Abraham about. They are not going to die. The boy will become a leader of a great nation. And Hagar looks up and sees a well – can you picture her rubbing her eyes in disbelief? – and she fills up the wineskin…and that’s the beginning of good things for Hagar and Ishmael, although they don’t share the covenant with God that Abraham has.
So we’ve got a pattern here. God promises. God demands something that makes no sense. If the people obey, God delivers, even though the people can’t imagine how it will happen.
Remember this: we will see this again.
But even as we ponder this relationship between God and his people, I’m also fascinated by the role of the two women, Sarah and Hagar. There are some biblical scholars who believe that these stories were written by a woman, because the female characters are so much more richly described than the men. These are certainly flesh and blood women. They are engaged in a power struggle, and that’s particularly interesting because they have limited power as women. Sarah is a woman who is essentially the property of her husband. He lends her a certain status, because he is a rich man, but she is still a woman. She has to do what he wants. Hagar is even lower in status. She is one of the servants that Pharaoh gave Abraham to get him out of Egypt. She not only is a servant, but she is a servant to the woman of the house. She has no rights.
But these two strong women challenge their traditional roles. Sarah makes it very clear that she as the wife of a wealthy man is set over her maid. She dispatches Hagar to have a child by Abraham. Hagar says not a word against this, at least as far as we know, because this is a common practice in this era. Once she gets pregnant, though, Hagar uses her pregnancy to try to diminish the position of Sarah. And Sarah drives her out by being mean to her. If this was a boxing match, the referee would intervene between the two fighters. But Abraham does not, and God only speaks through an angel. He seems to step back from all this powerful emotion, and intervenes only when someone might die. God has a plan, and he will do what is necessary to make sure the plan is carried out, but he doesn’t really get deeply involved in the day-to-day human conflicts. Suddenly it seems that God isn’t in people’s faces so much any more, as we talked about in last week’s sermon. He seems to step back and let the people try to work it out themselves.
If anyone thinks the bible is full of sweetness and light, this story doesn’t fit that mold. This is a messy story, full of human emotion and conflict.
Have you ever had the experience of being in a difficult conflict situation and wondered why you felt so alone? Have you wondered where God was in those painful, lonely moments where what was happening seemed to make no sense? That’s precisely where Sarah and Hagar, these two strong women, were, as they battled for what they thought was right for their sons. God was with them, and God was watching, but God didn’t step in to set things right until it was absolutely necessary. The Plan would be fulfilled. God would see to that. But God wasn’t – and isn’t - simply a universal Fix-It Man who mediates every argument, ends every battle. No, humankind has to struggle with the conflicts. There is no guarantee that God will step in, because we don’t know how this situation is part of a larger plan. That’s the heart of this story, and it’s also part of the message we hear in the Gospel today.
The message is clear: we will live in the midst of conflict. As Christians, we are not exempt from them. In point of fact, being Christian means we may be at the center of conflicts. We may stand accused by those who don’t know or understand this Christ whom we serve. And Matthew says that the Lord tells us “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Living as a Christian is a high-risk proposition, just as trying to follow God in the Old Testament was an endless series of battles. You know that old saying, “you may win the battle, but lose the war.”? Some of the battles we as Christians engage in may end in victory. Some may end in failure.
The point, though, is not the battle. It is the one whom we serve. The victory is found in living fully into that ancient covenant, despite the conflict, despite the fact that this life on earth is hard. The joy awaits, the covenant is fulfilled, if we are willing to take that risk.