Four very different texts today, at first glance. One from the Hebrew Bible about Abraham’s illegitimate son with his wife’s servant. One a psalm about how miserable the psalmist is, but he has hope that God will help him. One a letter from Paul to the Romans telling them that they must die to sin in order to live in Christ. And then the Gospel, where Jesus instructs the disciples in their responsibility to preach the Word, no matter what the cost, despite the fact that it will set some people’s teeth on edge.
All over the map, right? Or not?
There is a thread that links them. A spun-gold thread:
God is with us. God can help with the difficult parts of life. God challenges us, but never leaves us without divine assistance.
Feels all warm and fuzzy when I say it that way, right?
There is, however, another thread that links them. That one is not so comforting. Perhaps it is a thorny thread, sort of like barbed wire. Here’s what it tells us: It is often difficult to follow God. We are asked to make hard choices. Our friends and even our families may turn their back on us, or we may need to turn our back on them, for the sake of the Gospel.
Not so warm and fuzzy now, is it?
Let’s start with the Old Testament story. Abraham has been promised that he will father a mighty nation, despite the fact that he and his wife are very old, well past the time of childbearing. When the years pass and the promise does not seem to be fulfilled, his wife suggests that he have a child with her servant, the much younger and presumably fertile Hagar. And as can be predicted, Hagar does have a child, a boy named Ishmael. Equally predictably, things get rather tense between Hagar and Abraham’s wife Sarah after the boy is born. Things get worse when, miraculously, Sarah gives birth to her own son, Isaac. And Hagar is driven out of the household because of this. Abraham consents, because his primary responsibility of care is to his wife Sarah. Hagar was merely a stopgap measure, because Abraham and Sarah feared that the promise God made to Abraham would not come to pass.
God keeps his original promise – there is a boy child, born of Sarah and Abraham. Abraham and Sarah’s faith in God’s promise has been imperfect, and something that was not part of the original plan has occurred – the birth of Ishmael. So something has to happen. Hagar and Ishmael must go.
But are they merely victims here? Bad things, painful things await. Abraham has to send away a son whom he loves. Hagar has to leave the protection of the household. It is a mess. There is no prettier way to say it. But God provides. God offers an alternative to the mess that Abraham and Sarah have gotten themselves into by using Hagar as a surrogate mother. God provides in as gracious a way as he provides for Abraham and Sarah. He offers another promise to Abraham: “ ‘As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring’… God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.”
God is with us in the mess, when we try to follow and fail, when we make mistakes.
And how many times have each of us failed, how many times have we thought that we were not worthy of forgiveness, how many times have we feared that God would abandon us because of our sins?
Perhaps the song of the psalmist is the lament of Hagar, that sense of being abandoned with no hope. Perhaps it is the expression of grief of Abraham, that deep loss of a child whom he loved. Perhaps it is the repentance of Sarah, whose fear and jealousy has probably caused a painful rift with her husband, despite the birth of their son Isaac. But in every psalm of lament there is always a statement of faith that God will come and help in some way, that the one who laments will not be alone forever. How many times have we wondered where God was in our pain, but somehow hoped and prayed that God would show up?
And perhaps that is the hope that Paul offers to the Romans. He reminds them that God showed up, in the form of Jesus Christ, to die so that we might live. Jesus saved us even though we often think we could not possibly be worthy of salvation. Jesus suffered pain as we suffer pain, in a human body, but his pain’s purpose was clear – to reconnect us to our God, to wash away sin and brokenness, to offer a vision of a state of being that is possible if we simply believe…a vision of eternal joy and peace and wholeness.
How many times have we prayed that there would be something better for us, something beyond the messiness of our lives, beyond the sense of isolation, of losing our way? How many times have we reached deep to find hope again, the same sort of hope that Abraham learned to trust, the same sort of hope that Roman followers of Christ held in their hearts despite the persecution of the Roman empire?
Jesus reminds us in the Gospel that we are given the promise of eternal life, but we are not there yet. There is work to be done, in our own hearts and in the chaotic world around us. If it were all easy work, with no tough choices, that would be nice. But it is not. It is hard work with sometimes unclear choices, but it is worth it.
Four readings from Holy Scripture, seemingly different, but taking us, in the end to the same observations:
- The cost of following Jesus’s way? High.
- The price of discipleship? Costly.
- The work of changing our lives to conform with God’s will? Arduous.
But eternal life? Priceless.