The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Gracious God, help us always to seek the truth come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen
It’s been said that the central question in the book of Genesis, and I would submit to you all of Holy Scripture, is: Do we trust God enough to have our best interests at heart or do we need to give God a helping hand and get in the middle of it? You heard the story read from Genesis and it is a classic case of people jumping in there to give God a helpful assist and making a mess of things. You might wonder, “That’s a tough story, Jan, where in the world do we find a word of hope or purpose in that passage?” And so I invite you to journey with me a few chapters earlier in the book of Genesis and to see what message God may have for us today.
You’ll recall that God called Abram to leave the land of his ancestors of every generation to go where God would point him to go, not necessarily describing where that was going to be, and Abram went. God had told Abram that Abram would be the father of a great nation—many descendants, more numerous than could be counted. And so, as the years went by Abram starts to get a little impatient on “How is this going to happen exactly, God, in that I haven’t had one child?” And God assures Abram it’s going to happen. Sarai, his wife, in the meantime, is wondering the same thing. She’s well past childbearing years and so she comes up with the bright idea of helping God with this plan by offering her Egyptian slave Hagar to Abram to conceive and bear a child because it was the custom in that day that the child would have been considered Sarai’s. Now there are a couple of things about Scripture that are worth noting. Scripture doesn’t record anyone asking Hagar what she thought of this great idea nor does it mention that Abram put up any protest, but I digress.
Abram does lay with Hagar. She conceives and then the story gets even more complicated because, apparently, Hagar lauds this over Sarai and you can imagine that didn’t go down very well. Part of Sarai’s struggle is that in that day, if you were barren it was considered that you were out of favor with God. It was a humiliating situation. And now finally she’s going to get this child but Hagar has “gotten out of her place. And so she treats Hagar very badly, so badly that Hagar flees into the wilderness. Now, think about that.” How bad must the situation have been for Hagar, pregnant, with no means of support, no way of sustaining herself to go out in the wilderness to escape what was waiting for her at home? While Hagar is in the wilderness God appears in the form of an angel and asks this question: “Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?” To which Hagar responds, “I’m fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” Note that she only answers the first part of the question: “Where have you come from?” She can’t answer, “Where are you going?” because she has no reason to believe that she has a future. She can’t see it. She can’t imagine it. She is in the wilderness escaping a past that was so awful that she’s prepared to go to the wilderness and die rather stay in that situation.
Perhaps there’s something about that wilderness story that may have resonance with you and me at some point in our life when we too were in a bad situation. We couldn’t see a future—whether it was a vocational wilderness, relational wilderness, a financial wilderness, a health wilderness. And we find ourselves only able to see what is our past and our present; we can’t see our way to a future. That’s where Hagar is. That is the space she is occupying. The angel of God says to her, “Don’t be afraid. You are going to bear a child and his name will be Ishmael and he will be the father of a nation. Go back.”
Now, as you probably know, in Hebrew Scriptures names have great meaning. Ishmael means “God hears.” When Hagar hears that message from God and the angel departs, she gives God a new name: El-roi. It’s the only account in all of Holy Scriptures of someone giving God a new name and El-roi means “God sees.” There in the wilderness, signs to Hagar that God hears and God sees. She goes back. She bears the child. Shortly thereafter God gives Abram a new name: Abraham, father of multitudes, father of many nations, not just one. And then we pick up the story that miraculously Sarai becomes pregnant, bears a child named Isaac, whose name means “he laughs” because she and Abraham were long past childbearing years and when the angel told each one of them separately that that was going to happen they both laughed because it was ludicrous.
And then you pick up the story once again that Ishmael and Hagar present a threat to Sarah and Isaac. Sarah will go to any length to protect the lineage of her son Isaac. So she tells Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael have to go. You hear the story once again. They are out in the wilderness and God appears and says Ishmael will be the father of a great nation. Water appears to sustain them in the wilderness and to carry them forward to their future and their promise. Ishmael becomes the father of Arab nations and Hagar, for the first time in her life, gets power and authority and prestige and promise in the future through her son Ishmael.
What’s the point? In the midst of what seemed like an impossible situation, Hagar witnesses that God hears, God sees, and God acts. I think it is sometimes in the wilderness times in our lives that we get really clear on who’s in charge. And the things that are beyond our ability to affect, change, or to fix. I remember our former dean once making the point. “If you think you have it all together then there’s no room in your life for God. When, in fact, it is when we are most broken and vulnerable and open that God finds us most irresistible.” In the story of Hagar and Ishmael we see the following: God hears, God sees, God acts. And when we open ourselves up and allow God to do God’s work in our lives, God finds us most irresistible and gives us a future and a promise that’s beyond our imagining. Amen.