When All Seems LostJune 23, 1996, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Have you ever known someone who could not take "yes" for an answer? No matter how much you assured them, they continued to tinker, test, and try to fix things? Sarah was such a person. She could not take God's "yes" for an answer. With God's promised child lying in her arms, she could not leave well enough alone. Convinced Ishmael jeopardized Isaac's future, all seems lost. But as she tries to fix things, all seems lost for the others in her household as well. Today's lesson is three stories within one, giving us three differing approaches to those times in our lives when all seems lost.
Initially, Sarah laughed as she held her nursing child, able, with Abraham, to focus on the faithfulness of God, able to praise and thank God for such goodness.1 But as time passed, Sarah's thoughts began to turn from praise to fear, from gratitude for God's gifts to concern for rights, from grace to legalism. Seeing her husband's first-born, Ishmael -- now sixteen years old -- play with their own three year old son, the old fears, insecurities, and jealousies were back. Was the relationship between the brothers coming under the stress of the rivalry between their two mothers? Or was it one of those childish moments when the older Ishmael taunted his half brother by reminding Isaac that he was second in line for the inheritance?2 Did Ishmael make the mistake of claiming that as first born, Dad loved him more? The Hebrew text makes precisely such a subtle suggestion, for the word in today's reading translated "playing" can also be translated "mocking." Was Ishmael laughing at Isaac rather than playing with him -- mocking him? Or was Ishmael "playing" Isaac for all he was worth?3 We don't know. What we do know is, that by the festival of weaning, a celebration commemorating the fact that the risk of infant mortality was no longer a concern for Isaac, Sarah suddenly senses that both she and her son are at risk from a more immediate threat.4 Ishmael will inherit what is rightfully his as first born and supplant her son. The promise will be destroyed.
All seems lost. In that moment, Sarah, who so recently has been the object of God's saving power, completely forgets how to live in such grace; how to take "yes" for an answer. She decides God needs her help in this one. In doing so, her laughter turns sardonic; it takes on a murderous edge. Unwilling to trust God, Sarah returns to a former role -- the forcer and fixer of God's promise.
That is what happens when you and I do not take "yes" for an answer. We decide God needs our help, which of course, justifies our doing almost anything. I couldn't help wondering last Thursday morning, when I saw the photograph of the man who has confessed to being the Zodiac Killer clutching his King James Bible, if Sarah were all that much different. Had Sarah had such a Bible -- which again and again reiterates God's covenant promise to her and Abraham -- would she have clutched it in her hand, using it as justification for what she was ordering Abraham to do? How many horrors have occurred in the world because God's people could not take "yes" for an answer, but decided God needed our help to fix things, using the Bible to bolster our madness? Do you remember the days when we had to save Christianity from Communism? I do. I got sent to South East Asia under the guise of such a mission. How many wars have been fought, how many people killed in the name of Christ? How many churches will be burned down fueled by the misguided assumption that those doing so are really purifying the church? How much blood has been spilt over the land we euphemistically call "holy" by children of Abraham trying to fix things? Unable to trust God with the future, Sarah orders Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael.
By now we are not shocked. We have grown accustomed to sexual intrigue and jealousy in this family, fratricide is not far away. It is helpful to hear that "the matter was very distressing to Abraham" on account of his son Ishmael. We don't know how long Abraham wrestled with what he was to do, the text does not tell us. But were you not distressed to hear God say to Abraham "whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you."? Does that not sounds as though God is condoning her treachery? Believe me, the people burning down churches think God is condoning their behavior. Those bombing abortion centers believe that God approves of their behavior. Those who still wage "holy war" believe God condones their behavior.
But look a bit closer at the story, and do so in the context of how Sarah has behaved thus far. God knows Sarah's character as fixer and forcer of things. It may well just be in Ishmael's best interest to be banished from Sarah's presence, and the sooner the better. Who knows what more harsh solutions Sarah might seek in order to be rid of Ishmael if this request is ignored? Ishmael is sixteen, and strong and old enough to care for himself and his mother, especially in light of God's promise concerning him. In fact, it may be nothing less than God's providence that has kept Sarah from demanding this sooner. One other thing: do not think for a moment that God is limited by Sarah's fixing and forcing of things. Do you remember the story of Joseph and his murderous brothers? They sold him into slavery as an act of treachery -- they wanted to be rid of him. But God worked through their evil transforming it into good, and saving their lives in the process.5 God is not limited by our faithlessness.
The story asks us to consider what happens when fear dominates one's life, when concern for preserving the future is our highest objective, when you and I assume God's graceful promise is exclusive rather than inclusive, and that God cannot be trusted to resolve the problem without our help. It reminds us that such fear obscures the promises of God. It doesn't matter how recently we have seen God's promise unfold. The minute we quit focusing on God's goodness, we begin to see the glass half empty rather than half full. We begin to hord rather than give. Such fear turns us, like Sarah into "fixers," those who try and force the promises of God. When all seems lost, rather than fall into the arms of God, we arm ourselves, relying on our ability to connive and scheme. Laughter, if not lost altogether, turns sardonic, and our actions turn deadly. Joy fades into obligation, grace hardens into legalism, and we, who have been the object of God's saving action, become oppressors. Sarah had been practicing some form of oppression from the moment she sent Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate mother. Now she takes it to the limit, making them outcasts who, if they survive, must wander in the wilderness.
For Abraham this is the first of a two part test.6 He loves his son, and is distressed, not only for him but also for Hagar. When God says "Do whatever Sarah says.," we are a bit startled at how readily Abraham complies. He will do as God has told him to do, even though it costs him the loss of his first born. That Abraham knows God will care for them is witnessed to in the provisions he makes for them. He could well have sent the two off with a caravan equipped to return Hagar and her son to her native Egypt. But he had been told "Cast them out," trusting that God has plans for his firstborn. Responding less to Sarah than to God, he does. For it seems that Abraham has finally learned what until the birth of Isaac, seemed lost on him: God's word can be trusted, even when it does not make sense. Whereas in the past, Abraham was indecisive, ambivalent, and had trouble following through on what God said, here, when all seems lost, Abraham trusts God's word and sends them away. God has promised that they will not only survive, but flourish.7
The third story in this narrative is of Hagar and Ishmael. We know nothing of what happened between the moment they left Abraham's tent for the wilderness, and the time Ishmael falls exhausted in the dehydrated stupor which can so quickly come over one in that land. Knowing full well that Ishmael is dying, and with water no longer available to help, Hagar drags his body under the shade of one of the scrub trees that in that land look more like bushes. Not wanting to hear his delirious cries nor look on his death, Hagar moves a bow shot away. Sitting down, to await the same fate, she cries out. In that moment she discovers what the psalmist says again and again: God does not abandon those who call out in their trouble. God, who must constantly adjust promises to the insecurity, jealousy and treachery of others, hears those who cry out in the wilderness of distress. God now tells Hagar, what here-to-fore has been known only to Abraham: God is going to make a great nation of Ishmael.8 When all seems lost, this God appears with promise. Opening her eyes, she sees a well, gathers water for herself and the boy. The rest is, as they say, "history," astoundingly summed up in the two verses which end today's lesson. God was with him. They settled in the Sinai wilderness. Hagar returned to her own people and found him a wife for him. Later we learn that, just as God promised, Ishmael had twelve sons -- princes of the Bedouin tribes to which the Arabs trace their heritage. Today nearly one billion Muslims call Abraham their "Father" because of God's promise to Ishmael.
This story of a time when all seemed lost reminds us that God is good to God's word, regardless of how implausible it may seem at the time. God's word does not need to be forced by us, God's promise does not need our fixing. God is not only promise maker, but promise keeper, whose only expectation of us is that we will believe, trust and obey. When you and I try to force the promise to our own schedule or liking, when thinking God has abandoned us or forgotten us, we try to fix things up for God, we inevitably create even more hardship and suffering. Even so, God is able to work through our failures and moments of unfaithfulness which emerge as evil. God does not create the evils and hardship which come to us from our own or another's unfaithfulness. We must take responsibility for that ourselves. But God does work through them, not only to preserve us, but to perfect us, and fulfill God's purposes in and through us. For God does not perfect you and me before working through us. Rather, God works through us, brings us to God's purposes. Finally, God's promises are inclusive rather than exclusive. God cares not only for you and me, but for all those you and I would cast out. God is also at work in and through them for God's own purposes. Such is the grace of God.
When all seems lost, will you like Abraham, trust the promises of God? Will you, like Hagar, cry out to God? Or, will you, like Sarah, try to force God's promise to comply with your own vision of how things should be? Can you take "yes" for an answer?The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
- Thomas Dozeman, et. al, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, After Pentecost 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992), p. 43.
- Both sons were in line for the inheritance. But according to the custom of the day, the first born would receive a double portion, and would be the legal head of the family following the father's death.
- Ibid., p. 43.
- Gene M. Tucker et. al, Preaching Through the Christian Year, A, (Philadelphia, Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 331.
- Genesis 50:20.
- The parallels between this and the following chapter are extraordinary. Note especially the almost verbatim way Genesis 22:4 follows Genesis 21:14.
- Genesis 21:13.
- Genesis 17:20-22.
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