Today we are in the 4th week of a series of sermons we are calling Called Out, a group of sermons focusing on the lives of the men who were called out by God and became the Patriarchs of the Jewish nation. And the list of Israel’s Patriarchs is a very specific list: just 3 men: the first and easily the best known is Abraham, who was ‘the father of the Jewish nation.’ The second patriarch is Abraham’s son, Isaac and the 3rd and final patriarch is Issacs’ son, Jacob. The stories of the lives of these men are found in the Bible’s first book, the book of Genesis… a book that we believe Moses, another important Jewish leader, initially wrote to tell the one million or so Jewish people he’d just led out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt the truth about some very important things… things like how the world came to be and how the Jewish people came to have their special relationship God. Over the last three weeks we’ve been looking at some of what Moses tells us about Abraham and his special relationship with God. We’ve seen that Abraham was ‘called out’ by God… called to leave his homeland and to travel to a distant land far away from everything he’d ever known. What we’ve discovered is that even though Abraham’s life was filled with many difficulties and disappointments, he obeyed God’s call and he fully believed that God was leading him into a land of blessing. This week we are still in the middle of what Moses wanted us to know about Abraham’s life, but surprisingly, Moses takes a big turn in his story and tells us about some events in Abraham’s life that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a book about a nation’s founding father. The turn that Moses takes, which we find in Genesis 16 (and it’s probably a good time for everyone to turn to the passage… page ???? or look at the app). The turn Moses takes in Genesis 16 is to introduce us to Ishmael, a man whose very existence makes us wonder a bit about our hero, Abraham. But as we will soon see, God had a number of good reasons to make certain that Moses told us about Ishmael even if knowing about Ishmael makes us scratch our heads about Abraham... good reasons that not only tell us important truths about God, but also tell us some important truths about our own lives… important truths that I believe speak to your life and your destiny. PRAY.
Ishmael’s story begins in verse 1 of Chapter 16. Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not been able to bear children for him. This would have been a huge tragedy for both Sarah and Abraham. In the ancient world, a woman’s entire identity, the very purpose of her existence, was tied to bearing children. An old, childless woman represented a wasted, meaningless life. Plus, it was always assumed that when a woman was barren it was her fault; there was something morally wrong with her and childlessness was her punishment. The fact that Abraham was still even married to Sarai, as odd as this sounds to us, was an indication of Abraham’s love for her. Abraham, like all men in that day wanted children, preferably sons and Abraham would have been perfectly within his rights to have divorced Sarah long ago because a man could legitimately divorce his wife and remarry if after just 7 years of marriage she’d not yet had a child. But, Abraham had not divorced Sarai or taken another wife and the only reason that I can think of is that he loved her. But verse 1 ends this way, ‘But she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. 2So Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” And Abram agreed with Sarai’s proposal. Now, I know that this strikes us as way out of bounds, but Hagar was Sarai’s property and everyone then believed that part of her role as a Sarai’s personal handmaiden, was to bear children for Sarai if needed. 3So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian servant and gave her to Abram as a wife. By the way, Hagar wouldn’t have become a full-on wife… her status would not have changed all that much. (This happened ten years after Abram had settled in the land of Canaan.) 4So Abram had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant. But when Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to treat her mistress, Sarai, with contempt. Now, this would have raised ancient eyebrows! ‘Who does this Hagar think she is?’ 5Then Sarai said to Abram, “This is all your fault! I put my servant into your arms, but now that she’s pregnant she treats me with contempt. The Lord will show who’s wrong—you or me!” Abram replied, “Look, she is your servant, so deal with her as you see fit.” Then Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away. 7The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur. 8The angel said to her, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,” she replied. 9The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her authority.” 10Then he added, “I will give you more descendants than you can count.” 11And the angel also said, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress. It’s important to keep in mind who this angel was speaking to: Hagar, a young, Egyptian, slave girl… possibly the last person on earth that the first people to read this book would have thought God would ever listen to. Remember, this is a story about the mother of the Jewish nation being harsh to her Egyptian, slave girl and Moses originally wrote this story for Jewish people who had just come out of harsh slavery under the Egyptians. I’m sure they had no sympathy for Hagar. But the angel goes on, 12This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives.” When we hear that Hagar’s son would be like a ‘wild donkey’ we immediately go to what we think about donkeys and calling someone a donkey isn’t a compliment. But in the ancient mind a donkey wasn’t anything like what we think of when we think of someone being like a donkey… no, they held donkeys in high regard; they were valuable and powerful… and a wild donkey was a free donkey… a donkey no one could master! Hagar was a slave and she’d been forced to be passive and compliant, but a free man could openly resist and stand up for himself. God’s words told Hagar that Ishmael would be his own master! This slave girl’s son would be something unimaginable: a free man who could determine his own destiny! This certainly would have been a surprise to Hagar. And something else that would have been a surprise, at least to the original ancient readers, is that the primary characters in this story are women! Women were rarely, if ever, important characters in stories about ancient heroes. And what is even more surprising is that the two women we do meet would have had almost no value in the ancient world: an old, childless woman… worthless! A foreign, slave girl... meaningless! And yet, low and behold, God was not only paying attention to them, but he was clearly watching out, in particular, for the one person in this story that no one would have thought deserved a single moment of concern: Hagar, the young, Egyptian, slave girl. And, as I said, God’s promise to this girl was almost unimaginable: her son would be both a free man and the father of more descendants than could be counted. And beyond this, something even more surprising is that God allowed Hagar to do something no one else in the Bible, that I’m aware of, is ever given the right to do: give God a name. Verse 13 says, Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me. She also said, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” She named God ‘El Roi’… ‘You are the God who sees ME!’ And in naming God, this seemingly-worthless, slave girl reminds us of a great truth: no matter the circumstances in our life may look like, God is present, watching and waiting to care for us. He sees us! And just think about Hagar’s circumstances for a moment. From what we can tell this more-than-likely 13-year-old girl, had been given to Sarai as a gift. She’d been taken from her home in Egypt, carried to some far away land, forced to give her body to an old man and now she was pregnant, afflicted, homeless and running for her life. From all appearances it would look like God wasn’t paying any attention to her and yet God sent an angel to find her, settle her down, deliver her a great promise and to let her know that God cared for her more than she could imagine. Certainly, he was calling her to something difficult: to return and submit to Sarah’s harsh authority. But it’s clear that Hagar believed God, trusted him and obeyed him. Verse 15 tells us, ‘So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael. 16Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born.’
We now know about Ishmael’s birth but we don’t meet him again in any major way until at least 14 years later in Chapter 21. Now, truth is, a lot happens in Abraham’s life between chapters 16 and 21. In Chapter 17 Abram gets his named changed to Abraham and God institutes circumcision as the sign that Abraham and his descendants are in a special covenant with him… and it is mentioned that Ishmael, who was then 13, was circumcised along with everyone in Abraham’s household. In Chapter 18 God and Abraham have a very honest back and forth over God’s intensions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah and in Chapter 19 God follows through on those intensions. In Chapter 20 Abraham moves to a new town and once there he oddly, for the second time in his life, introduces his wife Sarah to everyone as his sister because he is afraid her great beauty will get him killed if the men in this new town know he is her husband. You can bet that didn’t go too well. And then in chapter 21 the greatest miracle in Abraham’s life occurs: Sarah, his 90-year-old wife, gets pregnant and delivers a son who is named Isaac. And it’s during a major celebration connected to birth of this miracle boy that we again meet Ishmael. Turn over to verse 8 of chapter 21. When Isaac grew up and was about to be weaned, Abraham prepared a huge feast to celebrate the occasion. Isaac would have been at least 2, but he could have been as old as 3; weaning parties were a big deal. 1 in 4 children died before they were weaned and so people celebrated weaning in a big way because it was a sign that a child was going to live! 9But Sarah saw Ishmael—the son of Abraham and her Egyptian servant Hagar—making fun of her son, Isaac. Surprisingly, verse 9 contains one of the most confusing bits of Hebrew in all of Genesis. First off, the words ‘of her son, Isaac’ are not found in most ancient, Hebrew texts. What most Hebrew texts say is simply, ‘Sarah saw Ishmael, the son of her Egyptian slave, making fun.’ Period. Here is where it gets dicey. The word that gives us ‘making fun’ is Tsa-hak and it has a wide variety of meanings. I don’t have time to go into great detail here, but this word can mean everything from poking fun, to playing roughly, to doing gymnastics, to fondling. What Sarah saw Ishmael doing could have been everything from simply being goofy to laughing at little Isaac to stealing the limelight at Isaac’s party by doing back flips to something far more sinister. We can’t be 100% certain. But whatever it was, it enraged Sarah! 10So she turned to Abraham and demanded, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son. He is not going to share the inheritance with my son, Isaac. I won’t have it!” 11This upset Abraham very much because Ishmael was his son. 12But God told Abraham, “Do not be upset over the boy and your servant. Do whatever Sarah tells you, for Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted. 13But I will also make a nation of the descendants of Hagar’s son because he is your son, too.” 14So Abraham got up early the next morning, prepared food and a container of water, and strapped them on Hagar’s shoulders. Then he sent her away with their son, and she wandered aimlessly in the wilderness of Beersheba. Hagar, now with the added responsibility of her son, was once again, just like we saw earlier, alone, rejected, homeless and in great danger. 15When the water was gone, she put the boy in the shade of a bush. 16Then she went and sat down by herself about a hundred yards away. “I don’t want to watch the boy die,” she said, as she burst into tears. 17But God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, “Hagar, what’s wrong? Do not be afraid! God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18Go to him and comfort him, for I will make a great nation from his descendants.” 19Then God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well full of water. She quickly filled her water container and gave the boy a drink. 20And God was with the boy as he grew up in the wilderness. He became a skillful archer, 21and he settled in the wilderness of Paran. His mother arranged for him to marry a woman from the land of Egypt. And other than learning later in a brief genealogy that Ishmael had 12 sons, this is all we know about him. He never says one word and the only time we see him doing anything, the Hebrew is so vague that we can’t be sure of what he was doing? And yet his story is here in the Bible. Or maybe I should say that his story and his mother’s story is here in the Bible…and their combined story tells us that the last people you’d think are worthy of God’s attention are right at the very center of God’s heart, his care and his love. Who could have ever imagined that Hagar and Ishmael’s destiny was freedom and family and a relationship with the God of the universe? This is why I believe God made certain that Moses put Hagar and Ismael’s story in Genesis: God wanted us to know that no matter who you are… what your place in the world may be…or whether your circumstances are good or bad…. God is present, he is watching and caring for you. He sees you! And even though things today may seem difficult and hopeless and you may feel unworthy or marginalized in the moment, God has a special call on your life and his desire is to be with you and to bless you in surprising ways as he leads you into your destiny!
Can I just step back and talk personally for a moment about these passages? This past Monday afternoon while I was trying to work on this sermon, I was also carrying on 6 separate text conversations all dealing with very different and very difficult circumstances in my life, any one of which on its own would make you wonder, ‘Where is God?’ ‘Is he watching and listening?’… a family health crisis… a huge neighborhood, legal issue… unjust accusations against my character just to name three. And there I was trying to put the final touches on a sermon that says, ‘The circumstances of your life don’t say anything about God’s presence with you. My circumstances say nothing about whether God sees me, or has a calling for me or a destiny for my life. And I had to take a step back and ask, ‘Do I trust God in this moment and these circumstances? Do I believe that God is my ‘El Roi?’ One thing was certain: if I am unsure about whether I believe that my circumstances don’t say anything about God’s presence with me then I don’t have any right to preach this sermon. And to add to that, I have lately been acutely aware of the fact that I am in what I can only describe as a vulnerable stage of life. I am older in a younger world. I’m nearing the back end of a profession that doesn’t tend to bring one wealth or power or prestige. And in all honesty, it is far easier at this stage of life, in our culture, to feel irrelevant and meaningless than to feel called and moving into some destiny. And this has all been rolling around in my mind as I’ve been preparing this sermon… a sermon that says, ‘Social class, perceived place in world, wealth, influence and power have no bearing on whether God has an important call on our lives.’ And I had to take a step back and ask, ‘Do I really believe that God still has a call on my life? Do I believe that who I am today is worthy of God’s interest? Do I really believe that my life can still make a difference that counts for God’s kingdom? Again, if I’m not certain about these things then I don’t have the right to preach this sermon. And as I was thinking about this I was reminded of why God gave us Hagar’s story in the first place. He gave us this story to tell us about his heart… to tell us the truth about how important each of us is to him and to give us a reminder of how much he loves us no matter who we are or where we find ourselves. He is our El Roi! And then I believe the Holy Spirit brought to mind some of Jesus’ words… ‘I have told you many things so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) ‘I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So, don’t be troubled or afraid. (John 14:27) And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). I fully believe that The Holy Spirit was sent to me with a message just as an angel was sent to Hagar, to settle me down, to deliver me some great promises and to let me know that God cares for me more than I can imagine. So, here I am preaching this sermon because I believe with all of my heart that what I am telling you is true that what Hagar and Ismael’s story tells us is true... I believe with all of my heart that what I am telling you is true that what Jesus has said to us is true… and as I think back over the years, even the story of my own life, with all of its ups and downs and joys and sorrows and surprises and disappointments, my own story tells me that this is the truth: no matter who you are… no matter what your place in the world may be… whether your circumstances are good or bad…. God is present, he is watching and caring for you. He sees you! And even though things today may seem difficult and hopeless and you may feel unworthy or marginalized in the moment, God has a special call on your life and his desire is to be with you and to bless you in surprising ways as he leads you into your destiny!