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End-Run

If anyone had a right to ask, "why me, God?", it was Hagar. Sure she had been a willing participant, but none of this had been her idea, and she really couldn't have refused her mistress Sarah. Now look where it got her! They needed her and she agreed. She let them have her most precious possession, her body. She had given them a son they could not have on their own and was pleased to be able to. For Abraham and Sarah to die with no heir would be tragic.

It's not as if she had been trying to steal Abraham from Sarah. She had total respect for Abraham and for Sarah for that matter, though she wondered why God had made her mistress barren. Not for her to wonder, though many times she thought, why does Sarah have such a good husband and I have none, but God must have a reason and she accepted her position as Sarah's maid. And it was a good position in the home of a wealthy and kind man. She could do much worse.

She loaded herself with as much water and food as she could carry for herself and Ishmael and headed out into the wilderness. She was frightened. Who would they meet? They would almost certainly . . .

Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar.
He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert
of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Gen.21:14-15

If anyone had a right to ask, "why me, God?", it was Hagar. Sure she had been a willing participant, but none of this had been her idea, and she really couldn't have refused her mistress Sarah. Now look where it got her! They needed her and she agreed. She let them have her most precious possession, her body. She had given them a son they could not have on their own and was pleased to be able to. For Abraham and Sarah to die with no heir would be tragic.

It's not as if she had been trying to steal Abraham from Sarah. She had total respect for Abraham and for Sarah for that matter, though she wondered why God had made her mistress barren. Not for her to wonder, though many times she thought, why does Sarah have such a good husband and I have none, but God must have a reason and she accepted her position as Sarah's maid. And it was a good position in the home of a wealthy and kind man. She could do much worse.

She loaded herself with as much water and food as she could carry for herself and Ishmael and headed out into the wilderness. She was frightened. Who would they meet? They would almost certainly die out there. She had asked Abraham for mercy for herself and the boy but Sarah had been unmoveable now she had her own son. Hagar understood the jealousy but it was totally unfair.

As they walked she remembered the day the visitors had come. She had not been invited, but soon learned about the visit. Messengers of God is what Sarah called them. A promise of a son and multitudes of descendants. Sarah and Abraham had been stunned, not knowing whether it was a dream or real. Sarah had laughed when she spoke of it, and no wonder. Many years past menopause and there was no way for her to have a baby, and yet the visitors had promised.

When there was no child, Sarah suggested that she, Hagar, might be the mother in her place and provide this heir.
She agreed. She loved the couple and there was no chance of having a child as there was no husband for her.
So she bore Abram's baby. Not unheard of. An honor and part of her willing duty as a servant. If she had said "no" she had no idea what would have happened. She might have been sent away, as she was now.
As she thought back on it she wasn't sure if she would do it again if she had the choice.
She loved Ishmael and was glad for him, but now they were abandoned in the wilderness. What kind of gift is this to her son, a slow death of thirst and starvation, is they didn't die from a wild animal first, or worse be captured by bandits.

Now Sarah finally had her own son. She had noticed Sarah's change in attitude toward her and the boy and had feared for the worst. She knew Abraham was a good man and hoped he would protect them, but Sarah would allow no rival to her own child.
So they walked on.

Days later they had run out of water and food and sat in the shade of some scrub trees to rest.
Ishmael lay crying for hunger and thirst and she could not stand to hear him suffering so went a distance away to await whatever came.

What came was a voice. She saw no one but thought the voice was familiar. She thought it sounded like one of Abram's visitors.
Now she was being told that God had taken mercy on them and would make Ishmael a great nation too.
Then she was being led to find water for herself and her son. They were saved, but for what?


For what indeed.
On one level Arab and Jewish history is punctuated with the conflict between Ishmael's descendants and Isaac's descendants. The Muslim faith traces its ancestory back to the promise between God and Ishmael. The Jews; and by extension, Christians, trace our spiritual origins back to the covenant between God and Abraham through Isaac, Jacob and the nation of Israel. Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, a son of Jacob, son of Isaac.
Three of the world's great religions trace their ancestory to these three people, Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.

Abraham and Sarah were from the region of what is now Iraq. God called them to follow Him to a land they would eventually inherit, what we call Israel or Canaan. Hagar was an Egyptian, a servant and slave of Sarah's.

God made a covenant with Abraham to give him and Sarah a son and through that son, be a blessing to all the earth.
The promise took a while to materialize, though a child was eventually born. Abraham and Sarah were well past child producing years.

As they grew impatient, the thought came to Sarah to have Abraham take Hagar and produce this child through her intead.
Abraham agreed.

In the wording in Genesis Sixteen where this is described, there is a clear parallel to Genesis Three. The wording and language are similar.
Genesis Three has a promise by God with conditions. The serpent first tempt the woman who succumbs. She goes to her husband and brings him along. Tragedy follows, but God has a plan to deal with it.

Genesis sixteen has a promise from God. The conditions are implied rather than stated. Accept this on faith.
Sarah is tempted to disbelieve the details of the promise. She goes to her husband and convinces him.
This time they do not eat the fruit that is forbidden, but they decide to do and end-run around God.
If God will not supply the heir, they will help God out in their own way.

But there is a son, Isaac and now they have a problem on their hands. Who will be Abraham's first heir? The firtborn is Ishmael and he would have certain legal claims. Sarah is having none of that and so Hagar and Ishmael lie in the shade of some bushes in the hot Canaanite wilderness waiting for death.

God intervenes. God has made a promise and while Ishmael is not the promise of God, he is Abram's son and God will not allow him or his mother to die.
But the product of Abraham and Sarah's disobedience is still an issue for us today.

You cannot do an end-run around God.
God says simply, "this is my plan and my will for you."
God's word to us really is not complicated. It still means trusting that God's way is what we will follow.

The problem for Abraham and Sarah just as it is for us, is that we like to intervene with out own ideas of how God should do things. Actually thats what the serpent and the tree in Genesis is all about too.

God says, follow the way I lead you and you will find it works.
We say, "but why be so narrow minded, or why not trust that we have common sense too?" Or we just think that our version of doing good is just as valid as the Bible's version and so we head out into our brave new world with God word in one hand and our own road map in the other.

And the result is the same.
Sometimes the people who pay are not the ones most guilty. Hagar and Ishmael suffered, but were not the most guilty. But God had a plan and it was not Ishmael.
Sometimes it is we who suffer for our own deeds, but not always. Others do as well.

You see the problem at its heart is this:
Do we really believe that God sees and cares? And do we think that we can ask God for guidance and receive it?
And are we willing to let go of our own roadmap long enough to listen and respond?

The answer to that is mostly, "no".
We don't.
We say we follow God, and in many ways we do.
But at critical junctions we take matters into our own hands.
The results are always the same.

But God is gracious.
God would not let Ishmael displace Isaac because that was not His plan, but neither does he turn his back on Ishmael and his mother. And at Abraham's death, Ishmael as well as Isaac oversees the burial. "The insider and the outsider share in the legacy of the one father."1

Ultimately, God brings about his final plan.
Jesus was not a last minute attempt to salvage a plan gone bad.
God had planned Jesus dying for us from the very beginning.
None of this catches God by surprise.
And so Jesus brings all things full circle.
In Jesus we bring our own personal Ishmaels...the things and situations we produce by not trusting in God, and he takes those acts of unbelief and lays down his life for them.

But how we love to do life our own way.
There are days we feel the blessing and promise of God and are secure as insiders, children of the promise.
But there are days when we huddle like Hagar, feeling the outsider and wondering where God is in our life.
God's mercy is wide and has not forgotten us anymore than he had forgotten Hagar or her son.
The reality of what God is doing may not be always plain to us, but we are not hidden from his sight or his care
Thank God for His kindness to us.
And thank God that we cannot do an end-run around his purposes.
Like in the Sunday School Hymn,
God's purposes are:

So high you can't get over it
So low you can't get under it
So wide you can't go around it

Thank God for his inescapable purposes for us.
But let us seek the Lord while he may be found.
Let the wicked forsake his ways and the unrighteous his thoughts
Let us return to the Lord who will abundantly pardon.
Amen

Preached  June 19, 2005
Dr. Harold McNabb
West Shore Presbyterian Church
Victoria, British Columbia


Note:
1.
Brueggemann, Walter, The Old Testament, Canon and Christian Imagination, WJK, 2003, p.50

Resources:

Brueggemann, Walter, The Old Testament, Canon and Christian Imagination, Westminster John Knox, 2003
Sailhamer, John, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol 2, ed. Frank Gaebelein. Zondervan 1990
Von Rad, Gerhard, Genesis, The Old Testament Library, Westminster 1972

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