Toorak Uniting Church

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Journeys with God

Genesis 21: 8 – 21
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
9:00 am, 19 June 2005

Things are not well in the house of Abraham. Two women are embroiled in a bitter struggle that makes everybody suffer and Abraham is caught in the middle.

It has all started with Sarah not getting pregnant despite God’s promises. Years they had waited for something to happen and at long last Sarah had decided they’d waited long enough and that God had probably meant for them to be a little more proactive in the exercise of their faith. She takes her slave Hagar and gives the girl to Abram for him to have sex with. Perhaps Hagar will get pregnant and any child of Hagar’s, because she is owned by Sarah, will then automatically also be Sarah’s. Hagar does get pregnant, but the plan does not quite work the way Sarah had hoped. Human emotion gets in the way, as it so often does and the relationship between Sarah and Hagar turns sour. Sarah feels humiliated in the face of Hagar’s fruitfulness, and Hagar, the slave girl, starts flaunting her superiority in the face of her master. Things get nasty and, in despair, Hagar flees from the tents of Abram into the desert.
It is there she meets God and God tells her to go back and submit herself to Sarah. Hagar returns and for a while things seem to settle down and peace returns.
Until Sarah bears a son. Then once again the two women clash. Sarah, who wants to make sure her son will be the only one to inherit Abrahams wealth and Hagar who bore Abrahams first born and probably wanted a slice of the pie too.

Abraham is distressed. Caught in the middle he does not quite know what to do. He loves his son, his first born, and Hagar, the Egyptian slavegirl given to him by Sarah. But he loves Sarah too, and Isaac, the promised child, the miracle that happened so long after they’d given up all hope of it coming to pass.
Poor Abraham! Two fighting women, an irreconcilable clash of interests and a home full conflict.

That’s where God comes in. He says to Abram: Do not be distressed and do as Sarah tells you to do and send Hagar away. I will look after both your children says God, they’ll both be great nations, because they are both your sons.

As simple as that.

Some experience with God talking to me in my life has taught me it probably wasn’t all that simple and Abraham comes to this conclusion only after long and hard thinking, a lot of agony, accompanied by the feeling there is no other way out than to trust God will look after his offspring, even if he has to let go of it himself.
Some of us here will know how that feels. To have to give up on an impossible situation, to have to let go and let God. To have to make difficult and hard breaking decisions that may seem cruel to the extreme to those around you because deep down inside you’ve come to understand that there is not other way to go about it than this. These things happen not only then, but now. Messy divorces, families falling out, difficulties at work resolved in a manner that is painful and unsatisfactory for one or more of the parties.
Painful decisions with painful consequences.

Off goes Hagar, with a skin of water and some bread into the wilderness, with her child. Most probably expecting to die. Women on their own don’t survive in the wilderness, and with a child there is even less chance they will.

Here is another familiar picture. On television we see them come past regularly, mothers, carrying children, one hand supporting the child and the other stretched out asking for food, for shelter, for water. Children dying under bushes, or not even that, just out in the open, covered with flies, tummies swollen with hunger, eyes big in shrunken heads.
No chance for them to make it to Australia or any other place of plenty. There are other children whose inheritance needs to be guarded there.
Poor Hagar.

She can’t bear it. She casts her child under a bush and removes herself from him. She can’t bear to see him die.
And she weeps.
And just for a moment let us pause and contemplate her grief. The despair she must have felt. The complete devastation and overwhelming sorrow which must have come over her. There is nothing much worse than to see your child die of hunger and thirst and to know that it will not be long before you yourself will succumb.
She wails, and she is right to do so.

It’s not only refugee mothers who will experience such deep and overwhelming grief. Any parent who will see their child go to waste will recognise the feeling, any mother or father rendered helpless by circumstance seeing their children suffer and succumb to tragedy will feel that same deep grief.

It is not Hagar the Lord hears though. It is not the wailing that penetrates into the heavens. It is the child. Silent and suffering, cast under a bush, not able to defend or stand up for itself. The most vulnerable party in the story, the weakest and most at risk party is the one that catches Gods attention. It is those God takes notice of first and looks after. Something perhaps we should think of when we decide who we should listen to in the world, who we should let catch our attention……

"What troubles you Hagar? Do not be afraid." God has heard.

And suddenly the future opens up, full of promise. Their eyes are opened and suddenly they see water where before there was nothing. A glass that wasn’t even there a minute ago, not half full but filled to the brim with water and with promise. A great nation, a great future. And they know: God is with us on our journeys, even where we were cast out by Abraham and Sarah and it looked for a moment our journey would end in tragedy.

It still happens. A sudden change of perspective, the experience of water welling up in unexpected places when we felt lost in the wilderness of life. God coming in and supporting us where we’d given up on ourselves and our future.

It is wonderful to see in the story how God stays with all the participants in this very human drama.

He is with Sarah, active, creative, inventive, impatient Sarah, the mother who will fight for the well being of her child, even at the cost of others. Sarah who finds it difficult to trust and aches for action, for initiative, for self determination.
He is with Abraham, a man following a dream, filled with a promise, negotiating difficult family situations, completely failing at times to live out his faith and trust, but still the father of all believers.
He is with Hagar, the slave, who wails with despair in the wilderness, a human discarded by others, made worthless and nameless because there is another who is afraid of losing their priority and inheritance.
He is with Ishmael. At deaths door, powerless, helpless, a child under a bush ready to die.
He is with us, on our journeys through life. When things get hard in our families, when heartbreaking decisions are made, when there is suffering and hardship, when despair and utter desolation enter our lives. And He also comes with promise, nurturing us, supporting us, leading us towards his future. No matter what. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2005

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