These two rather disturbing stories may seem like odd texts for a birthday celebration service, especially the Genesis story. However, I believe they point to some genuine reasons to celebrate who we are as Gods people and more, they give us a clear vision of hope in God.
Any living body can simply count birthdays. The Uniting Church in Australia is now 28 years old and this church, 130 years last month! And we know that getting older is not always something that we welcome! Mixed emotions on aging are just the tip of our iceberg when it comes to the complexities of the human condition.
Two weeks and nine chapters ago we reflected on the great foundational promise God gave to Abraham, a land and a nation of descendents, blessing to many.
Today the story is about the opposite of blessing and we see a full measure of human complexity.
But at the same time these texts point to something unique about who we are as a church, and why there is something truly worth being excited about here.
Journey with me then, through a difficult story from Genesis.
A child and its mother are banished to the desert! Hagar and Ishmael, the second wife and child of Abraham are banished by our revered patriarch.
This is a shocking story of human jealousy and callousness.
This is the kind of story that critics of the Old Testament enjoy rubbishing and one that those with a particular social conscience might see as a salutary warning against patriarchal forms of authority.
In the Genesis story we find two little boys are happily playing together in an ancient but never the less familiar and tender scene. The younger one is Isaac, the long awaited son of Abraham and his wife Sarah.
The older child is Ishmael, son of Abraham and a secondary wife named Hagar, a woman who first came into Abrahams household as a slave.
Sarah, mother of Isaac, is jealous of her sons half brother, he is, we might assume, a potential rival for her son. The jealousy boils up within her until it cannot be contained. She goes to her husband Abraham and demands: "Throw out this child of a slave woman. He has no right to be seen as your heir along with my son Isaac!"
Abraham was not happy with Sarahs jealousy.
Jealousy has never been a human quality to encourage and it distressed Abraham on account of his attachment to his son.
But after some prayer, Abraham took Hagar and Ishmael, gave them bread and a water bag, and sent them away into the desert.
By our common humanitarian values, this is an outrage.
Here the great man of faith, Abraham, sends one of his wives and her small son off into the desert with only a bag of water and some bread. What sort of hero of the faith is this?
Where is the reason to celebrate here?
Is this the kind of God we believe in? A God who allows such injustice to happen? A God who responds to jealousy and allows injustice to hurt the vulnerable?
Certainly this story fits with the often ugly reality of the world as we know it. Racist jealousy and cruelty have not exactly been absent during the last fifty years. The killing fields of Cambodia, the torture and murders in Chile, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, tribal massacres in Rawanda, the attacks on New York and Madrid, in Bali and Beslan. And you will know of more injustices closer to you.
Yes, ours is a world where it is still easy to picture a woman and child being given some bread and water and expelled into the desert.
But to think of it being perpetrated by Sarah and Abraham, the great mother and father of Gods chosen race, seems almost obscene.
However, we need come to terms with it. The truth, recognised in the Old Testament, as it should be here in the church today is that God has to work with extremely flawed material.
Sarah, Abraham, Me, You - we are far from perfect beings, yet God still manages to bring hope, good news and new life into the peoples lives through us and perhaps sometimes despite us. We, like Sarah and Abraham mess up, we hurt those we love, we limit the work of Gods grace in our world, yet God chooses to still call and use creatures like us.
So here is the first reason to celebrate! This story proclaims the truth to us, that God sees the value that lies, sometimes well hidden, but within us all, whether we mess up in a small way or in the worst ways.
Returning to Abraham and Sarah, the love of God shines out even against this ugly background of jealousy and callousness.
There is heart-wrenching pathos in what happened to the child Ishmael:
"Hagar went and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. When the water was all gone, she placed the child under one of the bushes. She then went away. For she said: I cannot bear to watch the dying child. As she sat there, the child loudly cried and wept."
What feeling person cant see the distress of little Ishmael and the deep anguish of his mother.
But a beautiful part of the story then unfolds:
"God heard the voice of the child, and the angel of God spoke to Hagar from the heavens: "Dont grieve so deeply, Hagar. Dont be afraid for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Get up, go and pick the child up and hold him in your arms, for God will make him a great nation".
"God heard the voice of the child." God sees value lying, outcast and unwanted, under a bush in the desert.
Here is a brilliant glimpse of the God to whom all lives are truly precious.
Look past Abraham, and Sarah with her cruel jealousy.
Focus on God in this story.
God refuses to accept that the life of one child does not matter.
This is the same God who calls out to little Samuel at night while he is alone in the temple at Shiloh.
The same God who rescues tiny Moses from his boat-crib on the Nile.
Jesus shows us this God most clearly!
His God is one who cares for every single person and who will suffer to save and heal them.
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them can fall to the ground without your Father knowing. But even the hairs of your head numbered. So do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows"
God, the creator, the God of Abraham and little Arab boys, God sees inestimable worth in each one of us.
This is the second good reason to celebrate!
But a warning at this point so we dont jump to false conclusions: Jesus did not say that his Father will always save the sparrow from its fall.
He says that its plight is registered in the soul of God. God feels every fall, God knows, God cares, God loves.
The God of Jesus cares about every human being, suffers for every human being, and plans for the ultimate joy of every human being who will accept the grace that is offered.
Now I need to confess that Ive left alone a major part of Matthews text. The fear of a killer of the soul and body, the setting of family members against each other, harsh statements of who should be loved more and less are all difficult themes tightly packed together here.
Each deserves a sermon or more on their own, but I think its important to note that Jesus speaks into a situation of sharp contrasts and divided loyalties.
Jesus wants to make it absolutely clear, that to be his follower will not always bring peace,
will not always be easy,
will sometimes cause trouble because there are opposing values and forces at work in our world.
But the positive valuing and care of God for each person is crystal clear!
The ancient story of Ishmael, sent away with his mother into the desert with only some bread and water, is a foreword to the story of Jesus:
God heard the voice of the child.
No human cry is unheard.
There is no tragedy that is not suffered by God and taken by the wounded hands of Christ to be woven into a final tapestry of beauty and love and joy.
Even the strongest and wisest and most elderly among us,
are at the same time just the vulnerable little children of God.
The difficult issues we have met in these ancient texts are still serious issues for us today.
As a society have many children suffering from split families,
we still have some children banished in desert detention centres, we still have children in indigenous communities suffering from the effects of the worst scourges of western society.
Our world still has child abuse, child prostitution and child slavery.
We, like Sarah are still prone to judge and divide on the basis or race and religion.
And there are still many opportunities to lose the life we have and find our true life in Christ.
Still many opportunities to point to the hope we have in God.
For God hears the voice of the child, the voice of the vulnerable, no matter the colour, culture or creed,
God loves each one.
This is the true value that lies in our church.
Not in its years, happy as they are or its grandeur,
inspiring as it may be,
but the true value lies in the character of its love,
in the shining of the light of Christ against the darkness of such tragic realities.
And we who bear the name of the church, we are shaped by the one who values and loves all;
By the one who calls us, flawed as we are, to share in the work of making grace and love real to touch and taste, sight and sound - here and now in the community where God has set us.
Thanks be to God - for this reason to celebrate, for this Good News!
In the name of Christ. Amen.