I talked last week about Abraham and his call from God to leave Haran (modern day southeast Turkey) and go to Canaan. (once again this week I will use the names given to Abram and Sarai in Genesis 17) He left with his wife, Sarah, his nephew, Lot, and two promises from God.
When God told him to go to Canaan he said: (Genesis 12:2)
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
Abraham arrived in Shechem, in the middle of Canaan, and God repeated his promise. (Genesis 12:7)
“To your offspring I will give this land.”
To be a great nation required two things: children and land – and Abraham had neither children nor land.
Abraham is considered the father of our faith and the reason for this is that Abraham believed what God told him and continued to believe what God told him, despite the growing evidence that this was not going to be possible.
Abraham had been childless for forty or fifty years before they left for Canaan. Despite this, Abraham had not divorced Sarah or taken a second wife. When they heard God’s promise, they were encouraged to believe they would still have a child. But month after month it was obvious that Sarah was not pregnant.
God continued to appear to Abraham, promising him a son and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky or sand on the seashore. With each renewed promise Abraham and Sarah were encouraged to hope, only to be disappointed again.
For ten years after arriving in Canaan they tried. But finally, after Abraham received yet another promise from God and Sarah once again did not get pregnant, Abraham and Sarah resorted to their Hurrian culture, the culture of Haran where they had lived for the past thirty or forty years. Sarah told Abraham to sleep with her slave.
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
Sarah did what she was culturally required to do. Archeologists have found tablets from the town of Nuzi (in present day Iraq) which was part of the Hurrian empire. One of the tablets is a marriage contract from the time of Abraham.
If Glimninu bears children, Shennima shall not take another wife. But if Glimninu fails to bear children, Glimninu shall get for Shennima a woman from the Lulllu country ( a slave girl) as concubine. In that case, Glimninu herself shall have authority over the offspring.
This is why Sarah said to Abraham, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Sarah said, “I can build a family through her.” Hagar would be the birth mother but the child would belong to Sarah.
In the culture of the time, infertility was viewed as punishment from God. We see this with Hannah about one thousand years later. She was married to Elkanah who had two wives. Peninnah had children but Hannah was childless. The account from I Samuel says that the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb. Elkanah loved Hannah and went out of his way to show her his favor. He gave her extra pieces of meat at the meals. When she was upset he told her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
But Peninnah felt superior to Hannah. It may be that Elkanah loved Hannah more, but it was Peninnah who was giving sons and daughters to Elkanah. So she taunted Hannah. (I Samuel 1:1-8)
Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. 7 This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat.
This is what happened with Sarah and Hagar.
When [Hagar] knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.
Hagar had been the slave of Sarah but now she began to feel superior. She was carrying in her womb the heir for Abraham. Abraham was dependent on her, not his wife Sarah, for his heir. Hagar began flaunting her importance and Sarah was miserable. She was already miserable because she had not been able to provide Abraham with a child, now this was being pushed in her face.
And so Sarah began to regret offering Hagar to Abraham. She went to him to complain.
5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
According to their cultural understanding, Hagar’s child was legally Sarah’s child and Sarah blamed Abraham for not keeping Hagar in her place as a servant.
So Abraham gave control of Hagar to Sarah.
6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
Hagar was a strong woman, not willing to be pushed around. I am guessing she imagined Abraham had feelings for her, but when he threw her away under the care of her rival who inevitably mistreated her, she decided to leave and take Abraham’s heir with her.
Hannah set out toward Egypt, heading back to her homeland. Assuming Abraham’s camp was still in Hebron, she traveled for at least a week, walking seventy miles through inhospitable territory, pregnant, and not prepared for a difficult journey.
7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.
9 Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:
“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”
13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
Hagar was used and discarded. She was shamed and rejected. She felt invisible and unwanted. Abraham wanted her child but he did not care about her. Hagar was in emotional pain and because of this she was making a difficult journey.
I will come back to this, but for now let me point out that what was life changing for Hagar is that she was no longer invisible, she had been visited by “the God who sees me.” She was no longer unwanted, unimportant. The angel of the Lord told her, “I will increase your descendants.” Not Abraham’s descendants. Not Sarah’s descendants. Hagar’s descendants.
God had a plan for Isaac who did not yet exist, but he also had a plan for Ishmael and God’s plan for Ishmael was to bless him.
Let me jump ahead fourteen years and then come back with some lessons for us.
Hagar returned. Ishmael was born and Abraham had an heir. Finally, after all these years, God’s promise to him was fulfilled. For fourteen years Ishmael was Abraham’s only son, Abraham’s heir. Genesis does not tell us about the relationship between Sarah and Hagar during those years, but it seems Hagar was still viewed as the mother of Ishmael. Sarah never quite bonded with him. We see this when Sarah, in her old age, had her own son. Miraculously, Isaac was born and then the old tensions came to the surface. (Genesis 21:8-21)
8 The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
14 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.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.
17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
For a second time Hagar was pushed out into the wilderness. Once again she and her son had been rejected. This time, I imagine, the pain was worse. For fourteen years Abraham had loved her son and now he was being rejected in favor of Sarah’s son, Isaac.
Once again, God sent help and comfort. Once again she heard that God would make her son into a great nation. As God reassured Abraham, so God reassured Hagar. Once again she heard that God would bless her son.
Now, let me draw out three lessons for us.
The first lesson is that God chooses but his choosing of one is not a rejection of the other. God wants all the people of the world to be blessed.
Why did God begin to create a people for himself with Abraham? Why didn’t God begin with a Hindu in India? Why didn’t God begin with someone in Africa? Why didn’t God begin with someone from Korea or China? Why didn’t God begin with someone in Europe? We don’t know. These are questions beyond our ability to answer.
God chose Abraham and not his brother. God chose Isaac, not Ishmael. He chose Jacob, not Esau. He chose Judah, not his other eleven brothers. God began with Abraham to create a people devoted to himself. This process moved slowly and painfully along until it culminated with the birth of Jesus. And then, with his death and resurrection, all the world was invited into God’s kingdom.
For two thousand years God worked with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He chose the Jewish people to be his people. He chose the Jews, not the Canaanites, not the people of Asia or Europe or Africa.
God chose the Jews but he did not reject the rest of the world. In John’s gospel he wrote, (John 3:16-17)
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
God loves the people of the world.
In Genesis 21 when Isaac is born, what is the scene? There is a feast to celebrate the birth of Isaac. Sarah and Isaac are at the center of the celebration. There is amazement that Sarah, at her advanced age, could get pregnant and have a son.
What is happening with Hagar and Ishmael? Ishmael had been the heir to Abraham, but now what will happen? Isaac is a threat to Ishmael. Abraham now has two sons and how will his inheritance be divided? Ishmael is also a threat to Isaac and when Sarah sees Ishmael mocking her son, she reacts. She tells Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Ishmael is “that woman’s son,” not Hagar’s son, not your heir, but that woman’s son. As far as Sarah is concerned, Hagar and Ishmael do not exist.
Where are the characters in this scene focused? Sarah is fiercely protective of Isaac. Hagar is just as fiercely protective of Ishmael. Who is Abraham focused on?
When Sarah came to him and told him, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac,” what did Abraham think?”
11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son
Which son? Ishmael or Isaac? Abraham was focused on Ishmael, who had been his son for fourteen years. Sarah told him to get rid of his son whom he loved.
Who is God focused on? Nine months earlier God sent messengers to Abraham to announce that Sarah would give birth to a son. God had told Abraham that this son would be his heir and that the covenant God had made with Abraham would be passed along through Isaac. God was focused on Isaac and on Sarah.
When Abraham was distressed because Sarah told him Hagar and Ishmael had to leave, God spoke to him.
“Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
God cared about Abraham and reassured him.
Abraham sent them off into the desert with supplies, and, I imagine, a broken heart. They wandered in the desert and then when they ran out of water and faced death, God spoke to her. He repeated his promise that God would make Ishmael into a great nation. He reassured Hagar, helped her to see where she could find water, let her know that she and her son mattered to him.
God cared about Hagar and Ishmael. The characters in this account in Genesis 16 preferred one person above another but God showed his concern for each person in the story.
When God chooses, he does not reject. He created men and women to be with him for eternity. That is why we were created. He did not create men and women to punish them. God does all he can do to encourage men and women to choose to follow him.
For two thousand years God created a people for himself, working with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But when Jesus died, the temple curtain was torn in two. Access to God was no longer limited. The world was invited to come to Jesus and find eternal life.
In the Jewish temple there were dividing lines that prevented people from moving closer to the Holy Place of God. But at the death of Jesus, these lines were destroyed. There is no longer a court of the gentiles. There is no longer a court of the Israelites. There is no longer a court of the Israelite men. There is no longer a Holy Place accessible only to priests. There is no longer a Most Holy Place accessible only to the High Priest.
Paul wrote in Galatians 3:26-29
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
God chose Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and all the way down to David and Joseph, the husband of Mary. Jesus was born into a Jewish culture. RIC has about forty nations represented on a Sunday. How many of us have Jewish heritage? Maybe one or two, but that is all. My Norwegian, German, and Swiss ancestors were not chosen. They were once not a people, but then Jesus invited them to be the people of God.
We at RIC this morning have been blessed because the door to the nations of the world was opened wide. We who were once not a people, are now the people of God. We were brought into the family of God as his beloved daughters and his beloved sons. We don’t know why he chose Abraham, but we are grateful he tore the curtain and opened the way for us to come into his family.
The second lesson is that God wants to bless the descendants of Ishmael.
I tell people often that religion is meant to be a pursuit of truth, not a competition for truth. Our goal is to draw near to God and receive his love. But we often view our faith as a football team, competing with other football teams. When someone of another faith becomes a follower of Jesus, we celebrate – G O A L !!! When someone from a Christian background converts to another religion, we sit while we listen to another team cheering – G O A L !!!
I tell people that when I die, my goal is not to have Christianity win, but to go to be with God. So when I meet someone from another religion, I want to be able to talk together and find out how it is they think they will be able to be with God at the end of their life. We both have the same problem and need to share with each other what we have discovered to be the way to God.
But because many followers of Jesus are caught up in the competition for truth, there is a tendency to elevate Isaac and reject Ishmael. We turn our faith into a battle against Muslims. To those who think this way, I say there is no longer Jew or Gentile, male or female, Jew or Arab. Jesus said, (Matthew 11:28) “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” All who are weary and burdened, not just those who happen to be of the right nation or tribe.
Ishmael was loved by God and blessed by God. God chose Isaac in his plan to bring salvation to the world, but he wants Ishmael and all his descendants in his kingdom. This was announced at Pentecost when the disciples began speaking in the languages of the world. Were any of Ishamael’s descendants there? (Acts 2:8–11)
Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”
Arabs heard the disciples speaking in Arabic. Arabs, the descendants of Ishmael, were at Pentecost and came into the kingdom of Jesus that day.
Ishmael is not the enemy of the church. Ishmael is the much loved son of Abraham whom God blessed.
The third lesson is that God has a heart for those who are rejected, unwanted, invisible, and powerless.
God showed his love for Abraham and Sarah. He also showed his love for Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Sarah. As you read the Bible, you discover that, packed in the pages of the Bible, God loves those the world devalues and rejects.
I once bought a car from a wealthy Moroccan woman who was living in France and not using her car that was parked in her garage in Temara. She had become a follower of Jesus and through a friend of mine, offered me a good deal on the car. It was four years old but had only 29,000 kilometers on the odometer.
When I went to the bank, the bank did not have enough 200, 100, and 50 dirham notes and had to give me a large amount of 20 dirham notes. When I arrived to pay for the car, all of these bills had to be counted and it took some time.
As we were sitting in one of her rooms, she called out to one of the men who worked for her and asked him to turn on the light so she could see better. He was two rooms away. She was one step away from the light. It was clear that she had grown up with servants and as a little girl learned that servants exist to do whatever you want them to do.
In our world, there are invisible people. There are those who sweep the streets, guardians, and maids. There are beggars, elderly people who spend their day sitting on benches, and people pushing carts through the streets.
When we step into an office, we look for the people with power and make sure we are nice to them so we get what we want. But what about the people cleaning the office? What about the security guards? When we go to a restaurant, we are nice to the owner and waiter who will serve us. But what about the man watching the parked cars? What about the people cooking and washing dishes?
In an embassy, everyone knows where people rank in the power scheme. You are always nice to the ambassador, but what about the people who serve at the bottom of the power ladder? In school you are always nice to the professors, but what about the people who are so easily ignored and taken for granted?
When we go to school, we know who is popular and who is not. We hang out with people who help us fit in, but what about the kids that are unpopular? Who is a friend to the kids no one wants to know?
In the Parable of the Workers, Jesus told the story of a landowner who goes to the marketplace at 6 AM to hire workers for his vineyard. He has the workers he needs, but when he goes back to the marketplace at 9 AM, at noon, and at 3 PM, he finds workers still waiting and hires them. Finally at 5 PM, with just one hour of work remaining in the day, he finds more workers waiting and hires them to work in his vineyard.
Did you ever play a pickup sport when you were young? Not a formal sport with adult coaches, but a simple game where two kids are picked to be the leaders and then they stand and face the rest of the kids wanting to play and begin to pick their team. They take turns and pick the best players first. They continue to pick from who is left and as the picking continues, the ones still waiting to be picked stand there, shuffling their feet in the dirt, trying not to appear bothered by the selection process. But inside there is a war going on. There is hurt and shame at not being wanted. One by one these less desirable ones are picked and finally there are just two kids left and the leaders doing the picking say, “Ok, I’ll take Pete if you take Jim.”
After the top tier of people are selected, those selected stand with their respective captains and look at the dwindling number of kids yet to be selected. The number becomes less and less and pretty soon, it seems as if everyone is looking at the ones not selected. It seems to those waiting to be picked that the fact that they do not have enough talent to be selected earlier is being broadcast to the whole world. This is a moment of intense public humiliation.
These are the workers still waiting to be hired at 5PM. These are the last of the lot, the ones nobody wants. The last two kids being picked for teams to play football. The ones who are hurting inside. They have waited all day, discouraged because no one wants them, wondering how they would bring home food to feed their families, feeling unwanted and rejected. Can you sense the inner pain these workers felt? They sat all day long, waiting for someone to tell them their help was needed, and nobody came.
What happened next? The workers hired at 5 PM expected nothing but the landowner paid them a full day’s wage. He restored honor to these workers who had accumulated shame through the day. He paid all the workers he had hired throughout the day a full day’s wage. There is a lot of truth packed into this parable, but in large part, this is a parable about God restoring honor to the people the world shames. In this parable, Jesus tells us that he values the people the world rejects.
Jesus told another parable about a man who was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. When the preparations were made, he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited that the banquet was ready. Those who were invited made excuse after excuse and did not come. So the man told his servant, (Luke 14:16–21)
‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
Isn’t this what happened in the ministry of Jesus? Jesus loved those the respectable world despised: lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, demon possessed.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and reminded them of who they had been. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him.
The church has always attracted those the world has rejected because when the gospel is preached, people rejected by the world discover that they are deeply loved by the creator of the world.
The world takes a superficial, skin-deep look at people and makes judgments about them. Jesus sees through to the heart and invites people he loves to come to him.
The world ranks us according to power and wealth. We are trained to relate to each other on the basis of who has wealth and power and who does not. We are trained to value ourselves according to how much power and wealth in relation to others we know. But we are followers of Jesus, not followers of the world. We are not called to take on the value system of the world, we are called to take on the heart of Jesus for the world.
Take on the heart of Jesus. Pray that God will give you his heart for the people you meet. When you walk through your day, pay attention to the people the world devalues and ignores. Make invisible people visible. Honor and respect the people who work for you. Honor and respect the people who work for the people who work for you. Honor and respect the people who clean up for you.
We see professors and street sweepers. God sees people he created to be with him for eternity in his kingdom. We see ambassadors and security guards. God sees people he loves so much he was willing to die for them.
If you are feeling that the world has left you behind, if you are feeling dishonored and shamed, I want you to know deep in your heart and mind that God loves you, is present with you, and wants to bless you. When the world rejects you, know that you have been accepted with open arms by God who preexisted the creation of the world and who will see the world and all that it values be destroyed.
Whether we have power or no power, we need to know we are loved by God and that this is the center of our lives. Having this identity protects us from the world’s slings and arrows. Having this identity helps us value people and love them as Jesus loves them. Allow the love of Jesus to increasingly fill your heart and mind so that all you do comes out of your deep experience of being loved unconditionally by God.