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God Hears In The Wilderness

Genesis 21:8-21 (CEB)

The boy grew and stopped nursing. On the day he stopped nursing, Abraham prepared a huge banquet. Sarah saw Hagar’s son laughing, the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham. So she said to Abraham, “Send this servant away with her son! This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
This upset Abraham terribly because the boy was his son. God said to Abraham, “Don’t be upset about the boy and your servant. Do everything Sarah tells you to do because your descendants will be traced through Isaac. But I will make of your servant’s son a great nation too, because he is also your descendant.” Abraham got up early in the morning, took some bread and a flask of water, and gave it to Hagar. He put the boy in her shoulder sling and sent her away.
She left and wandered through the desert near Beer-sheba. Finally, the water in the flask ran out, and she put the boy down under one of the desert shrubs. She walked away from him about as far as a bow shot and sat down, telling herself, I can’t bear to see the boy die. She sat at a distance, cried out in grief, and wept.

God heard the boy’s cries, and God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “Hagar! What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries over there. Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well.
She went over, filled the water flask, and gave the boy a drink. God remained with the boy; he grew up, lived in the desert, and became an expert archer. He lived in the Paran desert, and his mother found him an Egyptian wife.

A word of God, for the people of God…Thanks be to God.

June 24-25, 2017
Genesis 21:8-21
“God Hears in the Wilderness”

Today and for the month of July, we will be hearing stories from the Old Testament book of Genesis, where we find rich and powerful stories of our ancestors in the faith. There are many threads and themes of the Genesis stories that connect to us individually and to our life together as God’s people all these centuries later.

Today we will hear a story from the life of Abraham and Sarah, along with their servant Hagar. Both Sarah and Hagar have had sons with Abraham and the story becomes a layered, interconnected and tangled one…life is complicated for all three characters in this story.

(Read Genesis 21:8-21)

Our Scripture passage from Genesis is quite a story, isn’t it? It’s the stuff reality T.V. shows like “Desperate Housewives” are made of!

This story of Hagar and her son being cast into the wilderness is a troubling, yet powerful story. It is also a very human story that begins in human jealousy and ends with God’s divine grace.

To better understand the story, let me share the background leading up to the events of the passage I just read…

Sarah is a Hebrew and clearly the privileged one as the wife of Abraham, a wealthy herdsman. But, Sarah’s ‘blemish’ or downside is that she is old and was unable to have children.

And in ancient cultures, a woman’s status in the world was based on being able to bear a child, and more specifically, a male child. Sarah blames her barrenness on God and so takes matters into her own hands by planning to secure a child through her Egyptian servant, Hagar, who then becomes the other woman in Abraham’s life.

As for Hagar, she is young, single, poor and not free. For Sarah, Hagar is simply an instrument for getting the child she desperately wants and needs. Though never named in this story, Hagar’s son is Ishmael, whose name means “God hears.”

After Ishmael’s birth, Abraham and Sarah are visited by three men from God, who announce that a son will be born to them. Sarah has the nerve to laugh at this unlikely news, given the old ages of her and her husband. But then Sarah becomes pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. That’s when the rivalry between Sarah and Hagar intensifies. Hagar remains as the house servant, but also serves Abraham as a second wife. And now that Sarah has given birth to a son, her power and status as the first wife increases.

That brings us to today’s part of the story. Sarah and Abraham’s child grows to about three-years-old when Abraham holds a great feast on the day he is able to stop nursing; a happy scene of family celebration. But, we all know family celebrations can take sudden turns and that is the case with this family.

The conflict is set into motion by Sarah glancing at what should be another pleasant scene; that of her young son, Isaac, playing with his half-brother, Ishmael. Yet, when Sarah sees the two boys playing and laughing together, her jealousy flares and the conflict gets full-blown when Sarah insists that Abraham send Hagar and her son away saying, “This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

This ends up being not one of Abraham’s finest moments as a father or a husband. He did not like Sarah’s plan, but was not about to cross her. Then, even without being asked, God intervenes and instructs Abraham to do as his wife says.

The climax of the story comes in the poignant picture of the outcast mother and her son, on the verge of death by thirst. Imagine Hagar’s feelings when Abraham sends her away with nothing but her son, Ishmael, some bread, and a flask of water. Soon the homeless mother and child run out of water. Unable to face the suffering of the boy, Hagar puts him in the shade of a bush and moves off to await his death; both mother and son are weeping. Hagar has given up. It seems she has nothing left; no son, no hope, no dreams, no future. She cannot watch as her son dies…all she can do is cry out to God for mercy.

Once again, enter, God, whose intervention comes in response to the boy’s cries. God sends an angel to Hagar, who asks “What’s wrong?” Seems like an odd question…What isn’t wrong?

The angel assures Hagar that God has heard the cries of the boy, reiterates God’s promise that God “will make of him a great nation,” and then God breaks through Hagar’s haze of grief and despair and opens her eyes to see the abundance around her; in this case a well of water for strength and survival. Hagar takes what God has provided and she and her son are strengthened to go on…to find a way forward.

It is one thing to ask God for help when times are desperate; it is quite another to know what to do with the help God sends.

One story tells about two brothers back in the days of settling the West. The brothers homestead a piece of land in Kansas. Their first crop of corn was a huge failure from lack of rain. The second was not much better. The two young men found themselves without hope or money as their third planting season neared. They wrote home to their father to seek advice. The father wrote back: There are two things you must do…plow and pray. Plowing must be done in a timely manner if you are to grow a crop. Second, you must pray. If you are to know success, it can only happen when you are in harmony with God. So plow and pray. One day, as the brothers were turning over the soil with their plows, a hat came blowing in the wind across the field. The brothers pulled their horses to a stop and ran after the hat. They discovered a $20 bill in the hat band. Clearly, their good fortune had come from God, they thought. So, they went into town and bought all the supplies they needed to plant their third crop of corn. It did not rain much that summer either. Fall came and the two brothers headed back home to Ohio. As they grew older, they laughingly told the story of the day God sent them money for train fare home and they spent it on seed for planting corn!

When we get in those wilderness places of life, or when we see others struggling in the wilderness; are we able to see the well of living water that God provides to get us through? Are we able to lead others to that living water or be that well of living water for them in their wilderness? When stress builds in our lives; when our lives seem swamped by complexity, we are not left alone…God comes to us and provides, just as God did for our ancestors in the faith.

The fate of Hagar and Ishmael is summarized by saying that the boy grew up, lived in the wilderness, became an expert with the bow, and his mother got him a wife from the land of Egypt. Their circumstances did not change…they were still in the wilderness; but how Hagar looked at things, her trust in God, and knowing what to do with the help God sent, allowed her and Ishmael to survive.

As a symbol of one surviving in the wilderness of life, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Rejected, used, abused, and oppressed; people find their story in her story.

Hagar is the divorced parent with young children; she is the runaway youth; she is the pregnant young woman, alone.

She is the faithful employee who is exploited by earning less than a living wage with no health insurance; she is the undocumented immigrant or migrant worker without legal recourse.
She is the child dying of AIDS in Africa; she is the homeless person sitting on the street corner and sleeping in the doorway; she is the mother on government assistance looking for a job and affordable childcare.

She is the cancer patient, who has exhausted her treatment options. She is the person struggling with mental health issues and unable to find treatment or housing.

She is the drug addict lost in a life of crime to support her addiction; she is the teenager sold into a life of human trafficking from state to state and country to country.

She is the youth who has been kicked out of their family for being gay or lesbian or transgendered and wanders in the wilderness feeling alone and unwanted. She is the LGBTQ person excluded from full participation in the life of The UMC after hearing a call from God to lead God’s people in pastoral ministry.

We may not know the stories of all the people around us, but we can know and trust the promise God has made to all of them and all of us. When we know and trust the promises of God, we cannot pretend that the stories of others do not matter, even if they are not our story.

Just a year ago, the Western Jurisdiction of The UMC elected Rev. Karen Oliveto as Bishop, even though she was married to her same gendered partner of many years. Here is a little of the story from one who was part of that election process (video of Rev. Kent Ingram)

God will not leave us nor forsake us; God will not abandon us in our wilderness times.

When Sarah demands that Abraham dismiss Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, God tells Abraham to go ahead and do as Sarah says. God basically says, “I can work with this. I’ll make a great nation out of Ishmael also.” God continues to say, “I can work with this,” when it comes to our wilderness circumstances.

Isn’t that just like God? When all around us looks like wilderness and threat of despair, God opens our eyes and we see a new way…we see hope and new life. Somehow, in the most barren places, we suddenly see life where we thought there was only death; we see vision and hope where there appeared to be none.

God hears in the wilderness.

Chances are we can identify with Hagar. We’ve been in our own wilderness, where the emptiness surrounds us and we feel abandoned by all forms of care, including that of God. Yet, in the midst of our painful stories of exclusion, fear, injustice and desperation, one thing holds constant…God…God hears us and others in the wilderness, God offers reassurance, and God keeps the promise of blessing and provision.

May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.