If only the narrator of the Old Testament text that the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday had just quit at verse 8. After Isaac is weaned, Abraham throws a big soiree. Period. It would have made for a happy ending that would send everyone home happy. But that’s not the way Genesis 21 ends. Pain is the caboose at the end of happiness’ train.
Our text’s beginning, however, bubbles over with happiness. After all, against all odds, God has graciously kept God’s promise to give Abraham and Sarah a son. Yet while martial intimacy is almost certainly involved, Sarah doesn’t give birth just because of that intimacy. Infertile Abraham and she bear a son because of God’s promise.
Abraham responds as God had told him to. He names his son “laughter.” God has, after all, turned Sarah and Abraham’s laughter from that of skepticism into that of joy. In fact, Sarah adds, God has graciously made that joyous laughter so contagious that all of us cackle with her.
So, as Scott Hoezee, to whose earlier sermon commentary on this text I’m indebted for many of this commentary’s insights, notes, we can imagine there’s a lot of loud and happy laughter when Abraham throws kind of bar mitzvah for his son. You and I can even imagine some of that laughter spills out of the incongruity of it all. Who on earth, after all, would have predicted Abram and Sarah would get to throw a party for their own child? Certainly not Abraham, Sarah or any other human being.
Yet it’s a bit surprising how little attention Genesis pays to the miracle that is Isaac’s birth. You might argue that all of Genesis 12-20 has been pointing ahead to this happy event. But our text polishes off its account of it in just eight short verses, ending with, “On the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast.”
“But,” says verse 9 immediately. And we almost involuntarily shudder. After all, sometimes, as in Jonah’s story, “but” is a happy word that introduces great grace. At other times, however, “but” is an unhappy word. Verse 9’s “But Sarah …” is just such a word. If our text’s joy is a train whose caboose is pain, it’s just a one or two-car train.
Of course, Genesis 21’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us also know how short joy’s shelf life can be. We celebrate a pregnancy, only to learn of morning sickness, difficult deliveries and sleepless nights. We celebrate a new job, only to learn of new difficult co-workers, a plunge to the bottom of the seniority list and perhaps longer hours.
Morning’s joy may and, in fact, often does follow night’s sobbing. But all too quickly the evening’s weeping returns, deepening our deep longing for that day when there will be no more “but’s,” crying, mourning, pain or death.
Our text’s Sarah learns that the hard way. Hers, after all, isn’t the only child in her household. And while children are a great blessing, you don’t have to know much about family dynamics to worry this new reality will turn out badly. What happens next doesn’t surprise those who know anything about the struggles of what we call blended families.
Genesis 21’s Abraham has two sons living with him. One is Ishmael, the child borne of total desperation and little faith. The other is Isaac, the child born of God’s promise and little else.
So, of course, there’s a lot of laughter, not just in Abraham’s tent, but also in our text’s first eight verses. Yet it’s not just happy laughter that rings throughout Abraham’s household. Verse 9 reports “Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking.” But that Hebrew word our Bibles translate as “mocking” is very similar to the word that we translate as “laughter.”
The Hebrew word for mocking can also be translated as “playing,” “laughing” or “joking with,” and “entertaining.” In fact, the New Revised Standard Version translates verse 9 as Ishmael was “playing with” Isaac.
Genesis pins the blame for what happens next mainly on Sarah. Perhaps during Isaac’s party, she sees something that makes her fists clench and blood pressure soar. Maybe she senses Hagar’s son is somehow mistreating her son. Perhaps before she even knows what she’s doing, Sarah runs to Abraham and screams, “Get rid of that slave woman’s son right now!”
Neither she nor anyone else in our text, including even God, uses Ishmael’s name. That’s what we do with the various outsiders in our lives, after all. We just stick labels on them. So we’re not surprised that to everyone in our text, Ishmael is Hagar’s “son” or, worse, just “the boy.”
He’s also a source of festering tension between Sarah and Abraham, as well as Sarah and Hagar. Ishmael may even be a cause of Abraham’s “distress,” although we’re not sure just which son deeply troubles him in verse 11.
But to God, Ishmael is more than just Hagar’s son or “the boy.” He’s someone whom God created in God’s image and loves deeply. God’s promise to bless the nations runs through Abraham’s son Isaac. But God is also determined to make Ishmael “into a nation.”
That won’t happen, however, because Abraham provides so well for his son. After all, Abraham doesn’t treat his mistress and his son properly. He essentially washes his hands of the whole mess by basically chasing them out of his home and into the barren wilderness.
Abraham, of course, packs some basic supplies for them. Yet those meager supplies don’t last very long. When Hagar and Ishmael’s water quickly runs out, Hagar puts her son under a bush because she just can’t handle watching him die. She then walks and sits a long way away from her miserable son.
Perhaps only those who have watched a child die can even begin to appreciate the magnitude of Hagar’s pain. God has promised to turn Ishmael into a great nation. But God as well as everyone else seems to have abandoned him. Now his mother can do little but do the same as she waits for her son and her to die.
Meanwhile, there sits Ishmael all alone in a sliver of shade in the sweltering heat of the shimmering wilderness. Sarah can’t stand the sight of him. Abraham can’t bear to watch him. Even Ishmael’s mother is now too far away to see him.
So who’s keeping an eye on Ishmael out there in the barren wilderness? No one but God. When no one else is watching Ishmael, God is. When no one else can hear his mother weep and howl, God can. When no one else can hear Ishmael sob, God can.
When God’s adopted sons and daughters feel as though everyone simply looks right through or past them, God sees them. When we feel as though no one is listening to us, God listens. God pays close and loving attention to people whom everyone else basically overlooks. Genesis doesn’t even tell us that either Hagar or Ishmael prays to God. Like Abraham’s enslaved Israelite descendants, they simply cry out in their pain. Yet the Lord hears them anyway.
The lives of Genesis 21’s preachers, teachers and those who listen to us may feel so painful that we can hardly pray. God’s children may find we’re merely weeping, sobbing or even wailing. But God graciously hears our cries anyway. God’s people may not know what to even say to God. But God, for Jesus’ sake, graciously listens to us anyway.
God sees the woman and child whom no one else can or wants to see. God hears a woman’s cries that no one else can or wants to hear. And God calls by name the woman whom no one else calls by name.
In Genesis’ story focuses Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants, Hagar and Ishmael may seem unnecessary. But no one is a throwaway to God. So God opens Hagar’s eyes, not to a wilderness miracle, but to what’s already there. God opens her eyes so that she can finally see the well that she hadn’t yet seen.
That’s the way God often works, after all. We sometimes long for God to perform miracles, for God to disrupt the way God rules our world. But sometimes God just opens our eyes to something that was there all along, but we didn’t recognize.
So that ordinary little bottle of Tylenol becomes God’s gift of relief from pain. That neighbor to whom you’d never said more than two words brings you a meal. A leader who seems so ineffective becomes a maker of peace.
That at least suggests that those who want to imitate God by helping needy people don’t wait for miracles. We familiarize ourselves with resources that are already there. Or we help create a new resource. Then we walk alongside those vulnerable people as we point them to resources within the church and community.
God, after all, doesn’t forget about the people who feel forgotten or whom we’d even rather forget. God cares about people whom many prefer to ignore or abandon. God pays attention to those we push to the margins or even out of our big stories. No one is too little or unimportant to escape God’s gracious and loving care. So God comes to and stays with Ishmael, even as he grows up.
Yet while God is also committed to making an enormous family out of Abraham, it proves to be difficult. After all, things are seldom easy in even the best of families. At least some hurt is closely bound up with families.
Yet God graciously continues to work with families anyway. God keeps God’s promise to stick with both the family of the promise and the family of desperation. God moves behind the scenes of family lives to keep God’s promises and advance God’s good purposes.
Families don’t have to be perfect for God to do God’s work through them. They just need to be open to being used by God for God’s good purposes. After all, God continues to work out God’s plans, through and sometimes even in spite of families, to keep God’s promises.
After all, as one preacher notes, we managed to kill God’s only natural Son. But even that didn’t stop God. God won the victory over our limitations. God, in fact, continues to love, preserve and even expand God’s flawed family even to this day.
Kids Hope USA is an organization that creates partnerships that pair church members with local students who are at risk in supportive, mentoring relationships. Its mentors spend an hour a week doing things like reading, talking and listening to, as well as playing with a student whom most people overlook, except to scold him or her.
On its website, www.kidshopeusa.org, the organization tells the story of eight year-old Sam. She felt invisible on the playground as well as in the classroom. Sam felt like she was being left behind, unseen and largely uncared for.
When her Kids Hope mentor Kim entered her life, she called Sam by her name. She listened to Sam without interrupting or correcting her. Kim saw Sam in a way she thought no one had ever seen Sam before.
Sam’s sense of invisibility slowly began to melt under the unstinting, loving gaze of Kim. For the first time, she felt important. After all, someone who knew her name made her feel special and valued.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 25, 2017
Genesis 21:8-21 Commentary