Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 21, 2020
Genesis 21:8-21 Commentary
During Ordinary Time in the church’s calendar, we are encouraged in our walk with the God who has done great things for us. The opening line from Charles Dicken’s masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities, perfectly summarizes a particularly poignant time in Abraham’s walk with God. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
After years of wandering and wondering, trusting and doubting, brave obedience and cowardly compromise, disappointed laughter and unrecorded tears, Abraham and Sarah came to the moment for which they had been waiting for nearly a century. Here at last it all comes together. And it all falls apart. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times, at the same time.
Many in your congregation will understand this time all too well. Perhaps you do too. This story teaches the essential truth about such times, the truth that will get God’s people through the best and worst times of our lives.
It was the best of times, of course, because Isaac was born. After decades of seeming delay and deep disappointment, God had kept his promise. “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age at the very time God had promised him.” And Sarah who had laughed in disbelief at God’s promise a year earlier now laughed with joyous faith at the fulfillment of that promise. “God has brought me laughter and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”
On a deeper level, the birth of Isaac meant that the covenant of grace could continue. With the promised child born, there could now be descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore populating the Promised Land forever. From the line of Isaac would come the Seed who would bless all the nations of the world. All of heaven must have joined the party that Abraham threw on the day Isaac was weaned. It was the best of times. Everyone in heaven and in Abraham’s household was deliriously happy.
Well, not everyone. As the party was going on, Sarah spotted “the son whom Hagar had borne to Abraham” mocking. Fourteen-year-old Ishmael spoiled the party by “Isaacing” it says literally, by laughing at, making fun of, ridiculing Isaac. With that, the best of times turned to the worst. Mother Bear Sarah furiously demanded that Abraham “get rid of that slave and her son.” “That slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
Abraham blew up in return, because, although Ishmael wasn’t Sarah’s son, he was definitely Abraham’s. Sarah saw Ishmael as a rival to Isaac; Abraham saw him as his son, his first-born son. Abraham was distressed by Sarah’s unreasonable demand, but God said, “Don’t be distressed…. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you….” The next thing we hear is that Abraham “early the next morning… sent her off with the boy” into the desert.
The child born of the flesh, the non-chosen son, is excluded from the covenant of grace. Isaac is nestled safe in the bosom of Abraham, while Ishmael is dying of thirst out in the desert. It was the best of times and the worst of times in Abraham’s walk with God.
Abraham’s experience was not unique to him. The Christian faith and our individual lives are full of what G.K. Chesterton called furious opposites. “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both and keeping them furious.” The story of Abraham is filled with such opposites. As interpreted by the New Testament, it teaches us that we are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone. It must lead to a life of obedience.
Further, the behavior of Sarah illustrates with painful clarity the furious opposites in humanity. We, who are created in God’s image, can act like beasts. We can bless and curse in the same breath.
And this story reminds us of perhaps the deepest mystery of all, the furious opposites of election and reprobation, the mystery of a loving God who elects Isaacs and rejects Ishmael, a doctrine so reprehensible to some Christians that they call it “the doctrine born in hell.” The Christian faith is filled with such paradoxes, furious opposites that tax our minds and test our faith.
On a more personal level, our walk with Christ is filled with furious opposites that break our hearts—times when we laugh with Sarah and weep with Hagar, times when life is divided right down the middle of our souls, because in the same moment we have to throw a party and attend a funeral. There are times when we want to praise God and we want to curse God.
Think of a young family that celebrates the birth of a baby, only to discover that she has serious birth defects. Or a young man who in one night wins the game for his team and then has his girlfriend break up with him. Or the woman who is succeeding wildly at work while her family is breaking apart at home. Or at the moment you feel closest to God some disaster makes you wonder if God even exists. Many of us can relate to Annie Lamott. Looking back on the roller coaster of her life, she says that her two favorite prayers are “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” and “Help me, help me, help me!”
When the furious opposites of life come together, it’s like a strong warm front from the Gulf of Mexico colliding with a cold front from the Arctic. The result is a tornado that threatens to blow away everything that isn’t tied down. This story reminds us of the line that anchors us in the storm. From beginning to end, one line runs through this story, one strong cord holding together Abraham’s walk with God in the best and worst of times. “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah, as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.” God is as faithful and true in keeping his promise as he is generous and gracious in making it. Although God may wait and we may waver in our faith because he waits, God is faithful. In Isaac, God keeps his promise of salvation for the world.
Well, that‘s fine when things turn out well, in the best of times. But what about the worst of times, when things don’t turn out? What about Ishmael? He is sent away, excluded from the covenant of grace. He is not elect, as Isaac is. God himself said this—“it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” What are we to make of this? Well, we could speculate about the mysteries of election and reprobation as my Reformed forebears did endlessly, but let’s stick to the story.
The story reminds us, first of all, that Ishmael was not innocent. He mocked Isaac and Sarah. Let that sink in. He mocked the Promised Child. He must have known God’s promise to Abraham; he had heard it for years. He is at the age of reason here, so we can’t say he didn’t know better. But on this occasion of great joy in the fulfillment of the divine promise, he chooses to insult both God and his Word, in the person of his brother.
This is a grievous thing- to ridicule the grace of God, to reject what God in his grace has provided for the salvation of the world. In fact, when God began his covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob way back in Ur of the Chaldees, God said in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” So, on the one hand, Ishmael got what he deserved for his mockery, exactly what God had threatened for those who scorn and oppose his grace.
But, on the other hand, notice how the promise of God runs through even this terrible time for Ishmael, and actually provides for him. “Do not be distressed about him,” says God. “I will make the son of the handmaid into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” When the boy cries out later in the story, huddled there under a bush, dying of thirst, the Bible says, “God heard the boy crying….” God heard the boy and provided water and a way to live in the desert and a wife from his mother’s home country of Egypt. In the end God made him into a great nation with twelve princes, the beginning of the Arab nations. As he had promised. Even for Ishmael, the promise of God is the anchor in the storm.
Ultimately, it is God’s will that triumphs in this story. God is faithful in keeping his promise to each person. Through all the furious opposites of life, the strong straight line of God’s faithfulness holds us fast and anchors us in the storms of life.
That straight line of God’s redeeming love runs through all of Abraham’s life and Isaac’s and Jacob’s, down through the years to the cross, where the Promised Child brought the blessing of Abraham to the world—to Jews and Greeks and Romans and Arabs, even to us. There at the cross meet all the furious opposites of life and of God—human sin and divine forgiveness, love and wrath, grace and justice, heaven and hell. In the cross the tensions and mysteries of life were reconciled by the redeeming love of God. It was the best of times and the worst of times.
Abraham, of course, did not know the cross. That’s what makes his response to the furious opposites of life so amazing, and so important for us as we walk with God through the terrible mysteries of our lives. God spoke to Abraham in his distress and Abraham responded to God’s word, even God’s hard word, with obedience.
Verse 14 says, “Early the next morning, Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar….” The only thing Abraham could see was his wife and son walking forlornly into the deadly desert. I suspect he watched them through tear dimmed eyes. But God had promised that he would provide for Ishmael, and Abraham walked by faith, not by sight. Thomas Merton said, “We do not first see, then act. We act, then see…. The man who waits to see clearly, before he will believe, never starts the journey.” When a close walk with God is full of mystery and misery, there is only one thing to do. Trust the promise of God and keep going. Walk in the faith that God’s redeeming love shown on the cross will hold us fast.
As I wrote the above comments, I heard two songs in my heart, both by William Cowper: “O for a Closer Walk with God” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Those are two of the best loved old hymns of the church, but Cowper himself experienced little of the grace of which he wrote. Tormented that he had committed the unpardonable sin and hounded by rumors of an illicit affair, he had a nervous breakdown. He attempted suicide several times and spent time straight-jacketed in a mental institution for his own protection. For the last quarter of his life, he avoided church entirely.
What are we to make of such a man? Was he a hypocrite, a fake, perhaps an Ishmael? Or was he a struggling believer caught in the furious opposites of life, who was able to express his faith only in his music. In one of his other hymns, one spurned by many church-goers because of its emphasis on the blood of Christ, we hear his testimony. After beginning with “there is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins,” it sings “redeeming love has been my theme and shall be ‘til I die.”
That redeeming love was the theme of Abraham’s life, the straight strong line that ran through the best and worst of times.
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