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Grace in the Wilderness

June 23, 2014

“Grace in the Wilderness” Genesis 21:8-21 © 6.22.14 Ordinary 12A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“Not all who wander are lost.” So goes the common saying. By the same token, there are those who choose to go to and be in the wilderness. Maybe they seek it out as a spiritual discipline, therapy or part of some training regimen. Could be they want to be alone or test their confidence and skill in a potentially hostile environment far from civilization. Perhaps the wilderness holds the best chance for a better life or at least a different one, as for Alaska homesteaders or old West pioneers. Or it could even offer the promise of momentary fame and fortune from starring in a reality show.

For Hagar, though, being in the wilderness was most certainly not a choice. She was cast out with her young son, the victim of a jealous, frightened mistress and an ineffectual, indecisive master, the father of her boy.

We may not know so well the story of Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, so let me refresh our memories. I suspect Hagar became Abraham and Sarah’s slave when the two were in Egypt, when their names were Abram and Sarai. They went there because of a famine in Canaan, and their sojourn in Egypt was not one of Abram’s shining moments. In a move designed to save himself, he passed Sarai off as his sister, and Pharaoh took her into his harem. As a result, Abram became rich from Pharaoh’s gifts of livestock and slaves. When it was discovered that Sarai was in fact Abram’s wife, Pharaoh sent the couple on their way back to Canaan, and did not take away what Abram had been given.

Time passes, and it becomes apparent that Sarai is never going to be a mother. This is a big problem for two reasons. One, Sarai feels worthless, because the value of wives, concubines, and female slaves in that day was measured by their fertility. And, two, Abram has been promised by God that he will be the ancestor of a people that outnumbers the stars. Hard to do without a son.

So, Sarai gives up and decides to follow the custom of the day. Abram will father a child with Sarai’s slave girl Hagar, who has no choice but to accept the arrangement. She does become pregnant, and rubs that fact in Sarai’s face, so much so that Sarai makes life unbearable. Hagar runs away and ends up in the wilderness. While she rests by a spring, the angel of the Lord comes to her and wants to know what she’s doing way out in the middle of nowhere. She tells him, and in turn, the angel insists that Hagar go back to Sarai and make the best of things. Hagar’s son will be the father of a great multitude, and on the way there, he’s going to be somebody to be dealt with, “a wild ass of a man” as the text puts it, constantly in conflict, especially with his family. Hagar then gives a name to God, which few in the Bible are privileged to do. She calls him “the God who sees” and wonders how she is still alive after seeing God, in the form of his messenger.

As the narrative now stands, Hagar goes back to Sarai, has the baby, and he grows up. Around thirteen years later, Sarai, now known as Sarah, finds out she’s expecting, though she’s way past child-bearing years. The text for the day picks up when the miracle child Isaac is about three years old, the traditional time of weaning in that culture.

This is where things get confusing. If we’ve followed the flow of the story, Ishmael is by now 16 or 17 years old, a young man. Yet here he seems to be a small boy, playing, who later will cry when he’s left alone by his mother. What we have is actually a duplicate, with different details, of the other story of Hagar going into the wilderness. This tale came from the northern tribes.

So here, Hagar doesn’t run away. She’s thrown out, with a hearty “don’t come back, neither” along with her young son. Abraham is in some anguish about this, but apparently God is on Sarah’s side. Isaac will inherit the promise, but Ishmael won’t be left out.

Various theologians from Paul and the ancient rabbis through today’s feminist scholars have had a take on this tale. This morning my approach focuses on what we can learn from it that will help us in our times in the wilderness.

Obviously I don’t mean the literal woods or desert, but those times and places we can’t see the forest for the trees or we’re desperately thirsty for meaning and hope. Sometimes we’re thrown out like Hagar and Ishmael into that wilderness because of the selfishness and fear of other people. We threaten their control, their agenda, their status, and they resort to dirty tricks, demoralization, character assassination, anything they can think of to get rid of us. Other times, we put ourselves in that wasteland. We do something stupid, have good intentions but make a bad mistake, let ourselves be used and manipulated believing we’re being good or helpful. But then we pay the price in the coin of depression, hopelessness, and heartache, feeling useless and put upon.

Probably the scariest thing about being in such places and times is how scarce the resources are. Hagar and Ishmael were put out with provisions for a time, but then they had to fend for themselves or die. Maybe we have a little emotional reserve built up, and we can handle the problems for a bit, but after awhile, our defenses start to crumble, our emotional bank account is overdrawn, and that fragile shell around us starts to crack.

The future may in fact be bright or at least better, but we don’t know that. In the story, Ishmael will be the father of a great nation, just like Isaac. And indeed he has twelve sons with his unnamed wife and becomes the spiritual ancestor of today’s one billion Muslims. But Hagar and Ishmael don’t have a clue when they are sent out that they are not going to die of thirst and hunger. When the resources run out, Hagar has no choice; she puts the child out in the elements for him to perish from exposure or be attacked by a predator. She’s no longer able to care for him, but she doesn’t want to see when he’s gone. She’s been forced by Abraham and his reactivity and weakness into this untenable place of emotion-laden triage.

But the God who preserves hears the cries of the victimized, the oppressed, the forgotten, the embarrassing, the unwanted, the shut out, shut up, and shut down. And the word comes that God cares and will make a future contrary to the data of current experience. The word comes: “do not be afraid. I will make a future for you.”

That is not a empty claim. With his acknowledgement of cries, the Preserver gives resources. In the case of Hagar and Ishmael, there was water, making life possible again. Renewing. Refreshing.

She didn’t see it immediately. It may have been there all the time, but her eyes were closed to its presence. How often do you and I turn our gaze inward in despair and don’t see the possibilities and promise around us? I’ve spent a long time in the wilderness, personally and professionally, during my life, and I can tell you from experience that it’s hard to see anything but what you want to see or expect to see. Betrayal, heartbreak, rejection, regret, and failure blind you to the resources and gifts you have inside to cope with a crisis, as well as closing your eyes to what possibilities are out there to sustain you. Sometimes the only way to see them is for an angel of the Lord to point them out. That could be a spouse, a friend, a mentor, a therapist, a minister, a parent, somebody whose eyes are not clouded with pain and whose gaze is focused on the future and new life, not the past and death.

Fear gone, eyes opened, Hagar got water and gave it to Ishmael. That was the first thing she did to ensure her future, and it’s our next clue to how we can experience grace in the wilderness. She looked ahead, not behind. Her life and that of her boy were in the future. The old had gone, though in painful, disorienting fashion, and the new had come. She could not and would not return to Abraham and Sarah and slave life. Her life and Ishmael’s from henceforth would be their own.

After that first action of claiming the resources offered her and her son, she and he take two more. For one, Hagar returns to her roots in Egypt. She makes a new life by claiming her heritage, the life she was ripped from when she was sold by Pharaoh. The old becomes the new. And while in Egypt, after Ishmael grows up, Hagar did something no other woman, no other mother in the Bible did. She got a wife for her son. She took charge of her life, including throwing off cultural expectations and strictures, to do what needed to be done. She discounted Abraham and Sarah and decided not to accept their construction of reality. It would be Egypt, her heritage, that would guide Ishmael, not that of Ur to the east or Canaan to the north. It would be Egypt he would think of fondly when he held his wife or heard the cooing of his first child. Hagar took action to ensure her son’s line would continue, outside the influence of his father Abraham. She would assume control of his destiny.

For his part, Ishmael became an expert with the bow, the very weapon that years before had been the measuring tool in the desert of despair. The young man by discipline acquired the skill set that would enable him to have food on the table and to feel secure. As an expert with the bow, not only would he know how to shoot it, he could make bows and arrows of the highest quality. He could teach others. He could sell his weapons. He was sought after perhaps as a guide for hunts or a trainer for armies. So he made a living, turning his misery into manna. He was able to thrive even though he lived in the wilderness.

So it’s important once resources are discovered to take action. It might be seeking out our roots or acquiring new skills, like Hagar and Ishmael. It may be ignoring the way others have defined us and becoming our own person at last. But action is key.

Gregory Hunt is the author of Leading Congregations Through Crisis, which came out of his wilderness experience of people being killed and injured in a bus accident at a church youth event. His comments are about church leaders, but they apply to anyone. He notes that among the skills leaders need to prevent burnout are “action skills.” These “refer to empowerment. There is something empowering about clearly understanding the things we need to do and going ahead and doing them. Research shows that our ability to take action instead of feeling immobilized can actually make us feel better” (see endnote 1).

“Action skills relate to our work… With the challenges of doing ministry, we face obstacles, limitations, conflicts, complexities, demands, and the minutiae where the urgent can trump the important. It’s easy sometimes to see that gap between the ideal and the actual and to feel immobilized.”

Hunt at a particular time was feeling especially stressed, to such an extent that he was immobilized in his work. A friend told him to think of one thing he could do during the day “‘simply for the reason that it needs to get done and then do it. And at the end of the day, feel the satisfaction of having done that.’’’(endnote 2). The strategy worked. The tasks varied each day, but it was doing something that made the difference.

Having said all that, though, it’s important that we remember our lives don’t change, won’t change, we won’t thrive in the wilderness, without God’s help. He’s the giver of grace. The angel said to Hagar what angels always say—“don’t be afraid”—and that’s his word to us as well. God was “with” Ishmael, and supremely in Jesus Christ, he is “with” us, too. What a powerful little word that is! “With.” Wrapped up in it is comfort, confidence, empowerment, hope. All we need to live fruitful lives.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is not a pretty one. But it’s an important and uplifting one, because it’s ultimately a tale about the faithfulness and generosity of God. As Frederick Buechner once observed: “The story of Hagar is the story of the terrible jealousy of Sarah and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham and the way Hagar, who knew how to roll with the punches, managed to survive them both. Above and beyond that, however, it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises and loving everybody and creating great nations like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred-dollar bills” (Peculiar Treasures: 46).

What amazing grace!

Endnote 1:

Endnote 2:


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