The Other Son
Scriptures: Genesis 21:8-21; 16:1-11
Between our first and second scripture readings, two things happen: 1) Hagar gives birth to a child fathered by Abraham named Ishmael, and 2) Sarah, Abraham’s wife, finally gives birth to her own promised child named Isaac, which brings us to the second scripture reading: Genesis 21:8-21. [Read]
I read this story in Presbyterians Today the magazine of the Presbyterian Church (USA):
While visiting a country where he did not know the language, the American visitor attended a church service. Not familiar with the order of worship and unable to understand the pastor’s instructions, the visitor watched the man next to him and did as the man did: standing, clapping, praying, etc. It worked fine until late in the service, when the man stood, and the visitor followed suit. This time, however, only he and the man were standing. …
Later the pastor greeted the visitor and said in English, “I take it you don’t speak our language.” “No, I don’t. It’s that obvious?” replied the visitor. “Well, yes,” the preacher said. “I announced that the Acosta family had a newborn baby boy, and I asked the proud father to please stand up” (June, 2009, p. 11).
In our scripture for today, the problem is not two fathers; it’s two mothers.
There are several sermons I could preach about this story. I could, for example, talk about Sarah’s needless jealousy. Sarah had already been promised, more than once, that her child would be the chosen one. She did not have to fear that Ishmael would take away God’s blessing from her son Isaac. But she worried about it anyway, to the point that she was determined to get rid of Ishmael. Sarah believed that God has only so much blessing to pass around, and that if you share some of that blessing with others, you will lose it for yourself. I could preach a sermon about that: Sarah’s ungrounded fear that there is not enough blessing to go around.
I could also preach a sermon about Abraham. Abraham, after all, is the one who sent Hagar and her child into the wilderness with no more provisions than she could carry on her back, and she had to carry her child, too. Did you notice that? Abraham did not even send a donkey with her to help carry extra provisions. I could preach a sermon about that, but that’s not the sermon I want to preach this morning.
The sermon I want to preach this morning is not about Sarah or Abraham; it’s about God, because God is the one who tells Abraham to go along with Sarah’s demand. I don’t know about you, but I find that terribly disturbing. It is one thing for Abraham to send Hagar and her small child into the wilderness with only the provisions that Hagar could carry on her back. But God seems to go along with this. Why?
I find this particularly puzzling because of the promises God makes about Ishmael that are almost as significant as the promises God made about Isaac. [Slide 1: God’s Promises about Ishmael] In our first scripture from Genesis 16 God says to Hagar, [Click 1] “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for the multitude.” Notice how similar this is to the promises God gave to Abraham and Sarah: that they would have offspring like the sand of the sea and the stars in the sky. In chapter 17 God gives an even greater promise to Ishmael. God says to Abraham, [Click 2] “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” Notice how similar this is to the promise God gave to Abraham back in Genesis 12—to make his descendants a great nation that would be blessed. But now God is endangering all of these promises to Ishmael by encouraging Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.
Hagar and Ishmael are not the only ones God treats this way. Now I want to show you some parallels between the story I just read today from Genesis 21 and the story we will read next week from Genesis 22. [Slide 2: Parallels between Genesis 21 and 22]
[Click 1] In Genesis 21:12, God says to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy [Ishmael] and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.”
God puts all the promises about Ishmael at risk by telling Abraham to send Hagar away. But then in the next chapter …
[Click 2] In Genesis 22:2, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Ishmael is not the only child of the promise God puts at risk. God also puts Isaac at risk. Both are children of the promise but their lives are threatened by God’s own actions.
But that is not the end of the story. [Slide 3: Parallels between Genesis 21 and 22] Here is the conclusion of the story from Genesis 21:
[Click 1] Genesis 21:19-20: “Then God opened [Hagar’s] eyes and she saw a well of water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.”
And here is the conclusion of the story from Genesis 22:
[Click 2] Genesis 22:12-13: God said to Abraham, “Do not lay your hand on the boy [Isaac] or do anything to him….” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.
There is still a question here: If God intended to save both children, why did God put them at risk in the first place. That is a good question which I will talk about next week. You will have to come back next week for that one.
But here is the sermon for this week: God is watching over both children. Sarah may care more about her own child than Hagar’s child, but God cares about them both. In the end God saves both children, because in both cases God has a purpose for them that is not yet finished. [Slide 4: Blank]
By the way, there is a sequel to this story. When Abraham dies in Genesis 25, both Isaac and Ishmael come back together to bury their father in the family burial plot in Hebron.
This is significant because Isaac eventually became the ancestor of the Israelites, the Jews, and Ishmael is considered the ancestor of the Arabs. In 2013 I visited the Holy Land and saw the wall [Slide 5] that separates the Israelis from the Palestinians on the West Bank. The wall was put up to keep them apart, like Sarah telling Abraham to send away the son of Hagar.
Unfortunately this extends even to Abraham’s tomb. On the same trip we also visited Abraham’s tomb in Hebron and discovered that the building itself is divided: one side is for Jews, the other for Muslims. [Slide 6] Both must look at Abraham’s tomb from different sides through bullet proof plate glass windows.
I understand that this has been done to reduce the opportunity for violence. But that is not how God intended things. In the town of Ibillin near Nazareth we visited a Christian school. [Slide 7] In this school Israeli children and Palestinian children learn together. Jewish, Islamic, and Christian children take classes together not only to learn about academics, but to learn about relationships and God’s purpose for human life.
That’s where Jesus comes in. After the resurrection Jesus says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” [Slide 8] This is a picture of a painting over the door of the Christian church in Ibillin. We may want to send some people away like Sarah wanted to do with Hagar, but God is determined to work both sides of the fence. Whatever group of people you would like to send away: maybe it’s immigrants, maybe it’s Republicans, maybe it’s Democrats, maybe it’s your in-laws—whatever people you might want to send away, God is determined to work in their lives just as much as yours, and we will only fulfill God’s purpose for us when we become a blessing to all the families of the earth, and not just our own.