Weekly Greetings from Rev. Sellars

Last Sunday, guest preacher, Cyril Hollingsworth, guided you through the fascinating story of God’s promise of a son to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18. God’s promise was so outlandish that, when Sarah overheard the news, she laughed. After all, Abraham and Sarah were well into their 90s! Yet God was so confident in Israel’s future, that God named their son “Isaac,” which means “laughter.”

This week’s lesson, however, reminds us that trusting God’s timing is difficult. When Sarah could no longer wait for God’s promise, she gave her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, to Abraham to see if she could conceive a child, which, of course, she did. Now, in today’s story, Abraham has two sons: Isaac, who is being weaned, and Ishmael, who is now a teenager. What will Abraham do when Sarah, understandably, becomes jealous of sharing the inheritance with Ishmael and Hagar? What would you have decided? The story is about us too!

Genesis 21: 8-21
“God Hears Ishmael”

In a stunning conversation, God told Abraham to go ahead and fulfill Sarah’s wishes to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their community. So, in language similar to the sacrifice of Isaac (next week’s lesson), Abraham obeyed God, gathered a few supplies, and sent them away into the wilderness of Beersheba. When the supplies ran out, Hagar cast Ishmael under a bush and sits at a distance, unable to bear her son’s death. Will God provide?

For the second time in her life, God spoke to the exiled Hagar in the wilderness. God assured her that he hears Ishmael’s voice and told her to lift him up and hold him fast—for God will make a great nation of him. Then God opened Hagar’s eyes to see a well of water, from which they both drank and lived.

The last paragraph of our lesson assures us that God stayed with Ishmael. He grew up in the wilderness, developing skills in hunting and defending himself. Under God’s watchful eye he became the father of the Ishmaelites. Recall also that Ishmael became the father-in-law of Esau, Jacob’s brother (Genesis 28:9). Also, the Muslim tradition claims that Ishmael was the Father of Islam.

What do we gather from such a sad and twisted story? For today, maybe little more than the assurance that God heard Ishmael’s cries and showed him compassion. Read verse 17 again. In Hebrew, this is the only place where his name is recorded. In Hebrew, Ishmael means, “God heard!  Twice in verse 17, Ishmael’s name appears, as if to emphasize that God hears the cries of the outcast and abandoned. God hears and has compassion.

I wonder how this story would have been different if Abraham and Sarah, both, had trusted God’s timing and waited for God’s promise. Yet the story illustrates well our fractured covenant with God, who continues to love us all despite our human fickleness. God chose Isaac, yes. But his election was not an entitlement. It was a call to be a blessing to all of God’s creation. Ishmael was also Abraham’s son, and today’s lesson teaches us that God still hears the cries of the outcast and saves them. Both sons have a unique and saving relationship with the God of Abraham.

Our last hymn on Sunday captures my sentiments: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” As we wrestle with this week’s lesson, let us not choose sides or favor one son over the other. Instead, let us seek to practice the love of God who hears the cries of the abandoned and calls us to save, even those who are far off. As God hears us, and provides us with living water, let us hear the cries of the world and seek the welfare of those who are lost.