In today’s reading from Genesis, we have the story of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Ishmael and Hagar. If you think your family puts the fun in dysfunction, then get a load of the back-story to today’s passage. It never ceases to amaze me that these reprehensible antics are recorded in our Holy Writ: the relational intrigue, the scandalous sex, and the bald cruelty would seem to make for a mini-series on TMZ, the celebrity gossip channel.
Anyway, back to the Bible, which many mistakenly think is tame and boring. Here’s the plot. God tells Abraham to leave his home and go to an unnamed place. God has promised Abraham that He will make him a great nation – that he will be the father of more descendents than there are stars in the sky. In ancient currency, children equaled status, riches and legacy. Abraham is a celebrity in his own right – the father of God’s chosen people.
So enter the plot dilemma. Abraham and his wife Sarah are childless and presumably barren. The Father of Nations is ironically not even the father of one. More than that, they are well past the child-bearing years. Sarah’s hot flashes had come and gone years and years ago. They are of the age where they are thinking about retirement communities, not pre-natal appointments. Years come and years go after God’s promise to Abraham, and still no baby.
Now enter Hagar. Hagar is Sarah’s enslaved maidservant. After years of childlessness, Sarah takes matters into her own hands. If God is going to make Abraham the father of many nations, then Sarah is going to work out a plan. So she tells Abraham to “lie with” Hagar in order to produce a son.
Obviously, there is so much wrong with this plan. Can you imagine the inter-relational drama involved here? Presumably, Sarah did not ask Hagar’s permission to be a surrogate partner and mother. Abraham willingly, and perhaps happily, followed his wife’s cockamamie scheme.
Then, when Hagar does conceive a son, she looks “with contempt” on Sarah. Sarah, whose idea this is in the first place, starts abusing Hagar. Abraham, the head of the family, just sits idly by and tells Sarah to deal with it herself. Finally, Hagar has had enough and flees the scene, although she does later come back. And we haven’t even gotten to the disturbing passage in this morning’s reading.
We can theologically sum up this family disaster with the words “What” and “How” – another insight indebted to Mockingbird’s “Eden and Afterward.” And I think we can all find some common ground with this story, even if our personal lives aren’t quite as disordered as theirs – although, we all are disordered in one way or another. The summary is this: Abraham and Sarah believed the “What” of God’s promise – they would bear a son through whom their descendants would come. The scripture even says, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness.” So in this case, it’s not the “What” that’s the problem. It’s the “How.”
And isn’t that what happens with us? Think about what is happening in your own life right now. We might say, “Alright, Lord. You say you have good things for me. You say you will bring good out of bad in this situation. But, How? How will you do this?” And, like Abraham and Sarah, when enough time passes without a solution that meets our approval, we take things into our own hands. We start engineering the How. And what happens then? Well, look what happens in today’s scripture – lives are thrown in damaging disarray.
Christie and I spent every waking hour this past spring watching our son play Little League baseball. In Little League, a team can be up 10 or 12 runs at the top of the inning, but that doesn’t mean anything. The bottom half of the inning could be full of errors, walks, hit by pitches and actual hits against your team and all of the sudden the score is 13-12. The final score of one game was 22-21. In Little League, no lead is safe. Even watching the Hoos at the College World Series, I can never relax until the game is over. Even at that level, no lead is safe.
You might also say that in life, given the human propensity to mess things up, no lead is safe. God promises good things to us – His “What” is secure. Something like, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for evil.” But with us, when we get our hands on the “How” – How the What is to work out – no lead is safe. We can wreck a good thing in no time. I’m certain that you, like I, have all kinds of examples in your life that bear this out.
Let’s talk about Burger King for a minute. I grew up hearing the slogan on TV all the time: “Have it your way at Burger King. Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, special orders won’t upset us, all we ask is that you let us have it your way.” Apparently Have It Your Way no longer effectively appeals to our narcissism, because they’ve dropped the slogan in favor of an upgraded and expanded version. Now it’s “Be Your Way.”
Explaining to the Associated Press the meaning behind “Be Your Way”, a Burger King official said the slogan was intended to remind people that “they can live how they want anytime.” This could serve as a pithy definition of sin. Who knew that a Whopper packed such a philosophical punch. I guess you can get a lot into 660 calories!
Back to the story – living how they want anytime led our Bible celebrities into a world of hurt. Hagar returns to what must have been a very tense household with her son Ishmael. Then, lo and behold, Sarah conceives and bears a son, Isaac, even though she is an old woman! I suppose God knew what He was doing – and when He was doing it – all along? Go figure. But still, sin being what it is, and us being who we are, no lead is safe.
Because, Sarah sees the two little half-brothers playing happily, and her jealousy kicks in. Now she’s got one of her own, she has no need of the imitation copy. So, in an unbelievable cruel move, Abraham and Sarah banish the slave woman and her son (Abraham’s own flesh and blood) into the wilderness.
You don’t need to know much about the culture at the time figure out that this banishment is a death sentence. A slave and a child have no means and no provisions, except a measly skin of water sent packing with them. Once the water runs dry, Hagar leaves her son under a bush to die, and removes herself to weep and wail. A more heart-rending scene is hard to imagine. All because the celebrity forebears of our faith took the “How” of God’s Promised “What” into their fallen hands.
Thankfully, this is not the end of the drama. Fortunately for us, we have a God whose “What” is not undone by our meddling “How”. In the story, God hears the cries of the son and his slave mother. He says to Hagar, “do not be afraid.” After all, He is near to the brokenhearted. God gives immediate help -He provides water in the wilderness, and Hagar gives the boy a drink. And God gives lasting help too – He says that He will make Ishmael into a great nation. As always, God is in the business of taking our wrecks and making them right.
So, not only are we to leave the “What” to God, we also leave the “How” to God. The prime reason for this, apart from the rearview mirror experience of our lives, is that we can and will never figure out the “How” of a God whose ways are not our ways. The obvious example of this is “How” God decided to deal with His desire for us to be saved in the midst of our thinking we can live how we want anytime and all the time, no matter what kind of devastating consequences are spun out on ourselves on others.
Who would have ever dreamed of “How” God would do this? It even took awhile for Jesus, the Son of God, fully God but also fully human, to fully realize God’s “How”. And even up to the night before God’s “How” happened, Jesus prayed, “Father let this cup pass from me, but not my will be done, but yours.”
Only in retrospect could St. Paul explain the “How” of the atoning cross. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.” So despite our blundering ways, we can say with 100% confidence that in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our lead is indeed safe.
- Genesis 21:8 - 21