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Twickenham URC 23 January 2000

The life of Abraham part 6:

Giving God a helping hand

(Genesis 16, 1-16 + 2 Samuel 6, 1-7, Luke 8, 43-48)

Years ago the News of the World newpaper used to have the slogan "All human life is here" - it may still do so - and the same can be said of the Bible. There are many passages that uplift and inspire us, but in today's story none of the characters come out of it with too much credit.

If you thought that surrogate motherhood was something that has only been invented in the last decade or two, think again. For here we are 4,000 years ago with two childless people looking for an answer to their desire for a child. In the last part of this series we heard about Abram being given a vision confirming God's promise that the land in which he now resided would be occupied by his descendants, not adopted descendants, but those of his own flesh and blood.

But time rolls on and both he and Sarai are getting older. Sarai has reached the age where she knows that she cannot have children. And yet God has promised Abram that he will have a son of his own, and they do both believe that he is a God who keeps his promises. How can this situation be resolved.

Sarai wrestles with this. When two people cannot have a child it can be very unhelpful and destructive to start talking about whose fault it is, but equally she knows that she has not been able to give Abram the child they have both longed for over so many years. Her reading of the situation is that it is God who has stopped her from having children. It's not that she blames God, rather in trying to make sense of things she concludes that she has done something which has left her out of favour with God.

But perhaps there is a way out. Enter Hagar, who, we are told was Sarai's personal maid. In Genesis 12 we read about Abram's trip to Egypt (vv15-16): "And when Pharaoh's officials saw Sarai, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels". (NIV). We may reasonably deduce that Hagar was one of the maidservants referred to in this passage.

We may have grave reservations about Sarai's suggestion but it was a course of action that was quite acceptable and not uncommon in those times. Abram could have a child by Hagar and it could then be adopted and brought up as their own, bringing about the fulfilment of the promise that Abram had been given. But even at this stage there is a note of doubt: "Go, sleep with my maidservant;" she says, "perhaps I can build a family through her". But doubts are set aside, the deed is done, and Hagar gets pregnant.

Further on in Genesis (29:31-30:3) we see the same problem, same analysis and same answer. Jacob has two wives: "When the LORD saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. .... When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, "Give me children, or I'll die!" Jacob became angry with her and said, "Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?" Then she said, "Here is Bilhah, my maidservant. Sleep with her so that she can bear children for me and that through her I too can build a family."" (NIV)

Nothing changes. As in our age, you can make matter of fact decisions about how a relationship will proceed but so often the dynamic of relationships change. Hagar, once just a maid, is now the one who will give Abram his child. She had, willingly we hope, entered into this arrangement as a gesture of service to her mistress, but now she adopts a sense of self-importance. The writer of Proverbs observes (30:21-23) "Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up: a servant who becomes king, a fool who is full of food, an unloved woman who is married, and a maidservant who displaces her mistress". (NIV). With her pride comes disdain for her mistress. Again we find this elsewhere in the Bible. In 1 Samuel (1:4-7) we read: "Whenever the day came for Elkanah to sacrifice, he would give portions of the meat to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion because he loved her, and the LORD had closed her womb. And because the LORD had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat." (NIV)

I said at the outset that no one comes out of this story with much credit. So we read in verses 5 & 6: "Then Sarai said to Abram, "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me. Your servant is in your hands," Abram said. "Do with her whatever you think best." Then Sarai ill-treated Hagar; so she fled from her."

There's something of an echo of the story of the Garden of Eden here. Suddenly everyone starts passing the buck. Sarai seems to have forgotten whose idea this was. Abram has gone along with it, without being willing to trust in God to deliver on his promise and denies all responsibility for Hagar and her unborn child - his child too, of course. He passes her back to Sarai and seems unconcerned at way in which she is treated by her mistress. Hagar should have been willing to apologise for her haughtiness and gone back to being a loyal member of the household, but was, we may guess, not willing to do so. The atmosphere deteriorates and relations between the two women got to a stage where Hagar decided that she would run away, and make for Egypt.

What changes - various press reports have said that many of the homeless young people who are seen begging in London have found themselves in this position because they have had to leave homes where they have been ill-treated, often by step-parent. And if one might have some sympathy with the child, one also knows from experience or soap operas that becoming a step parent can be very very challenging. Truth be said, there was fault on both sides.

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One of the themes that recurs throughout the Bible is that God cares for all men and women, not just those who worship him. Indeed the Bible has story after story where his people are on the wrong side and those who do not know or worship him call it right - we saw that when we looked at the story of Abraham trying to pass off his wife as his sister and Abimelech being really upset at the deception, we saw it when I spoke on Elijah being made welcome by the widow of Zarephath, we see it in Nehemiah, where King Artaxerxes hears about the plight of Jerusalem, organises supplies and sends Nehemiah off to organise the rebuilding of the walls. And of course we see it in the Gospels where ordinary folk recognise and welcome Jesus, whilst those who thought that they were people who were special to God failed to accept him and his message.

The idea of Hagar getting pregnant so to provide a heir is not God's. The child is not part of the promise that he set his seal on in Chapter 15. Yet if Abram and Sarai feel no responsibility, no concern for Hagar, God does. And so we come to the gem in the story. An angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, "Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?" "I'm running away from my mistress Sarai," she answered. Then the angel of the LORD told her, "Go back to your mistress and submit to her". The angel added, "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count".

God cares, God sees a young pregnant women in arid country with uncertain supplies of water and food. He reaches out to her. Here we have the first reference to an angel in the Bible. An angel, a messenger from God. Note that she is addressed both by name and with reference to her position, Hagar, servant of Sarai. But with the comfort, comes the challenge: "go back and face up to your responsibilities; don't run away". This brings to mind Paul's letter to Philemon, owner of the runaway slave Onesimus. Paul would like to keep Onesimus as a helper, but he belongs to his owner and must go back - but goes back with a letter from Paul asking that he be treated well. And lest Hagar think that she has ruined her life by being willing to comply with her mistress's ill-advised plan she is assured that she will have many descendants of her own. The angel speaks to her about the child that she is carrying, though perhaps not in terms that we would find very encouraging: "You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility towards all his brothers."

The reference to the child as a donkey or ass is not to be taken as a suggestion that he will be stupid, rather that he someone of fierce independence and person of the wild open spaces. In Job 39:5-8 we read "Who let the wild donkey go free? Who untied his ropes? I gave him the wasteland as his home, the salt flats as his habitat. He laughs at the commotion in the town; he does not hear a driver's shout." (NIV)

Then Hagar begins to realise the significance of the encounter. The name she is to give the child, Ishmael, means 'God hears'. She, a humble maidservant has met with the Lord, the God of Abram.

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now seen the One who sees me". That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

Abram has heard God speaking to him in visions, but Hagar has come face to face with him. You will recall that when Moses asks God what he is to say when asked who sent him he gets the rather mystical reply that he is to say 'I am who I am'. But Hagar puts a name to God: "You are the God who sees me". He has seen her situation and put her right, and to her astonishment she has lived to tell the tale. It's not specifically states, but we can presume that Hagar returned to Abram's household, and in due time the son was born. Abram concurred in the name to be given to him, thus accepting the truth of Hagar's revelation, but perhaps because of past events he and Sarai did not adopt him.

Sixteen verses, containing so many truths that it is difficult to summarise them. We are challenged not be people who are willing to take short cuts and compromises in order to bring about what we think is God's will. To quote the our first hymn, we have to believe that 'God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year', and have to remember that 'all we can do is nothing worth unless God blesses the deed'. We have to be willing to carefully consider ideas we are given by other people, even when, perhaps particularly when they are people with whom we have a close relationship. When we make decisions we must be prepared to take responsibility for them. At times we may find ourselves in a position of authority over others and we must treat them fairly; equally when we are in a position of submission to someone else we must act in a loyal way.

But the most important thing to remember is that we are, or if we are not, will I hope choose to become, people who have submitted ourselves to the Lordship of Christ. Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free. He will treat us fairly, his yoke is easy, and it is in his name we are called to serve. We are called to be his eyes and ears, people who see, people who listen, and perhaps occasionally people who have to challenge others whose answer to their problems is to run away. But when we do let us never get above ourselves, and start to look down on others; instead let us be glad that we can be of some service to our Lord and Master.

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Hymns: R&S 573: God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year; 374: O Christ, our Lord, we meet here as your people; Christ's is the world in which we move; 552: The King of love of my Shepherd is - 'Perverse and foolish oft I strayed but yet in love he sought me'; 613: Lord speak to me, that I may speak - 'so let me seek thy straying children, lost and lone'