8 The boy grew and stopped nursing. On the day he stopped nursing, Abraham prepared a huge banquet. 9 Sarah saw Hagar’s son laughing, the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Send this servant away with her son! This servant’s son won’t share the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
11 This upset Abraham terribly because the boy was his son. 12 God said to Abraham, “Don’t be upset about the boy and your servant. Do everything Sarah tells you to do because your descendants will be traced through Isaac. 13 But I will make of your servant’s son a great nation too, because he is also your descendant.” 14 Abraham got up early in the morning, took some bread and a flask of water, and gave it to Hagar. He put the boy in her shoulder sling and sent her away.
She left and wandered through the desert near Beer-sheba. 15 Finally the water in the flask ran out, and she put the boy down under one of the desert shrubs. 16 She walked away from him about as far as a bow shot and sat down, telling herself, I can’t bear to see the boy die. She sat at a distance, cried out in grief, and wept.
17 God heard the boy’s cries, and God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “Hagar! What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries over there. 18 Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well. She went over, filled the water flask, and gave the boy a drink. 20 God remained with the boy; he grew up, lived in the desert, and became an expert archer. 21 He lived in the Paran desert, and his mother found him an Egyptian wife.
Hebrews 11: 1-3
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Faith is a remarkably difficult thing to try and talk about, honestly.
By its very definition, it defies the need for physical, visible, testable proof. Faith is what makes us sure of what we hope for, and secure in believing what cannot possibly be seen. The entirety of our mission as Christians rests on something that can’t be proven. Everything we do rests on faith—and if history has told us anything, that can go a long way! But how far does faith go? We hear of people losing faith every day. It can happen for a variety of reasons—lack of community, personal disaster, soul searching, the list goes on. Heck, even I’ve struggled with my own lack of faith. It was Jesus’s number one complaint against the disciples, that they had little faith. How far back does the crisis of faith go? Frankly, it goes all the way back to the beginning, in Genesis.
Genesis has some of the best known stories in the bible, including the creation stories, the story of Noah’s ark, and the Tower of Babel. It also contains some of the least recognized stories, or perhaps more accurately, the least talked-about stories. As you all might know, I have an affinity for these kinds of stories. I love the stories that get left behind in the dust of history in favor for the cleaner ones, the safer ones, the simpler and easier ones that have a clear message that’s easy to discern good and bad, dark and light. These stories don’t get talked about much, and so I feel compelled to talk about them.
That being said, the next few weeks I’ll be walking through some of the later chapters in the book of Genesis, because really what Genesis always seems to revolve around is the concept of faith, and how God is faithful always, despite whatever that comes up. That’s why I’m calling it Faith Beyond. God has faith beyond all that we can encounter, and with that in mind, we can learn to have faith like God’s faith in us.
To begin with, let’s start with a scripture that I can guarantee you seldom hear in church: Sarah kicks her slave Hagar out of the house.
Now, I say that knowing full well that we are coming in at the end of a story that beings a lot further back than the verse number will depict. Really, this story begins with a man named Abram who was told by God that, despite his old age and lack of children, he would father a great nation. Now, that in and of itself is a loaded statement. When this story was written, the surest sign of prosperity was that you had sons to carry on your name, and property that tied you to the land. This combination is both a tantalizing promise, as well as a ridiculous joke, both to Abram and Sarai. They were too old to have children. Human biology had spoken its last word on Sarai and Abram. And yet, here is God telling them this promise. It was enough for both of them to fall down laughing at God. Nevertheless, they decided this crazy promise was better than living how and where they were, so they went with God on this adventure.
Well, after wandering and waiting, Sarai got impatient, and reasonably so. She knew she couldn’t have kids. So what did she do? She decided that, because society states that birthright is decided through fatherhood, she’d just have her slave, an Egyptian named Hagar, bear this miracle child for her. Brilliant plan, no? Child is born, promise secured. Done and done. She was just thinking for her husband, and his dreams, being a supportive wife. Sarai had no idea that her own worst enemy would be herself.
After the new child was conceived, Sarai suddenly had no respect for her slave Hagar. Apparently she figured out the flaw in her plan; now Hagar would get all the glory of God’s promise, not Sarai. She turned on her with the violence of a tornado, treated her with contempt and hatred, so much so that Hagar ran away from Sarai. She returns after a brief conversation with God, in which God reassures Hagar to not worry and that the promise will be kept, and all seems to be well.
Fast forward. God reestablishes the covenant, renaming Abram Abraham and Sarai Sarah. Sarah finally is able to conceive the child, whom they name Isaac (a clever pun in Hebrew which means “he laughed,” a reference to them laughing at God’s promises.) Sarah again becomes furious at Hagar and Ishmael, apparently for no reason, and throws them out for good.
I want to stop here and let all of that sink in for a second. Hagar, already a slave, was forced to have a son with her master. Then, she was humiliated by her mistress because she did what she was forced to do. Hagar is completely and thoroughly mistreated throughout this entire story. Her situation was so bad, I have no regrets in saying that I really sympathize with. She’s talked into returning because God says “don’t worry, he’s going to have a nation like I promised.” She does return to her slavery, and finally is kicked out. Disaster comes back like a hurricane going back over its path. She’s alone. In the desert. She leaves her son by the roadside and waits, basically, for the two of them to die. Hagar has lost hope. The promise of Ishmael seems to all but have disappeared. Disaster has struck, and Hagar has lost her faith.
There are few stories that can match the tragedy of Hagar. It casts a very dark shadow over the narrative of Abraham and Sarah, doesn’t it? We look at them as the founders of our faith, but when we look closely, they stop being these mythical, holy, untouchable Cecil B. DeMille-esque figures and become human. And here they are, throwing out their slave for doing nothing but what she was told to do, all because of petty jealousy from Sarah and cowardice from Abraham. Why should we even look at this story? This seems to just be a dark chapter in our faith’s history, one we would like to sweep under the rug and forget about. But it’s because it is so dark and sad that I want to lift it up to you.
Life is never going to be easy, or light, or happy, or wonderful all the time. It’s going to have boring parts. It’s going to have sad parts. It’s going to have disaster, and mayhem, and anger, and tears. No life is without this, and that is why this story in Genesis calls out to us to remember it today. Rather, it’s the ending that calls to us.
When Hagar loses all hope, all faith, and gives up on life, who else but God comes down to reassure her that all will be well? God’s messenger, the Angel of the Lord, the Voice of God, comes to her in person and tells her that famous thing that angels always say: Don’t be afraid. God hears you. Go back and get your son, because there’s a well just over that ridge. God hasn’t forgotten you. God hasn’t abandoned you. God is faithful, and your son is going to lead a great nation all on his own.
So she listens. And sure enough, there was a well. They lived, and Ishmael led the nation of Ishmaelites and produced a whole dynasty. And Hagar should have known this all along. Despite all disaster and chaos, rejection and slavery, she should have known this. Why? Because of the name of her son. God hears. Ishmael means God hears. God hears your cries. God feels with you. God has not and will not ever abandon you. God is faithful to the end.
That is the faith that goes beyond everything. That is the faith that defines everything and anything we do as followers of Christ. Christ himself said that he would be with us, forever and unto the end of the age. As God is faithful, Christ is faithful, through even the worst of disasters. You could lose everything, and still God would be with you.
I want to leave you with this thought. If I told you that I was going to give away ten thousand dollars in cash to everyone here this evening and instructed you to meet me in the parlor after the service, what kind of thoughts would run through your mind? Likely, you’d wonder what I was really up to. You might also have grave doubts because if you know anything at all about me, you know that I could not possibly come up with that kind of money. If you bothered to show up in the parlor after church, it would probably be out of curiosity and to see how I would manage to talk myself out of this one. Surely no one here would have any real expectation (and rightly so) of receiving ten thousand dollars from my hand to yours.
However, what if Bill Gates showed up at our humble church service and made the same kind of promise? What kinds of thoughts might go through your mind upon hearing his promise? No doubt, many of you here would not even wait for the service to end before rushing off to the Fellowship Hall and forming a line. You’d be filled with expectation and anticipation. Why? You may not be able to guess at his motives, but you would have no doubt that Bill Gates has the ability to make good on his promise.
So it is with God. God makes good on his promises. Over and over again, God makes good on God’s promises. Without a doubt, God has always had faith in us, even when we lose faith in God. God puts up on the God end of the bargain, and has the ability to back it up. It’s up to us to have a faith that matches God’s. It’s up to us to have faith beyond anything. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.