Whenever I open up the Old Testament and consider preaching about it I must admit I always do so with a sense of trepidation. The stories are so often gritty and unsavoury and confusing and more often than not need an M rating, if not an R rating.
The sordid story of the relationship between Sarah and Abraham and Hagar is a prime example.
Sarah and Abraham are getting on in years. Sarah is well past a child bearing age and the decision is made, with Sarah’s encouragement, to use the slave girl Hagar as a surrogate.
Hagar, as we know from today’s reading, conceives and bears a son called Ishmael but somewhat to everyone’s surprise Sarah then bears a son Isaac.
Despite the original encouragement to use Hagar it is clear that the tension and jealousy boil over resulting in the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from the community.
Within the story, from our perspective, we have many strange ideas and ethical decisions being made that certainly can add to our confusion about how we are to live.
There is the presence of slaves, the use of a girl as a surrogate, the miraculous birth of another child, derision by Hagar and jealousy from Sarah, vacillation from Abraham, rejection and exclusion.
As much as it might be easy to see God choosing Isaac over Ishmael, Sarah over Hagar, it is important to listen carefully to what occurs and consider what grace might mean in this context and how that might challenge we who live now.
In desperation, Hagar discards her son under a tree, not wanting to witness his death. Yet, God intervenes as he hears Ishmael. The name Ishmael literally means “God hears” and the name had been understood to connect with the concept that God has heard and fulfilled a promise.
Ishmael is saved, as is his mother, and we hear that a new future is made for them.
Despite, God choosing Isaac for a particular future, establishing God’s people Israel. Ishmael is also given a future and a people will be established through him. It is important to understand that there are many claims made around Ishmael, in particular he is seen, not only as a significant prophet by Muslims, but an ancestor of Muhammad.
Abraham had been promised to be the father of many nations and so in the line of Ishmael we see a promise of God being fulfilled in a different way.
Now, whilst it may be that Paul in his letter to the Galatians associates the early Christians with Isaac and that Hagar and her son were driven out as slaves there can be no denial that God listened to Ishmael and that in Ishmael God’s promise to make Abraham the father of many nations is fulfilled.
This reality indicates a number of things to us. God has a concern for people in their lives – he does not desire the death of Hagar and Ishmael, he desires for them a life and a future. God listens to people whether they are part of the so called chosen community or not. The presence of other nations, even other religions, other than Israel does not appear to worry the Creator. In fact, if anything quite the opposite appears to affirm the fulfilment of the promise that Abraham will be the father to many nations.
As followers, of Jesus Christ, who believe that God’s grace is unconditional and that we are recipients and witnesses to this grace it would seem to mean that this raises serious questions as to how we might respond to this story by how we treat others.
Firstly, to say that the behaviour of both Sarah and Abraham is far from perfect and assumptions we make about those who live as God’s people being better than others should always be taken with more than a little scepticism. Sarah’s jealousy and Abraham’s questioning plot a course for the dehumanising manipulation and treatment of others.
Whilst Abraham and Sarah may have driven Hagar and Ishmael out God does not desert them and so if we believe in the reconciliation of all things in Christ does this not involve welcoming those that may have been driven out back in? How can the line of Ishmael and Isaac be reconciled?
In practical terms, this raises serious questions for us as Australians in terms of our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. And, as Christians, in the way in which we engage with people not just of Islam but of other faiths generally.
The story reminds us that God listens and God cares and despite the anomalies we might find in the story and in the fragmented world in which live hope can be found for those who are considered outsiders or exiles as much as for those consider insiders or chosen ones.
In this our faith is humbling and challenging. How do move beyond our fears and jealousies, the desire to protect our inheritance, and live re-presenting such a gracious God to others, especially those who are rejected and disowned and suffering and fleeing and seeking hope?