There is a good chance that you have or have seen one or more copies of the Chicken Soup Books. What started out as one book of inspirational stories designed to encourage us, has now turned into a huge series of books. Everyone needs encouragement. The popularity of these books show us that many people around us are crying out for someone to understand them and love them.
At times it is easy to forget that the Bible was written to instruct and encourage us. Paul tells us that the accounts in the Old Testament were recorded so that we could learn from those who have gone before us. I had to remind myself of this fact this week as I worked in Genesis 21:8-21.
This morning we are going to take a rather awkward look at this text. It is awkward because we are going to come to it from two different directions. At first we will draw lessons from the historical record. Secondly we will look at some of the spiritual truths from the text which Paul has made known to us in the fourth chapter of Galatians.
We are told that Abraham hosted a gathering in celebration of the weaning of his son, Isaac. We don’t see anywhere that this is the common practice. So, this was a special celebration. It may have been that Isaac was two or three years old at this time. In Genesis 17:25 we are told that Ishmael was 13 when he was circumcised. Abraham was 99 at this time. Abraham was 100 and Ishmael would have been 14 when Isaac was born. So, at the time of this “weaning party” Ishmael was 16 or 17 years old.
During the party Ishmael began mocking Isaac. Any of us who have children don’t find this hard to believe. But it upsets Sarah. For all we know there had been a rising tension ever since Isaac was born. Maybe she felt a divided loyalty in Abraham’s heart. Perhaps she thought he loved Ishmael more than Isaac . . . we don’t know. All we do know is what Sarah said, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (v. 10).
Sarah puts Abraham in a horrible situation. The wife he loves is asking him to send his son, who is almost a man, away. No matter how special Isaac was, Ishmael still held a special place in his fathers heart. Abraham is in a very hard situation.
Life is Sometimes Hard
This brings us to our first lesson: Life is sometimes hard. Life is often accompanied with painful situations, strained relationships and difficult choices.
Sometimes the difficulty is a consequence of our own behavior. Because we have been involved in a systematic study of Genesis we are well aware that having a son by Hagar was Sarah’s idea! This was a situation of her own making. She was the one who suggested that Abraham father a child through her slave, Hagar. Abraham and Hagar became willing participants in this attempt to “help God” fulfill His promise. It was a sinful thing to do and now they are facing the consequences.
We know that Hagar did not help things. From the moment she knew she was pregnant we read that she “despised” Sarah. She took every opportunity to rub Sarah’s nose in the fact that she had given Abraham what Sarah could not. So, there is a sense in which Hagar is reaping what she sowed too.
We are confronted here with the painful truth that there are consequences to our sin. We know that Abraham’s household faced turmoil from the very moment Hagar became pregnant. I suspect problems began from the very first night Abraham stayed in Hagar’s tent. Sin brings consequences.
Now, I believe God had forgiven Abraham. He had even promised to bless Ishmael when Sarah wanted them to leave once before. But, the negative consequences remain. This is a fact that we have to face. When we sin and confess that sin, we are forgiven .. . but the consequences of those choices often carry on.
- The person who engages in illicit sex may face consequences of disease, pregnancy, a broken relationship or the guilt of having given away something precious.
- The person who lies has to try to rebuild the trust that was destroyed.
- The one who habitually abuses a substance has to face the consequences of the effect that substance has on their bodies and their relationships.
- The person who has (or had) abusive patterns with their family will find it difficult to establish any kind of relationship with those they have abused.
- The person who constantly feeds their mind with pornography will have a difficult time getting away from those images as they seek to live a life of purity.
- The person who has been ensnared in the insatiable desire for material things may have enormous debt to pay off.
You get the idea, I hope. Sin has consequences. Sometimes they are painful.
But sometimes difficult times are not a result of our own actions. Hagar originally was only being an obedient servant. She was told to try to have a child with Abraham and she did what she was told. And what about Ishmael? He certainly didn’t ask to be born into this situation. Was it his fault that he was born? Sure he was mocking Isaac, but isn’t that normal to some degree. Wasn’t he just parroting the behavior he had certainly seen in his mother. Sometimes we are innocent players in a tough circumstance.
Consider some examples of those who are in situations they had little if anything to do with,
- Children of Divorce
- Children raised in homes where there is substance abuse
- Those who are in physically abusive situations
- Those are raised in economic hardship
- Those who suffer from a devastating illness or injury that they had nothing to do with
- Those who have genetic disorders
There are a host of things that happen in life that we have not asked for or deserved. Sometimes the difficulties of life come upon us and we don’t know why. Difficult times happen.
GOD IS CLOSE TO THE BROKEN-HEARTED
Abraham is caught in a difficult situation. He asks God for help and God tells Abraham to “send Hagar and her son away.” The word for “send away” may have been the word that meant “give a divorce to”. God seemed to be telling Abraham to sever his ties with Hagar and with his firstborn son. Why would God command such an action?
I don’t know. God may have known that there would always be conflict. He may have seen that Isaac would not be able to serve as he needed to if Ishmael was around. Maybe God saw that Abraham’s heart was divided. But . . . it is all conjecture. The only way out of this bad situation was to make a clean break. And that is sometimes what needs to happen in our lives as well. But it isn’t easy.
We read that “early the next morning, Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He sent her off with the boy. I can only imagine that Abraham’s heart broke as he watched them move into the dessert. How horrible it was to see His son walk out of his life. And think about it from Ishmael’s perspective. This is not some unknowing infant. He knows very well that His Father is sending him away. There must have been many tears. But for whatever reason, it was necessary, and Abraham trusted God.
Hagar and Ishmael went on their way and wandered in the dessert of Beersheba. What probably happened was that Abraham gave ample provisions for Sarah to get to the next town. Due to spoilage Easterners seldom carried more than they needed for their journey. On the journey Hagar and Ishmael made a wrong turn and got lost. The provisions ran out and Ishmael (who would burn calories and sweat more than his mom because of his age), felt the effects of the heat first. Hagar, who was probably already quite distraught at having been sent away, feels she cannot bear any more. While Ishmael lies in the shade Hagar sobs.
There is nothing in the text that implies that either Hagar or Ishmael was praying. Nothing that says they asked for God’s help. But God, because of the fact that Ishmael was Abraham’s son, sends the angel of the Lord to Hagar. He reiterates the promise that God had made regarding Ishmael and then we are told that God “opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.”
God did not make a well appear. He took the blindness from Hagar. Apparently the well had been there all along. Hagar in her distraught state, didn’t see it! God watches over even this one who had been born contrary to God’s will. And we read that God continued to be with the boy.
What a great comfort to those who feel like they are castaway. What a wonderful message to those who feel that they have been in situations that are less than ideal. Perhaps you were born out of wedlock, or are products of a broken home. Perhaps you have been helpless players in a bad situation. The message here is simple but important . . . God sees you and cares about you.
Listen to David’s words,
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18)
Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll — are they not in your record? (Psalm 56:8)
David says God keeps a list of our tears. He knows what is going on. He cares. And then there are these words from Isaiah which were claimed by our Lord as His mission in life,
The spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. (Isaiah 61:1-3)
God may have told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away . . . but He did not abandon them. They may not have understood why things happened the way they did, but they were not alone. God not only provided for the needs of Hagar and Ishmael at the time . . . He helped them build a new life together. Ishmael became an archer and as we have seen before, his descendants became the Arab nations of today.
This text screams that there is hope for all of you who have a scared past. You may sympathize with Hagar more than you sympathize with Sarah. You may feel more like Ishmael than you do Isaac in terms of your situation. But God has not forgotten you. You may need to make a clean break with your past and it will be hard. But you won’t be alone. Turn to Him. He has resources to help you. He will see you through.
THE SPIRITUAL LESSONS
But as I said, there are also spiritual lessons in this story. We must shift gears here because in Galatians 4: 21-31 Paul uses this text as an illustration of his teaching about salvation.
GRACE VS. WORKS
Paul tells us that Isaac and Ishmael denote two different ways of trying to get to Heaven. Ishmael represents those who try to get to Heaven through their own ingenuity and devices. If you remember, Ishmael was born because of the schemes of men. Abraham, Sarah and Hagar decided that they could “help God”. And there are many today who teach that we are saved by our own efforts. They would have us believe that we cannot get to heaven unless we
- do certain things
- have a certain experience
- practice certain disciplines
There are many who teach the way of Ishmael today.
Paul says that Isaac, on the other hand, represents those who believe salvation is the result of God’s work alone. Isaac was born a result of God’s promise and not human effort. Abraham and Sarah were dead as far as being able to have a child. They could not bring Isaac into the world unless God did something supernatural in them. Isaac was born of grace through the faith of his parents. Abraham and Sarah believed that God would fulfill the incredible promise he made to them.
This contrasts two ways of salvation: trying to earn heaven and receiving heaven as a gift. The one is the way of Ishmael the other is the way of Isaac.
Paul tells us that we need to get rid of the slave woman. Just as sometimes we have to make a break with our past in order to find health and joy in our lives, so we need to banish any notion that salvation has come as a result of our efforts. God alone is to get the credit for eternal life.
Those who place their faith in human effort or goodness have misunderstood the gospel. Those who add anything to God’s grace, diminish God’s glory. Now here is why that is important,
- There are many who feel they cannot get into heaven because they are not good enough. You’ve heard them: “If I could only clean up my life first . . . ” The Bible declares (Romans 3) NO ONE is good enough. Yet, God in His gracious mercy extends salvation to ANY who would believe. That’s why the church is made up of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Executives and criminals all get to Heaven the same way. . . . by grace through faith.
- Many are living in fear that they will somehow lose their salvation. They believe this because somehow they have come to believe that salvation is contingent on their performance. Salvation is based on what God has done for us in Christ! Salvation is ours because of His promise . . . not our deeds.
- Many seek to obey God for the wrong reasons. It’s like children. Much of the time they obey because they hope to avoid a punishment or gain a reward. However, it is a new and better relationship when the child obeys and serves because they have seen the wisdom of the guidelines and they seek to act out of of love for the family.
- We write some people off regarding the gospel because of their past or their present. We look at the lives of some people and we conclude that they could never be saved. That is arrogance on our part. We are basing our evaluation on the things those people are doing. And the implication is that we are doing better . . . we are qualified for Heaven. This thinking only goes to show that we don’t know the horror of sin. We don’t understand how offensive sin is to God. We are denying our own sin which makes us totally dependent on grace.
Salvation comes because of God’s promise and not our effort! Sure, we seek to follow God. Yes, we want to obey Him . . . but not because we think it will get us to Heaven. We do so because we have been changed by God’s Spirit which He gave us when He made us His own. We obey out of gratitude and love.
This may seem like theological hair-splitting to you but it is not. Let me state it again: I am not going to heaven because I am a Pastor. I’m not going to Heaven because I have tried my best. I’m certainly not going to heaven because I’m a good guy. The truth is, I don’t have enough good in me apart from Christ to earn one day of Heaven. I am going to Heaven because Christ rescued me. I am able to go to Heaven because God caused his spirit to bring me to life . . . He led me to faith and so I am saved. The implications of this teaching are many:
- There is no reason for boasting. My salvation does not say anything good about me . . . the glory and the praise goes to the Lord.
- There is every reason for hope and joy in living. I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder. I can now let God’s Spirit begin to renew and change me. I can live confidently not because of my performance but because of His mercy.
- I can face death unafraid. It’s not a matter of having enough time to confess all my sins before I die. I am confident of my eternal destination because of Jesus . . . not because of me.
- I can proclaim good news to everyone. There is no better news than this. Many people we meet daily feel they have no hope. The news we have is simple . . . .everyone can have hope. Christ’s death can wipe any slate clean. His Spirit can renew ANY heart. It doesn’t matter where you are starting. It doesn’t matter what baggage you carry . . . . His grace can make you clean.
- I can stop feeling inferior to those around me. My background may be different. My spiritual ability may not be as sharp (I may have trouble finding a verse in my Bible). But I have gained entrance into Heaven in the same way as everyone else . . . as a gracious and loving gift from God.
So you see, the story of Hagar and Sarah is a story that illustrates the most essential elements of faith.
So, I ask you which part of the message does God want you to hear today? Are you one of those who feels tossed aside, rejected, unloved? Do you feel that you have been dismissed without ever being given a chance? Are you a victim in a bad situation? If so . . . hear the words of comfort in this passage. Friend, God cares about you. It doesn’t matter how or why you are where you are . . . He sees You. He loves You. And He wants to comfort you and care for you. Turn to Him today.
Maybe you are one who is trying to live in both worlds. Maybe you, like Abraham, are being told to make a break with your past. Maybe today is the day when you have to send the Hagar’s of your life away. Those things that keep you from living in the promise may need to be disposed of. Those things that weigh you down may need to be set aside. It’s hard . . . but it may be necessary. Let them go and entrust them to God.
Maybe you needed to hear the clear teaching about the gospel of grace. Perhaps you have been uncertain of your standing before God. Maybe you have been working hard but feel you are still very far away. Friend, please hear the message . . . the work has already been done. Christ has done what was necessary . . . your job is to receive it. You don’t have to become something, you don’t have to change anything first . . . your job is to take Him at His Word and let Him begin the process of transformation in your life.
Are you willing to do that this morning? Are you willing, in a simple act of faith, to trust God rather than your own ability? Are you willing to place your hope and confidence in the work of Jesus rather than the work of your hands? If so, declare that faith to God today. The Bible is clear, “If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved.”
Who would have thought that this story in Genesis could lead us to such a life changing conclusion. God cares and He has sent Christ to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. That’s why we spend the rest of our lives living with a sense of gratitude and wonder. And that’s why this strange story is Chicken Soup for the Soul.