Genesis 21: 8-21; Matthew 10: 24-39 The story of Hagar and Ishmael is one of the great stories of the Bible. It’s also one on the most terrible. Because what you see here is in effect the ethnic cleansing of the patriarchal family. Like I’ve said before, people who plead for a return to Biblical family values don’t know their Bibles, because this is just awful.
The term dysfunctional doesn’t begin to do justice to this lot. And there is a sense in which you think Ishmael almost had a lucky escape. Because the father-son bonding in this family is a total disaster. You could just imagine Isaac years on from today’s story sitting in analysis (maybe with Billy Connolly’s wife, Pamela Stephenson, if he’s lucky) saying: Well, my Dad took me on this trip one day, and then he made me gather firewood, and then he tied me on top of it, and he raised a big knife to sacrifice me, and then he changed his mind… but I’m over that now. Definitely a lucky escape for Ishmael. But the dysfunctionality goes on because Isaac will totally mess up his relationship with his sons – Jacob and Esau, a story riddled with favouritism, jealousy and greed (Jacob is the J.R. Ewing of this particular family). And Jacob will do the same with his own sons – his favouritism towards Joseph ending up with Joseph (that precocious little dreamer with the fancy coat) standing at the bottom of a well saying: What’d I do?
So Ishmael really is well out of it. Only to Hagar it doesn’t look that way now. It can’t. And was there ever a more poignant picture of despair than this woman casting her own child under a bush and stumbling away to sit in the dust and wait for him to die? Sarah’s won, years of resentment have come to a head, and now that she has – by a miracle - her own son Isaac, the slave woman and her son are surplus to requirements.
So why do we read this awful stuff about ghastly people doing terrible things? Well, for two reasons. One, this is how life is - the Bible often holds up a mirror to how we are. And two, there’s a much bigger picture here. Because these people are caught up in a drama infinitely vaster than the little bit of their own story they’re experiencing right now. Abraham, as in every situation where his faith is tested gets nothing more than a promise; Sarah is satisfied with her victory and thinks that’s that; and Hagar can barely see through her tears. But the outworking of this story is going to be amazing and it’s only with a God’s eye view that you can make any sense of it.
The issue here is faith and trust, as in all the Abraham stories. God says: Leave your comfortable life and go… but Abraham doesn’t get so much as a map. God says: I’m going to make you father of a nation many as the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore. And Abraham looks at his elderly wife and says: Are you sure about that, Lord?
Nobody gets to know the end of the story, they just get to play their part. And the learning along the way is all about letting go. Not managing your destiny down to the last detail of your last insurance policy – letting go of the need to control every event and of trying to control the people in your life, because you have no idea what their destinies are going to be.
But we’re beautifully tantalised by a hint of the next chapter for Hagar and Ishmael. We know that God’s not finished with them; we know Ishmael has a future every bit as great as Isaac’s. Because God hears Ishmael’s cry and Hagar’s cry and he just pours compassion into this terrible situation: Do not be afraid, come lift up the boy and make him fast with your hand. God’s four favourite words: Do not be afraid.
And suddenly in that dark and barren place, Hagar wipes away her tears, opens her eyes and there is water, a well in the desert. As there very often is, as the psalmist tells us there will be – springs in the desert whatever your desert may be. As Jesus says in our Gospel not a sparrow falls to the ground without the Father knowing, every hair of Ishmael’s head is counted and so are ours.
But it gets even better. Remember, this is big picture stuff. If I cheat and fast-forward to Abraham’s great-grandson, there he is standing at the bottom of a well, his brothers having understandably had enough of his dreams of eleven sheaves of corn (which meant the eleven of them) bowing down to that one sheaf which was him, they have stripped him of his psychedelic coat and are now standing round debating whether just to kill him and have done with it or come up with some sort of Plan B.
And just at that moment Plan B presents itself in the shape of a caravan of Ishmaelites. Descendents of the rejected Ishmael will be the saviours of Isaac’s descendent, Joseph. As they say, you couldn’t make it up. The prototype saviour Joseph who will save the starving children of Israel and guarantee the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, who will show Christ-like forgiveness for his brothers, is saved to play his crucial part in God’s story by Ishmael’s grandsons. How good is that!
I once heard our Dean, Kevin Pearson, preaching on this at a point when I was at a pretty low ebb in my own life, one of those desert places we all have, and he ended up by saying: Expect your Ishmaelites. He said, God always sends them – maybe someone from another time in your story or another part of your life. No matter what guise they might come in your Ishmaelites will be there for you. There will be water in the desert; there will be refreshment; and there will be hope beyond anything you can see now. We don’t know the end of our story; we don’t even know the next chapter, or the people we might never have expected who are going to be part of it. Because the big picture, the really big picture, belongs to God, for whom every hair of your head is counted. Amen.