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Faith Today: Remembering Hagar
By John Sovereign
St. Thomas Anglican Church
Read Genesis 21: Every family has its struggles. Few can say their story of strife goes back around 3,000 years. In the dramas we see unfolding today around the Holy Land, we can trace a deep root of bitterness to the half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael, sons of one father and different mothers.
Abram, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was the husband of Sarai. It was a barren union, yet God had clearly told them they would have a child. God’s promise seemed to take forever. Finally, Sarai and Abram agreed that her Egyptian servant Hagar should be a surrogate. Abram’s union with Hagar produced a son, named Ishmael. To this day there is a sect of Islam calling themselves Ishmaelites.
The joy of a new child was interwoven with a growing discord between Sarai and Hagar. Hagar reminded Sarai in a thousand ways of her new status as mother of Abram’s heir. The bitterness grew.
In due course, Sarai herself became pregnant and bore a child, named Isaac. On the day when Isaac was weaned, the family gathered to feast—it was the custom then—and something happened. No one knows exactly what it was. The Jews tell the story one way, the Muslims another, and the Christians yet another way. Sarai was enraged as the collected insults and slights of Hagar and her son boiled over. She determined to get rid of Hagar and of Ishmael.
Against his own heart, but reassured by divine revelation Hagar and Ishmael would be okay, Abram agreed. He gave them what he could, and they headed off into the wilderness. They ran out of water, and as death neared, God showed Hagar a small spring. The Bible tells us that Ishmael went on to father a “great nation.” Most Arabs and indeed Muhammad himself trace their ancestry back to Ishmael.
In the Christian view, we focus on symbolic, spiritual aspects of the story. For Abram and Sarai, desperate to have a child, it seemed too much to just wait for God’s promise to come true. The years passed, and hope faded. Thus it was that they concocted the plan to have Hagar stand in to bear a son. The results were ironic, and set in motion a history of suffering and conflict to this day—within the mystery of God’s saving grace.
Although Abram and Sarai are considered ancestors of all who live by faith, in life they stumbled repeatedly. Through it all, a deep trust in God developed and grew. No matter that they took things into their own hands. No matter that others in their story showed God more fear and respect. This ancient couple’s story resonates with our own experience of personal unfaithfulness, difficult situations, and bitter consequences. What does it take to receive God’s promise in our lives? What does it take before we trust God fully?
Abram and Sarai were set apart not so much because they loved God in the beginning, because they didn’t always, but because God had chosen them. We see them living out their salvation in the midst of life, learning what it means to be faithful.
Abram and Sarai’s lives, and Hagar and Ishmael’s too, were enriched by this whole horrible mess. Sometimes it takes a deep and nasty wound to show God’s steadfast care and healing power. Our sinfulness highlights God’s forgiveness and grace.
God’s ideas are always the smartest thing to do. Even when life is difficult, taking the easy route is no excuse. Even when things are going terribly wrong, even when faithfulness is going to be costly. Even in the midst of failure. Life is seldom easy, often messy, and the scriptures tell us how others like Abram and Sarai struggled. When God speaks, we know we are healed. When God speaks, we know we are forgiven. When we find ourselves as Abram and Sarai did, in the cauldron of our own sinfulness, God’s grace brings salvation and a way forward.
• Rev. John Sovereign is the priest at St. Thomas Anglican Church.