Last time, we introduced a man named Abram and his wife Sarai. Those of you familiar with the Bible know them more affectionately as Abraham, the faithful and obedient man, and Sarah. (And those of you who aren’t familiar I encourage you to read along a little. Not forgetting the people I pass by as well.) We’ll look at some of Abraham’s most defining moments of faith next time I think, if not read about them anyway and remind yourself of the good!
Today, we’re going to pause in a not so pleasant place. The unpleasant places are as real as the great triumphs and are important in helping to remind us that even the most chosen of God often share many of the same flaws we have. This portion is probably known by many as a great mistake in the lives of these people, particularly on Abram.
In those times it was not at all uncommon for people to have servants, maids, slaves. One of these such people is a woman named Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid, an Egyptian. She is a SLAVE; that means she has to do what she is told by the people who own her or there will be consequences. What consequences specifically? Honestly I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that her very life hung in the balance. Even if not, they’re not consequences to be taken lightly.
If you remember, God has sent Abram away from “his father’s house” and into a strange land bearing the promise that God will make him a great nation, bless him, and make his descendants so numerous that they cannot be numbered. Abram has believed the Lord and thus far followed Him. There’s a problem with this whole situation though. Abram’s wife, Sarai, was barren. She has had no children and has really no hope in that fact ever changing. Only the voice of God.
Well, after travelling through the land of Canaan for TEN YEARS Sarai has had enough. She declares to her husband that God isn’t going to let her have children. It doesn’t matter what promise He has made to Abram; what she has seen these many years of both travelling and of marriage is speaking to her heart much more loudly than His word. How many of us have been there before? You’re trying to trust God, be patient, be obedient, and wait on Him but your experiences just scream to you over and over the word impossible.
Sarai decides that she is going to solve the problem herself. That always works out so wonderfully right? So, she tells her husband to take her maid and marry her too! She tells him she just can’t physically do it herself. Basically if the maid can then Sarai has given him children in this way. I wonder what Abram thought of that? Did he think she was crazy or did he think she was right? Does he agree with her because he’s afraid and doubting too? Or maybe he just wants her to stop nagging him?! Whatever the reason, he does what she requests and marries Hagar.
Poor Hagar. She’s already a maid / slave and has to do what she’s told and now she has to marry this old man who already has a very verbal wife in tow. She doesn’t even get to experience what it’s like to be chosen by a man, but perhaps that’s just the way it went for most women in that day anyway. Maybe she’s spent her adult life preparing for something like this to happen. But also, maybe she’s been hoping for more and has her future ripped from her. Either way, this is her lot.
And you know what happens? Hagar gets pregnant! Just like they wanted! Sarai’s wish has been fulfilled! Abram will have a child! Thank you Hagar for doing this! Thank you God for the blessing of a new life! That’s what you’d expect the reaction to be right? Sorry, it’s just not true. Hagar, upon knowing she is pregnant, “despises her mistress.” That is, she’s looking at Sarai with contempt; she thinks she is better than her, that Sarai is beneath her, that she’s worthless, and worthy of scorn.
That’s some arrogance there. And Sarai is MAD! She follows the footsteps of her ancestors (Adam and Eve) and places the blame of this wrong onto Abram’s shoulders. His response is to tell her, in a nutshell, “She’s your maid, do what you want with her.” Ouch. I know they didn’t exactly want to marry each other but to toss aside a pregnant wife with no care for how the situation turns out is harsh. Not to forget that Sarai seems to have no problem figuring out how she wants to handle this situation. She “deals hardly” with Hagar. She’s afflicting her, oppressing her, likely even abusing her.
I wonder how long we would deal with someone treating us that way. Hagar, she runs away. How hard must this whole situation have been for a slave to run away despite the potential consequence? One could argue potentially that the rough treatment is justice for Hagar’s obvious disrespect and condescension. It could also just be Sarai lashing out at Hagar in her jealousy, bitterness, and rage.
These women are companions on a journey of great faith that will be recounted for all time. And yet, they behave in such childish ways. How often do we act foolishly along the way in our journeys of faith? Have you ever been jealous that someone else is getting what you have desperately prayed for while you sit by and watch? Have you ever thought less of someone because you have received the “greater” things from God? Do you mistreat people when you’re angry or hurt? Even though you’re a Christian?!
Even if you haven’t done these particular things we see outlined in front of us here in this situation I don’t imagine that there is one of us who hasn’t acted foolishly at some point in life, even while following God. Can I admit to you that I have been jealous? Can I admit that I’ve been bitter and harsh at times? How about the fact that I’ve done / felt some of these things recently. It’s true. Some of you know me and to some I’m just a person behind a screen but I want to be real with you. I have been this way! I am still sometimes this way! It’s HARD! And I despise what I have felt or done when these moments come, whether sparingly or often.
But you know what? That’s just a portion of my life and this is just a few verses in the story of these people and this journey. It doesn’t end here! And when you think on Abraham what comes to your mind first? Faith or a second marriage full of turmoil? There’s a bigger picture left, here and in our lives.
After this bitterness, jealousy, hatred, and fear God will visit both women. When Hagar is gone God comes to her and comforts her and tells her to go back and to submit to this woman who is treating her so terribly. He tells her that her child will “multiply exceedingly” as promised to Abram. God hears her! And he speaks to her! And he will again in the future! This arrogant and “worthless” slave is heard by the maker of the universe! And He is there for her in her time of need. After the boy, Ishmael, is born FOURTEEN years later Sarai (now known as Sarah) has a son of her own, Isaac. God didn’t just come to the injured one, He came to the abuser as well. He did not leave her barren, He did not abandon His promise even though she often felt the emptiness of the waiting. Both women, even with all of their flaws, are blessed by God.
You’re going to make mistakes, I’m just being honest with you. You’re going to do something “stupid” sometimes. But you know what? God’s still in the business of miracles and grace. God still hears us and he still reaches out. You can be more than your mistakes, just as this story is more than a mistake. You can move forward with God’s grace and strength. You can do what God has called you to do and fulfill a much greater purpose than you can on your own. Your times of failure can be just a few lines in a greater story. Our past does not define our future.