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Laughing, crying, liberating.

Through June & July, we are exploring some of the characters and events in the book of Genesis. As we reflect on their stories, we are asking the questions: what does it mean to follow God? How does God fulfil his promises through these flawed people? And what can we learn from them?

Last Sunday we focussed on Abraham and Sarah, as they follow God’s call and journey into the unknown, believing God’s promise to bless them with many descendants and to bless others through them. Again and again their faith gave way to doubt and fear, and they tried to take matters into their own hands, rather than waiting for God. They made a real mess of things, but God didn’t give up on them.

This week, we stay with Abraham & Sarah’s story, rejoicing in the birth of Isaac, the fulfilment of God’s promise. But we will pay attention to the experience of Hagar and her son Ishmael, who were part of Abraham’s household. We may feel the inhumanity and injustice in the way they are treated, we may weep with them as they cry out to God, and we may see glimmers of light and hope in God’s response.

We begin with a bible reading from Genesis chapter 21 verses 1-21 …

1 Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. 2 Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac[a] to the son Sarah bore him. 4 When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

6 Sarah said, ‘God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.’ 7 And she added, ‘Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’

8 The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, ‘Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’

11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, ‘Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring[b] will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.’

14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bow-shot away, for she thought, ‘I cannot watch the boy die.’ And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

Laughing with Sarah

So, we begin with joy. At last, in her old age, Sarah gives birth to a baby boy. She must have been exhausted. But now, she has given Abraham an heir. God’s promise is fulfilled!

The baby is named Isaac, which means “laughter”. We all know that laughter can be very life-giving, “medicine for the soul” as an old saying goes. I wonder if you’ve found yourself laughing a lot in the lockdown, as you try to cope with a bit of “gallows humour”. When was the last time you laughed wholeheartedly, really laughed, until your belly ached and your eyes watered?

But laughter can take many different forms:

· There’s a disbelieving laughter and a cynical laughter, perhaps born out of previous disappointments. Both Abraham and Sarah laughed at the idea that God would give them a son, for they were getting old and had given up on the idea that they could ever have children (see Genesis 17:17 and 18:12-15).

· There’s a joyful laughter which wells up and spills out of us as we rejoice and celebrate good news. Perhaps this is the laughter Sarah describes when she says, “God has brought me laughter” (Geneis 21:6).

· There’s “laughing with” - that friendly laughter, laughing with us at funny situations, stories or experiences. Perhaps there would have been plenty of this laughter going on during the great party which Abraham threw to celebrate the day when Isaac was weaned (Genesis 21:8)?

Of course, there’s another form of laughter : “laughing at” - the mocking laughter that makes fun of somebody, a nasty laughter that makes someone feel small and wounds their sense of worth. Perhaps Sarah had been on the receiving end of that sort of laughter during a lifetime of childlessness, in a society in which for a woman childlessness equals failure and shame? This might help us to understand Sarah’s extreme reaction when she sees Ishmael, the son of her Egyptian slave, mocking her son Isaac at his party (Genesis 21:9-10). A joyful celebration turns sour. Sarah wants them sent away, not just away from the party, but away from their home and out of their lives. But as with most situations, there’s another side to this story. So, let’s explore the experience of Hagar and Ishmael.

Feeling for Hagar

Back in Genesis chapter 16, a few years before the birth of Isaac, we read how Sarai and Abram run out of patience and faith in God’s ability to give them children. They take matters into their own hands. Sarai encourages Abram to sleep with her slave girl, whom they had acquired in Egypt, in order to produce a son. In fact Sarai “gives” Hagar to Abram “to be his wife” (polygamy was common in that time and place.) However, this arrangement soon turned sour.

Put yourself in Hagar’s shoes … somebody’s slave … no rights … property to be given and taken … No choice but to obey her mistress and sleep with old man Abram. No choice about carrying a baby knowing that she might have to give it away. Perhaps, it’s understandable that Hagar began to “despise” her mistress.

Sarai‘s relationship with Abram became infected by jealousy and blame. And then Sarai takes it out on Hagar, ill-treating her, (perhaps verbally, perhaps physically, quite likely with an element of racial prejudice, for as an Egyptian, she would have looked and sounded different than Abram). Abram failed to protect Hagar from Sarai. No wonder that Hagar ran away before the baby was born.

It’s easy to judge people when we don’t know the full story, to believe half-truths and stereotypes about people, whether that be asylum seekers, black men, rough-sleepers, drug addicts, or the LGBTQ community. But let’s take time to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to listen to their story, without prejudice. We may be shocked at what someone has had to endure and find we have more in common than we think.

Rescued by God

Hagar finds herself in a barren wilderness. She is “between a rock and a hard place”. An angelic encounter persuades her to return to Sarai and Abram. Perhaps this was her only means of survival? But the angel of the Lord offers Hagar more than simply survival. Hagar feels noticed by the Lord, who knows her name, who has time to speak with her, who listens and hears her misery, and who speaks and promises her a hope and a future: “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count”. This was an astonishing promise to a young slave girl. And with that promise ringing in her ears, she returns to Abram and gives birth to his son, Ishmael.

Perhaps Sarai calmed down for a while, maybe out of respect for Abraham. But beneath the surface there seems to have been a festering bitterness and simmering resentment between Sarah and Hagar. And in this morning's reading, when Isaac was a young child, the sight of Ishmael playing with little Isaac and the sound of Ishmael’s mocking laughter, brought it all back to the surface. For Sarah, it’s the last straw. As far as she is concerned Hagar and Ishmael have to go. She perceives them as a threat and a risk. You can imagine the venom in her voice, as she says “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”(Genesis 21:10) Sarah won’t even use their names. She has become blind to their humanity.

Once again, Hagar finds herself wandering in the desert, this time with Ishmael dying, running out of food and water, running out of options, and running out of hope. Once again, God hears her cries. Once again God meets her in her distress and speaks tenderly to her and promises that Ishmael will have a bright future and become a great nation. It has been a difficult journey, but at least they are now free. And God is with Hagar and Ishmael.

What about us?

Beware of bitterness and resentment and mocking laughter which can be a tell-tale sign. As the apostle Paul wrote: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)

But perhaps you’re feeling invisible or worthless or ill-treated, take heart from Hagar’s encounters with God in the wilderness, a God who sees, a God who listens, a God who provides, a God who gives hope, a God who is with us. Here is the same God who would enter our world in the person of Jesus and restore value and dignity to many more women and men who felt worthless, invisible, or oppressed. Here is God who would one day suffer and die and rise again to set the world free from sin and death and offer the whole of creation a hope and a future.

And here is a God who empowers us with his Spirit and sends us to go and do likewise, to be the body of Christ in the world. So, like God, like Jesus, let’s notice people who are overlooked or abused. Let’s not walk by on the other side, let’s take time to show care and concern, to listen and understand, to weep with those who weep, to be angry at injustice and to challenge discrimination, starting with ourselves. That’s what the black lives matter protests are all about.

Almighty God,

you have broken the tyranny of sin

and have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts whereby we call you Father:

give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service,

that we and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God;

through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions for discussion:

1. What has been a cause for rejoicing and celebration in your life recently?

2. What are the warning signs that bitterness and resentment are beginning to take root? What habits and practices can help us prevent this from building up?

3. Remember a time when you have been ill-treated in some way. How do Hagar’s experiences and encounters with God encourage or challenge you?

4. How has the recent “black lives matter” campaign affected your understanding of discrimination and injustice?

5. How could we play our part in challenging prejudice and discrimination in St Helens?

Bible reading taken from Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Prayer taken from Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England; copyright © The Archbishops’ Council, 2000

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