All Saints, Cochrane
O God our defender, storms rage about us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us all from unbelief; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever.
And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed.
May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Today, I want to talk about the promise of God, the faithfulness of God and our doubt and pride which get in the way. We see this in the Old Testament reading from the story of Abraham, Sarah and the birth of Isaac, their son.
When you first heard that passage, your initial reaction might have been one of confusion. Mine certainly was. Abraham is a hero of the faith, and yet today we’re hearing about one of the times when Abraham’s family was in chaos. How are we supposed to find Jesus in this story? Can we find Jesus in Abraham and Sarah banishing Hagar and Ishmael?
Karth Barth argues that revelation in God’s Word does not differ from the person of Jesus Christ, and again does not differ from the reconciliation that took place in Jesus Christ.[i] Put more eloquently, the Russian monk St Leo of Optina said, “The Lord arranges everything for our benefit and spiritual instruction, according to his mercy and wisdom.”[ii] So we need to go back and look more closely at what is happening in the passage, and maybe we will see something of Christ in there; something of the power of his reconciliation.
Last week and this week, we have heard about Abraham and Sarah, these great figures in Biblical history who feature prominently in the Old Testament and who are referenced many times in the New. Their story is one wound up in promise. We heard reference to it last week, and it plays a role in the context for our passage today.
Abraham and Sarah’s story begins several years before our passage, when God calls Abraham from his home in the city of Ur, promising Abraham that God will bless him, make him a great nation and that through this nation, Abraham will be a blessing to others.[iii] Abraham listens to God, even though he and his wife are both old. They leave, and follow God. Several years later God reaffirms this promise and makes a covenant with Abraham, saying that Abraham will have a son to carry on his name and fulfil God’s promise that God had made him.[iv]
This is a promise of blessing. St Ambrose speaks of blessing as calling out to God for something restorative—to make right what was set wrong in the fall—and then giving praise to God for what he has done. [v]
In the blessing God gives to Abraham, it is explicit that the nations that will be formed from Abraham’s family are to be a blessing to all people: they are to stand interceding for others, to bring about restoration and are to speak out the praise of God. Abraham was blessed so he and his descendants could be conduits of grace for all people.
Faithfulness of God
So, God has made this promise to Abraham and it has the purpose of blessing. Last week we heard of God’s visitation to Abraham, famously recorded by Rublev in his icon of the Trinity, the Hospitality of Abraham. It is during this encounter that God again affirms the promise originally given to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations by clearly promising that Sarah would conceive, and she laughs at this in disbelief because she is old.
It had been some twenty years since God first gave his promise to Abraham and Sarah. They are starting to doubt God will fulfil it.
When I say starting to doubt, it’s bit of an exaggeration. Several years before, Abraham and Sarah had decided that they would use a surrogate, Sarah’s slave Hagar, to bear Abraham a son—a common practice in their culture and time.[vi] Abraham and Sarah tried to force the fulfilment of the promise, because they doubted God would, or could, fulfil it.
In the Hospitality of Abraham, God came to tell them that despite their doubt, despite their lack of faith, he intended to be faithful to them and keep his promise.
True to God’s word, Sarah conceives and Isaac is born,[vii] fulfilling God’s promise. When we think about the issues of timing involved, we might begin to understand a little of why it took so long for the promise to be fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah wanted the promise fulfilled immediately; they were concerned with the fact that they were both getting older. In our passage last Sunday when Sarah expresses her doubt that she will conceive, the passage mentions that biologically she was beyond child-bearing years.
Despite this biological problem, despite their doubt, God fulfils his promise. Isaac’s birth into the old age of his parents makes his birth miraculous. God’s timing makes Isaac stand out and makes him a clear sign of God’s intervention in the lives of his people. It marks clearly that God has fulfilled his promise: Isaac was not just a child born to man and woman, he was a gift of God, the faithfulness of God, the child of the promise.
Doubt and Pride
Yet that isn’t what our passage today entirely describes. Isaac is born in the verses just before our reading begins, but the bulk of today’s passage focuses on some of the problems that happened for Abraham and Sarah because of their doubt, and their attempts to force the fulfilment of the promise. It considers the consequences of their doubt.
God has fulfilled his promise to Abraham and Sarah that she would conceive, despite her old age, and now Sarah finds herself challenged by the presence of Hagar and Ishmael, her servant and the son she bore through Abraham at Sarah’s urging.[viii]
Sarah tells Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael, because she does not want Ishmael to be favoured above Isaac. Due again to the fact that they had doubted God’s promise and tried to force its fulfilment, Abraham is now placed in a very difficult position.[ix] Ishmael is his son. While he understands why his wife is asking for Hagar and Ishmael to be sent away, he is conflicted. Then God does something seemingly confusing. He says to listen to Sarah and to send Hagar and Ishmael away because Isaac is the son of the promise, not Ishmael.[x]
This is confusing. Not only are Sarah’s jealousy and Abraham’s dilemma a consequence of their doubt, but God seems to tell Abraham to accept Sarah’s jealousy and cast out his son and his son’s mother.
Later in the passage we hear of how God responds to Hagar’s prayers and gives Ishmael his own blessing. He and Hagar prosper, we are told, and it becomes clear that God telling Abraham to cast them out is not a concession to Sarah’s jealousy, but rather his own act to correct the problem that had come from their doubting God’s faithfulness in the first place.
We might think of this as a sign of God’s mercy and grace, because he takes pity on Hagar and Ishmael and blesses them as well, yet I think there is a deeper grace that speaks into all our lives, and speaks to our doubt and our pride.
Pride, as CS Lewis puts it, is the great sin, on which all other sin is rooted.[xi] Pride is the sin of thinking less of God than we should. For Abraham and Sarah, their prideful doubt said that God could not fulfil the promise of Sarah bearing a child in her old age, and so they would use Hagar to bear a child instead. They attempted to take God’s place to fulfil the promise.
The turmoil in their family is caused by that pride and we see it in our passage today. Abraham is distressed by Sarah’s demand that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away.[xii] Yet this distress is again a form of doubt and pride. Abraham feels that the consequences of their doubt are greater than God’s grace.
Ishmael was not God’s plan. Isaac was.
Even though Abraham and Sarah’s doubt conspired to cause Abraham to conceive Ishmael with Hagar, that didn’t stop God from granting Sarah and Abraham the miracle of Isaac. The fact that Hagar and Ishmael caused Sarah jealousy didn’t stop God from working around them, by allowing them to be sent away and by blessing them as well.
So, what does this story teach us?
Where do we see Christ on this? That was the question we were all asking ourselves originally. We see him in the reconciliation that happens between God and Abraham and Sarah after his grace covers the sins and errors they had committed through their doubt and pride. We see it in the reconciliation that happens between God and Hagar and Ishmael as God blesses them after they are sent away from Abraham and Sarah.
Our passage speaks to how God remained faithful to Abraham and Sarah, even though they doubted and sinned against God. I can relate to the doubts expressed by Abraham and Sarah. It is reassuring then, that God, in his grace, will remain faithful to us, just as he was faithful to them, no matter how much we might feel we are doubting.
God’s faithfulness is dictated by his sovereignty. He makes a promise to Abraham and Sarah, but that didn’t mean he would fulfil it when they wanted it to be fulfilled. When God answers our prayers, it doesn’t mean he will answer them in our time, either. But again, even if we doubt because of God’s timing, he will remain faithful to us.
God has his own purposes and timing in the fulfilment of his promises. In the case of Isaac, the reason for that timing can be understood once the promise was fulfilled. For us, when we pray for something. Our prayers may not be answered in the way or at the time we want. Sometimes, like the case of Isaac, we may understand why after the prayer has been answered. Sometimes, though, we may never understand God’s purposes and timing this side of heaven.
Overcoming our doubts and submitting ourselves to God’s sovereignty can be difficult—it does require an act of faith—but our passage today is a reminder of God’s faithfulness, which can encourage us to trust in God despite our doubts.
Finally, our passage encourages us in the midst of our pride. We pridefully think that our sins and faults are so great that we are beyond redemption. That we are beyond the saving grace of Christ’s passion. Our passage today reminds us that we are not. It reminds us that in our doubt and our sin, no matter how far we stray from God’s plans—just as Abraham and Sarah strayed from God’s plans—his grace is not simply sufficient, but it is abundantly more than we could ever require. There is nothing we can do that God cannot work to his own purposes of grace.
Dear friends, let us be encouraged by these heroes of the faith. Not because they were perfect, but because like us they doubted, and through their doubt, the grace of God was made manifest to us.
We are pointed towards a God whose grace is greater than anything we could ever do, right or wrong, and whose faithfulness is based in that immeasurable grace, transcending any doubts we might have.
I have spoken to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/I, Ch. 1, para 4
[ii] St Leo of Optina, b. late 18th century died early 19th century. Russian ascetic.
[iii] Gen xii. 1-3
[iv] Gen xv. 4; Gen xv. 18-21
[v] St Ambrose of Milan, cited by Fr Andrew Davidson in “Blessing – Andrew Davidson speaks at St Paul’s Cathedral” on YouTube
[vi] Gen xvi
[vii] Gen xxi. 8
[viii] Gen xxi. 8, 9
[ix] Gen xxi. 10, 11
[x] Gen xxi. 12
[xi] CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book III, Ch 8 “The Great Sin”
[xii] Gen xxi. 11