Don't blame me - Genesis 16
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Have you ever had the time to sit down and think about time? It is a very perplexing subject. St Augustine wrote, ‘What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I do not know.’ For me it is the way we experience time differently according to our situation which is such a puzzle. I think it was Einstein who said that ‘2 hours with a pretty girl at the cinema can seem like two minutes, and two minutes on a hot stove can seem like two hours!’ There is a relativity about the way we experience time and it certainly is the case that when you are looking forward to something important, time seems to drag relentlessly and that is when the temptation comes for us to take matters into our own hands in order to speed things up in order to bring the long awaited for goal much closer, much faster.
Well we see something like that going on in the episode we are looking at together this evening in Genesis 16.
First, we have what we can call a crisis with chronology, not that the writer has a problem keeping a track of the time, but that time is proving to be a problem for Sarai and Abram in that God has not yet fulfilled his promise of giving them a son and heir- v1, and according to verse 3 they have been in the land of promise for ten long years. Abram was 75 when the initial promise was given back in chapter 12- so 85 might seem to be pushing it some to be a daddy. I know Mick Jagger of the Stones has managed it at the age of 73 but his wife is, after all a young slip of a thing at 29, but Sarai is well into collecting her pension. Now it could have been that the reiteration of the promise under oath in chapter 15 had prompted Abram and Sarai to expect to be expecting. But days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months and…. Nothing!
We have to admit that the waiting game is not all that easy, even for people of faith. But surely one thing the Bible in general and this story in particular teaches us, is that God’s time scale is not always the same as ours. For God, of whom we are told ‘a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day’ (2 Peter 3:8), what matters is that he will fulfil his promises and purposes in his own time and in his own way. So let me tell you about Adoniram Judson.
Judson was the first American overseas missionary who in 1813 at the age of twenty-four went with his twenty-three-year old wife to Burma. He worked there for thirty-eight years until his death at the age of sixty-one, having had only one trip home after thirty-three years in the mission field. All his years in Burma were hard but the early years especially so. For example, Ann, who married Judson on 5 February 1812, bore three children to Adoniram. All of them died. The first baby, nameless, was born dead just as they sailed from India to Burma. The second child, Roger Williams Judson, lived seventeen months and died. The third, Maria Elizabeth Butterworth Judson, lived to be two, and outlived her mother by six months and then died. Adoniram eventually married three times, with two of his wives dying on the mission field. It was six years before they saw their first convert. The years after that first convert were very hard indeed. On 8 June 1824 Adoniram was dragged from his home and put in prison. His feet were fettered and at night a long horizontal bamboo pole was lowered and passed between his legs and hoisted up until only his shoulders and head rested on the ground. Ann at the time was pregnant, but walked the two miles daily to the palace to plead that Judson was not a Western spy and that he should be shown mercy. She got some relief for him so that he could come out into a courtyard. But still the prisoners found lice in their hair and had to be shaved bald. Almost a year later, they were suddenly moved to a more distant village prison looking gaunt, with hollow eyes, dressed in rags and crippled from the torture. There the mosquitoes from the rice paddies on their bloody feet almost drove them mad. The daughter, Maria, had by now been born and Ann was sick and thin, but still followed after Adoniram with her baby in order to take care of him as best she could. Her milk dried up, and the jailer had mercy on them and actually let Adoniram take the baby each evening into the village and beg for women to nurse his baby. On 4 November 1825, Judson was suddenly released. Apparently, the government needed him as a translator in their negotiations with Britain. The long ordeal was over – seventeen months in prison and on the brink of death, with his wife sacrificing herself and her baby to care for him, Ann’s health was broken. Eleven months later she died. Six months later their daughter died. But in 1831 something began to happen and God was suddenly moving in a very powerful way. Judson wrote: The spirit of inquiry . . . is spreading everywhere, through the whole length and breadth of the land. [We have distributed] nearly 10,000 tracts, giving to none but those who ask. I presume there have been 6,000 applications at the house. Some came two or three months’ journey from the borders of Siam and China: ‘Sir, we hear that the is an eternal hell. We are afraid of it. Do give us a writing that will tell us how to escape it.’ That was two hundred years ago. Now there are two million Christian believers in that country and 40% of the Karen people, who were the folk Judson primarily worked amongst, are followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.’
God’s timing can be hard on the nerves but we are called not to lose our nerve, which sadly, Sarai and Abram did.
Which brings us to the sinfulness of scheming, vv 1-6. Look at v 1b, ‘But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.’ Well, there you are then- problem solved! Hardly, for as we shall see the poor couple are simply storing up trouble not only for themselves but for future generations, some of which is with us today, v4, ‘When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.’ And what will this child be like? We are told in v12, ‘He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” It looks like this son is never going to grow out of the tantrums of the ‘terrible two’s’!
Now we heard from Scott a few weeks ago that the tendency for God’s people when the going gets tough to turn to ‘Egypt for help’, that is looking to the world to solve our problems, which is what Abram did when there was a famine- an ‘obvious’ quick fix. Well, we have the same tendency being repeated here because Hagar is an Egyptian and I think we are meant to pick up on that. ‘Who knows’, thinks Sarai, ‘maybe this is going to be God’s way of achieving his promise- with a little help from his friends of course!’ We must understand that in the culture of the day this was a socially sanctioned way to remedy childlessness. It may be the culture’s way but it isn’t God’s way. Twice we are told that Sarai is the ‘wife’ of Abram in verses 1 and 3 and the writer underscores the point again when he tells us that she gave Hagar to Abram ‘Sarai’s husband’. Well, we have known that for 3 chapters. So could it be that by this repeated reference to ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ our writer is wanting to draw our attention to sadness of the proper relation of marriage being intruded upon by a third party? Sure, there is the pressure of time upon faith, but do we honestly think that God is not aware of that and maybe using that to strengthen their trust in him?
But in addition to the pressure on faith we have the presumption of pride. We always feel that when it comes to matters of salvation (and this is a salvation issue, God’s means of bringing about his Saviour into the world according to 12:7) we have to make our contribution somehow- we have to do something to make things happen. God does his bit but we have got to do out bit or else everything is going to go belly up. Well, our bit is to trust God which involves waiting on God, holding out the empty hands of faith to receive his blessing, not holding up the full hands of our ideas as to how God might do things better. What we really need is not more ‘know how’ but ‘know God’.
I talked about the sinfulness of scheming. That is the way our writer wants us to see this. Did you notice how the Fall of Genesis 3 casts its long dark shadow over what is going on here? Look at verse 2, ‘Abram agreed to what Sarai said’ or better still, ‘And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai’. The only other place we come across that phrase is in Genesis 3:17 where the LORD accuses Adam of ‘listening to the voice of his wife’ in eating the forbidden fruit. Note also verse 3 where we read, ‘Sarai…took Hagar….. and she gave her to Abram her husband.’ You are meant to follow the hyperlink through to Genesis 3:6 where Eve took some fruit and gave (same two verbs) to her husband. In other words, we are seeing a repeat of the sin of garden- God said one thing, we decide another and everything begins to unravel. Just as Adam and Eve found themselves at odds with each other engaging in the name blaming game, so does Abram and Sarai, ‘Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” You can imagine Abram thinking, ‘Hang on love, I thought it was your idea and I was only obeying orders’. That word ‘wrong’ is one you have heard in the news, it is ‘hamas’- ‘violence’ or ‘outrage’ that is what Sarai is accusing Abram of inflicting on her. And then Abram ‘man’s up’ like only men can and says, “Your slave is in your hands, do with her whatever you think best.” That is, he shrugs his shoulders, says- ‘Not my problem, you sort it out’, and hides behind the newspaper. I am sure you wives know what I am talking about! Again it is the inversion of roles and responsibilities we see in Eden. Abram is meant to care for his wife, protect her, guide her-even against making ungodly suggestions, after all it was to Abram that God appeared, not Sarai, just as God spoke to Adam, not Eve- he was responsible for this mess. Men, we must repent of this if we are acting like this with our wives and it is a common fault. But Abram’s abdication of responsibility only makes matters worse- ‘Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.’
Instead of ‘waiting on the Lord’ we will insist that the ‘Lord waits on us’ and so disaster is bound to follow.
And disaster is all there would be if it were not for the mercy of the Maker, vv7-16.
Four times the ‘Angel of the Lord is mentioned’ and in v13 the suggestion is that this is somehow the presence of Yahweh- the LORD- in visible form. The description of what takes place is so tender and moving. The Angel of the Lord ‘found Hagar near a spring in the desert’, probably on her way back home to Egypt- the ‘road to Shur’. Isn’t that lovely? He has been looking for her- indicating personal concern. Why? Because according to v 11 he had ‘heard of her misery’- her plight wasn’t unknown to him or a matter of indifference to him. Then he speaks to her by name, indicating personal knowledge. This is the only known instance in the whole of ancient near Eastern literature where a deity addresses a woman by name. And she is not only a slave, but an Egyptian to boot. But so tenderly does God stoop down to this dejected, rejected, pregnant woman. And maybe here we are seeing something of God’s promises to Abram in Genesis 12 being played out, as she belongs to Abram and so comes within the orbit of the covenant blessing and so receives the special attention of the covenant God.
But the mercy she receives is a ‘severe mercy’. This is not ‘tea and sympathy’ that God offers, it is tough love, v 9, ‘Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” In other words, ‘go back and stick it out- that is your duty and it may be for the child’s benefit as well as your own, although there is no guarantee it is going to be pleasant.’ The way forward is the way back.
It has to be admitted that this idea is quite alien to our present culture. Now it appears that, ‘if the going gets tough, the tough pack up their bags and get going.’
Let me share something rather personal.
My Dad didn’t have a particularly happy childhood. He was born in 1928 during the great depression. His own Dad an out of work coal miner, who preferred to drink money away and not work for it, literally threw my dad’s Mum, my Dad and two other children out of the house onto the street when he was just three years old. He never saw him again. His Mum eventually remarried and the step father was not going to win any Father of the Year award either. Once when my Dad played truant from school his step Dad was found out and gave him a thrashing. He was also told that if he ever did it again he would break his legs- and he would have done. At one point he was put up for adoption to a mate of his step-Dad, and as it was about to go through, they withdrew. Can you imagine the feeling of rejection for a young boy? Amazingly given such a background my Dad was very good to us. But just before he died he told me that he had a loveless marriage. But he refused to leave the home because he didn’t want any of his children being brought up by another man. And so he stuck it out and my parents were married for over 50 years. You know, I am so glad he did. He saw it as his duty- the right thing to do, no matter how hard it was going to be. Short term self-interest gave way to long term duty. It seems that that is what God is asking of Hagar and it may be that is what God is asking of you in the circumstances you find yourself.
But it is not without a word of blessing, v 10; ‘The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” Don’t you find that remarkable? She received a promise very similar to the one Abram was given. And as if to underscore the caring character of God Hagar is given a special name for the child, ‘Ishmael’- ‘God hears’. And in an act of wonderment and praise she gives God a name, ‘the One who sees me’. That is our God, the one who sees us and who hears us- and, we might add, the one who saves us.
There is no denying that Hagar had made her own contribution to the mess back in the Abram household, deliberately rubbing up Sarai the wrong way. And while she may have been out of Sarai’s sight, she certainly wasn’t out of God’s. As one commentator remarks, ‘God’s grace doesn’t dry up because we are stupid.’ And are we not glad that is so? Let us pray.
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