The God who cares - Genesis 21:1-21
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A large sum of money was once donated to support a poor church minister. The man responsible for passing it on thought that the amount was too much to send all at once, so he forwarded just a portion along with a note that said simply, "More to follow."
In a few days the Minster received another envelope containing the same amount and with the same message; "More to follow." At regular intervals, there came a third, and a fourth. In fact, they continued, along with the words "more to follow", until the entire sum had been received.
Well in our series of sermons looking at the life of Abraham in Genesis our central character has been receiving good things from God which could well have had an attached message "more to follow!"
He's received extraordinary promises that God would make him into a great nation, living in a new land & the entire world would be blessed through him & his offspring (Gen 12:3). Abraham was given much from the generous hand of God, but there was more to follow.
Over the past weeks we've seen God reiterate his promises & reassure Abraham, promising him there was "more to follow" in that he & his elderly wife were going to have a son & heir to be the next step in the fulfilment of God's purposes. But we have also seen Abraham fail in his adventure of faith & with serious consequences. Yet God has remained faithful encouraging Abraham to hold onto his promises knowing there was "more to follow".
Tonight we've reached ch 21 and Abraham is about to receive his next instalment from God's warehouse of undeserved love;
1) God Graciously Fulfils His Promises V1-8.
Abraham's experience has been a roller coaster ride of faithfulness then failure, true trust then defective faith. Yet throughout it all we have seen a consistent beat something made explicit & underlined so we can't miss it in the opening verses of ch 21;
211Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said,
and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised.
2Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. [3Abraham gave the name IsaacA to the son Sarah bore him.] 4When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him.
Did you notice the constant repetition? V1 "as he (the LORD) had said", the LORD "did what he promised", v2 Sarah became pregnant "at the very time God had promised," v3 Abraham acted "as God commanded".
God has spoken promisedpromised & commanded. Now he has fulfilled his word. At last the suspense is over, Sarah gets pregnant in her 90s & has a baby boy; God's promise is realised! (P) (cf 13:16, 15:4-5, 18:10-15, 17)
All this is expressed very simply yet when you think of what's gone before it is truly astonishing. The doubts & fears of Abraham & Sarah, their responses of defective faith, the fact of their great ages (Abraham is 100 now v5 & Sarah a great age too v7) & yet v1 "The LORD was gracious Abraham & Sarah did not deserve God's goodness having blown it big time so often, yet God has kept his promise, God is faithful, he is after all the "LORD" v1 the God of the covenant agreement we saw in ch 15 & 17.
This is such a great encouragement to us, especially as we have to wait for "more to follow!" Just as the writer repeats the truth of God's faithfulness here in v1-4 we need to keep hearing & being reminded of God's faithfulness to his promises. God will fulfil his promises so we must hold our nerve.
In our evangelism, as the parable we looked at last week here (Mark 4:1ff) makes clear, we must keep sowing the seed of the word knowing that though much will not grow, some will & bear a harvest. We mustn't look for new or different seed from the seed of the gospel. God's promise will be fulfilled.
It is so important to hold onto God's gospel word in difficult circumstances God will fulfil his promise to save. In a world like ours there are many depressing things that happen, things seem to be delayed, our efforts don't always seem immediately rewarded, we get opposition from those around us, other Christians fail & behave like the rest of the world, yet God is faithful.
Like Abraham & Sarah we might have to wait, but in his graciousness God will do as he said, there is "more to follow" he will act as he has promised; "The one who calls you is faithful & he will do it!" (1Thess 5:24)
Following Isaac's birth Sarah breaks into poetry to express her joy & wonder at God's faithfulness. v6Sarah said, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me." 7And she added, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? We're all meant to reply "No one! Women in their 90s just don't have babies! Men of 100 just can't father sons, Yet (Sarah says) I have borne him a son in his old age."
Here is the same Sarah who obstructs the purposes of God in doubt & despair by seeking to "help" God by getting Abraham to father a son through her servant Hagar - but now she is filled with joyful praise to God.
Here is the same Sarah who once laughed in disbelief, even scorn at the thought that she would have a baby as an old women (18:12) - now she laughs with grateful joy at the birth of her son Isaac whose name means, "he laughs".
In this simple expression, there's a rebuke to us so often. We can become blasabout the faithfulness of God to His word, we can take His promises for granted & we can see far far more of their fulfilment than Sarah ever could living as we do this side of Jesus' death, resurrection & exaltation & the gift of his Holy Spirit. The right response to such great grace is surely thankful delight at God's faithfulness.
Well all seems to be going really well in Abraham's household. A feast is held to celebrate God's miraculous faithfulness & graciousness in Isaac, who now (probably about 3) is past the greatest danger of early death as an infant. Isaac looks certain now to be Abraham's heir.
But the consequences of the down points of the roller coaster ride of Abraham's faith are about to raise their head, but as they do we see that;
2) God Graciously Chooses a People for Himself V9-12
The note of rejoicing in the faithful promises of God reaching their fulfillment doesn't seem to last long. The old rivalry between Sarah & her servant girl Hagar that we saw back in ch 16, breaks out again; v9But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10and she said to Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac."
Sarah is threatened by the presence of Hagar's son she seems to think that as long as he is around he could replace Isaac as the heir. Indeed there is a word play in the original connected with the name of Sarah's son. Isaac means "he laughs" & Hagar's son v9 literally "Isaacked him" in the derisory, mocking sense of laughing. Hagar's son makes fun of Isaac taunting him possibly for being younger & having an elderly mother but probably because having once thought he was going to be Abraham's only son & heir now he has a rival. Sarah sees that her servant's son fathered (albeit wrongly) by Abraham is now playing the role of her Isaac, who she knows to be part of God's plan of rescue for his people.
This provokes Sarah into demanding that Hagar & the boy are sent away. Sarah seems to have been motivated largely by her maternal instinct but she spoke better than she knew. Her statement v10 "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac" seems harsh, yet it is taken up approvingly in the NT (Gal 4:30) because it points to an important principle.
When God comfort's the deeply distressed Abraham in v12 he reminds him "it is through Isaac that your offspring (or seed) will be reckoned." Have you noticed how Hagar's son is not named in the passage? We know his name (Ishmael) from ch 16 but the contrast is clear; Isaac, not Ishmael is God's chosen means of fulfilling his promise to Abraham. It is through Isaac not Ishmael that God promises that he would bring blessing to the whole world.
You see this has been God's plan from the start. God's planned line of descendants will run through Isaac as he had spoken to Abraham back in ch 17:19; 19God said, "your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. God then mentions Ishmael but adds; 21But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year."
In many ways this is a distressing story of bitter rivalry & acrimonious disharmony & we might feel sympathy for Hagar & Ishmael but that shouldn't make us lose sight of the significance of this incident in helping us grasp something very important about God's ways.
In the NT (Rom9/Gal 4) the Apostle Paul quotes this passage in Genesis to make clear that Salvation (rescue & acceptance with God) is a gift, indeed God chooses a people for himself to be the recipients of his love. But this choice is not about deserving, or about religious pedigree or ability or loveable-ness but rather his choice is about his undeserved mercy. Romans 9v7 as we read, says; [It is not] "because they are Abraham's descendants that they are all his children. (It's not merely biological heredity) On the contrary, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." (Gen 21:12) (not Ishmael who was also Abraham's biological son) 8In other words, it is not the natural children who are God's children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring. 9For this was how the promise was stated: "At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son." (Gen 18:10)14What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16It [God's acceptance of people through Christ] does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy."
You see God sovereignly chooses people to receive his mercy.
Now so often we instinctively want to ask God; Why Isaac & not Ishmael? Why does this person become Christian & not another? We are not given an answer other than "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."
But this truth is taught in the Bible not so that we should idly speculate, but rather to humble the people of God so that we realize our acceptance with God through Christ is not in any way our deserving; it is not our goodness, our behaviour which has earned it, it is not even our "faith," but it is God's love from 1st to last.
If you're a Christian here tonight let me invite you to join me in turning from any pride in our hearts that we belong to Christ, or any thoughts that God owes us anything or that we are worthy of his love. Let's pray that God would fill us with gratitude that He could be so rich in mercy to those who don't deserve it.
This truth that God calls people to himself is important in other ways too. The Church of England's official basis of faith is the 39 Articles written in the 16th Century. (These statements show how the Church of England should be from its foundation a Bible believing, evangelical organization despite the impression you'd get from some of it's leaders!) Article 17 puts this truth, I think, brilliantly; "the godly consideration of ourin Christ is full of sweet, pleasant & unspeakable comfort to godly personsdoes greatly establish & confirm their faith of eternal salvation to be enjoyed through Christ...because it fervently kindles their love towards God
Who needs to be reminded here this evening if God has called us to himself, if in Christ He has chosen us, we can have great security & confidence in God that he will never leave us nor forsake us. God will preserve his people whatever we face, whatever we go through. This is another good thing with the tag "more to follow" for it points us to our final security in heaven.
The promises to Abraham then, are fulfilled through Jesus & the people he draws to himself - God graciously chooses a people. But finally we see;
3) God Graciously Reaches Out to Those Beyond His People. v13-21
God in his sovereign mercy chose Isaac. He says to Abraham v12 it is "through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." It is through Isaac that God's promises of blessing to Abraham will be continued (17:21). This was God's sovereign plan. But we also see how God is nonetheless kind & gracious to Hagar & her son Ishmael.
Abraham was greatly distressed at the thought of his son being sent away. He is only consoled & agrees when God speaks to him & reassures him about Ishmael; 12But God said to him, "Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because 13I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring."
This gives us yet another illustration of God's grace & faithfulness to his promises. God had spoken to Abraham in ch 17 (20) 17"your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation." Here God reiterates the promise. Ishmael though not the son of the promise & though we find him here persecuting Isaac the chosen son, is not beyond the mercy of God.
And Hagar? She has a pretty torrid time of it. We saw in ch 16 (v6) that she flees to the desert to escape Sarah's jealousy-inspired abuse & now she is cast out into the desert again wandering around dazed until her water runs out. Then she puts her much loved son under a bush - near enough that she can still see him, but far enough away that she is not further tortured by his desperate cries as he approaches dying of thirst.
But into this tragic scene God breaks in (as in fact he had during Hagar's desert experience). v17God heard the boy crying (his name, "Ishmael" means God hears), 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. 18Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation."
This is a remarkable incident; here is a pagan Egyptian slave girl with no part in God's special covenant & an angel of God speaks to her by name! Now this is even more surprising because apparently Hagar is the only woman addressed by name by any deity in any literature of this vintage, and here the true & living God speaks to her using her name for the 2nd time (happened before back in ch 16). God also provides for her water & refreshment in the desert (v19) & we're told "God was with the boy (Ishamael) as he grew up" v20. But most significantly God speaks to Hagar a word of promise v18 "I will make him into a great nation." Repeating the same promise given to Abraham concerning Ishmael.
Now as this son is not the son of the promise, the promise about him is more limited; this son would be quite different from Isaac, the son promised to Abraham. There is nothing of blessing of the world, nothing of a land of promise. Ishmael was to be a shadow of his father his sons would be well known in their day (17:20) but not part of God's plan of salvation. Yet for all this we find Ishmael & his mother Hagar are not beyond the mercy of God.
This is reminder that the God who reveals himself in the Bible is the God of the whole world. Jesus says God's concern is seen in the fact that he sends the rain & sun to all people for their welfare (Matt 5:45f). God's rescuing purposes, his saving grace, may centre on those he calls to himself through Jesus, but his "common grace" is poured out on all his creatures & means he is kind & generous beyond deserving to everyone. When Jesus applies this truth he says it means that his followers should seek to be prayerfully concerned for all people too, not just their families & fellow Christians, they should love even their enemies.
We see too in God's concern for Hagar & Ishmael God's ongoing concern for the outsider, the outcast & the oppressed. That means he is concerned for those physically & spiritually in need today & God is always pushing us, his people, out to serve & take the good news beyond our current influence. It's great to be part of a church, which is looking to get the good news out to more & more people, yet we need to keep considering how we can go beyond our own family & church family with his love? We should ask; Are there any types of people we think are beyond God's care? This incident reminds us there are not.
As Abraham continued his adventure of faith he found that, as we thought at the start, God kept reminding him there was "more to follow" as God keeps his word.
For God always graciously fulfils His promises (though we have to wait). God graciously chooses a people for himself (humbling us & strengthening us) & he graciously reaches out offering his care to those currently beyond the community of his rescuing love a concern he calls us to share.
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