************ Sermon on Genesis 21:8-21 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on September 23, 2001
"Farewell to Ishmael"
I Portrait by an Artist
A As I was preparing for this sermon I came across the picture of one artist's portrayal of the story in front of us this evening. The artist, George Segal, did it in a plaster casting in 1987.
In this sculpture Abraham bids farewell to Ishmael, clasping his firstborn to his chest. Yet he holds his body away from the boy even as he leans forward, already distancing himself from that family and that life.
Hagar, at far right, cannot even watch as her son says goodbye to his father; but though turned away in pain, she remains defiant, her face set, her feet firm. She must accept that she is now an outcast, exiled to the desert by her own mistress, Abraham's jealous wife Sarah.
As for Sarah herself, she is hiding, avoiding the scene, but watching – her expression betrays gladness and even some cruelty. The rock protects her from the others, just as Hagar's arms protect her from her own feelings.
B George Segal is trying to capture the human anguish and pain that filled the moment.
Certainly Abraham had a hard time, a horrible time, in saying goodbye. Scripture tells us that "the matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son" (Gen 21:11). Ishmael was Abraham's first-born son. At one time Abraham had hoped that all of God's wonderful promises to him about a name, a people, and a land would be fulfilled in and through Ishmael (Gen 17:18). And even when it become clear that this was not God's will, God still made it clear that He would bless Ishmael and make him into a great nation (Gen 17:20) – a promise repeated to Hagar in today's passage (Gen 21:18).
Imagine sending your own child away! How hard this must have been for Abraham. He didn't know if he would ever seen him again.
Try to imagine, too, the thoughts and emotions running through Ishmael's mind. He was only 14. He needed the wisdom and guidance of his father. He looked up to his father. He knew and idolized his father as a great man in the land. He loved and respected his father and continued to love and respect Abraham even after being sent away – consider how he helped Isaac bury Abraham when Abraham died (Gen 25:9). Since the time he was a young boy he probably rode along with Abraham when Abraham checked up on his servants and inspected his flocks and herds of sheep and camels and goats. And now his father was sending him away. Do you think he was crying? Or, was he fighting hard to keep the tears from falling.
C I'm not so sure about Segal's portrayal of Hagar – defiant, cold, angry. Hagar was a slave. This made her son a slave. To get rid of the problem Abraham could have sold Ishmael as a slave and forever separate him from his mother. He could have had Ishmael whipped or even killed. I think Hagar would have been relieved and even glad that none of this happened. And, best of all, Hagar and Ishmael were being given their freedom. They were being freed from slavery. Freed slaves generally don't fold their arms in defiance.
As for Sarah, Segal portrays her as a cold, plotting, wicked witch. Someone who couldn't stand the competition of another woman. Someone who was overprotective of her child and tried to turn him into a mama's boy. But, as we will find out, Sarah was driven by more than mere human emotion.
D George Segal looks at the story of Genesis 21 from a purely human perspective. Which leads me to ask, "What is wrong with this picture? What is missing? Who is missing?"
I think we all realize that Segal leaves God and the covenant out of the picture. He looks at the story only as a human story. He looks only at the interplay of the human actors. He forgets or neglects the will and plan and sovereignty and providence of God.
II Ishmael was Mocking
A What caused the sad incident in front of us this evening? If you remember, Abraham fathered Ishmael with Hagar because he and Sarah doubted God's promises about a name, a people, and a land. When Hagar realized she was pregnant she began to despise her mistress, Sarah. At the very least, she looked down on Sarah because Sarah was not able to get pregnant. At the very most, she refused to obey Sarah and even talked back to her. Sarah, in turn, began to treat Hagar harshly and forced the maid to run away. God intervened, Hagar returned, and she gave birth to Ishmael.
Fourteen years later Sarah finally bore her own child, Isaac. As Isaac grew from being a baby to being a toddler, Sarah noticed something. She noticed that Ishmael was "mocking" her son (Gen 21:9).
B Jewish interpreters look at this verse and word and charge Ishmael with idolatry and wickedness. Jewish literature on the subject characterize Ishmael as doing evil works and being involved in strange worship.
In Galatians 4:29 Paul looks at how Ishmael mocked Isaac. He understands this as a form of persecution.
(Gal 4:29) At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.The son born in the ordinary way is Ishmael. He was conceived and born through human activity. The son born by the power of the Spirit is Isaac. He was born as the result of a promise. No human effort involved; just grace, God's power, and miracle.
Paul says that Ishmael persecuted Isaac. The son born in the ordinary way "persecuted" the son born by the power of the Spirit. Paul goes on to explain that Ishmael is to be identified with Mount Sinai, the Pharisees and Jews, and legalism. By way of contrast, Isaac is to be identified with Mount Zion, the heavenly city of Jerusalem, and grace.
Now, did you catch Paul's last phrase? "It is the same now."
Children of grace, says Paul, are always persecuted by those who are children of law. Those who are part of the Kingdom of Light are always cruelly treated by those who are part of the Kingdom of Darkness. Paul was referring to his persecution by the Judaizers, to the persecution of the church by the Jews, and to his own persecution of Christians before he came to know the Lord.
Almost 2000 years later we can still echo Paul's words, "It is the same now." In my office I have a 21-page booklet, "Living by the Word, ... even when facing death!" The booklet is filled with story after story detailing the persecution faced by Christians around the world. Listen to a few excerpts:
The Easter service in Armenia was going well – out in the open air, like many sunrise services here in the United States. Suddenly a helicopter appeared above the treetops, circled menacingly, and then disappeared. The people returned to their worship.
But a few minutes later a car full of soldiers carrying rifles jerked to a stop at the edge of the crowd, and soldiers piled out. Almost immediately, they fired off volleys into the air, and their commander demanded that the church service disband.
When the crowd did not respond, the soldiers stormed up to the pastor and threatened him with their guns. Women from the church immediately surrounded their pastor, but the soldiers beat them with their rifles.
In Bangladesh, 500 angry Muslims surrounded 30 Christian families – as Muslim leaders questioned them and demanded that they return to their Muslim faith.
When it was Mira's turn to face the inquisitors, he gave this testimony, "In your religion there is no salvation, no hope for going to heaven. I have Jesus. He has forgiven my sins, and I have hope for heaven."
Angry with Mira's response, the leaders denied his family access to the village well for fear that they might "contaminate" the water. This forced Mira's family to walk more than a mile for all their water. Still not satisfied, some of Mira's neighbors accused him of stealing their water. As a result, his land was confiscated. Several times he and his family were beaten. When they walked through the village, people threw mud at them.
Stephen and Roza are a young Christian couple from a village in Bulgaria which is mostly Muslim. Their 10-year-old son is also a Christian.
In response to their decision to accept Christ, the people of their village held a "people's court" in front of one of the local mosques.
One of the town leaders announced, "The fate of this fellow is being decided now. It is not good what you are doing. If you do not renounce your faith, we will banish you from here. If you do not give up your faith, we do not want anything to do with you."
After arresting eight men and women for leaving Islam and becoming Christians, the Egyptian government imprisoned them, causing quite an outrage. But in response, one of the Muslim leaders published a complaint in the newspaper stating that it was absurd "that the Egyptian government was content to arrest them only. It was supposed to execute Islamic law upon them, namely death, if they do not repent."
Do you get the picture? The church continues to be persecuted. Even in our own land. Most of those in control of the media have made no secret of how they consider sincere born-again Christians. They consider us to be old-fashioned, out-of-touch, dinosaurs who should be extinct. They use every opportunity to belittle our beliefs. They take delight in pointing out the failings and fallings of any born-again leader. They accuse us of being homophobic and against choice, narrow-minded, bigoted, and racist.
C In this light, look again at the picture of Segal's work. "What is wrong with this picture? What is missing? Who is missing?" To be fully accurate, Isaac should be in the picture. And, while Ishmael is hugging his father we are to see him making an obscene gesture towards Isaac with his finger or maybe kicking a clod of dirt on Isaac as the toddler sits or crawls on the ground.
III Hatred for the Covenant of Grace
A Why did Ishmael mock Isaac? Why did he persecute him? And, why have Christians been persecuted throughout the ages?
It becomes clear that Ishmael hated the covenant, the covenant God, and the covenant line. He envied and despised Isaac, for he knew that Isaac was the heir of the covenant promises God made to Abraham.
B What is it about the covenant that Ishmael despised? Ishmael knew that natural law, the law followed by most men, dictated that the oldest child or son was the father's heir. For a while he must have hoped that he, as the only child, would inherit the blessing and the promise. Then along comes the baby Isaac and he is informed that all he gets is leftovers. It seemed so unfair, so unjust, so wrong. So Ishmael mocked Isaac and persecuted him.
In his hatred Ishmael put himself outside of the covenant. If he had acknowledged Isaac as heir to the promise, he, too, would have shared in the promise. But he refused to be party to this. He rejected the covenant and any place for himself in that covenant.
C Ishmael hated that the covenant was a covenant of grace rather than a covenant of works. Why was Isaac chosen instead of Ishmael? And, in Isaac's family, why was Jacob chosen instead of Esau? Isaac did not do anything to deserve this honor. There was nothing special about Isaac that made him worthy of this. The choosing of Isaac had nothing to do with what he was or did or said. It was simply an act of grace – undeserved, unearned, unmerited.
D In this light, look again at the picture of Segal's work. "What is wrong with this picture? What is missing? Who is missing?" The covenant symbol is missing. In the background Segal should have included the altar of sacrifice, or the knife of circumcision. Because as it is, Segal would have us believe that the reason for the parting was the feud between two women who didn't like each other and were jealous of each other. Segal would have us believe the parting occurred because of the age old theme that hell knows no fury like a woman scorned.
IV The Sovereignty of God
A When we first read the passage it appears that it was Sarah who wanted Hagar and Ishmael gone. But it quickly becomes obvious that Sarah's request was also the Lord's desire. So Sarah becomes an agent of the Lord.
So we can and should ask, why did God want Ishmael gone? We need to realize that God was building for Himself a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. And, God was doing this not by human strength or human might or human skill but by His own sovereign grace. That's why Isaac was not born until Abraham and Sarah were too old to bear any children. The promised child came but only as a miracle, as an act of God, as an act of grace.
Isaac, the child of the promise, is the result of sovereign grace. Ishmael, by way of contrast, is the result of human effort. God wanted it to be clear that man can neither add to nor subtract from the works of His hands. God, not man, is sovereign! God, not man, builds the church!
B I want you to also consider the testing of Abraham that is reported on in the very next chapter of Genesis. At that time Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his son. If Ishmael was still around Abraham would not have been sacrificing his only son. If Ishmael was still around Abraham always had another son to fall back on as heir. If Ishmael was still around Abraham had other options available. But without Ishmael in the picture, then Abraham was being called to sacrifice his only son. With Ishmael out of the picture there was no backup plan, no other options, no other scenarios. With Ishmael out of the picture Abraham's faith was being tested far more severely than if Ishmael was still around. Then we know if Abraham truly believed and trusted the power and might and sovereignty of God.
C In this light, look again at the picture of Segal's work. "What is wrong with this picture? What is missing? Who is missing?" I think we all realize that Segal leaves God and God's will out of the picture. He looks at the story only as a human story. He looks only at the interplay of the human actors. He forgets or neglects the will and plan and sovereignty and providence of God.
I've been looking again and again at the portrait of Genesis 21 by Segal. So often, as is usually the case, man's attempts are inadequate and ill-advised.
I've seen a lot of this lately. I've watched "The Ten Commandments" – starring Charlton Heston. This past Easter "Jesus of Nazareth" was on TV. Like Segal's work they all are strong in presenting the human dimension, but less strong in presenting God and the covenant and sovereign grace. When we concentrate on these productions we lose the mystery of the Bible and the awesomeness of God.
So what do we see when we look at Genesis 21? Yes, we see a woman scorned. Yes, we see a mother protecting her child. Yes, we see a father forced to choose between sons. Yes, we see anger and hatred and envy and jealousy.
But we also see much more. We see that those who are born of the flesh hate those who are born of the Spirit. We see that those who are born of the flesh hate the covenant and the God of the covenant. We see that our God builds the church His way, by grace, and not by human effort and human will and human achievement. We see that God is sovereign over all and always accomplishes His will and realizes His purposes.
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