Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

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"There's a Wideness in God's Mercy"

Psalm 86:1-7

Genesis 21:8-21

      Before we read this morning’s lesson, we need some background.  Abram had been promised by

God that he would be father of a great nation; that his offspring would number more than the stars

in the sky or grains of sand on the shore.  Yet as the months and years passed, and as Abe and his

wife Sarai grew further beyond childbearing age, their doubt and desperation grew as well.  At

Sarai’s behest, Abram took her slave-girl Hagar as a wife, and she conceived.  But from the time of

conception, Sarai - driven by jealousy - began to mistreat Hagar terribly; so much so that Hagar ran

away.  After receiving assurance from an angel of God that she, too, would bear a son, and that he,

too, would father a great nation, the angel instructed Hagar to return to the house of Abram.  She

did, and soon gave birth to a son, who Abram named Ishmael. 

      Let’s fast forward thirteen years.  Ishmael is a young teen.  And now Sarai herself, who had

finally conceived at the age of ninety, has given birth to a son whom Abram names Isaac. Let’s pick it

up there.

           (Read Genesis 21:8-21)

      This morning’s lesson demonstrates that over the course of those thirteen years, things hadn’t

improved between Sarah and Hagar.  In fact, they had gotten worse.  Now with the arrival of Isaac,

Sarah is so jealous of Hagar and her son, and so afraid that Ishmael might encroach on Isaac’s inheri-

tance, that she can’t even stand to see the boys playing together.  So she insists that Abraham get

rid of Hagar and Ishmael once and for all.  God’s advice to Abraham is advice all us husbands would

do well to heed:  Do what your wife tells you.  So Hagar is sent away with the barest necessities: only  

as much bread and water as she could carry on one shoulder.  She and Ishmael wander together in

the wilderness with no purpose, and no destination.  After her meager supplies run out, Hagar sits

down to die.  God comes to the rescue and reaffirms the promise that Ishmael will live, and will

birth a great nation.  Both their immediate need for water, and their even greater need for purpose

and destiny, are met. 

      This passage of Scripture – and for that matter, the entire Ishmael/Isaac saga – raises some diffi-

cult questions. We who root for the underdog, and carry within us a New Testament sense of justice

and concern for the outcast, may be confused by God’s treatment of Hagar.  To begin with, why did

God encourage pregnant, runaway Hagar to return to her abuser?  Why did God later encourage

Abram to agree with Sarai to banish Hagar and Abe’s own son?  Then, why were they made to suffer

in the wilderness – almost to the point of death – before God spared them?  The opening verses of

Psalm 86, which ____________ read for us earlier, seem to give voice to Hagar’s desperation; one

who felt abandoned by God and hated by everyone else. 

      It seems that the most important task of the Old Testament storytellers – such as the author of

Genesis – was to show that God had kept His promises to Israel through the lineage of Abram; then

of Isaac; later of Jacob.  Lesser characters in the Abrahamic storyline were often skimmed over, and

their sufferings addressed only briefly if at all.  But in this case, there is surprising regard shown to

Hagar and the lesser son; the care, and detail, and compassion that the storyteller puts into the

account of their troubles.  It was clearly important to the story’s writer that there’s a wideness in

God’s mercy; that God has a special purpose, destiny and promise for everyone, no matter how low

their worth may be in the estimation of others.  And Hagar could hardly have been lower within

Hebrew society.  She was young, female, married only to be a surrogate, and a foreigner; an

Egyptian.  Yet God heard her pleas, approached her directly, and delivered her.  It is remarkable

that she is the only person in the Bible recorded as giving a name to God.  After her first flight from

Sarai and her encounter with God’s angel, it is recorded in chapter 16 that “….she named the Lord

who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; [which in Hebrew means “God of seeing] for she said, ‘Have I

really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’” God accepted her naming.  What high

regard God had for this castaway; so much so that she is promised that a great and mighty nation

will arise from her son and his descendants.  Today, millions of Arab Muslims who consider them-

selves to be those descendants of Ishmael, revere the name of Hagar in much the same way as we

revere the name of Mary.  In fact, there remains a well in Mecca named for Hagar.

     I think it’s important that we hear Hagar’s story in church, and to think about it from her perspec-

tive.  It’s all too easy to disregard the person we consider other; the one who, by our standards, for

whatever reason, falls outside the bounds of God’s favor.  We may esteem them a lesser character

in the storyline, and just skim over them.  We must not disregard Hagar because God did not

disregard Hagar.  In a broader sense, we must not disregard the other because God  does not

disregard the other.

      When we remember this Hagar, we remember all the Hagar’s of the world; and the wideness of

mercy they so desperately need.  Jonathan Kozol, an American writer and educator, tells stories of

homeless women and their children in New York City in his book Rachel and Her Children.  Rachel is

a contemporary of Hagar.  A woman alone with three children in one of New York’s homeless shel-

ters, Rachel is at the end of her rope.  Kozol tells of one encounter with her: 

     “She stalks into the room.  Her eyes are reddened and her clothes in disarray…. She paces left

     and right and back and forth…. She looks up toward the cracked and yellowish ceiling of the

     room.  Her children stand around her in a circle.  Two little girls.  A frightened boy.  They stare

     at her, as I do, as her arms reach out ---- for what?  [She says] ‘I’m here five miserable months.

     So I wonder where I’m goin’?  Can’t the mayor give us a house?  A part-time job?  I am capable

     of doin’ somethin’….. Plenty of children livin’ here on nothin’ but bread and bologna.  Peanut

     butter.  Jelly.  Drinkin’ water.  You buy milk.  I bought one gallon yesterday.  Got this much left.

     They drink it fast…. End up drinkin’ Kool Aid.’  The Bible by her bed is opened to the 23rd Psalm.

     ‘I do believe.  God forgive me.  I believe He’s there.  But when He sees us like this, I am wonderin’

     where is He?  I am askin’: Where the hell He gone…. I don’t read the Bible no more ‘cause I don’t

     find no more hope in it.  I don’t believe.  But yet and still….. I know these words.’  She reads aloud:

     ‘Lie down in green pastures….leadeth me beside still waters…..restores my soul…..I shall not  

     want.’  She reads, ‘I shall not fear.’ I fear!  A long, long time ago I didn’t fear.  Didn’t fear for
     nothin’.  I said God’s protectin’ me and would protect my children.  Did He do it?  Yeah.  I’m

     walkin’.  I am walkin’ in the wilderness.’”

      For Rachel, God’s providence comes not in the form of a great bounty of gifts, or even a measure

of comfort, but in day-to-day survival.  Maybe one day, if justice prevails in the communities and in-

situations she lives within, and she finds compassion among the others of God’s children, she will do

better than survive.  She will find ways to make the contribution to society that she longs to make,

and to secure a decent future for her children.   

      My guess is there are few of us here who have known desperation like that of Rachel or Hagar. 

Most of us have never found ourselves without a bed to sleep in at night or without food for our

children.  We do have many Hagar’s and Rachel’s come to the door of our church.  And we feed

them and their children.  Thank you for making that possible.  Yet on some level, most of us do

know how it is to be Hagar.  Who has never tasted rejection?  Who has never felt like an outsider at

work, or in the classroom, or in the family, or in church?  Who of us have never felt without direc-

 

tion; without purpose; without destination?  Who of us haven’t felt like we’ve lacked the wits or re-

sources to handle our responsibilities?  Who of us haven’t worried about providing well enough for

our kids?  Most of us have wondered at one time or another if God’s favor has fallen away from us

while it fall generously on others.  Most all of us have had those Hagar days, or that Hagar season.5

      Again, the lesson in the story is that God’s mercy is wide.  A key verse in this morning’s Scripture

is this one we may skim over:  “And God heard the voice of the boy…”  In fact, the name Ishmael

literally means “God hears.”  No matter where we are, what our status is among others, however

outcast we might find ourselves, God will see us, hear us, speak to us, and help us make something

out of what we are given.  That is the great promise of Hagar’s story.  We are not promised that we

won’t suffer, or wander, or be subject to the power plays of others.  But we are mercifully given

what we need to be the people God calls us to be.  If Hagar’s story is our story, we are promised that

God is present in whatever situation we find ourselves, and that God will deliver us from affliction in

God’s time. 

      We’re left with a final question from Hagar’s story.  If God has indeed promised to provide for

our needs, and to give us a future and a hope, how does this happen?  For Hagar, a well sprung up in

the wilderness.  For Christians, our faith community is our well in the wilderness.  God’s providence

works within the community of believers; in and through you and me. The salvation and redemption

made available through Christ, and promised to all, is communicated and lived out right here.  Our

call as a well in the wilderness is to provide in the very best way we are able for the lost, the

rejected, the outcast, the hopeless, the sick, the hungry and thirsty.  If we don’t see this as the

church’s priority, we need to check the well. 

      God’s mercy is wide and open to all, and we are all in need of it.  Let’s remember Hagar, and

remember that she is among us, and she is in us.  God’s mercy fails neither her, nor us.

Amen.

Central Presbyterian Church

47 Second Street NE
Massillon, Ohio 44646

Telephone: 330-832-7455
Fax: 330-832-7102