14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
Well our heroes from yesterday are not shining examples of humanity in this story. After God promised Abraham a son with his wife Sarah, they laughed in disbelief. But they waited…and waited…and waited. They got impatient, as we all do at times, and took matters into their own hands. (Don’t we all do that at times?) So Sarah devised a plan where Abraham would father a child with her slave Hagar. After all, in her mind that would fulfill the promise that Abraham would become the “father of a nation” so maybe this was what God meant all along. But, of course, things did not come out completely rosy. Predictably, Hagar’s pregnancy provoked Sarah’s jealousy and bitterness, and so she drove Hagar into the wilderness. But, true to character, God found her there and welcomed her back, in effect reclaiming her as part of the story. He told her that her child that was to be born would be called Ishmael, which means “God hears”. He said that her descendants would be “too numerous to count”. (This is starting to sound vaguely familiar!)
In the passage for today, it is probably some fifteen years later. It is the occasion of the weaning of Isaac, which probably means that he’s about three years old. Once again, those old wounds and jealousies surface for Sarah and, once again, she drives Hagar, this time with the child Ishmael, into the wilderness. Hagar gives up, toying with just leaving Ishmael to die so the whole sordid thing would end. But then, once again, God hears. And then God makes what is really an extraordinary promise to Hagar that is almost identical to the promise made to Abraham. “I will make him into a great nation…God was with the boy.”
This is a little bit different wilderness story. Hagar was not “driven” to the wilderness; she didn’t go there for solace or renewal; she wasn’t wandering through it on the way to the Promised Land. Hagar was sent away, forced into the wilderness mainly by Sarah’s jealousy and resentment and Abraham’s fear and remorse. And there God again reclaims her, giving her a new story, a new promise of life to come. The story is a reminder that God is God, once and for all, and that God, with infinite compassion and abounding grace will reclaim us even from ourselves, even from what we humans do to each other. One by one, in the deepest wilderness of our lives, God reclaims us as children of God.
God’s focus becomes a focus on the future. Five chapters before this when Hagar had run into the wilderness to avoid Sarah’s wrath, God came. Sent into the wilderness as forsaken, Hagar encounters God. In fact, God draws her into conversation. Hagar becomes the first person in Genesis to encounter an angel of God and the first woman to be given promises (the first woman, ever!). She becomes the only person in the Old Testament to actually name God. Hagar, sent into the wilderness so that she would not be part of the story, is reclaimed by God and given a story all her own. In his book, Peculiar Treasures, Frederick Buechner says of this story that it tells “how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises, and loving everybody, and creating great nations, like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred dollar bills.”
Both children are recognized as belonging to Abraham but also to a particular future that will be worked out in the future. God announces that it is through Isaac that descendants will be named for Abraham, referring to the covenantal line. But Abraham can be assured that God will care for the future of Ishmael as well, making of him a great nation, making him of the great story that God is continually writing.
In this season of Lent, we do wander in the wilderness. Some of our wildernesses are self-imposed; some are gifts given from God for renewal and recreation; and some wildernesses are so deep that God must pluck us out of the undergrowth and hold us, setting us upright, so that we begin a new journey. Lent teaches us that the story is always more than we planned, more than we can see, more than the road that we are on now. In this wilderness season, the story begins to move beyond ourselves. We just have to learn to pay attention and allow ourselves to be reclaimed by a story we did not fully know.
Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. (Simone Weil)
FOR TODAY: What is your story? What chapter is God calling you to include? How is God reclaiming you from the wilderness in which you wander?
Grace and Peace,