Genesis 21: 8-21 & Matthew 10:24-39
May I speak this morning in the name of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am sure you have heard the phrase: “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” It is used throughout both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament and it depicts a clear line of descent from the Patriarch Abraham to his chosen people, and hence to Jesus and to those who follow him. I am sure you are also well aware of the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac but God stopping him at the last moment. But how aware were you that Isaac had an older brother, Ishmael, born of a slave woman in rather dubious circumstances?
This morning I want to outline the story of this family. But a warning: it is a story which may challenge some pre-conceptions of what a ‘biblical’ marriage looks like! I am then going to think about what it means to be chosen, and the responsibilities that come with it.
Abraham, or Abram to give him his original name, is first mentioned in Genesis chapter 11. In verse 29 Abram married Sarai (Sarah’s original name) and the first thing we are told about Sarai is that she could not conceive. Not great for your first mention in the bible, I am sorry. However, it was relevant to this couple because God called Abram, at the age of 75, to follow him and promised to build him into a great nation. It is not easy to create a great nation if you can’t have children. And you are already 75. But Abram stepped out in faith.
But following the call of God is not an easy ride, often it is the quite the opposite as our gospel reading reminded us. Having stepped out in faith, Abram encountered a famine and decided to move his flocks down to Egypt. This is where it gets a little stranger. Abram said to Sarai that she was so beautiful that when the Egyptians saw her then they would surely kill Abram in jealousy, if they thought they were married, so it would be best if he told people that she was his sister whilst in Egypt.
Vivienne and I are lucky enough to have had a few holidays in interesting places, and I don’t just mean on the boat in Birmingham, but I am struggling to imagine the reaction if, when we got there, I slipped off my wedding ring and suggested that Vivienne pretend to be my sister for the duration. Actually, I am not struggling at all, it is all too easy to imagine and it would not be good.
Nonetheless Sarai went along with the plan and, lo and behold, Abram was right – the Egyptians did think that Sarai was very beautiful, and she was taken into Pharaoh’s palace, who took her as his wife. Abram was richly rewarded by Pharaoh with lots of livestock and slaves. I don’t want to offend anyone but, in modern terms, this does look a bit like Abram pimping out his wife whilst saying she is his sister.
However, it seems that God wasn’t pleased with this arrangement. But, rather than punishing Abram for his deception, cowardice, disloyalty and living off immoral earnings he sent diseases upon Pharoah and his family until the truth about Abram and Sarai came out and Pharaoh sent them on their way, with their newly acquired wealth.
Time moved on and Abram increased his flocks. But, at the age of 86 Abram and Sarai were still without issue and God’s promise to create a great nation out of him, as numerous as the dust covering the earth or the stars in the sky, must have begun to look forlorn. Abram himself was worried that the great wealth he had accumulated would end up being inherited by someone not of his own flesh and blood.
In chapter 16, Sarai decided that it was time to be proactive. Perhaps, she thought, that God helps those who help themselves. Sarai owned an Egyptian slave called Hagar, maybe given to her by Pharaoh, and she told Abram that he should sleep with her, in the hope that they could build a family through her.
There are definitely elements of the Handmaid’s Tale in this story, and it does not make comfortable reading on many levels.
It seems that Hagar conceived quickly and, when she did, she started to despise Sarai. It is not hard to imagine the strutting and showing off of bumps. To use the language from today’s Gospel reading, the slave was trying to be greater than the master.
Sarai reacted rather badly to this and mistreated Hagar so much that she ran away into the desert, whilst still pregnant. When she was there an angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar (16:9) and told her that she should go back and submit to her mistress, that she would bear a son called Ishmael and that their descendants would be too numerous to count.
Although this is no virgin birth it is hard not to see the parallels with the Annunciation to Mary and it is hard also not to be impressed that Hagar said ‘yes’ to this call to return to a position not only of slavery but to an angry and jealous mistress.
Hagar returned and she gave birth to Ishmael, Abram’s first born child. 13 years passed without reported incident. Ishmael grew into a young teenager; Abram was now 99 and Sarai was 90.
And then, at that great age, God appeared again and renewed his promise to make a great nation out of Abram and Sarai, he renamed them Abraham and Sarah and said that they would have a child of their own. Another annunciation, if you will, although Abraham laughed at the thought of him and Sarah having a child at their age (17:17).
There was a final annunciation to Sarah, when the angels of the Lord visited them at Mamre, the scene which formed the basis of Rublev’s icon we looked at on Trinity Sunday, but Sarah also laughed at the idea of her having a child at 90 (18:12). Although Abraham and Sarah are the ‘heroes’ of this story it is interesting that their reactions to these ‘annunciations’ were both more cynical than Hagar’s and Mary’s.
But conceive Sarah did and now, we reach chapter 21 and the birth of Isaac, the boy through whom the nation of Israel would arise and call Abraham father.
When Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast but, in the midst of the celebrations, Sarah thought she saw Ishmael mocking and told Abraham to get rid of ‘that slave woman and her son’. Whatever had happened in the last 13 years there was not much love lost in that direction and Sarah now had a dynasty of her own. However, Abraham did love Ishmael as he was greatly distressed at the thought of casting him out. But, God comforted Abraham and told him that he would make a nation through Ishmael and that he should send them away because it was to be through Isaac that his real offspring, the chosen ones, would be counted.
And so Hagar went into the desert again. This time not with a bump and not of her own volition but with a young teenager and a skin of water having been thrown out of her home and security. She had been freed from slavery but it seemed that it would be a short-lived freedom to die in the wilderness, as the Hebrew slaves felt generations later in the exodus.
When the water ran out Hagar thought that the time for them to die had arrived. She placed Ishmael under a bush as she could not bear to see him die, and she cried. She must have thought about the feast she had been thrown out of and the baby Isaac being celebrated. But, as he did the last time she was there, God sent an angel to comfort her in the wilderness, showed her a well of water and they survived. Further, God repeated his promise that he would make a great nation out of the boy. I wonder how that promise sounded to Hagar that day?
But Ishmael grew and Hagar found him a wife from Egypt, her own homeland. Then in Gen 25 we have a list of his descendants and the statement that the tribe of Ishmael lived in ‘hostility to the tribes they were related to’, i.e. the descendants of Isaac. Perhaps that is not surprising.
Although this is not in the bible the tradition amongst Muslims is that the Ishmaelites became the desert dwellers who later became followers of Mohammed, and that is why they trace their roots to Abraham via his first born son, born of a slave and exiled to make way for the chosen people.
And it is that theme of chosen-ness on which I want to end this morning.
I said last week that the Hebrew people are God’s chosen people, and it is into that chosen-ness that we are grafted through our relationship with Christ. And that remains true.
But today’s story, reminds us several times of slavery and, of course, the events taking place in America and even in Bristol and Parliament Square remind us that slavery is not far beneath the surface of our own society and, if we open our eyes, is not confined to the past but continues around us in different forms.
For one group to be chosen, whether by God or by physical or economic power usually leads to another group being lessened or even dehumanised, at least in the eyes of the chosen.
The chosen-ness of Abraham and Sarah, as dysfunctional as their relationship appears to be, allowed them to lessen the humanity of Hagar and Ishmael.
The chosen-ness of the Hebrews, despite their own experience of being slaves in Egypt, allowed them to dehumanise the other tribes as they re-entered the promised land, and that same theology of chosen-ness allows the Israelis of today to lessen the humanity of the Palestinians.
The self-appointed chosen-ness of men has allowed them to lessen women, the chosen-ness of White Europeans allowed them to lessen the humanity of Black Africans during the slave trade and the chosen-ness of rich consumers now allows them to lessen the humanity of child labour in the Far East.
If you are a male, white, European, Christian who has a roof over their head and food on their table, as I do, then there is an awful lot of chosen-ness going on but which, if we dare to open our eyes and see, carries the weight of an awful lot of un-chosen-ness in many, many groups both now and throughout history.
A time of crisis presents us with a choice. Do we hide in the comfort of our multiple layers of chosen-ness, deny the reality of those who have been lessened and hope that it all goes away? Or do we do the brave thing, what I believe to be the more Christ-like thing, and seek to see the world through the eyes of those we have lessened?