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Sun, Jun 25, 2017

Now What's His Name?

Duration:19 mins 51 secs

Our Second Reading for today comes from the book of Genesis, chapter 21, verses 8-21. Our text for today is part of the larger story of Abraham. The story began in the 12th chapter of Genesis with a sudden call from a God who makes promises: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Without a word, Abraham goes with faith that the God who promised him land, descendants, and blessing will enable those promises to come true. However, intentionally and unintentionally, Abraham repeatedly attempts to thwart the promise: he passes off his wife Sarah as his sister; at Sarah’s request he conceives a child with Sarah’s maid Hagar; he “fell on his face and laughed” when told that his ninety year old wife would conceive a child; and then even after a reaffirmation of the promise Abraham passes off Sarah as his sister again! Yet, ultimately the promise is realized in the birth of Isaac in the opening verses of chapter 21. But now, despite the joy the child of promise brings to Abraham and Sarah, all is not well in their house for there is this other child who is also the fruit of Abraham’s loins. Let us hear this Word of God.

8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.[a] 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So 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.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

When the US Army Corp of Engineers undertakes a significant flood control project, there is a long standing tradition to name the new dam and resulting lake or reservoir after the town nearest the site of construction. Thus, just up of the road from us we have the Clarks Hill Dam and Lake, a flood control project on the Savannah River named after the town of Clarks Hill, SC. On rare occasions, a project can be renamed in honor of a local celebrity and thus our South Carolina friends know the lake and dam as Strom Thurmond.

Well, the Army Corp of Engineers has undertaken numerous such projects across the country. In fact, the defining natural landmark of the area in which I grew up in West Virginia is the state’s largest lake, created between 1960 and 1966 by the Corp of Engineers building a huge rock fill dam across the Gauley River. The closest town to the site of construction for the West Virginia project was the small village of Gad (G-A-D). The town of Gad actually had to be evacuated and its residents relocated as it now sits at the bottom of the lake. Given this, it seemed most appropriate to name the dam and lake after this town. However, after briefly speaking aloud the name, the “Gad Dam,” the Corp decided an exception to their naming policy was required. So, they went to the next nearest town and the Summersville Dam and Lake were christened.

Yes, names are important especially as we speak them aloud, what we call ourselves and others is vital, especially in scripture. For even more so than today, names in the Bible tell us something about the character of a person and something about God’s vision for that person’s life. Nowhere in scripture is that more true than in our text for today.

The first name we come across is “Abraham.” Now when God first called Abraham back in chapter 12, his name was Abram, which meant “exalted ancestor.” That is a fitting name for one who will be a blessing to all the families of the earth. However, in chapter 17, God reaffirms the covenant God has made with Abram and gives him a new name. This new name is the one we remember, “Abraham,” which means ancestor or father of a multitude of nations. Yet, at the time of this covenant, Abraham’s only child is his son by Hagar, Sarah’s maid. So this new name signifies the promise of children yet to come.

Well, the child of promise is finally born to Abraham and his name in Hebrew is “Yitzchak,” Isaac, “He laughs.” Abraham “fell on his face and laughed” when he heard that Sarah would bear a son. Sarah laughs when she hears the news herself. Upon Isaac’s birth Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” We’d probably laugh too if we heard that a 100 year old man and a 90 year old woman, who as the writer of Hebrews says are, “both as good as dead,” had conceived a child. It could be laughter of disbelief, it could be laughter of joy, it could be the laughter the bursts forth as barrenness and hopelessness are broken. But the name of the child of promise, the heir to the covenant God has made, is “Yitzchak,” Isaac, He laughs.”

So now we have met Abraham, “father of a multitude” and Isaac, “he laughs.” The next two names we encounter are the women of the text. Isaac is the son of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. She was originally called Sarai, “S-a-r-a-i,” but during the reaffirmation of the covenant in chapter 17, God changes the last letter of her name to an “h” giving us the “Sarah” with which we are familiar. In either case Sarai or Sarah means “princess” and her name reminds us of her beauty even as she advanced in age.

Well, Sarah had a maid, a slave-girl, named Hagar. Whenever Hagar is first mentioned, she is always identified as “Hagar the Egyptian.” She is not from around here; she is not one of the chosen people, and just to be sure you don’t forget, the biblical writers highlight her foreign nationality. She is Egyptian. But even more than that, the name “Hagar” is the combination of two Hebrew roots. The first means: “flight” – indicating that this Egyptian girl is not going to be around here for very long. The second root points toward a translation of “stranger” – again she is not one of us. And yet, Hagar, this stranger from Egypt who will not be around for long, is the mother of Abraham’s oldest son.

And this oldest son of Abraham is the other character in our text for today, yet if you look closely you will not find his name. Abraham throws a great feast to celebrate the weaning of his son Isaac. At this feast, “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing.” Most English translations, like the New Revised Standard Version that I read from this morning, will add, “playing with her son Isaac.” But the Hebrew actually does not include those words. In the Hebrew we find, “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, Yitzchak, laughing.” It could be laughter of disbelief, it could be laughter of joy, it could be the laughter of jest, but the son of Hagar the Egyptian is laughing.

And in this lies the problem. Sarah knows that there can be only one child through whom the promise passes. In that key covenant reaffirmation in chapter 17, God declared that the promise and covenant shall pass through Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, through “the one who laughs.” But this oldest son of Abraham is laughing, is behaving as if Isaac’s name applies to him. Will he soon be behaving as if Isaac’s promise applies to him as well? This son of Hagar is a threat to the promise, his existence in the family raises problems because the oldest son is supposed to receive the prime inheritance. So, Sarah goes to Abraham saying, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Please notice the only one Sarah calls by name.

For obvious reasons, this demand from his wife “distresses” Abraham. However, before Abraham can do or say anything, God intervenes and tells Abraham to do as Sarah told him and not worry because God will take care of “the son of the slave woman.” Abraham rises early in the morning, gives Hagar a loaf of bread and a skin of water and sends her and the child on their way. I don’t know how many times I’ve read this text, especially since becoming a father myself, and I still cannot believe Abraham did it. He gave them a loaf of bread and a skin of water and sends Hagar and the child on their way.

So, with her name now describing her reality, Hagar, the stranger in flight and her child wander in the wilderness. The skin of water empty, Hagar puts the child under a bush and removes herself from earshot for she cannot bear to watch the death of her child. In the desert without water we know the end is near. Hagar sits and weeps for her son, who still is not named.

Yet, despite the fact that the boy has not been named in our text for today, he was given a name at his birth. His mother had wandered in the wilderness once before, running away she conceived the child with Abraham. At least according to the writer of Genesis that one was probably her own fault for she had “looked with contempt on her mistress.” That first time in the wilderness, an angel of the Lord appeared to her and told her to return to her mistress. The angel also told her to name her son, “Yishma'el” – Ishmael - God hears.”

And so in the wilderness as Hagar wept for her son, “God Yishma'el, God heard the voice of the boy.” You see, the boy is only unnamed in English translations. Then Hagar’s eyes were opened and she saw a well of water. She filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

The crisis past, the boy grew up and God was with him. When Abraham dies, Ishmael returns to help his brother Isaac bury their father. Hagar found her son a wife in Egypt and thus Ishmael became the father of twelve sons and through them his descendants are the nomadic Arab people who live around Israel. When Isaac’s son Esau goes looking for a bride, he marries one of his uncle Ishmael’s daughters.

Certainly the promise and the covenant pass through Yitzchak. Isaac, but Yishma'el, “God hears” and cares for all the sons of Abraham. This other son may not be the chosen one, but he is surely treasured.

God hears our cries. God hears our prayers. So we today we must ask ourselves how many unnamed descendants of Abraham do we seek to banish? How many unnamed children cry out to God because we refuse to hear?

Abraham may have banished the child, but the God and Father of us all hears and redeems. It’s no wonder that when this God chose to become a child himself they called him, “Jesus – he saves.”

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:
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