A sermon preached
in the Wilderness"
Jean-Baptiste Corot, 1835
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Click the photo to see the whole painting.
Lectionaries are wonderful things –
they force you to wrestle with passages you might otherwise pass by.
So here we find a passage about Abraham, the hero of faith –
but what a story –
Abraham is old and has despaired of having children by his
wife Sarah –
so following the Ancient Near Eastern Tradition of his age,
he sleeps with his servant Hagar and when she produces a child,
the child becomes Abraham’s son and heir - Ishmael.
But Abraham has lacked faith in God –
who had previously promised him a dynasty through his wife Sarah.
And then God’s promise is fulfilled –
Sarah, aged around 100, gives birth
and Abraham now has a son by Sarah, called Isaac.
But Sarah now goes straight into wicked stepmother mode.
She resents the position of Ishmael, the slave child, in the household,
and demands that Ishmael and his mother are thrown out.
throws our Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.
God assured Abraham that he will be father of a great nation via Isaac.
But God also protects Ishmael and Hagar –
when their water is done and they despair in their desert exile,
God comes to their rescue gives them water,
and promises that Ishmael too shall be the father of another great nation.
And so the OT sees Ishmael as the founding father of the Ishmaelites –
and if you turn to the Book of Jubilees –
a Jewish apocryphal work written between the OT and the NT –
you will find Ishmael cited as the founder of the Ishmaelite or Arab race
“And Ishmael and his sons, and
the sons of Keturah and their sons,
went together and dwelt from Paran to the entering in of
in all the land which is towards the East facing the desert.
And these mingled with each other,
and their name was called Arabs, and Ishmaelites” (Jub 20:12)
And so it
was that Mohammed came to trace
the spiritual ancestry of Islam back to Abraham via Ishmael.
And if you look at the family tree of the Judeo-Christian religions,
you will find a common root in Abraham,
dividing between Islam and Judaism/Christianity with his two sons.
So what are we to make of this ancient story?
first thing to say is that the story is incredibly ancient,
and has been worked over and over by may story tellers
with different theologies and understandings of God –
so we shouldn’t necessarily expect anything too neat and coherent.
But we can pick up important strands of meaning
which may still speak to us today.
1. At one level this is a story about trusting God.
God said “trust me – you will be the father of a great nation” –
but Abraham failed to trust God – and rather turned to Hagar –
and thereby got himself into all kinds of trouble
from which God had to extricate him.
2. And arising from that, it says something
about the people God uses –
he uses fallible people –
even the great founding fathers – Abraham in the OT and Peter in the NT –
are essentially unreliable followers,
for all their moments of faith and commitment.
Which is good news for you and me –
God’s team is made up of flawed people,
so maybe even we have a place in his plans!
3. Then the passage says something about God’s love and care
for all his children – Isaac and Ishmael.
God may see or chart different paths for them –
but he is there in the midst of both their journeys.
4. And arising from that, it says something
about world faiths, in particular Islam.
This passage reminds us – that,
for all the militancy of parts of the OT,
the Biblical story is one of God creating and loving all people.
like Abraham and Sarah,
we are sometimes tempted to exclude from the blessings of our life
those who seem to threaten our peace and prosperity,
never forget that when we throw them out
then God will walk with them in their exile.
All of which links to the Gospel reading for the day.
Here in a
Jesus says that God counts every hair of our head.
hair, Ishmael’s hair, your hair, my hair – all counted –
each a precious and loved creation and possession.
A 6 year old
once asked his teacher how much the earth weighed.
The teacher looked up the answer in an Encyclopedia.
"Six thousand million, million tons," she answered.
The little boy thought for a minute and then asked,
"Is that with or without people?"
it might very well seem that people don't really matter very much.
After all, we are but microscopic inhabitants of a tiny planet
orbiting a relatively obscure star in a small galaxy
among the billions and billions of stars and galaxies that make up creation.
Yet the God of creation has counted the very hairs of our heads.
King Duncan, The Love of a Father, www.Sermons.com
good news for us –
God loves and cares for us.
It is also
a challenge for us –
do we care for those who are so precious to God?
There was an Irish village called Drumconrath in former times
where the women read their scripture
and noted that every hair of their head was counted and known by God,
and so they conceived that they should store away every hair
that was cut so that they could give account for it.
So when their hair was cut, they built the hair into the thatch of their cottages,
so they could account for it.
I’m not sure God expects that of us literally.
But I guess
he does want us – metaphorically -
to account for every hair on the head of every child of his.
So we come
to this table.
As we do so, we know that we are welcome,
that we are known for what we are,
and that because of - and indeed in spite of - what we are,
we are still valued and loved by our heavenly Father.
And if we
are precious in God’s eyes,
we should care for ourselves, not abuse or neglect ourselves,
nor fail to fulfil our potential –
every hair is counted and every part of our life is there to be taken and used.
But as we
care for ourselves,
so we should care for others - love your neighbour as yourself.
but could not bring herself to share her blessing beyond her immediate family.
May we take the blessing we find
and share it with those who walk in desert places,
that each may find his way,
and know the life giving presence of God.