This weekend, I tried to keep up with Curtis and preached my first sermon at our home church. Here’s an excerpt from my message, which was on Sarai, Abram and Hagar from Genesis 16 and 21.
“Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.”
Over Labor Day weekend we were driving out the 10 to Arizona. Our dashboard thermometer read 107. At one point with played chicken with our gas tank and I thought. If we get stuck out here Curtis will never hear the end of it. So if you’ve made the drive you know–everything was brown and thorny. Nothing really manages to grow above knee height. This is what I imagine Hagar’s wilderness was like—not just in geography. But in her life—everything is barren, lonely, hopeless and parched.
But this is not a story about the desert. This is a story about underestimating the goodness of God.
Hagar is banished along with her young son, Ishmael. So convinced is she that she will die that she sits and waits for it to hit her. The water is gone, and apparently the only shade comes from a solitary shrub. Rather than die the thousand extra deaths of watching her suffering child, she sets him in that shade, then goes a ways off so she can’t hear him crying as he suffers, hungry and thirsty in the heat.
And as she sat there, says the passage, she began to sob.
When we’re in Hagar’s shoes…whether you’re hit by a diagnosis, or you’re in a marriage so parched you’re convinced it will die, (I have some other friends who are single, and that’s just not what they want for their lives anymore.) Whether you experience depression that keeps nagging you and joy seems completely illusive, or are undergoing a series of treatments—maybe for disease, maybe for infertility—that just never seem to yield results fast enough…Whenever we are in the wilderness like Hagar, we do something tragic: we underestimate the goodness of God.
God is good. He is so good.
“The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.”
God shows up again. He calls out to her, reminds her of the promises he made for the future. He opens her eyes to reveal a well. Hagar and Ishmael are seen and preserved; they move into the future and create something new.
Every so often I’ll hear people who want to describe God as gracious in the new testament but rigid in the old. Like he was ok before and got more good once Jesus arrived on the scene.
This story challenges that so strongly. It is literally the story of the founding family, God’s first dealings with forming his chosen people. And his showing up for Hagar can only be called grace.
There is no reason for God to pay any special attention to Hagar. She’s not part of the promise, she’s not going to be Israel. So God doesn’t owe her anything as part of his chosen people. She is Egyptian. She is, well, a ‘she’, which as we already noted isn’t worth much outside of childbearing. She’s a slave, property that at best can be a legal extension of Sarai, but likely isn’t even full ‘second wife’ status in the family.
But God does pay her attention, and I think they only decent reason for it is his goodness. When Hagar and Ishmael cry, God hears them and shows up.
And the same God who heard and saw Hagar hears and sees you and hears and sees me.
It’s worth asking: Do I believe God could show up in my wilderness? Do I pray and talk to friends about my situations in such a way that show that I know that I know that I know that God is good?
Ben Patterson said everything in prayer depends on who we think we’re praying to. It’s like a three legged stool, three reflections of God’s goodness:
His power, CAN he do what is best?
His wisdom, does he KNOW what is best?
And his love.
His love. Does he WANT what is best?
While God’s power, and wisdom and love are infinite and perfect, whenever we doubt one of them, the stool topples.
Then he notes that in his observation, disappointment with God comes from a failure to believe one of these three things.
All too often, we underestimate the goodness of God.
Perhaps the Christian life is about taking the plunge, and sinking into a grace that is so much bigger than we can ever imagine. It’s about the freedom of falling into the goodness of a God who can handle our real mess and who show up in our wilderness.
If that’s the case, then underestimating can keep us stuck on the ledge.