Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Since Martin Luther first posted his 95 Theses 500 years ago, five principles have emerged which summarize the Protestant understanding of the Christian faith. They are five Latin phrases known as the Solaes or Slogans of the Reformation. Sola Fide by “faith alone”: Sola Scriptura “by Scripture alone”: Sola Gratia “by grace alone”: Solus Christus “by Christ alone”: and the sola most popular among musicians, Soli Deo Gloria “to the glory of God alone.” For Luther, faith alone was always the most important. But faith for him was not simply a spoken confession. It was always an action based on trust. This morning we continue our sermon series exploring the faithful actions of the Old Testament characters mentioned in the Book of Hebrews. Last week we began the story of the ancient patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah. Today we focus on Sarah and her Egyptian slave Hagar.
From Hebrews 11:11-12
By faith (Abraham) received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
The story of Sarah unfolds as a love story intimately entwined with her devotion to her husband, Abraham and their sojourn to Canaan to begin a new life and to establish a family. But it is also the frustrating story of Sarah’s barrenness and her constant, bitter rivalry with her maidservant Hagar. Abraham and Sarah had known each other since childhood. Sarah was actually Abraham’s half-sister, 10 years his younger. There was no legal prohibition against it at that time. Sarah’s name was originally Sarai, which means princess or one who rules- and rule she did- often with an iron clad fist. Abraham, on the other hand, was the model of “a happy wife a happy life.” He knew that whenever Sarah was unhappy, beware. The Bible also tells us that, in spite of her age, Sarah was remarkably beautiful. She was stunning. In fact, she was so attractive that she drew the attention and affections of both pharaohs and peasants alike. Hebrew folk lore ranks Sarah right next to Eve, who was regarded as the most attractive and perfect woman who ever lived. Although he Bible says that “beauty is a fading flower,” the opposite was true for Sarah. She was “aged to perfection,” and only grew more radiant with each passing year. In scripture, we read that at the age of 75, Abraham was afraid that kings and princes would fall in love with Sarah for her bewildering beauty, so he always informed his hosts that she was his sister. Neither Abraham nor Sarah knew where God was leading them, but they knew what was missing from their lives. And that was a promised heir.
Yes, Abraham and Sarah faced one challenge after another. They abandoned the comfort and beauty of the city of Ur for a life in a tent in the desert. Almost as soon as they arrived in the land of Canaan, a great famine came over the land, and so they were forced to become refugees in Egypt. It was in Egypt that Hagar was introduced to Sarah. The name Hagar comes from “Ha-Agar,” which means this is the reward. According to the Hebrew Midrash, Hagar was the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt. When Hagar saw the wonder which God performed for the sake of Sarah, to save her from the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh and her harem she said: “It is better to be a slave in Sarah’s house than a princess in my own.” And so when Abrahm and Sarah returned to Canaan, Hagar accompanied them. Now after 10 years of living in the promised land, and one failed pregnancy test after another, they wondered how the promise would ever come to be. Finally, Sarah said to Abraham, “Look, the LORD has not allowed me to have children, so take my slave girl as your wife. If she has a child, maybe I can have my own family through her.” And Abraham did just what Sarah said. He took Hagar as his wife.
Unfortunately, when Sarah’s hopes for a child began to be fulfilled, it brought her unexpected suffering. For as soon as the slave girl Hagar realized she was to have a child, she began to look down upon her mistress who could not have one. Clearly, the struggle of fertility was not Abraham’s problem. Sarah rebuked Hagar and reminded her that she, Sarah, was the mistress, and that Hagar was nothing but her maid. Sarah dealt harshly with Hagar. Frustrated, Hagar ran away into the wilderness. There, an angel of the Lord, appeared to her and ordered her to return to Sarah and to submit to her. The angel also told her that she would bear a son, and she should name him Ishmael. She herself would be mother to a multitude of descendants. So she returned. And Hagar bore Abraham a son, and he named him Ishmael.
Thirteen years later, when Abraham was ninety-nine years of age, God declared to him once again, that he would be the “father of many nations” through Sarah. And God said, “Kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” Later, The Lord appeared again to Abraham by the oaks of the Mare, as he sat at the entrance of his tent. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. They said, “Where is your wife Sarah? And he said, “There in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”
But it really was no laughing matter, and the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything to wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I shall return to you in due season and Sarah shall have a son.” Nearly twenty-five years had passed since the time God first promised Sarah a son and the time she finally got pregnant. But a year later, true to the Lord’s promise, Sarah gave birth to Abraham’s son. And they named him Isaac which means laughter.
Regrettably, the rivalry between Sarah and her slave girl Hagar persisted. One day Sarah saw Hagar’s son Ishmael playing with her infant Isaac, and she ordered Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael, for no son of a slave would inherit Abraham’s treasure. The matter distressed Abraham greatly, but God said to Abraham, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
So 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. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to weep. God heard the boy crying, and 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. Ishmael lived in the desert and became an archer.
Now you may be wondering: So why was it so important for Sarah to banish Hagar and Ishmael from her home? God had been faithful to his promise to Sarah, and granted her the birth of a son. Time and again, she had been told that the Lord’s covenant would become a reality through her son, Isaac, but still she couldn’t bear to see Hagar and Ishmael. She may not have wanted them dead, but she certainly wanted them out of sight. But why?
I rather suspect that she wanted them gone, because they were a constant reminder of that time in Abraham’s and Sarah’s 25 year journey with God in land of Canaan when the old couple tried to live by their own strength and not by God’ grace and mercy. Instead of humbling themselves and trusting God for help to wait, they took matters into their own hands. They did not trust God or truly depend on him. Instead Abraham and Sarah turned to their own timing and resources. And what a complicated story their lives became.
Of course, it happens all the time. It may not be about motherhood, but we’ve all wanted something at some point in life that we just couldn’t wait for—marriage, children, a bigger house, a new car, a better job, whatever it may be. We may even pray about it, but many times God’s answer is, Wait! There are all sorts of excuses not to wait. After all, “God can’t steer a parked car, can he?” We may even invent Bible verses to make us feel better about doing things our own way: “God helps those who help themselves” Abraham and Sarah knew that truth. As the Old Arabic saying goes, “Trust in God, but tie up your Camel.” Some of the worst mistakes in life are made because we are too impatient to wait for God’s “green light.” The story of Sarah and Hagar teaches us that whenever you’re facing a big decision, don’t rush things—pray about it, trust God, and don’t move until you’re certain that this is God’s will.
Sarah lived 127 years, and is the only women whose age at death is recorded in scripture. There is an ancient Jewish legend that Sarah died of a broken heart as she learned of God’s command to Abraham to offer their son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. When Sarah saw her husband and son leaving the tent, taking with them wood and a large knife she became terrified with shock and died. When Abraham and Isaac returned, Isaac brought back from the dead as it were, it was only to mourn and weep for Sarah. Had she lived she might have received her dead son back from the hands of God, and heard from her husband how his hand had been restrained by the angel, “Lay not your hand upon the child, neither shall you do anything to harm him.” That was not to be. Sarah was buried in the cave of Machpelah on a piece of land Abraham had purchased. The site, known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, is the second holiest site in Judaism, and this week was designate by UNESCO as a world heritage site.
There is more to be said of Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, but that must wait until next week. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.