Monday, October 24, 2016

Journey of Faith - God Sees Us and Hears Us

Preached on Sunday, October 23, 2016

Scripture reading: Genesis 16:1-16

One of my oldest and best friends is a farmer who’s got some walnut orchards. Like most walnut growers he’s got a big, elaborate machine, almost as tall and as long as a house, for removing the hulls from walnuts.
Tall Timber Ranch
Leavenworth, WA
October 2016
This machine is called a “huller”. My friend’s huller broke down this harvest because, the last time a couple of important parts had come apart, he fastened them in place with a vice grip, and (now) three or four years later, that vice grip wore out.
This time he fixed it by welding the loose parts together. My friend is a very good, and serious, and successful farmer, and that’s how they often do things.
The summer of my twenty-first year, I was working for a farmer who owned two tractors and neither of those tractors had breaks worth a hoot. Stepping on the brake accomplished absolutely nothing. You had to stand on the break with your left foot while you stood on the clutch with your right foot, and the tractor would gradually come to a stop.
I was coming around the corner, into the big farm shop, to park my tractor where I usually parked it and, as I drove in, I suddenly noticed the farmer standing there beside his truck in my spot. I stood up on the brake, and I stood on the clutch, and I gradually came to a stop, but not before I hit the rear bumper of the pickup.
The farmer was standing right there, and he yelled something I don’t remember, and he jumped backward about five feet. I had to think of something to say. So I said that I had tried to stop in time but the brakes didn’t work.
The farmer knew that the breaks on the tractors didn’t work, and he knew why they didn’t work. He was a good, and serious, and successful farmer, and that’s how they often do things.
They neglect what holds everything together. They take shortcuts and people crash.
Well, it’s not just farmers. It’s true of humans in general. It’s human nature. It’s something we often laugh and shake our heads at. It’s something we can sometimes get angry and bitter about. It’s something we sometimes call sin.
It’s only a small part of how we get in trouble, and how we make a mess of our own lives, and a mess of other people’s lives. It’s how we crash into each other. This is only a small part of how Abraham, and Sarah, and their slave girl Hagar, and a tiny unseen presence named Ishmael got in trouble.
I suppose some of their trouble was God’s fault. After all, God had gotten their hopes up. The Lord had gotten them thinking about strange and crazy things. The Lord had gotten this old couple, and their kinfolk and servants, thinking about becoming a great nation, a blessing to the whole world and, strangest of all, God had gotten them thinking about babies. What on earth was God thinking?
The Lord was more or less hanging around, talking to them, acting like he was going to make something special out of them, acting like he loved them, and going around making lots of things happen: making everything happen but babies.
If God hadn’t shown up, they would have gotten used to things as they were, and just made the best of it as they could. They wouldn’t have tried something so stupid; or maybe they would have tried it anyway.
Sarah decided that, if they were going to have a baby, the way the Lord said they would, it would have to be by means of a surrogate mother in the form of a second wife: in this case a slave wife, but that was the way things worked in that part of the ancient world of their day. It was actually legal, and normal, and moral. Abraham’s grandson Jacob started married life with two wives, and ended up with four, but that’s another story.
It needs to be said that, although having more than one wife was not unusual, even in the Bible, the tell-tale sign is that, whenever it happened, trouble always came of it. It always came from trouble, and it always made matters worse.
It was like the phrase that kids use, and that their parents dread to hear: everybody’s doing it. The trouble is that it’s always trouble when God’s people take to heart what everybody’s doing.
It’s only a wonder that Sarah didn’t get the idea sooner. It was one more sign that she and Abraham were late bloomers.
Sarah thought of it, and talked Abraham into going along with her plan, and both of them could have said that they didn’t know any better. God hadn’t told them not to do it. This is another childish thing, but we all know that growing up is vastly overrated.
The truth is that God didn’t tell them not to do it. In fact, the Lord didn’t tell Abraham that Sarah had to be the mother of the blessed baby until the next chapter of Genesis; the chapter after this story. But we can’t read the story of this big mistake without getting the feeling that they somehow should have known better.
It’s like the story of the young boy in the good old days of chores. His mother told him to take the rug out of his bedroom and hang it on the clothesline and beat it. The boy hung up the rug like his mother said, and then he didn’t do his work. He disappeared for the rest of the day, and then he came home before supper time holding his baseball bat and his glove. His mother scolded him as he came in, “Didn’t it tell you to go and beat your rug?” “No mom, you told me to hang the rug up and beat it!”
Abraham and Sarah were about as good Christians as you could have found nearly four thousand years ago. So we can see how Christian peer pressure can go wrong. We can care about God’s purpose in our lives, and in our fellowship, and make the absolutely selfish and ugly choice of directions. And then we can make it worse. Being more or less in the will of God, as you might say it, is no protection from our worst selves.
We don’t see Abraham at his worst here, but he comes pretty close to it. In his outward circumstances, he was living a blessed life and a successful life, and he got God’s blessings and his apparent success mixed up. There in the tent, with Sarah, Abraham was at his least successful and he wanted no part of it.
Abraham neglected to give her the good influence that he should have brought to Sarah, just as should have brought her good influences to him. They both reneged on their care for each other.
The way Sarah blamed Abraham for doing what she asked, and the way Abraham dismisses it all, says it all. They cared about themselves more than they cared about each other. Nothing good can come from that.
The slave girl Hagar did nothing more than to live up to the example set by her mistress and master. Sarah could do something Hagar couldn’t do by giving her to an old man. And, when she got pregnant, Hagar showed Sarah that she was thinking, “Maybe you can do some things I can’t do, but I can do something you can’t do!”
Yes, she was living up to their example, and so Sarah gave her more of it. She started slapping Hagar around, and probably she said plenty of things that hurt Hagar worse than the slapping.
Something about the slapping surprised me. I call it slapping. It has to do with Sarah’s hands.
What surprised me is that the angel of the Lord, this mysterious spiritual messenger, told Hagar to go back and submit to her. Most translations say something like this: “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” But the Hebrew says, in essence: “Go back and submit to her hands.” (Genesis 16:9) The hand thing has got to be a slapping thing, or something worse.
I would never tell anyone to go and stay in an abusive relationship. As a pastor, I had to figure this out really fast, because my first church was in a community where there was a lot of abuse in many different forms. It was a rough town.
When I was a kid, I got bullied a lot. There were times and places, especially in the seventh grade, when I would get knocked down, in the halls or outside, almost every day, sometimes more than once.
But every now and then I had an odd power. If I saw some bullies pushing another kid around I would yell at them, and tell them to stop, and they did. I could stop fights, and I did that a number of times. I saw that as one of my purposes in life. One day, in the seventh grade, a kid I didn’t even know came up to me and told me that he admired the way I stood up to the bullies, even though I let them shove me around.
The way I see the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, I see that Hagar had a special purpose in life. It was a mixed blessing. Her blessing had a strong connection to her being the mother of Ishmael who became one of several different sources of the people whom we call Arabs. I think he was really mostly the ancestor of the Bedouin tribes around the Sinai and the deserts around the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan.
But the blessing of Hagar went beyond her connection to her son although he would be a son to make her proud, and what more can you ask? The blessing is in her son’s name. Ishmael means “God heeds”. That could mean “God hears” or “God sees”.
Hagar felt that she was seen and heard and this was what God was to her. This was how the God of Abraham and Sarah related to her. And she felt, somehow, as if, meeting this God who sent this angel messenger to her, she, herself, saw God, and heard God and God always saw her and heard her. This must have changed everything.
Hagar knew God perhaps as well as her master Abraham did. She received the gift of naming God. She found a name for God in what God did for her, and I do believe that Hagar is the only human being in the Bible who created a name for the Lord the God of Abraham.
God heeds! It’s a word of attention, and nearness, and compassion, and it’s a word of protection and safety. The fact that the Lord saw and heard Hagar in her running away from Sarah meant that he saw what Sarah and Abraham had done to her. God saw her need.
When she went back to them, God still saw her need. Abraham recognized what God was doing and so he gave the baby the name the angel said to call him. Abraham did this even though it was a confession of his own shame and guilt, and the shame and guilt of Sarah who really wouldn’t show signs of repentance.
Abraham knew that he was responsible and that Sarah was responsible for using and abusing their slave girl and not treating her as a human being. It was never the Lord’s will for his people to treat people as things, even if they were slaves. When Abraham agreed to the boy’s name “God Sees” it was the same as a confession of sin.
The boy became a typical boy and, as an older brother can be to another brother, he was mean to his younger brother Isaac. Brothers are often that way, even when they love each other.
Sarah would come down hard on him and Hagar for that, in the future. Hagar and her boy would have to make another get away, but still they did this with the God who sees and hears.
I don’t know whether you have ever come to this; but I have. There are times when you seem to have nothing left. You seem to be in a deep trouble with no way out: no hope at all. There seems to be no one to turn to. Even at such a time, God can come to you and be the God who is there, seeing and hearing everything. There is something there that God can show you, and you can see that this is enough, and more than enough.
To know God as the one who looks and sees you and hears you can be the greatest and most empowering blessing in the deepest darkness.
When you know Jesus, in this deepest way, you find that he is the God who sees and hears you. Jesus is the place where God became human and dwelt among us. This means that God doesn’t see and hear from heaven, or from some invisible vantage place. God sees and hears in you, in your skin, because he has skin, and bones, and flesh, and a heart, and a brain as one of us, and yet he is God beyond all time and space.
In fact, God in Jesus, has a vantage point that is more a part of you than you dare to think. It’s scary.
The vantage of God, in Jesus, where God sees and hears, is the cross. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is shown as the lamb that was slain for the sins of the world, and we are told that this is who he always has been and always will be. (Revelation 5:6; 13:8)
In Jesus, on the cross, God sees and hears deeper than our sins and failings which he carried for us there. God sees and hears deeper than our fears and our despairs. God carries them. God carries us. God grabs us, as we die to ourselves, and God takes us up and conquers the death that seems to smother and overcome us. It’s like what the apostle Paul wrote: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Hagar knew that this God had also seen and heard her own pride: her own shame. She knew that this God had seen, and heard her failure, and yet he came to her need in the desert. This gave her life.
Hagar was sent back to bear witness to Abraham and Sarah, and everyone who lived in her world of wanderers in the desert. Hagar was blessed because she knew where her son’s name came from. She was the witness of that God: The God of the promises, the God who would use the family of Abraham and Sarah to come into the world as Jesus, and die for us on the cross, and rise from the dead. God does that because that is simply what the God who sees, and hears, and loves is bound to do.
It’s what we need most, and it is who God is and what he has done.

Then we become like Hagar, who was looked down on, as a slave, but was the witness of the wonder of God. We become the living witnesses of the God who sees and hears: The God who sees and hears from the cross. We become witnesses of what the world needs most. Everyone needs to know that God sees them, and hears them, and loves them.

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