The wilderness is part of the journey

The wilderness is part of the journey

As Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer continues his journey through Genesis 21:8-21 he reflects on the journey of the Uniting Church and its anniversary on 22 June and the intersection with the Biblical narrative.

Put together, the children of Abraham today count between 3 and 4 billion people: more than half of the world’s population. It all began with the story of two half-brothers, their respective mothers and the one father. It is a story unlike any other, a story of a family looking for a future and their descendants, unable to escape the past.

And somehow in this story is embedded our own story; the story of our faith of the Uniting Church in Australia. And the Uniting Church is growing up fast; we’ve entered the forties. However, like the greater story, there is as much to lament as there is to celebrate. After 40 years we are still here, but only just about half of what we were at Union. We go forward, but we are doing it with a limp, just like Jacob after his meeting with God at the Jabbok. But then again, no one who really struggles with God, continues without a limp.

Going back to the beginning

But let’s go back to the beginning. It all – also our story – began with Abraham and his wife Sarah’s little faith. With the plan they made when Sarah failed to conceive after Abraham had received the promise of becoming the father of a nation. 

They took matters in their own hands in the way people would have done about 4000 years ago. Sarah offered her slave to Abram to bear a child for her.  The custom and the understanding would have been that this child belonged to Sarah and not his biological mother.  Therefore, in Chapter 16, Sarah told Abraham: “Go in to my slave girl, it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”

But the first ominous note appears when it is said: “Abram went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.” (16:4)

However, it was only after the birth of Isaac, Sarah’s own child, that things turned ugly. The NSRV says – and listen closely to the way it is phrased – “But Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac…”

Some translations say that she saw Ishmael teasing Isaac, but the original text only says she saw Ishmael playing. It is as if the early rabbis tried to find a reason why Sarah acted so cruelly.

Without giving an explanation for her anger, Sarah tells Abraham: ‘Cast out that slave woman and her son so that her son does not inherit together with my son.’ The son that was supposed to be reckoned as Sarah’s, has now become ‘the son of that slave woman.’

This distressed Abraham, but to our surprise or shock, God tells him to do what Sarah told him to do. Many scholars have pointed out that although Abraham did in fact send them away, he sent them out with only bread and a skin of water, thus trying to make sure that they’ll have to return within a day or two.

However, what Abraham hoped for, did not eventuate. When the water ran out, rather than returning, Hagar cast her child under one of the bushes and seated herself some distance away, crying in despair, unable to watch him dying.

The picture that is painted here, is heart rendering and painful in our reconstruction of that, even thousands of years later.

What happens then is remarkable. We are told that Hagar was crying and “God heard the voice of the boy”, (the name Ishmael means ‘God hears’) comforting Hagar and telling her that God will make a great nation of him. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well with water and gave the boy to drink.

Seeing leads to new life

What we often do not see here, are the parallels with Abraham and Isaac in just the following chapter (Abraham’s sacrificing of Isaac). In both cases the boys are in mortal danger; God opens Hagar’s eyes to see a well of water nearby, just as Abraham in the next chapter will see the ram caught in the thicket (21:19; 22:13). And in both cases the seeing leads to new life for Abraham’s sons.

This is usually where we think the story of Ishmael and Isaac ends; from here onwards they lived separate lives: almost a kind of foreshadowing of the separation of Judaism and Islam. However, when we are told in Genesis 25 (8-10) of Abraham’s death, it is mentioned specifically that both Isaac and Ishmael together buried their father. This means that at some point in their lives they were re-united.

(The early rabbis, fine-combing the Scriptures also came to the conclusion that Abraham re-united with Hagar, marrying her after Sarah’s death – but that’s a story for another day!)

This brings us to the second part, the greater theological meaning of this story. The first thing to note is how in many ways Hagar and the story of Ishmael reflect something of the story of Israel. Just as Israel ran away from bondage in Egypt, so Hagar runs away from the cruelty of her mistress. Just as Moses met God in the wilderness, so Hagar meets God in the wilderness. Just as God promises Abraham that Israel will become a great nation, so God promises Hagar that Ishmael will also be a great nation. In many ways Israel’s story mirrors Hagar’s fate, rather than Isaac’s. 

Different destinies

The person who picked up on this almost 2000 years later, was Paul. By the time Paul reads this (and remember this is roughly 500 years before the founding of Islam) Hagar-Ishmael and Sarah-Isaac have now become two different theological types. According to Paul these two pairs each represent a certain covenant, two kingdoms or two approaches to life. Hagar and Ishmael are located in the kingdom of necessity, coercion and fate. Sarah and Isaac are located in the kingdom of gift, freedom and destiny.

It is extremely important to understand that Paul is not juxtaposing good and evil, neither is he juxtaposing different religions. It is about alternative approaches to life; two approaches that live very close to one another and very often even in the same person.

We should keep in mind that both Isaac and Ishmael are Abraham’s children. They share the same father.

But they represent different destinies.  When Paul links Ishmael with nature and the law, it does not mean that Ishmael is evil or even that he was rejected by God. The word “Ishmael” indeed means, “God hears, or God listens”. But Ishmael represents the belief that life is nothing but the result of skilful planning and that ultimately, I myself, hold the key to its possibilities.

Contrary to this, Isaac represents another type; not good in itself or sinless. For “Isaac” means “laughter”. However, this laughter has nothing to do with humour. Isaac’s name is actually the exact opposite of Ishmael’s name. God hears Hagar, but Sarah could only laugh at the idea that God will hear her too. Isaac represents the understanding that we don’t own the key to life.

The destiny of God’s children

What is the bible trying to establish here? Nothing else, but to claim that the destiny of God’s children, is not born from coercion, careful management, necessity or as the natural course of events: Our destiny, our salvation is a gift. A gift that sounds laughable, ridiculous in the ears of the world.

Isaac is a gift to be explained in no other way than as a wonder. And Ishmael is a child gotten by skilful determination and planning.  As the oldest son, Ishmael is the child of the ‘entitlement’ in possessing all natural rights.

What we learn for this is that God’s blessing and gifts do not necessarily come in the way that we value or in the form that we prefer. Often God’s blessing come in the very form that we consider worthless and nothing but laughing stock.

That God could take human form, that the Son of God could die a scandalous death on a cross, that the dead can be resurrected; that is foolishness, that is ridiculous and often the laughing stock of the world.

Yet, as Paul put it in his first letter to the Corinthians, “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it the power of God.”

The Church is called to live by God’s promises

And this brings me to my final point. As the Uniting Church in Australia, this is what we should remember in the first place. The church is called to live by God’s promises, not by her own achievements. If one looks at the founding documents of the UCA, the Basis of Union in particular, already in the first sentence it is mentioned that the unity we seek is both the will and the gift of God to the church. It is reiterated that we go forward as a pilgrim people with only the promises of God as our inheritance.

Then it continues in the third paragraph: “Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of the God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist.

If only we had truly believed this. One can now look back and see that when the church entered the wilderness years of declining membership, when the winds of secularism started blowing strongly, it was not in this promise that the church sought her comfort, but in regulations and management. And if there is one thing that is becoming increasingly clear, it is the ever-growing belief that we could manage our future, be that through corporate structures or business-like congregational planning. When faced with the crisis, the church often took the Hagar-option, trying to find the future in skilful planning, deserting what seemed like a fruitless promise.

This year is the 43rd anniversary of the Uniting Church. Forty is a highly symbolic number in the bible. It represents the wilderness, trials, testing and probation. If anything, this should act as an encouragement. True faith is always tested. The wilderness is part of the journey. The journey to the Promised Land goes through the desert. Good Friday and silent Saturday are crucial parts of the Easter Story. The church that thinks she can avoid these ceases to be a Christian church. We believe in a crucified Lord. When we celebrate his presence among us, we cannot pretend not to see his wounds. It is by these very wounds that we are healed and our future is secured.

He (Christ) calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.”

This is the Isaac-option: laughable in the minds of many, but this is what constitutes, rules us and renews us as the body of Jesus Christ; as the Uniting Church in Australia.

Rev. Dr Ockert Meyer, Lecturer in Homiletics, Liturgy and Theology at United Theological College

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