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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

June 25, 2017

God Hears

Genesis 21:1-21;Matthew 10:24-39

            Last night was one of those exquisite nights in Nashville when you can actually sit outside and enjoy the peace and calm of evening.  It was a sunset to behold, if you happened to be in a place to capture the sight of it.  The two of us were enjoying a moment on the back patio.  Throughout the spring we had been watching this beautiful love affair between two bluebirds that have, for the third year in a row, found their nest just under our eaves.  It is a purple martin house, but nobody told them, and they simply have been living in it freely.  Apparently, while we were delighted to be outside, for whatever reason, these bluebirds were not.  They were very unhappy with our presence, and we kept hearing their wings fluttering, sometimes off the gutter, sometimes off the tulip poplar tree, moving back and forth, creating a stir until it became painfully obvious that we were not invited guests for their evening gathering; that we were, in fact, a threat to the peace that they wanted for their young.

            I thought about that universal fierce instinct, in parents of all kinds, when their young are the least bit threatened.  I mention this because this morning’s Old Testament lesson turns on a mother’s fierce, protective instinct of her son, the son of the great promise, Isaac.  One of the things you have to say about this story, that in so many ways is a powerful story, but in so many ways is a deeply troubling story as well, is that God never requires perfection in the people that God chooses and that God works through in order to bring redemption and blessing to our world.  Consider for a few moments the pain and human brokenness that exists within this small, powerful story.  It is almost unbearable when you think about it.

            First, there is the figure Sarah, who is identified here, and in most other places where we meet her, as one who is barren.  We use the word in a medical way; the word we use today is infertility.  Walter Brueggemann suggests that the Biblical term “barren” that applies to so many figures throughout the Biblical story is not meant by the writers primarily as a statement of biology, so much as it is speaking metaphorically about the human condition that belongs not just to some, but to all.  And yet Walter Brueggemann points out that so often it is out of barrenness that God comes to us, and out of barrenness that God’s blessings and plans unfold.

            Then there is the figure Abraham, who has been living for longer than he cares to remember with a promise, an incredible promise, that remains unfulfilled, and seemingly, at least as humans think, impossible to fulfill.  Do you remember the promise that comes to Abraham, in the twelfth chapter of Genesis, when he is still named Abram?  The promise is that “from you will come a great nation,” and to you will be given “a great name,” “a great nation,” that you will be “blessed in order to be a blessing.”  And here is the best part of the promise: “By you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 

            Abraham is now pushing one hundred, and the promise remains unfulfilled.  And so he listens to his wife Sarah, who suggests that they do something themselves to fulfill this promise.  She suggests that he take her Egyptian slave woman, Hagar, and have a child with her.  Chapter sixteen of Genesis introduces this story, but now we find the story unfolding completely in chapter twenty-one.  Suffice it to say, Abraham may be the “Father of Faith,” not just for Christians, but for Jews and Muslims as well, but he is far from a perfect exemplar of faith.  John Calvin said that Abraham’s faith may be exemplary, a model for others, but in this instance it is also “defective.”

            Which brings us to Hagar.  She bears a son with her master Abraham, probably not because she desires to at all, but because she believes she has no choice.  The Bible is silent about Hagar’s feelings about this, but they cannot all possibly be good feelings.  Almost immediately, as Hagar’s child enters the world, Sarah begins to despise Hagar and the boy.  When Sarah finally is given the child of the promise, Isaac, she can bear the presence of this child and his mother no more, and demands that Abraham cast out his own son, and the boy’s mother from their midst.

            We are told in Genesis that Abraham is “pained,” he is “distressed” by this request.  Then curiously, God intervenes and tells Abraham to do whatever his wife instructs him to do.  (This by the way, qualifies it, I think, as every wife’s favorite passage in the Bible: “Do whatever your wife tells you to do!”)  And then God adds the promise: “I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman.”  God does not just bless Isaac, the son of the promise, but this God, the God of the Bible, blesses Hagar and Ishmael as well.  We learn something very important here; that God is full of blessing, generous and embracing even to the other, to the outsider, even to the outcast.  God is indeed a God of liberal, generous blessing.

            In the wilderness Hagar runs out of the bread and water that Abraham has given to her, and, hopeless, she casts the child under a bush, for she cannot bear to see her son, her only son, die.  She weeps; the child weeps.  We are told “God heard the voice of the boy.”  For all the pain that makes up this ancient, troubling story, here is a word of good news in the midst of it.  “God heard the voice of the boy.”  God hears.  This literally, in Hebrew, is what the name “Ishmael” means; it means “God hears.”  “Isaac” means “God laughs.”  God has laughed at how old Abraham and Sarah turn out to be when the promise is finally fulfilled, giving them the son they longed for all their lives.  God not only laughs with us, and probably more often than we care to admit, laughs at us, but God hears us.  Especially hear this: God hears our cries.  Remember Psalm 130?  “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord.  Lord hear my voice: let Thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.”  God hears.  God hears our cries.  God hears our prayers.

            I have never forgotten it since I memorized it in seminary.  The question comes from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is prayer?”  I love the answer: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins and thankful acknowledgement of God’s mercies.”  At its heart prayer “is an offering up of our desires unto God.”  God longs for us to pray.  This is why Jesus could say, “Seek and you will find, knock and the door shall be opened, ask, and it shall be given.”

            So what are the deepest prayers on your heart?  What are the longings, the things you pray about more ardently and earnestly than anything else in your heart of hearts?  The good news of the Gospel is this: We pray to the God who hears.



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