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 First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

February 24, 2013

Out of the Depths: Lord, Hear My Voice

Genesis 16:1-13;  Luke 8:40-48

              If anyone ever found herself in “the depths” unjustly and unfairly, it was Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl who served Sarai.  God had made a grand promise to Abram, Sarai’s husband, that from his offspring, the Lord would “bless all the families of the earth.”  Only Abram was old, getting on in years, and his wife Sarai was barren.  Maybe Sarai knew that Abram was growing tired of waiting.  But for whatever reason, Sarai decides to act to provide a solution to their problem, because no other human solution seems in the offing for them.

             Part of the immense power of the Biblical story is that it tells the truth about humans, even those people who are its heroes.  Moses is the great liberator and law-giver of his people, yet Moses once lost hold of himself and murdered an Egyptian soldier.  David was a man after God’s own heart, yet one afternoon when his men were off to war, David made a decision that ended in shame and sorrow for his house, and he all but murdered a loyal soldier to fix and cover up his own sins.

             Abraham and Sarah are the great patriarch and matriarch of the Biblical family of God.  Abraham is seen today as the father of faith for Jews, for Christians and for Muslims.  But here, Abram and Sarai do not come off so well.  Maybe Sarai is at the point of despair and desperation over her own barrenness.  Maybe she makes the decision she does to offer Abram her Egyptian slave-girl to bear her husband a son because she knows how desperately her husband wants this promised child.  But Abram seems only too willing to go along with Sarai’s scheme.  Ten years is a long time to live with a promise postponed, a dream deferred.  So Sarai gives Hagar to her husband.  Neither presumably asked the slave girl how she felt about their plans.  And when she conceived we are told that Sarai changes her mind about the whole messy plan.  So Sarai goes to Abram, convinced that Hagar is looking upon her with contempt.  “May the wrong done to me be on you!  I gave my slave girl to your embrace and when she conceived, she looked on me with contempt.”  What does the old tee shirt say?  “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t no one around here who’s happy!”  Sarai says, “May the Lord judge between you and me!”, which I think means, “Do what I want or else!”  Abram does not exactly “man up” to the challenge!  He says, “Your slave girl is in your power; do to her as you please.”

             “Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away.”  Kathy Sakenfeld, who has written brilliantly on this account and many others of vulnerable women in the Old Testament, argues that Hagar’s decision to run is tantamount to giving up on her life completely, so filled with despair is she, and so unbearable has her life become.  Professor Sakenfeld says a slave girl would have had no chance for survival in the desert without the protection and support of Abram, so her move is a decision to die with her baby in the wilderness.

             A victim of Abram and Sarai’s human foibles, Hagar finds herself in the wilderness, out of options, and in “the depths.”  And there, at the end of her rope, the angel of the Lord finds her.  The angel asks her, “Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?”  She tells the truth.  “I am running away from my mistress, Sarai.”

             Note the irony here.  Later, it will be the Egyptians who oppress the Jews.  But here it is the father of the Jews, Abram, and his wife Sarai who oppress and abuse Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl.  The angel of the Lord says a hard word to Hagar: “Return to your mistress and submit to her.”  And then the angel of the Lord also makes a promise to her: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted….”  And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction….”

             The name Ishmael means “God hears.”  In her despair, Hagar learns something that literally saves her life: “God hears.”  Out of the depths, the Psalmist cried out: “Lord, hear my voice!  Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!”  We have all found ourselves with the Psalmist or with Hagar in this cry.  We wonder, we yearn, we long to know that Someone is out there, listening, that God is a God who hears our cries.  Especially when we are in pain or despair, frightened or hurt or lonely, we wonder.  We cannot help but to wonder.  John Bunyan said, “The best prayers have often been more groans than words.”  And in our groaning, we wonder, “Is anyone out there?  Does God hear my cries?”

             This question is behind the Psalmist’s cry.  And note what the Psalmist does.  He speaks of God, as we often do, anthropomorphically.  We know God is wholly other, Holy and transcendent, Almighty.  But we must make God assessable, one with whom we can communicate.  So the Psalmist gives God ears!  I love it, and I believe with all my heart that God hears us when we cry out to the Lord.  But I know what it is to pray to God, and to wait, to wonder.  I sat recently with a really fine young man, one of our members, who has gone through a difficult, heart-breaking period of life through no fault of his own.  Tragedy visited his family suddenly and unexpectedly.  And as we sat and talked, he said to me, “I’ve always believed in God and prayed to God.  But recently there has just been silence … a long silence.”  I had to confess to him that I have been through these seasons as well, where my prayers have been met with silence and loneliness.

             In his sixties, when he sat atop the world of academic life in America, the renowned Lutheran historian and University of Chicago intellectual Martin Marty lost his wife of almost thirty-five years, the mother of his children, to a long battle with cancer.  He wrote a book about his own “dark night of the soul,” and called it Cry of Absence.  Sometimes when we cry out to God, we feel God’s presence.  But sometimes, God is hidden from us … Deos Absconditus … and when we pray, we feel more God’s absence than God’s presence.

             But prayer is an act that gives life in all seasons of life, though it is never easy, and always involves faith, which means, of course, that in it we find ourselves contending with doubt and dryness.  We pray in faith, not in certainty.  It is in those moments more than any others that we most need to make the Psalmist’s prayer our own: “Lord, hear my voice!  Let Thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!”  “The great tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer,” said F.B. Meyer.

             Even when we are filled with doubt, or fighting despair, we can pray, remembering Hagar’s promise of Ishmael.  “God hears.”  In one of the Superman movies, there is a scene where Superman is talking with Lois Lane.  She is confused about where he has been and what he has been doing.  (How do you date the savior of the world and not end up confused?!)  He takes hold of Lois and they rise above the city, above its din and clatter.  Superman asks Lois, “Do you hear that?”  She answers, “I don’t hear anything.  What do you hear?”  “I hear everything,” he says.

             Well, God hears everything!  God is a God who hears our cries, who listens to our prayers.  This is what faith believes, even in the face of doubt.  The Heidelberg Catechism offers us this word of faith on prayer: “We must rest on this unshakable foundation: even though we do not deserve it, God will surely listen to our prayers because of Christ our Lord.  That is what God promises us in His Word.”

             Ishmael!  “God hears.”  God made promises to Hagar, who gives to God another name, the only place in the Old Testament where a human gives a name to God, according to Terrence Fretheim.  Hagar calls this God who hears her, “El-roi,” which means, “God who sees” or “God of seeing.”  “God hears.”  “God sees.”  God makes promises to Hagar, showing that Yahweh does not belong exclusively to anyone, not even to Abram and Sarai.  God is free to bless whomever God wills and wishes.  And God, through Jesus Christ, has made promises to us.  Jesus sensed even a desperate woman’s touch in a large crowd, and healed her.  He promises, “Lo, I am with you always.”  This God is with you, always, and hears your cries.

                                                                                     Amen.

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