A Faithful Father

Delivered September 3, 2000 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Sermon Text:
Genesis 21:8-21

Today’s text kind of follows from last week in some ways. It is taken from Genesis 21:8-21 and I ask you to turn to that. I will be reading from the New International Version about Hagar and Ishmael but before we read this text, let’s pray and ask the Lord to open our minds.

Our Lord, we know that apart from your spirit, we will not understand the Scriptures. In fact, our Lord Jesus on his way to Emmaus opened the minds of the disciples; the hearts of the disciples so that they might understand what was hidden from them. And so in the same way, we pray your spirit to break open this word to us so that our hearts will be on fire so that we will love you and serve you and follow you all the days of our life. And we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Genesis 21:8-21. This is right after the text where Sarah laughed because of being blessed with a son. How quickly they forget.

“The child grew and was weaned and on the day Isaac was weaned, Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” 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 and she went off and sat down nearby about a bow shot away where she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob. 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. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran his mother got a wife for him in Egypt.”

The story in our Old Testament lesson today begins on a tranquil note. It ends on a tranquil note, but in the middle it is full of anguish and pathos because it focuses on a young boy separated from his father. It focuses on a young woman separated from her security. It is a story that talks about the young boy learning about the love of the heavenly father and a young woman finding new security. It’s a story of deliverance. It’s a story of help and it’s a story that more than likely touches many lives today, perhaps your life even as you come into worship God this morning.

It begins on a happy note. It begins with a party. The child Isaac, the son of God’s promise, is weaned. In ancient times, mothers weaned their children. Took them off of breast milk between the ages of 2 and 3. And in ancient times, it was extremely important to see this happen because like many cultures today in third world countries, if you don’t make it to 2 or 3, chances are you are not going to make it. I mean in terms of your health. And so, because Isaac was nurtured and he made it to this stage, it was like a rite of passage. Because, there was not the same kind of medical care that we have today. So to celebrate age 2 or 3 and the weaning means he will survive. It will continue. Thank God. Let’s have a party! And so, there is an assurance here that Isaac has made it through the dangerous first stage of life and so Abraham makes a great feast.

But that is when the trouble begins. Not for Isaac, but for his half brother Ishmael. By this time, he was about 14 years old because the Scripture says that Abraham was about 86 when he had Ishmael to Hagar. Sarah sees Ishmael (14 years old) and Isaac (about 3 years old) playing and running and the Scripture says that Sarah saw Ishmael mocking, teasing, horsing around. As a matter of fact, the Scripture says she saw this and what it really refers to is that she cast a glance at this and then her reasoning or lack of reasoning started. Doesn’t that happen? You look at something and you don’t just see that thing, you see the future, where you think you see the future? Well, that’s what happened to Sarah. And in spite of all God’s promises up to this point, in spite of all the affirmations that God would bless them through Isaac, she says to Abraham, “This Ishmael will have no part in the inheritance. (Ishmael was the oldest and the oldest usually got double portion of the inheritance, right?) “This boy will not have anything to do with my boy Isaac”.

In those days, children were social security. There was no social security as we know it and women were very much invested in their sons. But she said, “I want this son, this son of yours Abraham, out. Cast them out. There will be no sharing”. And you know, if Sarah had a highlight film, this would not be in it. This is a low point. Even though she just laughed, and thanked God for all that God had done, she still fears and manipulates the situation. She doesn’t want to share any of God’s blessings. And she even says, “Abraham, you know what, you’re the original problem”. But she had something to do with the original problem didn’t she? If you go back to Genesis 16 when it was Sarah’s idea that Abraham take Hagar and have a child with Hagar. It says that Hagar became pregnant in the second half of verse 4 in Genesis 16. “When Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to despite her mistress Sarai. And Sarai said to Abraham, you are responsible for the wrong that I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms and now that she knows she is pregnant she despises me. And the Lord judge between you and me. Abraham said your servant is in your hands, do whatever you think best and Sarai mistreated Hagar so she fled from her.”

And the rest of Chapter 16 is very much like Chapter 21 where Hagar has this difficult experience in the wilderness and God heals her and helps her. But isn’t it interesting that unresolved issues in our lives come back and repeat and haunt us. If we don’t work out the unresolved emotional issues they resurface. Just because we become a Christian doesn’t mean that all the pain and anguish of our family life, our family of origin, the hard parts of our life just go away. One of the things that Christ does for us is help us to have the strength to resolve some of the unresolved emotional baggage of our lives. And I know that’s hard and it takes time, but here we notice that because Sarah didn’t resolve all the tension she had with Hagar, again she repeats this and casts not only Hagar but Ishmael out into the wilderness. She fears that her needs will not be met. She is afraid that her security is threatened. And so, 4000 years ago we read about a father/child separation. A blended family conflict. And it is not unlike today. And has much to say to our generation. You know it’s estimated that between 20 and 30% of American children live in a house with no father present. And most families today if they are not affected by a broken relationship are more the exception than the norm. We live in a time when gangs run rampant in cities which is another symptom of a lack of connection with the father. Robert Bly who has written numerous books and conducted hundreds of men’s gatherings in the last 15 years has heard one statement over and over again from men. “There is not enough fathers.” He says the statement implies that relationship with father (and I would say too this is true with mother but there is something very important about a bond with a father), he says it is something like groundwater. It is a substance like salt and if you don’t get enough of it, there is a deficiency or a sense of deprivation. Short supply.

About 8 or 9 years ago, I attended a symposium for clergy called The Father Mystery: Fathers in the lives in men and women. And one of the exercises was to write on an index card a positive memory and a negative memory of one’s relationship with their father. I saved some of the positive memories and I only had one negative memory. I just thought, well let’s emphasize the positive, but here is the card, I still have it from the symposium. This is a negative memory somebody wrote about their relationship with their dad. “Dad was talking about having children and said it was a time penance for him and now that we are all living away from him he can enjoy himself.” That hurts. But then they said put down some of the positive things. Here are just a few in phrases:

Driving in the truck, just being present with my dad.
Shopping for a suit (this is a pastor) I remember my dad shopping for my first suit with me when I had to start a career in preaching.
I remember installing seatbelts with my dad and hugging him.
First buck of hunting camp when dad brought me the train set.
I remember seeing my dad go to the steel mill whether it was cold or whatever, he always went.
First time I ever embraced my dad.
My dad telling me on the day that he died that he loved us.
Supper with dad over missing mom.
You know, you get the idea. Very important times in people’s lives that they connected. And so our story in Genesis is helpful. It speaks to a tension that there is just not enough father. I heard one person say, “You know the trouble with your parents, if you still have unresolved issues with your parents, they had parents.” And they had parents. But here, this text seems to say that God’s word to Abraham is communicating in the midst of human pain and sadness and trouble that the towering shadow of God stands above it all guiding and leading and fixing and interceding beyond our knowing.

You know the song “God Will Make a Way”? I was sitting there thinking you know if we just sat there for 15 minutes and sang that song, that would be just about as good maybe better than this sermon. I can’t say it any better than that. God will make a way when there is no way. And so Hagar becomes the Bible’s first single mother and she is sent out into the wilderness and she runs out of food and water. Her son seems to be dying. She puts him under a tree. She says I can’t stand the thought of seeing my own child die. She goes about 100 yards away and then she hears God’s voice in the middle of her desperation. Last week, we learned that Isaac means he laughs. Ishmael means God hears. God hears our pain and our suffering, our difficulty, our stress and our desperation. God hears, as the Psalmist says, the downcast. Psalm 86 “In the day of my trouble, I called on thee”, Psalm 16 “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice”, Psalm 34 “I sought the Lord and he answered me and he delivered me from all of my fears. This poor man cried and the Lord heard him and delivered him from all of his troubles.”

The Psalmist as well as the story reminds us that God has a special place in his heart for a hurting child, for broken families, for those who suffer at the hands of other people who have more leverage than they do, that God cares and heals. God is a faithful father to us and promises deliverance to all who are oppressed and in need.

Are you at the end of your rope perhaps? If you are, I think you have the best chance of God hearing your genuine cry. Jesus is like the water that Hagar was led to. It says in the text that Hagar couldn’t see or saw water that she hadn’t seen before. When I was preparing for this, Paul Bender, who was leading worship, e-mailed me and said I found a great cross reference text in Revelation 7 and I looked at it and I thought, you know, this is great. This is worth sharing. Because just like Hagar took her son in her desperation to the water that she did not see, listen to what Revelation Chapter 7 says of everybody who has ever suffered tribulation in the kingdom of heaven. Revelation 7 “speaking of those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” verse 15 “they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them, never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them nor any scorching heat for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes”. Isn’t that powerful? That God leads us to the living water who is Jesus. Jesus stood and said “If anyone is thirsty, then come to me and drink”, and I urge you to drink from Jesus Christ. Especially if you’ve never done that before. To turn to him. Because God will hear and deliver.

This text has a special place in my own heart because of a formative experience in my life and I will close with this story. When I was about 10 years old, my parents separated and divorced and I think my mom wanted to make sure that I had some sort of substitute for the father water that I was telling you about a minute ago and so she consulted with a priest and asked him would you know of some place where you know, my two sons,(my brother and I), could be encouraged and supported. And he said yes, there is a place on the Hudson River across from West Point called St. Basil’s Academy and your sons could be supported there and encouraged there and learn the Greek language and learn the religion and my mom, took this seriously. In the Orthodox church, the priest says something and you listen. So, she said to me, “How would you guys like to go there?” What do I know at 10 years old, I thought it would be really neat, until I got there. It was the most miserable experience of my entire life. I was 10 years old and my brother was 8 years old and we were 5 hours away from home. And we were just overwhelmed with homesickness and disorientation. I called my mother on the phone on Sunday night and I said mom, this is the worst place in the world, what did you do to me. I said please, get us out of here. And you know how parents struggle with “I made this decision and now I’ve got to make my kid, you know bite the bullet.” Well she said, “Listen, it’s okay, you’ll be all right. You’re gonna learn the language.” You’re gonna learn religion and I know her heart had to be, part of her had to be breaking too. But she said, “You’ve got to stay there.” Well that night was vespers night. Every night was vespers night there and we went to this little chapel, it was a beautiful little chapel and all the candles were lit, the votive candles and the icons and everything and I remember sitting in the back, I’m 10 years old right, and I think it was about an hour service. For the period of one hour I sat there with my head bowed and I said “Dear God, I pray to you with every inch of my heart, get me out of here”. I just said that over and over and over again. While I was praying, my mom called the headmistress of the place, asked again what kind of school this was. They said this was a school really for kids who can’t be cared for at home. It was like a knife went into her heart. She called my father and uncle and I didn’t know any of this. The next day, I am sitting in class, Greek class no less, I look into the hallway and there is my uncle standing there. He said, “Come on Georgie, we’re getting out of here.”

You know, I have this to say to parents who beat themselves up about wrong decisions or terrible mistakes they think they’ve made. Don’t fret. That even if you did, God will still use it in the lives of your kids. You know, that experience in my life at age 10 was worth a thousand sermons on God’s care. I didn’t get it fully until about 10 years later, I still haven’t gotten it fully, but until about 10 years later when I trusted Christ. I am here to tell you today, that in spite of sin and human limitation, trust the Lord, believe God even will work through your mistakes and he will bring it around at the end. He will make a way where there is no way.

Let’s seal this word with a prayer shall we. Oh Lord you are the God of the fatherless, the downcast, the needy. We know that you will take care of us. Help us when we feel like Sarah and are very afraid and tend to manipulation. Keep us from doing that. Help us to believe that you will help us even in our most distressing moment. Help us to remember that this story comes out well also. Because you lead people to water even when they don’t know where it is. Bless each person in this sanctuary and help us as we come to this table to remember that you died to quench our thirst. And we pray it in Jesus’ name. Amen.