Sermon: God’s Will, My Way

As we have journeyed through the story of Abram, we have seen some amazing promises from God. But the story of Abram and Sarai is largely the story of the long wait for these promises to be fulfilled. In this way it foreshadows the long wait of Israel for the messiah and the long wait of the church for the return of Christ. In that wait, Abram and Sarai are called to trust in the promise of God and wait upon God’s timing. Our story this morning, Genesis 16, is the story of their failure to wait and their attempt to take God’s promises into their own hands. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, you promise that “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without water the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is [your] word that goes forth from [your] mouth: it will not return to [you] empty, but it will accomplish what [you] desire and achieve the purpose for which [you] sent it.” LORD, send forth your word this morning, may it fall upon us like fresh rain and grow into abundant fruit in our hearts – thirty, sixty, one hundred fold. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar, so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave into your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said, “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar, so she fled from her.

The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert. It was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

The angel of the LORD also said to her,

“You are now pregnant,

and you will give birth to a son.

You will name him Ishmael,

for the LORD has heard of your misery.

He will be a wild donkey of a man,

his hand will be against everyone

and everyone’s hand against him.

He will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her, “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

So Hagar bore Abram a son and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

This is the Word of the LORD.

Thanks be to God.

Abram and Sarai had been waiting. Abram was seventy-five when he set out from Haran, the sweet words of God’s promise still rising in his ears.

     A child.

          A child.

Now ten years later, they still wait.

The first thing we learn about Sarai back at the end of chapter 11 is that she is barren. For ten years now, she has waited. Womb empty, home empty. Waiting until long past her child-bearing years, but still empty.

Her desire for a child and God’s promise to Abram were in alignment, yet God seems ‘inactive.’

The LORD speaks, the LORD promises, the LORD covenants with Abram to give a child, but no child is found. Her womb remains empty.

That emptiness ached.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar, so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

The LORD has delayed and delayed, so Sarai takes the promise into her own hands. It is not an act of callousness, but of anguished desperation. She hopes to accomplish the promise with her own resources. She takes initiative when the LORD seems silent and seeks to find a way around the barrier of her own barren body.

Her impulse is good, her desire is right. She wants the promise of God to come true. She wants his will for her life, but on her own timing, in her own way.

     Sarai seeks God’s will, but does it her way.

The practice of using slaves as surrogates when a wife was barren was common in the ancient world. As in any culture, simply because something is a common practice does not make it right. But more significant than even Abram and Sarai violating the sanctity of the marriage bed is their attempt to take the promise of God into their own hands. They had grown tired of waiting, groaning, aching.

They wanted God’s will, but on their timing. They wanted God’s will, but in a way that was manageable and under their control. They were trying to be prudent and practical. Sarai was old and it made more sense for the promised child of Abram to come through a younger woman like Hagar.

Sarai and Abram seek to save themselves from bondage to Sarai’s barren condition by finding a way themselves. The issue is not God’s promises. Abram will have a child, otherwise the promises are for nothing. The issue is that the promised future of God will not come about because of our plans and schemes.

When Abram and Sarai seek to bring about God’s promised future, to make God’s words come true in their own timing, it ultimately leads to pain and disaster.

At first, it appears the plan worked. There is significant short-term gain. Hagar becomes pregnant by Abram. There is a child of the flesh of Abram, just as God had promised. But this is not the promised child.

The same verse that proclaims the conception of this child also reveals the fruit of Abram and Sarai’s plan. When she, that is, Hagar, knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Hagar’s view of Sarai plummeted until it hit hatred. Abram and Sarai take the promise into their own hands, trying to rescue themselves and make God’s words true on their timing, and it led to bitterness, not joy.

Soon, the hatred of Hagar flowered into blame. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for this wrong I am suffering. I put my slave into your arms and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.”

Sarai blames Abram. After the sin in the Garden, Adam’s first response is to blame Eve. Confronted by the bitter results of their plans with Hagar, Sarai blames Abram. She appeals to the judgment of the LORD, but both are to blame for this situation. But whenever we encounter bitterness or hatred, we are quick to find someone else to blame for our situation.

The blame then shifts to denying responsibility. Abram, like Pilate many years later, washes his hands of the whole situation. “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said, “Do with her whatever you think best.”

Finally, Sarai cannot stand the constant sight of her bitter failure, so she mistreats Hagar and drives her away. She wants to get rid of all memory of the whole ordeal, so she turns on Hagar and until Hagar flees to the desert.

Abram and Sarai had waited. They had trusted that the promise of God would come true, but they became impatient. When they perceived that God was not acting, they took it upon themselves to find a way to make God’s promise come true. This plan bears not the promised chid, but bitterness, blame, and misery.

God’s promised future will not come because of our clever plans or schemes, but only by his gracious hand and in his timing.

We’d like to pretend that we have learned much in the long intervening years between the times of Abram and Sarai and our own, but we haven’t.

I don’t think people in the twenty-first century are naturally any more patient than in the time of Abram.

Except me, of course. I love the long wait for God’s will to become clear in my life. I get excited to think how patient I will have to be in order to wait for God to answer my prayers. I find it fantastic not to be in control of my life, but to trust God’s timing instead of working it all out myself. I hope you realize I am kidding, but maybe I shouldn’t be.

Many of us know what it is like to be Abram and Sarai. We know what it is like to pray day after day, month after month, but to still find ourselves empty and waiting. Some of you are there right now. We know the impatience that Abram and Sarai felt and the desire just to do something to fix what has gone wrong, to find an end to the ache, to fill what has become empty and barren.

Some of us have tried what Abram and Sarai tried, not literally, but we have, in our impatience, tried to do God’s will, our way. After months of patiently applying and waiting for jobs, we get fed up, do something drastic and it blows up in our face. After years of trying to patiently rebuild relationship with our family, we grow impatient with God’s timing and reap the fruit of bitterness and blame. After years of waiting for the right person to come into our life, we lose patience.

For all of our impatience and false starts, there is grace. God did not undo his promises to Abram and Sarai. God did not abandon Hagar in the desert. There is grace enough for us as well.

The story of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar is, in many ways, a caution for us, a reminder of the gospel truth that our hope, our salvation, all our good does not come from our strength, but from the hand of God. It is a caution for us, for all those times we are tempted to impatience with God’s timing.

However, perhaps we should lean into the waiting, painful though it is. What if it was a good thing that we could not control the timing of God’s answers to our prayers? What if what the LORD says through Isaiah, “My ways are not your ways nor are my thoughts you thoughts” – what if this was good news?

Waiting patiently – waiting on God’s timing, waiting on God’s ways – is an expression of our profound need. It is a reminder that we cannot save ourselves, but must wait upon the LORD. The promise of God – rescue from bondage that lays heavy upon us, a true home and family, peace, rest, security, fulfillment – all of it will not come about because of our clever scheming or plans. God has a call for us, he has work for us to do, but that work won’t do what only God can do.

While today’s story is mostly warning, there is a note of hope that should sustain us in those times where we must wait for the LORD to answer our prayers.

First, For Abram and Sarai, the promised child does not come for another 13 years, but he will come. He will come in a way that they could not expect, nor could have imagined. He will come at a time they could not have guessed. But he will come. Israel waited generations as the whole earth groaned for the coming of the Messiah, but he did come. The long awaited child of promise, Jesus Christ, did come. He came at a time that was not expected and in way that was not seen, but it was all according to the gracious plan of God. The church longs and waits for the return of Jesus Christ, for him to set all things right and make all things new, for justice and mercy to embrace and flow down like living waters upon the earth. Just as the promised child, Isaac, came and just as Christ came in the flesh once, he will come again. The first sign of hope is the final coming of that promised child. While the wait may be long, as Peter says, “The LORD is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

But second, we see a note of hope in the LORD’s interaction with Hagar. Abram and Sarai’s plan left pain for themselves and for Hagar, who was driven out into the desert. But even there, God was not absent.

While it appeared that God was inactive, while it appeared that he was slow, he was near to Hagar. After encountering the angel of the LORD in the desert, Hagar gives this name to the LORD, “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” While Hagar sat in the wilderness, despising her mistress and then fleeing from her wrath, God saw her. While Abram and Sarai waited and waited for the promise, God saw them. While you wait for God to answer your prayers, you are seen, you are known, you are loved. Hagar was largely unseen in this story, simply a cog in the plans of Abram and Sarai, but she was seen by the LORD. He saw her and heard her misery. Though Ishmael would not be the child of promise, he would not be without some blessing.

Like Abram and Sarai, we all have prayers we are waiting for the LORD to answer. And like Abram and Sarai, we can be tempted to try and take those prayers into our own hands. But like Hagar in the desert, we can know that the LORD who has promised good to us is also the LORD who sees, whose eye does not miss our sorrow and whose ears do not remain stopped up against our prayers. Instead, in his time and in his way, he will answer our prayers.

May we see the One who sees us, and whose face shining upon us is grace. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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