Sunday, November 30, 2014
Sermon: Genesis 21: 1-21 The Promised Son
What makes you laugh? Perhaps you’ve got a favourite comedian, someone you enjoy watching, and the stories they tell (and the way they tell them) brings you to laughter. Maybe there’s a programme you watch and it’s always funny. Or perhaps you remember the stories told by people ceilidhing round the country. It’s always dangerous to tell a joke from the pulpit, but here goes. This was judged to be the funniest joke at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year (from Tim Vine):"I've decided to sell my Hoover… well, it was just collecting dust."
In our reading this morning, we find lots of laughing. But to fully appreciate it, we need to remember where we’ve come from. Way back in Genesis 12, God had called Abraham to leave his family and his country and go to a place God would show him. God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing. That was 25 years ago. Abraham made it to the place, the promised land, but he still doesn’t own any of it. The promised son didn’t seem to be coming, so Sarah had given her slave girl Hagar to Abraham to help things along. Ishmael had been born, but God continued to say that the promised son would be born. Through this son of promise, Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore.
After twenty-five long years of faith and doubt; questions and struggles; we come to chapter 21. And in verse 1, we find the fulfillment of all we’ve been waiting for since September. ‘The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised.’ What the Lord said, he did. The long longed-for son was born.
Isaac had arrived. Now Isaac means ‘he laughs’, and he is the cause of plenty of laughter. Isaac brings laughter because he is the sign that God is faithful. As if we could have forgotten, these verses remind us that what was impossible, God has made possible. Abraham was in his old age (at 100!), and Sarah was 90.
Look at verse 6: ‘Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ God is the source of this laughter, because God is the one who brings joy. God is the one who keeps his word, who fulfills his promises, who brings about the things that were impossible. It’s a cause for celebration, and this laughter is infectious!
The Psalms pick up on this celebration: ‘When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.’ (Psalm 126: 1-2) Have you ever been caught up with this sense of joy, this infectious laughter because of what God has done for you? In this life, we get tasters of it, but it’s just a foretaste of eternity in God’s presence.
Just think of all the promises God will fulfill for you, sins forgiven, wholeness and healing, a new resurrection body, no more sin, no more suffering - how could you not laugh when all this is fulfilled? You might not be in the place of laughter right now, but if you’re trusting in Christ, then hold on, weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
Laughter is infectious. One person laughing can cause a whole room to giggle. One person’s joy can transform a room. But laughing isn’t always welcome. In verse 8, we’ve fastforwarded from Isaac’s birth to his weaning day. It’s a big family occasion, just like a child’s birthday, marking another step in this precious life. In verse 10, it looks like his half-brother is being helpful - Ishmael is playing with Isaac. But other versions say that he was laughing.
Now, I don’t need to tell you that there’s a difference between laughing with someone and laughing at someone. Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian is laughing at her son Isaac. Never mind the fact that Sarah was responsible for this in the first place, now she is raging.
It’s like Eastenders or something like that, as Sarah tells Abraham to ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ Hagar and her son were useful to have around so long as God’s promise seemed impossible. But now we have Isaac, we don’t need them. It’s a sunrise showdown, as Abraham sends away his slave and his son.
God confirms that Isaac is the promised offspring, that his is the line that counts for God to ultimately fulfil all his promises. But look how gracious God is, promising to also make a name of Ishmael, because he is Abraham’s son.
So Hagar and the boy are sent away. (Did you notice that Ishmael isn’t actually named in this chapter? He’s always the boy, the child, the son... The contrast between him and Isaac is sharp and clear). Hagar and the boy set off with bread and water, but in the wilderness, water doesn’t last long. She has nowhere to go. She’s wandering about with her boy. So she leaves the boy to die under a bush. But she cries out to God ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’
God hears, and God answers. We saw that back in chapter 16, when God saw Hagar in her distress. God sees, and God hears, and even rejected Hagar isn’t too far from God for him to hear and answer.
When we read of this early soap with family troubles and laughter, you might be thinking, what has this got to do with me? In Galatians, the apostle Paul takes this very passage to show the Christians that they are in this story. The Christians in Galatia were believing in Jesus, but some Jews were coming and saying that they also had to submit to the whole Old Testament tradition and law, and especially circumcision if they wanted to be real true Christians. They were saying that to be a real Christian, you first had to become a real Jew.
But Paul takes this passage and says that there are two sorts of children of Abraham. There are the children of slavery, bound to the slavery to the law - the Jews; and there are children of the promise.
Christians are the children of the promise. We have been brought into Abraham’s family through a work of God, just as unexpected and unbelievable as the birth of Isaac. Only God could have brought us in, through Jesus. We are the children of the promise because of the promised Son.
Everything we have comes about through this birth of Isaac, which led eventually to the coming of an even greater promised Son. It’s great to reach this point on the first Sunday of Advent, as we see the connection between the promise (which can take a long time to fulfil) and the coming of the son.
So even if things are difficult for you today. Even if it looks like God is distant and not answering. Even if it seems that God is slow to keep his promise. The promise will be fulfilled. Remember that you are children of the promise, brought into the family by a miracle work of God. And that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Laughter is on its way, as we rejoice in God’s promise and salvation through the promised Son.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 30th November 2014.