In the movie, The Rabbit-proof Fence, based on a true story that happened in 1931, three Aboriginal children have been taken from their families and brought down south to
Today we read another challenging story about survival in the desert – this one from Genesis is rather shocking. A mother and a child sent out into the desert to die? A story that sometimes makes people feel they have to make some sort of excuse for Abraham and Sarah – I know of some Christians who feel these hard-edged stories from the Old Testament shouldn’t be read in churches at all, that we should stick to the New Testament. But here it is.
God has promised Abraham that he will be the ancestor of a great nation – he and Sarah don’t see how this could be possible and fair enough! They’re both over 90 at the time – but they try to work it out, try to help God’s plan along a little – maybe they can make it happen, maybe if Abraham takes Sarah’s maid, Hagar, the foreigner, they can have a child through her. So Hagar’s child, Ishmael, is Abraham’s oldest son but he isn’t the child of God’s promise, quite the opposite, he is the child who represents Abraham and Sarah’s attempt to second-guess God – to make it happen themselves, because God isn’t quite getting it right – Ishmael’s very existence, especially after Isaac is born, reminds Abraham and Sarah they have failed to trust that the God who has brought them this far has also got the future under control. There’s something in this little scenario that’s relevant for us as individuals, but also relevant for us as the church – being faithful to God means trusting in the future – the God who reveals himself to us in Jesus is always an Incarnate God and can be trusted to reveal himself in the future just as much as in the present and in the past. Planning is good, using our imagination and our creativity to work out what it means for us to be the church in today’s world is good – but the most important thing is to trust God and to understand that we don’t create the future – the future is where God creates us.
So Ishmael is Abraham and Sarah’s attempt at social engineering, a bit like Molly, Daisy and Grace represent an attempt by the Government of the 1930s to engineer the sort of society they wanted. But now he doesn’t fit the plan – Sarah needs to make sure that Ishmael doesn’t usurp her own son Isaac, the one that God really promised her, so she resorts to another ugly attempt at manipulating the outcome. And Abraham, the great patriarch of faith, goes along with the idea – Hagar and her son are given a little bag of bread and water and sent out into the desert. It’s a scene that unfortunately isn’t that unfamiliar to us – racist jealousy and cruelty is an ugly fact of the world we live in today – we need only think of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, violence between Muslims and Christians in Aceh – but the truly shocking thing about this story is that Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the desert by the great father and mother of our own faith, their expulsion an attempt to make God’s promises come true.
We need to think about that. God doesn’t have perfect people to work with, just ordinary people with mixed motives, sinful people who sometimes act out of the best intentions but other times act as though the only thing that really matters is preserving their own power or their own property. People like us, people like me. Over the last few years we have seen our own church having to apologise, for example for inaction and worse over the blight of sexual abuse. Sometimes we’re blind to the evils of our own day, and the part we ourselves play in allowing them to continue. But for all that, God still chooses to call and to use sinful human beings like us – like Abraham and Sarah, like me.
But let’s go back to the story – you wouldn’t want to read a more gut-wrenching account of a mother’s despair as she faces not only her own death from thirst, but the death of her child. But before the inevitable happens this is what we hear: that God hears – in fact, that is the meaning of the Hebrew name, Ishmael – God hears him. Ishmael isn’t the chosen one, we’re told he isn’t part of the main plan – but this little Arab boy who doesn’t seem to matter much to human beings does matter to God. This is the hope in this story for us, I believe. Forget Abraham and Sarah who can’t see how God’s plans can come true unless they meddle. Focus on God, who refuses to accept that Ishmael is just a statistic, or that Molly and Daisy and Grace are just statistics. When human beings are lost in desert places – literally or metaphorically – God hears. That’s what this story tells us. God hears.
And that is also what Jesus tells us – one of the things Jesus tells us – in this mixed bag of sayings in this mornings reading from the gospel. Jesus shows us – in his life and death and resurrection – a God who refuses to leave human beings in the lurch but comes among us and shares our world with us. A God who is prepared to suffer for us. And Jesus tells us his God is the one who knows and cares for each one of us – not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing. We need to be clear about what is being said and what’s not being said here – sparrows continue to fall, as sparrows always have, and so will human beings – there’s no easy promise of special protection for Christians but there is the promise that God sees, that God cares and loves every one of God’s creatures individually. Jesus doesn’t answer the question that people have asked all down the ages – why does one child die? Why does God allow it? But he tells us that God cares, that God is not indifferent, that God suffers. And Jesus continues to tell us this even as he knows the inevitable consequence of his message, and as he faces his own agonizing death on a Roman cross.
Maybe the story of Ishmael is not just a footnote in the history of God’s plan for God’s people. Maybe we need to hear it as a preface to the story of Jesus himself, the story of a God who leaves no human cry unheard. The story that tells us that there is no tragedy that is not suffered by God, no human pain that is not held in the wounded hands of Christ and transformed into a work beauty, and love and joy for all who will accept it.
Ishmael. God hears.
 Romans 8.27, 28.