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The Strength of a Single Mother

May 14, 2006

Genesis 16:1-11, 15; 21:8-21

My wife, Clare, is having a most unusual Mother’s Day. Friday, she was multi-tasking and went out our front door, carrying many items in her hands. When she turned to lock the door, she lost her balance, took a step backwards, missed the step of our porch, and landed on the pavement. Clare reached back to break the fall with her left hand and fell on her arm, fracturing it above the wrist. She is in a cast, doing well; however, the responsibility for providing meals on Mother’s Day falls to me. I told her our options: an all-American menu, which includes something like peanut butter and banana sandwiches for lunch and hot dogs with sauerkraut for supper; or an international menu, which includes Chinese take-out for lunch and either delicious Italian pizza or Mexican take-out for supper. Please do not rush to our house with a macaroni and cheese casserole. We are doing just fine. I do want you to pray that Clare will not need surgery on this wrist.

Mother’s Day is not a happy, pleasant day for everyone. It will be hard for people who have recently lost their mother and for those who do not have fond memories of their mother. Some individuals have a very difficult time worshipping in church on Mother’s Day because the experience with their own mother was one of abuse or abandonment.

Our text for today is somewhat unusual for a Mother’s Day sermon. Normally, we might consider the great love chapter in I Corinthians 13 or that beautiful passage in Proverbs 31 that extols the many virtues of a woman who fears the Lord. Today, however, I have selected scripture from the book of Genesis in order to call attention to a special group of women, single mothers who have the responsibility of parenting alone. For whatever reason, these mothers must parent without a partner. Hardly any job in the world is more difficult than being a young mother, but rearing children without a partner is an especially difficult task.

You might wonder why the Bible includes the story of Hagar. Her experience actually reminds us of the source of strength in single mothers. Perhaps you know of the contention between Hagar and Sarah, created because each woman had children by Abraham. We best remember Sarah’s child, Isaac, whom the people of Israel have venerated. People of the Jewish world trace their heritage through Isaac and his mother, Sarah. Abraham also had a child before Isaac, Ishmael, whom the people of the Islamic world have venerated. They trace their heritage through Ishmael and his mother, Hagar. The problem that existed in this family so long ago still has global implications in our day and time. Really, the ongoing conflict between the Jewish world and the Islamic world started as sibling rivalry so long ago.

Abraham, you know, is extolled as a man of great faith, a pioneer who ventured into “a land he knew not of,” when following God’s command. His faith wavered though, sometimes severely. During a famine in the land, Abraham and Sarah traveled to Egypt, seeking food. Abraham knew that his life could be in danger there if the Egyptians realized that Sarah, a rather attractive woman, was Abraham’s wife. Because some lustful Egyptian might desire Sarah as his own, Abraham conceived a strategy to deceive them. He instructed Sarah to claim she was his sister. Lo and behold, the Pharaoh himself became interested in her. He brought her into his home and intended to take her as a wife. Because Pharaoh thought Sarah was Abraham’s sister, he lavished gifts upon Abraham: cattle, sheep, donkeys, and camels, as well as menservants and maidservants. Underline the gift of maidservants because one of those slaves was Hagar.

Several years ago, Clare, Betsy, and I traveled to Israel. One day as we were traveling through the old city of Jerusalem, a shop vender stepped out in front of us and proposed marriage to my daughter. “I want to marry you,” he said. I quickly stepped between the vender and Betsy and said, “This is my daughter.” He said, “One hundred camels for your daughter.” His offer startled and perhaps flattered Betsy a bit, but it did amuse me. I had no need for one hundred camels. His comment gives you an idea of the mid-Eastern mentality about a beautiful woman.

God had promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have many descendents, that they would be the mother and father of a great nation. For eleven years, the couple held on to the hope that God would keep His promise. Finally, when they became tired of waiting, Sarah took matters into their own hands. Maybe she had seen her eighty-five-year-old husband casting a sideways glance at Hagar, who was probably very young. Sarah took the initiative and suggested to Abraham, “Why don’t we ask Hagar to become a surrogate mother? Maybe if you sleep with the Egyptian maiden, she will conceive a child. We can build a family through her.”

Abraham did not argue with Sarah. He did as she suggested and entered Hagar’s tent. Can you imagine what Sarah must have been thinking when her husband was in the tent with the young Egyptian slave girl? Can you imagine how Hagar must have felt about that arrangement? Having a child by an eighty-five-year-old-man is not exactly a young girl’s dream, but she had no choice in the matter. Because she was a slave, she could only submit. Hagar conceived, just as Sarah and Abraham had planned. They quickly learned a lesson we all need to know: when we take matters into our own hands, departing from God’s plans and deciding our way will be better, quicker, and more expedient, we generally make a mess of things.

No sooner had Hagar become pregnant than she and Sarah had dissension. The Bible says that Hagar despised Sarah. It is no wonder. Hagar was pregnant by an eighty-five-year-old man. Though Sarah initiated the idea, she blamed Abraham for her insolence. “I put this slave girl in your arms, and now she despises me.” Abraham shifted the responsibility back to Sarah, saying, “She is your slave girl. Do whatever you would like with her.” Sarah followed Abraham’s advice, essentially abusing and mistreating Hagar until she finally ran away into the desert.

The first reference in the Bible of an angel of the Lord appearing to someone occurs with this Egyptian slave girl. The angel informed Hagar that Ishmael was a child of promise, that he was blessed by God, and that he would become the father of a great nation. When the angel directed Hagar to return to her mistress, we see Hagar’s faith for the first time. She refers to God as El Roi, which means “the God who sees.” He was certainly the God who hears, as well. God heard her lament, her complaints, and the bitterness of her soul. He saw her plight and responded.

God did keep His promise. Sarah conceived in her old age and gave birth to a son she named Isaac, the Hebrew word for laughter. In Chapter 21, we see that on the day Isaac was weaned, probably when he was about three years old, Abraham and Sarah gave a great feast in honor of their son. Hagar and Isaac’s older half-brother, Ishmael, attended the feast. The Bible says that Ishmael mocked Isaac. Sarah, terribly upset at Ishmael’s teasing and taunting, could see that problems were ahead.

In the ancient Near East, the oldest son inherited the bulk of the estate. In our story, Sarah did not want Ishmael to lay claim to any part of the inheritance. She knew that the only way she could prevent him from doing so was for Abraham to disown Hagar and Ishmael. She insisted that Abraham cast out Hagar and his oldest child, Ishmael. Some great works of art that have depicted that scene show Abraham’s agony. The Scripture says that he gave Hagar some food and a skin of water and said goodbye.

Hagar, this mother who became a single mother within minutes, went out into the wilderness alone with her child. Eventually when the water Abraham had given her ran out, Hagar placed Ishmael under a bush and withdrew from him, saying, “I can’t bear to watch my son die.” Again, she heard the voice of the angel of the Lord, asking, “Hagar, what are you doing?” After Hagar again expressed her complaints, the angel said, “Bring your son back here.” Hagar returned, amazed to see a well of water. She filled the skin, giving Ishmael some of the water and drinking some herself.

The Bible says that God blessed Ishmael who becomes the father of the Islamic world. God blessed Isaac who becomes the father of the people of Israel. In God’s sight, all are blessed, Ishmael included. Scripture tells us that Ishmael became an archer, a hunter, which is the biblical way of saying that he found his niche, his purpose in life. Then we learn that his mother arranged for him to marry an Egyptian wife. The Bible mentions no other occasion of a mother making these preparations for her son. His marriage, of course, allows him to become a father of a great nation.

Certainly, we see the global importance here in the relationships between Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jews and Muslims; but we also see a message that applies to Mother’s Day. Phyllis Trible, who teaches at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, says that through Hagar’s story, so many women find their own story: a faithful maid exploited by her employer, a black slave woman used by a plantation owner for his own pleasure, a working woman abused by the ruling class; a resident alien without legal recourse; the other woman in an affair; the runaway young woman; the pregnant woman who is alone; the mother on welfare; the homeless mother; and the divorced mother. Hagar represents mothers who are single for whatever reason, mothers who have been wronged. We see in Hagar a quality to be admired, a strength we can all appreciate.

Clare and I have known some single mothers who have been exemplary. One woman especially important to Clare is her Aunt Frances who was pregnant with her second child when her husband died in an automobile accident. Aunt Frances worked as a kindergarten teacher in her own home, teaching classes during the morning and afternoon. In the evening, she called on people door-to-door, selling World Book encyclopedias, to make ends meet as a single mother with two very young children. When we lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, we knew a remarkable mother whose husband had committed suicide, leaving her with two preschoolers. She was as steady as a rock, working as a nurse at night so that she could be with her children in the daytime. She slept whenever she had an opportunity, sometimes catching a nap while she waited to pick up her children after school. She did a wonderful job rearing her children.

One time Clare met a single mother and her four-year-old son at a swimming pool. The son, wearing floatation devices that allow them to paddle around in the water, wanted to jump to his mother who was in the pool. He kept repeating, “Mommy, Mommy, I want to jump.” His mother held out her hands and coaxed, “Jump to me!” Though reluctant, he finally leapt from the side of the pool, like a skydiver jumping into thin air or a trapeze artist waiting for someone to catch him. Clare asked this mother, “Who catches you?” She responded, “Listen to this verse of scripture, ‘The eternal God is your resting place and underneath are the everlasting arms. God catches me.”

Where do single mothers get their strength? They will tell you their strength is not their own. They get strength, as Hagar did, from the God who sees and the God who hears. Though abandoned or betrayed, they know the promise of the One who says, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.” Single mothers do not find their strength in their own willpower. They find it in a relationship to the eternal God whose everlasting arms are their rock, their stability, and their security.

We honor single mothers today. We honor them for the marvelous job of walking alone on the path of motherhood. They are living examples of what God can do in human life when we put our faith and our trust in Him.

Do you have that kind of faith? Do you put your trust in the living God? Do you know Jesus Christ as your Savior? If not, we want to invite you to accept Christ Jesus as your Lord. Maybe you have another decision to make, a decision about where your church home should be. Maybe you know that it should be here at Morningside. We are going to stand together and sing “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” As we do, we invite you to respond.

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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