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A Woman of the Desert

May 13, 2007

Genesis 21:8-21

I am still trying to learn how to use my computer. I learn a little something new almost every time I sit down in front of the screen and keyboard. One especially useful tool on the computer is a spell-check because I am not a good speller. This tool will fix many of your mistakes, but it also has a renegade side.

Several years ago before our celebration marking the fiftieth anniversary of the church, I mailed a letter to the entire church body. Some of you remember receiving that letter, which included a detailed menu. I stated that we were going to have fried children. Spell-check caught a spelling error, but instead of changing the spelling, it substituted the word children.

We had a similar experience this week when I was giving the title of today’s sermon, “A Mother of the Desert,” to one of the secretaries. The spell-check accepted “A Mother of the Dessert.” My mother was “a mother of the dessert” with her banana puddings, coconut cakes, and strawberry shortcakes. Our topic today is “A Mother of the Desert.”

William Ewer is credited with having written a short poem or ditty that spoke a great truth: “How odd of God to choose the Jews.” The Old Testament, which has been called the Salvation History, is the story of God’s interaction with a people He chose, the people of Israel. From the time of the sin in Eden, God continued to try to set things straight, bring reconciliation, with people He loved very much. Sometimes this required drastic measures. For example, He sent a deluge to wipe out sin on earth, sparing Noah and his family. He saved the people of Israel from famine through Joseph who had been sold into slavery in Egypt. Joseph was like cream though; he always rose to the top and essentially became the secretary of agriculture. God provided for the people of Egypt; but when the famine struck, people from all over the world came to find food, including the people of Israel. It was there in Egypt that they became slaves. In the Exodus, God freed them from their bondage. He led them to the conquest of Canaan through the time of the monarchy and then back into bondage in that experience we know as the Babylonian Exile. Once again, they were liberated. Through it all, God declares that these people, the people of Israel, are special to Him. Consider Deuteronomy 14:2: “…for you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession.” Deuteronomy 7:6 reiterates this idea, “The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” We get the idea that God definitely has a favorite, the people of Israel.

Found in the midst of this favoritism is the very interesting story today about family conflict. We may think that dysfunctional families are an invention of the 20th or 21st century, but dysfunctional families have been around for a long time. I remind you that the Chinese symbol for trouble is two women under the same roof. Abraham had that kind of trouble. Abraham and Sarah longed for a child. God had promised that they would be parents of a great nation, but God was delayed in fulfilling His promise. Finally in her impatience, Sarah had what seemed like a good idea at the time. Her arrangement did not work out as planned. Sometimes things are not what they seem.

One of my uncles, Uncle Buzz, loved pears. One day as a young child, he climbed to the top of a big pear tree and gathered perhaps a dozen or more of the very best. He hid those pears in a closet because he did not want his brothers and sisters to take what he had worked so hard to obtain. A few days later, he started handing out the pears to family members. They were surprised that he had hidden them and was now sharing his beautiful, big yellow pears with them Those pears had just a little bit of a blush, a pinkish red sheen, on them. Uncle Buzz’s siblings bit into the pears and immediately realized they were almost inedible. He had hidden them in a closet containing mothballs, and the fruit had absorbed the taste of those mothballs. Things are not always what they seem. What sometimes seems like a good idea may actually be a very bad idea.

Sarah figured that if she could not have a child, she would allow Hagar, her slave gained earlier from Egypt, to serve as a surrogate mother. Sarah persuaded her husband, Abraham, to go into the tent with Hagar. From the very moment this young Egyptian slave girl conceived the child, trouble brewed. Sarah did not want Hagar anywhere near her. Just the sight of Hagar infuriated Sarah. Hagar was fertile, and she was barren. We read about those times of conflict in Chapter 16.

Eventually, Sarah conceived and bore Isaac. On the day he was weaned, Abraham held a feast, which was an ancient custom of celebration. This day represented the child’s survival of those first difficult months of life. On this special day, Sarah looked out and saw the two boys, Ishmael and Isaac, playing. Ishmael was doing what big brothers do to younger children. He was teasing and mocking his younger half-brother. Infuriated, Sarah took a harsh stand and demanded of Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her child! I do not want him to have any part of my son’s inheritance.” Sarah would neither call Hagar by name nor mention the name of Ishmael.

Abraham was reluctant, hesitant. After all, this was his child by Hagar. God seemed to take Sarah’s side, convincing him, “Abraham, do what she says. A promise is a promise. I have told you that I will make Ishmael a great nation. Do not be hesitant. Send Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert.” It is a heart-wrenching story, a story about a woman who had a child out of wedlock. Having this child was not even her idea. She was a surrogate mother who now became an outcast. This story is both ancient and contemporary in nature. We hear about mothers in our day and time who are encountering the same turmoil. Bill Moyers, reflecting on this account, says,

Sometimes the details of the stories we are discussing from Genesis sound like pulp fiction. In this one we come to the first triangle: Two women who share the bed of the same man. The squabbling gets mean. Everybody gets hurt. The stuff of a cheap novel and a fast read. But peel back the layers and the Bible is… (great literature). The themes of this story are deep and painful – a woman’s infertility, surrogate motherhood, class differences, and the price human beings pay for God’s will to be done. And something else: This triangle does set off fireworks, and by the dawn’s early light Judaism and Islam go their separate ways.

This story of Hagar appears in the middle of all of God’s favoritism. It shows how God treats outcasts, those banished.

Hagar takes her child to the desert, and soon she and Ishmael deplete their water supply. Distraught because she cannot provide for her son, Hagar puts the child under a bush. At least she can give him shade. She goes away, about a bowshot Scripture says, far enough perhaps so that her child cannot hear her crying. Mothers sometimes distance themselves when they do not want their children to hear their distress. God hears Hagar’s weeping.

We do not often envision this kind of Mother’s Day scene – a mother weeping as she sits in the desert, waiting for her child to die. We do not expect this kind of Mother’s Day with our families today. We do not remember this kind of Mother’s Day if our mothers have gone on to heaven. This Mother’s Day scene is very real, however. Hagar, a young single mother, a slave, has the responsibility of caring for a child in a hopeless situation. Abandoned by the child’s father, hated by the other woman, the very one for whom she became a surrogate mother, Hagar is a mother of the desert.

Many women are mothers of the desert. Recent statistics tell us that thousands of civilians have died in Afghanistan since the war started in 2001. Many of those have been the deaths of children. In Iraq, civilian deaths now number of 700,000. So many mothers are grieving for their children. In the Sudan, perhaps as many as 1.2 million deaths have resulted from genocide and starvation. Just in those three countries, almost two million people have died, most of whom are the direct descendents of Ishmael through Hagar and Abraham. They are mothers of the desert.

What are you giving your mother or wife for Mother’s Day? Roses? Chocolate? A meal at a restaurant? A meal at home that she will not have to prepare? Along the border between the Sudan and Chad are feeding tents, really a misnomer because little food is available. Mothers in those tents sit by their malnourished and dying children. Do you know what they would like for Mother’s Day? They would like to have just a little bit of milk, a little bit of nourishment, to give their children.

Mother’s Day is a special day to express our gratefulness for our mothers. It is a day to honor them. It is also a day for sweetness and light. Lo and behold, Kirk has given us a bummer for a sermon on Mother’s Day. It is a sermon about real mothers. Phyllis Trible, a professor of Hebrew Bible, has written a beautiful book, Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children. She says that Hagar represents every rejected woman: “the faithful maid exploited,…the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman,… the pregnant woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with a child, the shopping bag lady…, the homeless mother, …and the mother on welfare…”

On this Mother’s Day, a day of sweetness and light, the question is, How should the Christian church respond to these very real mothers of the desert? How did God respond? Did God continue to play favorites? No, God intervened here and revealed a different side. We see a detour here in that long history of God’s relationship to the people of Israel. God cares about the outcast, and He gave Hagar hope through his words of comfort, “Hagar, there is going to be hope here. There is a future for your child. Through your child, there will be a great nation.” At that point in her life, Hagar had trouble seeing the future; she was looking for the next drink of water. God also gave her the necessary resources that were so immediate. With eyes opened, and she saw a well, enabling her to give her child water. Clearly, Hagar found hope and encouragement because the last line in this passage says that she found a wife for her son in Egypt, her native land.

Early in the book of Genesis, God reveals something about His divine nature that we see fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus was lord of the outcasts. He responded to women exactly like this one: a woman of the street who needed a kind word and forgiveness that only Christ could give, a widow of Nain who needed her son’s life restored, a woman caught in adultery who needed both Jesus’ intervention with religious leaders to save her life and then his word of forgiveness. Jesus responded to outcasts with compassion and tenderness. We see foreshadowing of that in the way God responded to Hagar.

You probably have not heard about one event that has occupied much of my past week because it has not been publicized on the news. Last weekend, two young couples – a brother and sister and their marriage partners – went on vacation to Seabrook Island near Beaufort, a place many of you know. These friends had a lot in common. Both of the women were pregnant, one five months and the other three months. On Tuesday morning, the two young men, both in their twenties, went surf fishing. They were not catching any fish; so around lunchtime when the women went inside to fix lunch, the two men decided to change their fishing strategy. They decided to take their sea kayak that accommodated two people just beyond the breakers for a little more fishing.

The subtropical storm this week in the Atlantic had not yet reached Seabrook Island, but its effects were already present. A riptide caught the kayak and carried it far out into the open sea. These two men knew better, but they had not worn lifejackets because they were planning to fish just beyond the breakers. The winds picked up, and the waves become turbulent, filling the kayak with water. Unable to see land and knowing their precarious situation, they made their peace with God, praying together.

When a large wave flipped the kayak, they both held onto it there in the middle of the ocean. One of the two men became unconscious and lost his grip. His brother-in-law dove, grabbed him, pulled him up, and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation until he regained consciousness and started breathing again. He was able to hold onto the kayak, but in a short time, lost consciousness again and sank. Again, the brother-in-law caught him, brought him up, and resuscitated him. The same sequence of events occurred a third time. When the man went under a fourth time, the brother-in-law was unable to open the other’s mouth to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He found out later that this is one of the results of hypothermia. The brother-in-law died in this young man’s arms. Hanging onto that kayak with the storm raging, he had to make a decision. He later said, “The hardest decision I have ever had to make in my life was to let the body of my brother-in-law go, but I realized I had to in order to save my life.” He turned him loose. He was already dead.

This young man held onto the kayak all night long. When the sun came up the next morning, he thought, “Somebody will find me in daylight.” By 10:00 A.M., he had almost given up hope because he had not seen any sign of a rescue attempt. One hour later, the Coast Guard picked him up and flew him to the Medical University in Charleston. There he received treatment for hypothermia. He was in the water for twenty-two hours. He told a hospital chaplain, “The hardest thing in the world is for me to face his wife. Her husband, my good friend, my brother-in-law, died.”

Do you think this wife whose husband died in the storm is a woman of the desert? She is not in Afghanistan. She is not in Iraq. She is not in the Sudan. She is right here in the Southeast, three months pregnant. Her husband is dead, and his body has not yet been recovered. To add to her grief, the National Guard deployed her brother and his unit to Iraq yesterday.

Mother’s Day is supposed to be a wonderful day. I want you to have a wonderful day. Please, I ask you to be aware that for some mothers, for many mothers, today is very difficult. The responsibility of the Christian church is to do exactly what God did for Hagar. Give them some hope. Help provide the immediate resources they need.

I am so grateful for SPIHN, TOTAL Ministries, Miracle Life Mission, St. Luke’s Free Clinic, and all other agencies that help take care of mothers of the desert. They are much closer than you think. Sometime during your Mother’s Day celebration, take time to have a prayer for those who are having a difficult day. Ask God to help us as a church, as Christian people, know how best to respond to His children, children He loves no less than He loves you and me, these children of the desert.

Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior? Have you accepted him as the Lord of your life? Some have other decisions to make, perhaps a decision for church membership. We invite you to make whatever decision God has laid on your heart as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely


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