Alice sat on her bathroom floor crying. The bathroom was the only place she felt like she could get a moment of privacy. Her tears were the release she found for what felt like an impossible juncture. Last summer things had been okay for Alice. She was coping with her divorce, and managing to feed and care for her son on her own, despite the fact that her income from cleaning houses was so small. She had managed to work out some government assistance that gave her enough cushion to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Life was not easy, but life could be a lot worse.
But during the last year, her world began to fall apart. After a work injury, Alice could not clean houses for months. Being self-employed meant she had no one to fill in at her houses. After several months, her customers all got new help. Because she was not working, her government assistance began to lower. The assistance programs required that clients work to receive assistance. Alice could not clean houses because of her injury, and she did not have enough education to qualify for any other type of work. As the money became more and more scarce, Alice began to fear for her son. Her son was looking thinner and more sickly each day. He did not understand what was happening, and his deserved frustration and led her to the bathroom to cry. Things had gone from bad to worse as Alice feared they would have no food, no home, or that she could lose her son. All that was left to do was to cry: to cry tears of sorrow, to cry out to God for mercy.
Hagar knows Alice’s tears. We remember that Hagar is the handmaid for Sarah, Abraham’s wife, whom Sarah had given to Abraham to take as a wife because Sarah was infertile. Hagar resented this action, and has already suffered a great deal, grappling with her powerlessness and lack over control over her most private, personal space. Today the text brings us forward a few years in Hagar’s family. Hagar’s son Ishmael is growing into a young boy, and Sarah has finally conceived her own son. The birth of Isaac is a joyous occasion that all of the family celebrates. But just as Hagar has begun to reclaim her personhood, Hagar suffers again. Sarah sees Ishmael – the son that reminds her of her infertility, who will not represent the blessed line of Abraham – playing with Isaac – her own son, whom she proudly bore and who will mark the blessedness of Abraham’s line. Sarah turns to Abraham and tells him to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Although Abraham is crushed by the idea, God supports Sarah’s decision. For Hagar, the world is against her. We hear no words from Hagar as Abraham loads water and bread on her shoulders, gives her Ishmael, and sends her out into the wilderness.
Hagar wanders in the desolate wilderness until she runs out of water. Looking at her son, whose death she imagines is immanent, Hagar puts him under the shade of a bush and walks away. She walks away and cries out to God. She cannot watch the death of her son. Not after all she has been through. She cries out to God as her last resort.
The tough part of this story is figuring out why this is happening. Why would Sarah condemn Hagar and Ishmael to death by having them driven out into the wilderness? Why would God agree with Sarah, especially when Ishmael’s birth was Abraham and Sarah’s choice in the first place? Why does Abraham give up his first son so easily, without a word to Hagar? The grief in this passage feels overwhelming, and we are left pointing angry fingers in multiple directions.
Hagar’s wilderness moment is familiar to us today. We have those times when we feel like everyone is against us, including God. The wildernesses of our lives are those desolate, lonely, dark places of wandering. The wilderness is a scary, stark place of solitude that takes us to the depths of our finitude and forces us into encounters with God. In the wilderness, we experience God in a way that we cannot not experience God elsewhere. In the dry desert of suffering, which is scorching by day and frigid by night, with little water, we experience a sense of nakedness and vulnerability that we try to mask in our everyday lives.
Despite the darkness in the Genesis text today, there is also incredible hope for the suffering. The last third of the text we hear today is filled with God’s action for the afflicted. First, God hears Ishmael. The text says “And God heard the voice of the boy.” This word “to hear” is important on many levels. In the original Hebrew, Ishmael’s name means “God will hear.”[i] Already, Ishmael’s name – God will hear – comes to fruition. God hears Ishmael. Further, the word “to hear” in Hebrew, shamah, connotes more than physical hearing. As we have talked about before, “to hear” in Hebrew also means “to understand.” God understands how Ishmael and Hagar cry out. God hears and understands their pain.
The second action we encounter at the end of this passage is God making a promise. The angel of God speaks to Hagar about Ishmael saying, “I will make a great nation of him.” We know from scripture that God does not make promises lightly with God’s people. God fulfills God’s promises. If God says that God will make a great nation of Ishmael, Hagar knows to believe God. No matter how dire things seem, God makes a promise, and God does not disappoint.
The third action we encounter is that God opens Hagar’s eyes. The text says that “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” In the opening of Hagar’s eyes, God allows Hagar to perceive God’s presence and action in her suffering. God lifts the blindness that suffering and desperation create. God shows Hagar the gift of life that God provides in the well of water. God’s gift is abundant, and God reveals the gift when Hagar cannot see.
The fourth and final action is that God is with Ishmael. The text says, “God was with the boy.” The verb “to be” is one of the most simple and basic of words. When applied to God, “to be with” has great meaning. The text says that in all Ishmael does, in all the experiences Ishmael has, in all that Ishmael’s journey entails, God is with him. God does not abandon Ishmael. God does not forget. God is with him.
I am reminded of one of my favorite Gospel hymns. The hymn is called “He’s an On Time God.” The song talks about the ways that God always comes to our need just when we need God. The refrain goes, “He may not come when you want Him, but He’ll be there right on time. He’s an on-time God, oh yes He is.” The song describes the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea just before the Sea collapsed on the Egyptians, the relief of Job’s suffering, and the feeding of the 5,000 by Jesus. What I love about the song is the booming chorus of singers and the repeated affirmation that God is on time. Of course, the theology of the song is a little trickier. I think the song misses something by suggesting that God is not always with us. But the song is on to something. I might rephrase the refrain to be something like – suffering may not end when you want it, but you will realize God is with you in the suffering right on time. In this way, God is an on-time God.
We may not understand God’s actions, or why we suffer, but God is with us. Hagar is a great gift this week for reminding us about what our relationship with God is like. Hagar reminds us that we have an active relationship with God. Hagar shows us that we can cry out to God in our suffering. Hagar demonstrates to us that God is not a far away god who is removed from our daily lives. By crying out to God, we reveal our earthy, dynamic relationship with God.
Meanwhile, God’s actions toward Hagar show us that God has a reciprocal relationship with us. God is active in our lives. God hears us, understands us, and will act in our lives. God is with us, all of the time, especially in our suffering. When we enter into that relationship with God, crying out to God, we let go of notions of distance from God or personal control of our lives. We allow God to open our eyes so that we can see God’s action in our lives. By opening our eyes, God shows us the blessings God has for us. God did not tell Hagar and does not tell us what our blessings will look like. But there will be blessings. God will open our eyes to reveal the bounty of blessing for us. As we enter into that holy, vulnerable relationship with God, allowing our eyes to be opened, we see God’s blessings – right on time. Amen.
[i] Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 2 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994), 88.