Hagar in the Wilderness
Today, as we journey through the wilderness in this season of Lent, we’re taking a look at the story of Hagar in the book of Genesis. It’s really important to me to include women’s voices from the Bible when I’m preaching or teaching. There are so many fewer stories of women, even names of women included in the Bible, and I want to make sure we know these stories, and know that women are created in God’s image too, and that women are called by God, used as God’s messengers too. So I wanted to make sure to include the story of a woman in our wilderness series this Lent. But the choices are fairly limited, and Hagar’s wilderness experience is the only real stand-alone kind of narrative of a woman that we have in the Bible. I’ll be honest: I feel like we just talked about Hagar. We looked at Hagar’s story this past summer, during our Women in the Bible series. We heard about Hagar and Sarah, and how God was at work in each of their lives. That was about six months ago, and since I know you all listen to and remember everything I say and every sermon I preach(!), I was hesitant to return to Hagar’s story again so soon.
But of course, the Bible is the living word of God, a living document, a living story that unfolds for us with new ways of understanding every time we come to it. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to find new insights as I came to Hagar’s story again today. I shouldn’t be surprised that I felt like I was reading or at least hearing some of the verses for the very first time. So, I invite you to listen with me, maybe again, or maybe for the first time, as we hear Hagar’s story.
Our text begins by telling us that Sarai and Abram have no children. This is significant because chapters earlier, God had promised them that through Abram’s descendants, they would become a great nation, with more descendants than stars. And after the promise, a lot of nothing happened in the way of getting started on that family. Sarai is impatient. She takes matters into her own hands. One Bible I looked at online titled this whole section “Beware of Shortcuts.” Sarai gives Abram her slave-girl Hagar and says to Abram, “I’ll get my children from you using her.” Hagar doesn’t get an opinion in this. Abram has sex with her, and Hagar conceives a child. What Sarai does was legal, part of law code of the day, and the clear understanding was that any children born this way would be children of the wife, not the slave. Hagar’s child would really be Sarai’s child, legally. So when Hagar starts to “look with contempt on her mistress” Sarai, as the text tells us, we’re given the impression that Hagar has lost sight of the fact that child she’s carrying isn’t going to change her status as slave at all. In response to her attitude, Sarai started to “deal harshly” with her. We don’t know what this means specifically, but Sarai has all the power in this situation, and apparently things are bad enough that it drives Hagar to drastic action. She runs away, into the wilderness. Her direction is right to be trying to head back to Egypt, but the distance is daunting – a few hundred miles at least. Hagar is everything vulnerable: a woman, a slave, pregnant, and in a region where everyone is of a different race, religion, accent, and cultural tradition than she is. Going to the wilderness is heading into an extremely dangerous place. But suddenly, for Hagar, that’s the better choice than staying where she is.
Don Schuessler and I were talking this week about this whole concept of wilderness and what it means to our Lenten journey and how difficult it can be to get our heads around. On Ash Wednesday, I mentioned how “wilderness” in the Bible refers mostly to the desert – a barren, dry, rocky place, while I always grew up with an image of a wild, overgrown forest in my head when I thought of wilderness. Still both kinds of wilderness – desert and forest – can be vulnerable, risky, dangerous places, especially when we find ourselves there alone, maybe lost. Last week we talked about how Jesus is our best model for wilderness time: he goes there intentionally, compelled by the Spirit to confront anything that could distract him from God’s plan to change the world through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. That’s what we are called to as well: to enter the wilderness with open eyes and open hearts, ready to grow in faith as we turn from anything that distances us from God.
But rarely do Biblical figures end up in the wilderness in this way. More often they arrive in the wilderness because the dangerous wilderness suddenly seems like the lesser of two evils when compared with some desperate situation the person is encountering in the supposedly civilized world. A couple of examples from popular literature come to mind. In the Lord of the Rings series, books and movies, hobbits Merry and Pippin have heard stories about how dangerous Fangorn Forest is, a dark, overgrown place where the trees themselves seem to wish people harm. But, Merry and Pippin have been captured by Orcs, servants of the evil Saruman who will likely put them to death. Suddenly, the dark forest looks like a refuge, a place of safety, compared to the evil Merry and Pippin have encountered elsewhere. They flee to the forest, where they encounter rescuers who keep them safe and conquer their enemies. We find something similar in the Harry Potter series. At the edge of the Hogwarts campus, the school where the children go to hone their skills with magic, we find the Forbidden Forest. Teachers constantly warn students of the dangers of the Forbidden Forest. But more than once in the series Harry and his friends find that the Forbidden Forest is their best alternative, and they find help in the forest when they’re on the run from danger at Hogwarts.
Hagar runs to a place that is extremely dangerous for her, but she only goes there when it seems that her alternative is unbearable. She can’t stand it anymore, where she is, how she’s been treated, the role that she seems to have. She can’t do it anymore. And so she runs to a place that would otherwise seem like anything but a place of refuge. Remember, last week we talked about how it is Jesus’s time in the wilderness that is our model for Lent. He goes to the wilderness with intention, with purpose, expecting transformation, boldly confronting Satan, not because he’s on the run and has no other place to go.
I hope, in Lent, we can boldly go into the wilderness too. But I suspect, sometimes we only get to that vulnerable place when we feel like we have nowhere else left to go. We talked about one of our tasks in Lent being confronting anything that is an obstacle in our relationship with God and removing it from our lives. I believe that we usually know what these obstacles are. We know what keeps us from giving our whole selves to God because they’re often things we’ve put there ourselves, things that we’re attached to, ways we spend our times, habits we’ve formed over time, plans we have that are most definitely our plans and not God’s plans, dreams we have of our own greatness that have nothing to do with serving God and neighbor, or ways that we numb ourselves from feeling the challenges of the world around us. We know all too well what we’ll have to reckon with if we end up in the wilderness, and so we avoid it like it’s the scary Forbidden Forest. What would it take for us to realize that we’re better off facing the wilderness than not?
My favorite musician is folk singer Tracy Chapman. One of her most compelling songs, I think, is called “Change.” In it, she asks a series of questions, wondering what would push us to actually change our lives. She asks: “If you saw the face of God and love would you change? How many losses, how much regret? What chain reaction, what cause and effect makes you turn around, makes you try to explain, makes you forgive and forget, makes you change?” And then, my favorite line, “If everything you think you know makes your life unbearable, would you change?” What will it take for us to go the wilderness where change is inevitable? If, finally, things are unbearable, would that do it? Do we have to wait until our lives are intolerable otherwise to confront what we find in the wilderness?
When Hagar gets to the wilderness, she is found by a messenger from God. Hagar tells the angel she is running away, but God, through the angel, tells her that for now, Hagar needs to go back to Sarai and deal with her. She’s sent back to her life as a slave: hard words to hear. But that’s not all the angel says. The angel says she Hagar, too, is part of God’s promise. The same promise that God gave to Abram, God gives to Hagar. Her offspring will be more than a multitude. The angel tells to name her son Ishmael, which means “God listens.” Ishmael will be no ordinary man, the angel says. Things won’t be easy for him. But in him, Hagar has a future. Freedom seems imminent. Hagar, an Egyptian slave girl, has a place in God’s story. And then finally comes the verse that knocked me off my feet as I read this text again: Hagar names God. We read, “So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”” Wow. Naming is usually the other way around in the Bible. God namesus. Or God tells us what name to call God. But Hagar can’t help but name the one who has saved her: El-roi – the God who sees me. Hagar knows that God has really seen her – in the wilderness, and back with Sarai and Abram – God really sees her, even her. Knowing that makes all the difference. Her life is changed.
Hagar’s story isn’t done. Spoilers alert if you can’t remember from summer: She ends up in the wilderness again, this time with her young child. And this time she won’t be going back to life with Sarah and Abraham, but instead living into the very promise God describes to her here, a future beyond what she had hoped for. What will it take, friends, to get us into the wilderness? We serve the God who listens, the God who sees, who sees what we’re facing now, who sees what we have to confront in the wilderness too, and who has a vision of what might be for us once we finally get there. Let’s not wait. We’ve seen enough stories. We know this plot. And so we know that God will be with us in the wilderness, a place that isn’t our ending, but a new beginning, a place of change. Let’s go see this God who sees us so well already. Amen.