Happy Fathers’ Day.
I’m sorry, fathers, but you know how it is. Mothers get all the love in Mothers’ Day sermons; fathers usually get the lectures.
Mothers are told how wonderful they are, and the sermons are addressed to everyone else, telling them how to love their mothers and be like their mothers. Fathers, however, get told how they could be, and how they should be, better fathers. I’m not saying we don’t need it, I’m just sayin’.
Part of the problem is that so much is expected of fathers. I’m not suggesting for a moment that mothers have it easy — I wouldn’t dare! But fathers are expected to stand tall, win their battles, and provide food for their families. Of course, it’s our own fault. It’s a man’s world, and we have made it that way. We actually like being in charge and telling others what to do. But it comes with a price, and the price, I would suggest, is loneliness and even fear — especially fear of failure.
I envy Jen and her friends. They share from the heart the most trivial and the most intense. It doesn’t matter if it makes them laugh or cry, that’s ok.
We men get emotional, too, of course. Just watch us at a sporting event when our team is about to win or is beaten by a foul. We’ll laugh and even cry on each other’s shoulders. But, apart from that, we’re very careful about which emotions we stir up. Sadly, it’s most often the destructive emotions like frustration and anger we feel more comfortable with.
But if the world tells you as you are growing up that men don’t cry, then the positive, caring emotions become a bit suspect. And our heroes don’t help either.
Heroes like Louis L’Amour’s cowboys I grew up with and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne are big, strong and confident men, able to look after themselves and fix things.
And then there are others like The Famous Five and Harry Potter who are very different types of hero. They are the nerds, if you like, who make good in spite of the physical odds against them. Clever, courageous and very brave.
But the message is the same: you have to win. Whether you outbox him or outfox him, you have to win your battles or, somehow, you’re not quite the man you ought to be.
Biblical heroes are very different. For a book full of heroes of the faith, the Bible is remarkably frank about their weaknesses and failures. And their failure is often tragic. When they try to take charge, they mess up badly. But when they admit their utter dependence on God, winning happens. Although, ‘winning’ might not always be quite what was expected.
Perhaps God is telling us that life is not about winning, about being successful, it’s about relationships. Fatherhood is not about providing for a family or leading a family; it’s about being a family.
When we focus on winning, on achieving our goals, then relationships suffer, and people are left behind. It’s been there from the very beginning, in Abraham and Sarah, this first family in the faith. Our story of Hagar and Ishmael was one of the lowest moments in Abraham and Sarah’s life together.
But let’s start with our Matthew passage.
In Matthew 10, Jesus prepares his disciples for the mission field, and he tells them (and us) what following him will involve. And it’s not for the fainthearted.
Jesus says that people will swear at us — and they’ll mean it. Then, as if to comfort us, Jesus says, ‘But don’t worry about them. What can they do to you? They can only kill you.’
‘Oh! I wasn’t planning on getting killed.’
‘But if you want to follow me,’ Jesus goes on, ‘you must lay down your life and take up your cross.’
And the cross is not just a heavy burden or a shiny pendant, it’s an instrument of torturous death. Taking up our cross means preparing to die.
So, living a Jesus life doesn’t mean a nice comfortable seat in church and a friendly Bible study. Far from it. Jesus tells us that he has not come to bring peace, but a sword. Families and friendships will be torn apart. Your enemy isn’t the devil, he tells us; your enemy will be among your family and friends. And we know that we find the enemy all too often inside ourselves.
‘This isn’t what I signed up for’
What about all the ‘peace and goodwill’ the angels sang about at Christmas?
What about the warm fuzzy feelings the Magi experienced when they gathered around the baby?
What about the love poured out on the cross and Jesus dying in our place?
What about the power of the Holy Spirit, of the fruit of love, joy and peace?
Where is the Good News in all of this?
John van der Laar wrote about this passage, and he said, ‘this isn’t what I signed up for’. [‘I Didn’t Sign Up For This’, Sacredise]
A two-a-penny sparrow
But that’s not all Jesus says in Matthew 10. He also tells us that not even a two-a-penny sparrow is out of God’s sight and care. And he even knows how many hairs are left on your head. And, what’s more, ‘if you tell the world you belong to me,’ Jesus says. ‘I will do the same for you before my Father in heaven.’
‘This one belongs to me,’ he’ll say. ‘That one is mine.’
No matter what happens, all hell might be breaking loose around us, but we are claimed by God. Our relationship with God is secure.
In the middle of the darkness
Life is not easy, for anyone. That’s not the promise.
The world thinks that peace and joy are found in easy living, a world cruise or winning the lotto. And, while those would be nice, much more meaningful peace and joy are to be found not by running away but in the middle of the darkness and pain and suffering.
There are very many of you listening to this message who could tell us how you have found God to be most real and closest to you, when the darkness was the greatest, the pain the hardest to bear, the mountain impossible to climb.
It’s not that God wants these things for us, but they are part of life, and it is in the middle of our messy lives that God connects with us and we find our peace, and true success. And it is in the middle of our messy lives that God’s heroes are made. Not by escaping the pain, but by consistently choosing, in every situation, to be better than normal.
And that brings us back to our Abraham story.
Sarah and Abraham were never perfect examples of faith and saintliness. But God chose this broken, struggling couple and enabled them to become better than normal in critical moments of their lives because their greatest desire was to walk with God.
But they sure got it wrong at times. And Genesis 21 is perhaps the darkest chapter in Sarah and Abraham’s life. God promised them so much, but like us, they took matters into their own hands and hurt themselves and others in the process.
Abraham and Hagar
Among other things, they decided to help God with his plan to give Abraham an heir. After all, time’s marching on. Abe is already nearly 90. So, they agree that he should sleep with Sarah’s maid Hagar and get his heir that way. And so, Ishmael was born.
Well, when Sarah finally had her own son, Isaac, the true heir, all the bitterness and jealousy of the past ten years or so began to emerge and be dumped on Hagar and her son, Ishmael.
Hagar and Ishmael thrown out
Finally, Sarah succeeds in having Hagar and Ishmael thrown out. But don’t blame Sarah. Abraham was no saint in this matter, and if we read their story, Sarah’s life had been miserable. Be that as it may, Hagar is out in the wilderness with just enough food and water to take them out of sight but not enough to survive.
And when it was all gone, Hagar left Ishmael under a bush because she couldn’t bear to watch him die.
And then it happened. One of those, ‘But God,’ moments we come across so often in the Bible. They were dying; this was the end; they couldn’t take any more. Friends, how many of you have been there, or are there now? Who do you know in the same boat?
Hagar and Ishmael were finished, BUT… God heard the boy crying.
Of course he did! Ismael was named for this moment. Ishmael means God hears. And God heard.
As one writer put it:
- God hears, even when we are alone in the wilderness
- God hears, even when we don’t know what to say to God
- God hears, even when the tension of living remains unresolved
- God hears
(Dawn Chesser, ‘Preaching Notes’, General Board of Discipleship)
God opened her eyes
And God provides. Not that God brought a banquet, or even a tea trolley. ‘God (simply) opened her eyes.’ (v 19) Hagar was able to see what was hidden by her pain and her tears. She could see the well, and as she drank, she began to see the way forward.
But here’s the thing, they never left the wilderness. Terrible though it may seem, God didn’t rescue them from the wilderness. He helped them find a way to live in the wilderness, to live through the rejection and hate, to survive and prosper. Not what the world calls prospering. Not the ‘happy ever after’ that Hollywood pretends is our right. But peace and the presence of God and a promise still being fulfilled in Ishmael’s descendants today.
There are people around us, like Hagar, desperate to find a well that will see them through, that will sustain them, that will give them hope. There are people in our church communities; people in our neighbourhood; people at work and in our families. They are within touching distance of us, a phone call away.
Called to be a well
Our job isn’t to tell people where they are going wrong:
‘Well, you know, Hagar, if you hadn’t been so rude to Sarah, you wouldn’t be here today.’
No, our job isn’t to tell people where they are going wrong or even to tell them what to do. We are here to help them find a well. To be a well for people around us. To support, to sustain, to share the hope we have in Jesus.
Jesus warns us that the journey will be tough and thankless. It’s not that we are trying to die, though that might happen. We are not looking for abuse, though that might come our way. Because our hope is not that all will be bright and sunny. But that God hears.
And so, our task begins when, like Hagar, we cry out to God. Because God hears you and me and the people around us as we cry to him in our own pain and for the pain of others. And we discover that his presence is worth far more than worldly wealth and peace.
Friends, cry out to God in your pain, in your fear, through your tears, and discover that God hears.
Cry out to God for those whose lives and livelihood have been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic, so that they might discover that God hears.
Cry out to God for those who have been crushed by racism and neglect, who have been humiliated or ignored for too long. Cry to God for the women and children, victims of violence. Cry out to God, so that they, too, might discover the God who hears.
But friends, cry out to God, also, so that our ears might be unblocked, and we might become the well that people around us need, reminding us all that he who loves the sparrow loves us even more, and he invites us into relationship with him and with each other.
Let us pray…
(Link to the prayer here)