A few chapters ago, Abram fled to Egypt to escape a famine. He had completely lost faith in his new god, and so he tried to manipulate the situation in order to save his own skin: he lied, and he told his wife to lie.
Now: that was bad. The problem is, his manipulation worked: he left Egypt a much, much richer man than when he went.
But then we discovered that Abram’s great wealth actually made him very, very unhappy: because it ended up destroying his relationship with Lot, his adopted son and heir.
So, in summary: Abram lied to preserve his hopes for the future…and his lie worked! In fact, it worked so well that it destroyed his hopes for the future.
Well, today we are going find out that the consequences of Abram’s lie in Egypt are not yet finished doing their damage.
So Abram has been living for years now without an heir, without a son. His nephew Lot has moved away to the big city, leaving Abram with nothing but God’s promise that, someday, somehow, Abram is going to become the biological father of a son.
But so far: no luck:  Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.
Poor Sarai. In those days, in that culture, a woman who cannot have children was considered to be under the curse of the gods. But her situation is actually even worse than the average barren woman in her culture, because God has promised that her husband Abram will have a biological son — but God has not said, explicitly, that Sarai will have a biological son.
And so, Sarai is putting two and two together: if Abram is promised a biological son, but Sarai is not, then obviously Abram is someday going to have to pick up a second wife. And when that second wife finally has a son, then obviously Sarai is going to lose status — maybe even be demoted to “Second Wife”.
So, Sarai borrows a page from Abram’s playbook: she decides to manipulate the situation. Apparently, she has an Egyptian slave girl named Hagar.  So she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Instead of waiting for Abram to find another wife, Sarai proposes that they use this slave girl as a surrogate mother, so that Sarai can adopt the child as her own. That way Hagar never rises above the status of concubine/mistress, and Sarai gets the son she has always wanted.
And we have to pause here to ask: where did Sarai get this Egyptian servant girl? Well: in Egypt, of course!
But that is actually significant. Because Moses — who wrote this — has already told us that Hagar was one of the gifts that Pharaoh gave to Abram in exchange for the privilege of marrying Sarai. Back in Chapter 12, Moses told us this: Pharaoh took Sarai into his harem. And he treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.
So what Moses is telling us here is that Hagar herself is one of the consequences of Abram’s lie back in Egypt.
So how does Abram respond to his wife’s proposal? Abram agreed to what Sarai said.  So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.
Now, is that bad?
Well, this was considered normal at the time: if a wife was unable to conceive, it was culturally acceptable to use a slave girl as a surrogate mother.
But Moses wants his readers to understand that — even though this may have been culturally acceptable — it was not acceptable in God’s eyes. And so Moses writes these sentences using words he has used before, words that are supposed to remind us of an earlier episode in Genesis.
So tell me if this sounds familiar to you: once upon a time there was a wife who took something that was not hers to take and then gave it to her husband who was not supposed to receive it, and the husband agreed with his wife and went along with her plan.
Does that ring a bell?
Yes, it does! The first time this happened in Genesis was way back at the beginning, between Adam and Eve. Now, was it good when it happened then? No. So, is it good when it happens again? No.
Moses is letting us know that this is not going to turn out well.
But, of course, the problem with our human plans to manipulate a situation is this: often our manipulation works — at least at first:  Abram slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
So far so good!
But then when Hagar knew she was pregnant, the exact thing Sarai was trying to avoid happens: Hagar began to despise her mistress. She starts to act like she is some kind of successful wife to Abram.
And Sarai, like most tiger wives, is not going to stand for any challenge to her status. And — like most tiger wives — she is not going to admit that she created this problem for herself: she blames her husband, verse 5: “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
Whoa. She is literally cursing her husband, calling upon God to judge him.
Now, she is wrong to conveniently forget how this was her own plan to begin with. But she is right to call upon God’s judgement: because Abram is responsible for this wrong. He should have had the courage to say, “No,” to his wife, he should have had the courage to say, “No,” to his cultural norms.
Quite honestly, Abram should have preached the gospel to Sarai, just like Adam should have preached the gospel more completely to Eve. Abram should have said, “My love, God has promised that I will have a biological son. You are my only wife, and I promise that I will never take another one. Therefore God’s promise to me must also extend to you: somehow you are going to have a biological son! So let’s trust God to do what he has promised!”
Abram should have tried to take away Sarai’s fears of being replaced and degraded. Then she would not have felt the need to manipulate the situation.
But it is always hard to say, “No,” to a wife, because wives have ways of making their displeasure felt. And so, ever since Adam, most husbands — including myself — have a strong inclination to take the easy way out and say, “Ummm…okay, honey, whatever you like.”
So, brothers, I’m going to pause here to point out that this story is a wonderful example of a universal truth: if you take the coward’s way out, if you do not take responsibility to lead your wife toward faith in God now, you will pay for it later, with interest added.
If you doubt me, just ask any man here who has been married longer than 10 years, because I can promise you that we have all failed to preach the gospel faithfully to our wives, and we have all reaped the consequences. So learn from our mistakes, if you can.
So now Abram is reaping the consequences of his failure to take responsibility in the first place. But has he learned his lesson? Does he take responsibility now? No he does not. Instead he responds in a passive-aggressive fashion:  “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.”
There is a poetic irony here: Sarai just said, “I put my slave in your arms,” and so Abram responds sarcastically with, “You know what? Fine! Now your slave is back in your hands! Do what you want with her!”
And it is encouraging to me that, even after 60 years of marriage Abram is still capable of being childish when he talks to his wife. It means I’m not so unusual…
But anyway: Sarai takes Abram at his word: she does what she thinks best, which apparently involves physical abuse.
So Hagar runs away. She heads south; she heads home, back to Egypt. And this is a horrifically dangerous thing to do: a young pregnant woman, travelling alone through the Arabian desert? She could get lost; she could get bitten by a snake; she could die of heatstroke or thirst; she could be captured by slave-traders. And Hagar must have known all this! — so the fact that she was willing to take this terrible risk shows us just how brutal Sarai’s abuse must have been.
And Hagar was a determined young women: she manages to travel about 100 kilometers before God catches up to her! Verse 7: the angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur, which is way down south on the border between Canaan and Egypt!
And this is a very interesting moment for theologians, because this is the first time in the bible that “the angel of the Lord” is mentioned.
And the question everyone starts to ask at this point is: who or what is this “angel of the Lord”? Is the angel of the Lord an angel sent by God? Or is the angel of the Lord actually God himself in human form?
Well, the first thing we find out is that this angel is not just a vision: apparently he appears to be an ordinary, physical man. And I say this because Moses deliberately stays away from using the visionary language that he used in the last chapter, when God made a covenant with Abram. In this chapter Moses uses very ordinary, physical language: the angel of the Lord has been looking for Hagar. He finds her.
And then he speaks to her:  “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
And this is interesting, because we would expect the angel of the Lord to already know the answer to these questions. But by this point in Genesis we already know that God is gracious: he doesn’t just show up and start scolding people for their sins, he invites them to confess and repent first. That’s what he for Adam after Adam sinned; that’s what he did for Cain after Cain sinned; so that’s what he does for Hagar also: he asks her what she’s done.
And right away Hagar realizes that this man is not just an ordinary man, because: how could he possible know her name, her position, and the name of her mistress? He must be at least a prophet or something. So Hagar answers him honestly: “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai.”
And by the way, Moses would want us to notice that this little Egyptian servant girl is actually more honest than Adam, Cain, or Abram. She doesn’t lie — which is what Cain and Abram did — and she doesn’t try to blame someone else — which is what Adam did. And she could have, right? She could have said, “I am running away from my mistress, but I have a really good reason!” That is definitely what I would have said.
But Hagar doesn’t. She tells the truth, simply, without making any excuses.
 Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”
This is the angel of the Lord. He knows why Hagar is running away. He knows that she has suffered some pretty terrible abuse. And still he is saying, “Go back. Submit to your brutal mistress.”
Tthis is really troubling! — isn’t it?
Because isn’t Abram’s God supposed to be gentle, kind, compassionate? We would never tell a spouse or an employee to go back and submit to abuse. So why does the angel of the Lord say this? Why doesn’t he use his power to promise that he will stop Sarai from abusing Hagar in future? Why doesn’t he use his power to deliver Hagar from slavery completely and give her a husband who will really love her and not just use her as a baby-making machine?
It is very hard for us modern people to accept that God would say something like this. We’re looking at this situation and we’re thinking, “There had better be a damn good explanation for this!”
Well: there is. There is. But in order to understand it we are going to have to remove ourselves from our modern way of thinking, and we are going to have to look at this situation through Moses’ eyes. And as we do that, we are going to discover that, for Moses, this is actually the most compassionate thing God could possibly have said to Hagar in this situation.
And we know this because of what God says next:
 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
Now, does that sound familiar? Isn’t that exactly the same promise that God made to Abram?
And now God is making this same promise to a runaway Egyptian slave girl.
Well, we have to remember that, back when God first made this promise to Abram, he also promised that people from every nation in the world would also be blessed through Abram’s obedience.
And the first preview we got of how this would happen was back in Chapter 14, when Abram went to war and rescued all the different nations that had been captured and enslaved by the Eastern Kings. And the big point Moses was making is that it is good to be under Abram’s protection! If you are from some other nation, and you want to be blessed by God, ask Abram to come and rescue you and make you part of his family.
In fact, Moses’ major message from the very beginning of Genesis has been that, if you want God to bless you, if you want to be saved from judgement, you need to be part of God’s people, one of God’s children. Before the flood, you needed to be part of Seth’s family. During the flood, you needed to be part of Noah’s family. After the flood, you needed to be part of Shem’s family. Now, at this point in Genesis, you need to be part of Abram’s family.
But Hagar is running away from Abram’s family. She is running away from the only source of God’s blessing in the world of that time. She is basically doing what Lot did back in Chapter 13: she is turning her back on Abram’s family because she thinks her situation will be better somewhere else. And maybe it would be! Lot seems to be just getting richer and richer down there in the city of Sodom, so who is to say that maybe Hagar would be better off back home in Egypt?
But Moses wants us to understand that, ultimately, Hagar’s situation will not be better off somewhere else. Her life might seem better, but in reality she would be living apart from the blessing of God.
And so Moses wants us to understand that for God to make this amazing promise to Hagar is actually an act of incredible mercy and compassion! God could have gotten angry, right? He could have punished her for — basically — kidnapping Abram’s unborn child, right? He could have cursed her and said, “Fine! You have rejected Abram’s family, so now I reject you!”
But instead the angel of the Lord goes out looking for her. He finds her. And then he makes the same promise to her that he did to Abram. He basically promises that, if she will trust him and go back and submit to the authority of Abram’s family, she will receive every blessing that comes from being part of Abram’s family.
But God is not finished yet:  The angel of the Lord also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery —
— Ishmael means “the Lord Hears” —
 He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Now…is that good?
Is this a blessing on Ishmael, or a curse?
Well, it’s mixed. In the rest of the bible, the wild donkey of the desert is the image of the rugged individualist, the man who knows how to take care of himself. And this idea that Ishmael will “live in hostility toward all his brothers” also carries this image of a man who lives on the fringes of civilization, a bedouin of the desert: no one can hold him down or enslave him.
And that would have sounded like a blessing to someone like Hagar, who is a helpless slave. Clearly she longs for freedom; she longs to escape from the abuse she is suffering. God has not promised her that she will not be abused if she goes back — but he has just promised her that her son will not be abused; her son is not going to live in slavery to anyone. And that would have been a great comfort for Hagar.
But — on a larger, literary level — Moses’ would want us to notice that, so far in Genesis, every rugged individualist has turned out to be a bad guy: men like Cain, Lamech, Ham, Nimrod. These were all men who knew how to take care of themselves, men who refused to submit to anyone else, men who murdered their own brothers over an insult to their pride. So, in that sense, God’s prophecy here is a curse, another hint that Ishmael is not the son that God has been promising to Abram.
Now, we don’t know if Hagar picked up that nuance. All we know is that she is satisfied. In fact, she is more than satisfied: she has experienced a spiritual revelation. She has realized that this man she talking to, this angel of the Lord, is not just a messenger from God, he is actually God himself in human form.
And we know this because:
 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”  That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.
So Hagar has just seen God face to face. In fact, she is the first person in the whole bible to speak to God in human form. This helpless little runaway servant girl is the first person in history to speak to Jesus face to face.
Which is astounding! We would have expected Moses to give this privilege to Adam, or Seth, or Enoch, or Noah, or Shem, or Abram or some other important man…but Moses is an honest writer. He writes down what happened without trying to put a patriarchal spin on it.
And because of Moses’ honesty, we get to learn something more about Abram’s God. We get to learn that Abram’s God is no respecter of persons. He does not think that men are more valuable than women. Abram’s God has a deep and special compassion for the helpless, whether they are male or female, Jewish or non-Jewish. We get to learn that, if the angel of the Lord is going to show himself to someone, he would much rather show himself to someone who needs God, instead of to someone who thinks God needs him.
So God has not promised Hagar that she will not be abused. But he has promised that he sees her misery and abuse, and that her situation will not be like that forever.
And this knowledge gives Hagar the courage to do what she needs to do. So she goes back. She bears Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne.  Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
And so this episode closes with a final, painful irony: Sarai’s name is not mentioned at all. And Moses is making a point here as well: instead of trusting God to preserve her status and give her a son, Sarai tried to provide these things for herself. Her plan was to give Abram a low-class concubine who could not threaten her position as wife, and then to adopt that concubine’s son as her own.
But here, in the end, it is clear that Hagar now has more than just a concubine’s status, because Abram agrees to give her son the name that she has requested…which is a privilege not usually given to slave-girls. And it is clear that Hagar gets to keep Ishmael as her own son: Sarai does not get to adopt him.
And so Moses is making the point that Sarai’s attempts to manipulate her situation have actually resulted in greater unhappiness for herself, just like Abram’s lie did for him back in Egypt.
But we have got to be sympathetic to Sarai. She was the hero of the episode in Egypt: she submitted to her husband’s horrible plan; she maintained her faith in God even when Abram’s faith failed. It’s just that, here, ten years later, it was her turn to lose faith.
And I’ve just gotta say: kudos to her for lasting that long! I mean, how many of us have trusted God for ten years before we finally gave up and tried to fix things for ourselves? For me, if I have to wait six months for God to answer my prayer, I’m like, “C’mon! What does a guy have to do around here to get some service?” But Sarai stuck it out for ten years! This is one tough lady.
So we cannot really despise Sarai for what she did, because we’ve all been there. We’ve all done that. And we have all experienced this kind of disappointment, when we look around and realize that we have actually made our situation worse than it was before…
But look, at the end here, there is a comfort for Sarai: she was right, in the beginning, when she said, “The Lord has kept me from having children.” It is God who has made Sarai barren. It is God who arranged for Sarai’s plans to fall apart.
Now, that does not seem like it should be very comforting, but it is: it will be. Because over the next couple of chapters we are going to discover that, by making sure Sarai’s plans failed here, God kept Sarai from destroying her chances to experience what is going to be the greatest joy of her life.
And that is what God does for us as well: every time he makes sure our plans fall apart, every time he ensures that we experience the disappointment of our own failures, he is actually keeping our road clear for the greatest of all possible blessings: the chance to one day speak to him face to face.
And so Hagar the slave girl is the hero of this episode. She is the one who steps out in faith and submits to God’s plan, not knowing exactly what she is going to suffer between now and then, but knowing for sure that Abram’s God is also the God who sees Egyptian servant girls.
So now it’s time to ask the question we like to ask every week: what does this mean for us? What are we supposed to believe, what are we supposed to do in response to this episode?
Well, let me start by saying what this passage does not mean: this passage is not meant to be an example of how a church should handle situations where abuse is going on:
This passage is not saying that if we find out someone is being abused, we must send them back into that situation. Sometimes it can be very difficult to draw someone out of an abusive relationship; sometimes there are legal complications, especially if the abuser is a spouse or a parent or a slave-owner; which means that sometimes people do have to endure through some very difficult situations. But in the New Testament, Paul says that, if we can gain our freedom from slavery, we should do so.
So, I want to be clear: a church cannot use this passage to tell a wife or a child or an employee that they must go back and submit to abuse. And I want to be clear about our policy as a particular church: if you are experiencing some kind of abuse from someone who is in authority over you, please speak to someone here and ask for help. We will do whatever we can to help you resolve that situation and gain your freedom.
Okay. So back to our original question: what does this passage mean? What are we supposed to believe or do?
Well, there is a lot of practical wisdom contained here. Things like: do not try to manipulate God into giving you what you want; husbands, when your wife is afraid do not give in to her fears — or your own; servant girls are just as important in God’s eyes as patriarchs…things like that. And those are all good principles for us to remember.
But teaching good principles is not really Moses’ main point.
For Moses, this episode is meant to be another example of how God is going to bless all the nations of the world through Abram. His first example was back in Chapter 14, when God blessed the nations by sending Abram as a messiah to rescue them from slavery. In this example, God blesses the nations by promising them fertility through Abram.
Through this episode, Moses is telling his people — the ancient people of Israel — that God wants to give non-Israelite nations the same promises that he gave Abram. And Moses is telling non-Israelite nations that God wants to give them the same blessings he gave Abram, if they will submit to Abram’s nation, to Abram’s God. Moses is telling everyone who reads this that Abram’s God is the One who sees all who are in distress, and that his offer of blessing and salvation from judgement is open to everyone who is willing to become a part of Abram’s nation.
And last week we discussed how, today, more than 4000 years later, this great offer of blessing has been made — is being made — to all nations through Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, now Abram’s nation is made up of people from every nation on earth. And because of that, Abram’s nation is no longer a nation bound to a particular race or a particular land: Abram’s nation is now a global nation, a nation without regional or racial boundaries. And in the bible this global nation is called the Church.
So…practically speaking, what does this mean for us today?
It means this:
If you are here today and you have not yet submitted to Christ and joined Abram’s nation — the Christian Church — then this is what our Father God wants you to understand: if you want God to bless you, if you want to be saved from judgement, you need to be part of Jesus’ people. And the way to become part of Jesus’ people is really rather simple: believe this truth, and be baptized, and you will be saved.
And one thing this episode shows us is that this offer is meant especially for slaves, for the helpless, for the abused, for those who are barren. So if that is you: if you are living your life in slavery and helplessness, without the power to rescue yourself from abuse, if you are looking at your life and seeing nothing but a wasteland of missed opportunities and failure, then this is what your Father God wants you to know: he sees you. And he wants you to see him. He wants you to know who he is.
So if that is you, come, join Jesus’ family, and see.
Now, if you are here today and you have already been baptized into Christ, into Abram’s global nation, what does this mean for us?
Well…this will be interesting. Because, here’s the thing: Hagar ran away from Abram’s family because of the abuse she was suffering there. Abram’s family was not perfect. But Jesus commanded Hagar to return so that she could experience the blessing and salvation she really needed. So she did return. But Jesus did not promise that she would not continue to suffer abuse; he simply promised that God would continue to bless her even in the midst of her sufferings.
Our situation today is very similar to Hagar’s: Christ’s Church here on earth is not perfect. In fact, in our Presbyterian denomination — in our particular church — this truth is actually written into our church constitution: we believe — we know! — that church councils can make mistakes, and have made mistakes. This is one thing that sets us apart from the Roman Catholic church, because Roman Catholic doctrine holds that the Pope does not make mistakes. And this is one of the major reasons that the Protestant church began to protest against Roman Catholicism 500 years ago: because Protestant church leaders realized that, under that system, there was no way to correct the Pope if he was wrong, and no way to stop abuse if the Pope’s decisions led to that.
As Protestant Christians, we believe that the earthly leadership of Christ’s Church is not infallible. Which means we must acknowledge that, sometimes, church members have been hurt and even abused by those who are in authority over them. Many of us an experienced this ourselves. And some of us, like Hagar, have even fled from our churches to escape it.
In fact, in many parts of the West, this flight has become a mass exodus from Christianity. There is a huge movement of people of all ages who are abandoning “church” as a concept and trying to find some other alternative: just listening to sermons online, or just joining informal small groups, bible studies or prayer groups, and then saying, “This is my church. This is my true Christian community.”
And we have to be sympathetic to that movement, because in many cases people are running away from leaders who are abusing their position. But we also need to be clear about this: our Father wants us to understand that leaving Christ’s Church is a very dangerous thing to do, just as dangerous as Hagar’s flight alone across the desert.
Now, to be clear, scripture is not saying that small groups are wrong, it is not saying that a church must be very visible with a building and Sunday School programs and everything. The majority of the world’s churches are of the small, house-church type. There is nothing wrong with that, especially when persecution is a problem.
But scripture does say that every church, no matter how large or small, must have an organized system of authority: men and women who are submitted to Christ and commissioned to shepherd believers toward Christ. And, unfortunately, a large part of our modern rejection of “church” as a concept is actually a rejection any kind of authority. It is the belief that, since I have been abused by authority figures in the past, my solution is to join a group where there are no authority figures, where everyone is perfectly equal.
But that is extremely dangerous. First, because rejecting Christ’s systems of authority means rejecting Christ’s family, like Hagar did, which means rejecting God’s blessing and salvation. And second, because in a group without ordained authority figures, eventually the people with the strongest personalities and the most social power will take control of the group, and without organized systems in place to hold them accountable, they will eventually use their power to abuse the group.
Basically, just like Hagar, if we wander off into the desert alone looking for freedom, we are actually putting ourselves in extreme danger of being captured by slave-traders, and finding ourselves in a worse situation than when we started.
In light of all this, then, Jesus’ commands are clear. If you have been hurt, or even abused in the past by authorities in a church, and you have fled from the organized church and perhaps even from the faith, then the angel of the Lord is telling you: “Go back, my child, and submit. I will watch out for you.” And if you are still in the faith, still a faithful member of a local church, then the angel of the Lord is telling you: “Remain. Submit. I am watching out for you.”
But again, I must say that this does not mean you must return to an actively abusive church. If a church does not have a biblical system for ordaining leaders and holding them accountable; if a church teaches that their leadership never makes mistakes and must always be obeyed without question; if a church operates completely independently from the guidance of any other church…then do not return to that church. If you are in such a church, look for another local church that does have those structures in place. Those structures were designed by God and given to us in scripture in order to help protect us from abuse by our church authorities.
But again, we all know that our churches are not perfect. We will be hurt by our shepherds. You will be hurt by me; mostly likely many of you have already been hurt by something I have said or done in my position as your pastor, and the fact that you are still worshiping here is an act of grace on your part towards me. I thank you for that. And out of gratitude and respect for you all I want to continue to be honest: I am likely to continue to make mistakes.
But, there is good news: as a church we are soon going to be ordaining our first elders and deacons to serve alongside me. These are men who will be called to help me take responsibility for shepherding all of us. And part of their job will be to help correct my mistakes, and hold me accountable for my sins. So that is good news for you all: soon we will have systems in place that will allow you to complain about me. And really, truly, I am looking forward to that, because I trust you all. I can tell that you love me as I love you, and that you want the same growth and improvement for me that I want for you.
But in closing, let me finish here with the ultimate Good News: our elders and deacons, our shepherds, are also going to make mistakes, they are going to sin against you individually and collectively, but the good news is that they are only under-shepherds. Jesus Christ is the Chief Shepherd over his Church, and he is the One who sees. He is the One who knows what is going on. And he has promised to bless us. He has promised that we will see him as he really is, no matter how imperfect our church might be.
And that is really Good News.