Sunday June 21, 2020
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Old Testament - Genesis 21:8-21
New Testament - Romans 6:1b-11
Making It Work
INTRODUCTION: Pat Conroy, the novelist who died in March of 2016, was haunted by his family.
If you’ve ever read a Pat Conroy novel, The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini in particular, you know he was obsessed with trying to understand and make peace with his upbringing.
And it was with his father, Donald Patrick Conroy, that he was especially consumed. A hard-charging, show-no-quarter, Marine Corp Fighter Pilot, Donald Conroy was often cruel, mean, and violent - both physically and emotionally. And being the oldest of seven kids, it was Pat Conroy who often bore the brunt of their father’s wrath.
Or as Pat Conroy wrote in his memoir a few years before his death, “The Conroy children were all casualties of war, conscripts in a battle we didn’t sign up for on the bloodied envelope of our birth certificates.”
No wonder in an interview with NPR Conroy could also claim that no American author has ever been more imprisoned by his family than he was. For nearly 40 years, it was a constant source of reflection and fodder for his writing.
Or, again, as Conroy wrote in his memoir about his upbringing, “I can’t run away, hide, or pretend it never happened. I wear it on my back like the carapace of a tortoise, except my shell burdens and does not protect. It weighs me down and fills me with dread.”
Well, if poor, old Hagar had ever wanted to write a novel, she too would have had plenty of material to work with, right? For her experience of family life had its own crazy and dysfunctional quality to it as well.
You might recall the seeds for the dysfunction get planted when Abraham and Sarah start to get a little nervous that God isn’t going to come through on his promise. God, having guaranteed to give the two a child, Abraham and Sarah are starting to wonder if the Big Guy hasn’t just sold them a bill-of-goods.
Still childless and not getting any younger, they take matters into their own hands. At Sarah’s urging, Abraham is told to take Hagar as his concubine so he can have a child through her. Abraham, rather than trust in God’s promise, decides it’s better to be safe than sorry and soon Ishmael is arriving on the scene.
And perhaps all would have been fine and good, except that God finally does come through on his promise. With Ishmael a budding little teenager, Sarah at last gives birth to her own son Isaac and soon the soap opera only gets messier.
Not so sure it’s a good thing to have Ishmael hanging around anymore, Sarah has Abraham send the boy and his mother Hagar packing. Loading them up with a water bottle, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the wilderness and before long they are both on the verge of dying.
So Hagar knew about crazy and dysfunctional families herself. Roped into Abraham and Sarah’s mess, she could have surely signed a book deal with Simon and Schuster for her own tell-all memoir.
Of course, the story of Hagar, Abraham, and Sarah is more than just a tale about a dysfunctional family unit.
For the story, like so many others in the Bible, is also a tale about God’s habit of cleaning up our clutter for us. Abraham and Sarah, unable to trust in God’s promise, start to try and solve the problem of being childless themselves and before long they have totally mucked-up God’s plans. And yet, as is so often the case, God is soon acting to get everything back on track.
Like a beloved custodian at some elementary school who is constantly having to take care of spills and other gunk left behind by unruly kids, well, God is sort of like that with all of humanity. God is always coming along with a mop or a broom to clean up after our mistakes and bloopers.
“Do not be distressed,” God tells Abraham as he is about to turn Hagar and Ishmael lose into the wilderness, “for even though you and Sarah have managed to really muddle-up my plans, I will also make a great nation of Ishmael - for he too is now your son.”
And eventually God once again does what he promises to do. He saves Hagar and Ishmael. No wonder one man can say the story of Hagar, Abraham, and Sarah is “the story of how...the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises, and loving everybody, and creating great nations, like the last of the big-time spenders handing out ten dollar bills.”
You see, here is the thing. We tend to understand things like providence and sovereignty as some kind of micromanaging trick that God does.
That God somehow runs around directing and controlling every little thing that happens in our lives - that light turned green while you were late to work because God did it for you - kinda thinking.
But friends, that isn’t what is meant by providence. Any God that would be so intent on micromanaging our lives in that way is just a puppet-master. No. When we talk about God’s providence, what we are talking about is a God who relishes coming behind us to clean up our messes so he can get us and his plans for the world back on track.
We’re constantly throwing a monkey wrench into God’s plans, only to have God set things straight one more time, yet again. “Boy-O-Boy,” says God to Abraham, “you’ve really managed to mess up my good intentions by having a kid with Hagar. But don’t you worry. I’ve got this. I’ll make a few adjustments to my time-table, tinker with a few other parts of the plan over here, and we’ll be back on track soon enough. This isn’t exactly how I planned for this all to happen, but I’ll make it work. For you all, I’ll make it work.”
So that is what is meant by providence, I think. That despite all the things we do that tend to sidetrack God’s plans for us, the Big Guy simply refuses to be deterred from seeing his goals accomplished.
God works “improvisationally,” says one man when it comes to humanity. Meaning, God is always recalibrating his schedule in response to our foolish and wandering ways. But make no mistake, God’s plans will eventually be seen through to the end despite our bumbling and meandering.
The Swiss have a saying in Latin that nicely expresses the idea. In English, the phrase goes something like this: “Switzerland is governed by the confusion of men and the providence of God.” Well, not a bad way to think about the world in general, right? For while the world is surely governed by the confusion of people, it is also governed, thankfully, by the providence of God.
George Barna tells a humorous story about an elder in a small church who was freaked out over the congregation losing its minister. He worried and fretted over what was going to happen and how the church was ever going to find another pastor.
But then, much to the anxious elder’s surprise, the church actually found a new minister after a rather brief search. Well, the elder, a tad ashamed because of his lack of faith during the process, said something in hindsight that was both funny and ironic all at once. Said the elder, “As luck would have it, providence was with us!”
CONCLUSION: Well, faith is a lot of things, isn’t it?
But perhaps most importantly of all, it is to trust that what God promises to do, God will, in fact, accomplish. Will God always do it at the speed and pace we’d like? Well, I’ve got some bad news for you there! But eventually, God’s good purposes will be realized.
So have faith, brothers and sisters, and trust the promises of God.
And now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.