God called Abram from his home to a new land; Abram was old and he faced many difficulties but he was given a promise and a new name, and he eventually made it to the new land.
That’s actually got nothing to do with what I’m going to speak about today - it’s just by way of explaining why I’m not going to preach on Abraham. We all know the story too well, we’ve been reading it since Sunday school and whenever we want to think about going forward in faith, we turn to Abraham and come up with something everyone’s heard before. So I’m not preaching on Abraham, or even on Sarah, which would at least have the virtue of being less hackneyed.
Instead I want to look at two characters in the circle around Abraham; people who were caught up in his call and who had to uproot with him even though they themselves hadn’t had a special call from God. They were, if you like, the unwilling travellers in faith, who found circumstances overtaking them and responded to them as best they could.
The first of these characters is Lot. The earliest mention we have of Lot is in Genesis 11 where the Bible has him travelling to Haran with his grandfather Terah and his uncle Abram. There is no mention yet of a particular call to Abram and at this stage we might think of them as economic migrants, or indeed nomadic herders. However it’s also possible that Ur, where they originated, was a wealthy city and so they were in fact already well settled and lived an urban life. We know from Genesis 13, just before the passage we heard, that ‘Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold’ but we don’t know whether he already had all this wealth when he left Ur, or whether he acquired it during his stay in Haran. Lot may have followed him because his economic security was tied up with Abram’s. Ultimately we can’t tell whether Lot went with Abram willingly or unwillingly but every reference to the story elsewhere in the Bible refers to the faith of Abraham, not the faith of Lot. So we could see Lot as no more than a fellow traveller, in both the literal and political senses of that phrase.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. After a brief and not very happy diversion to Egypt, Abram and all those with him have arrived for a second time at the borders of the promised land. But Abram (who has not acquired his new name yet), and Lot seem to be in competition for the same grazing land. Fights are breaking out between Abram’s herders and Lot’s herders; you can just imagine what chaos must have ensued when they both tried to drive their animals onto the same land. A conservative government might have called it healthy competition, but it’s more like dog eat dog, or maybe sheep eat sheep.
Abram doesn’t want to be in conflict with his own nephew, so he suggests a solution. There is plenty of land open to them, so he suggests that they split up; and very generously, Abram gives Lot first choice of land. Now Lot, who is not renowned for his faith, probably has an eye to the main chance. So he takes a good look around and sees that the river plain is fertile and well irrigated. It’s a natural choice. But what the narrator knows, and we know, but Lot doesn’t yet know, is that Sodom, where he settles, is a place with a corrupt and callous culture.
A side note: before we get caught up in the usual stereotype of what Sodom’s wickedness consisted of, we should listen to a verse from Ezekiel:
There’s absolutely no mention of homosexuality here, just a city that prides itself on its luxuries and comforts, and doesn’t give a fig about the plight of those of its citizens who are in need.
Back to Lot. We know very little about him, or how historically accurate the Bible stories of him are, but he strikes me as an example of one way to respond to change in our lives. He is the person who takes things into his own hands, who does everything he can to make the new situation as close to the old situation as possible. In Haran, or perhaps even back in Ur, he had fertile land and a good living. He is going to make absolutely sure that he gets the same in or near Canaan. In effect he’s saying, as I once posted in my Facebook status, ‘I like change, so long as it’s the kind of change I like’.
It’s a very understandable response; one which I am often guilty of myself. In my father’s speech at Ed’s and my wedding (which incidentally was written by my mother!) my dad said it was nice to be a complete family again. He was referring to the death of my brother in 1975, and saying that welcoming Ed into the family was like bringing things closer to what they used to be. Most of us, except those who have had bad old days, secretly would like to restore things to the way they were in the good old days.
As for myself, I had ten years in which I would go to the LMC for tea every Friday on my way to my therapist in Tufnell Park. This was my Friday routine, set in stone. When that therapist died and I went to a new therapist, the timing didn’t work out the same, because I saw her in the morning and it was just too late to get to the LMC for coffee. So I’m very pleased that I now see a therapist in Archway, at a time when it just works out for me to go to tea at the LMC after I’ve seen her. Things are almost back to the way they used to be. But I’m also aware that soon there won’t be any tea at the LMC to go to and I shall have to go to a café and be tempted by the cup cakes.
For many of us, when things change, our first response is to see how we can arrange it so that they end up not too different from the way they were before. But we need to bear in mind that for Lot, that meant he ended up in a place which was far more dangerous for him and his spiritual welfare, than if he’d just embraced change fully and gone into Canaan with Abram. And his subsequent history is no more edifying, involving drunkenness and incest with his daughters.
Now I want to look at our second character, Hagar. Can we have the first reading from Genesis 21 please?
This is much later, when not only the promise of a land, but the promise of a son, have been given to Abram who is now called Abraham. Actually, prior to this, Abram has taken quite a Lot-like decision, in sleeping with Sarah’s servant Hagar and having a son with her, Ishmael. Because the promised offspring with Sarah had not turned up yet, he decided to take matters into his own hands. In fact this was Sarah’s own suggestion, but he didn’t have to listen to her.
So when we speak of the faith of Abraham, we need to remember that his faith was actually quite flawed. And indeed we see this earlier in Genesis 12, when he goes walkabout to Egypt instead of staying in Canaan, and pretends Sarah is his sister, to avoid the Egyptians killing him and taking her.
But now the promise has finally come true, Abraham has a son by Sarah. And according to which translation you follow, Hagar’s son Ishmael either ‘plays with’ that son Isaac, or ‘mocks’ him. If he is indeed teasing Isaac, then Sarah is understandably upset. But we know that Sarah has already resented Hagar for a long time; and to be fair, Hagar did invite some of this feeling by ‘looking with contempt’ on Sarah when she had a son and Sarah didn’t. So now Sarah prevails on Abraham yet again, forcing him to drive Hagar away into the desert.
Although Hagar has run away from Abraham and Sarah before, God met her in the wilderness, and she obeyed God’s call to her to return to them. It must therefore seem very cruel to her that God has now allowed her to be cast out of the very place she returned to in obedience to God. And whereas on her first time in the desert she found a water source, now she has only the limited supply of water she has brought, and a bit of bread. Also, when she ran away before, she didn’t even know yet that she was pregnant with Ishmael. But now Ishmael is a young boy, and she has no means of feeding him or giving him drink. All she can do is to watch him die - and since she can’t bear to do that, she hides him under a bush and walks away from him. Actually the timing’s a bit confused here, because Genesis 17 tells us that Ishmael is already thirteen when Abraham receives the promise of Isaac. Yet this later story suggests he is still a young child. But either way, there is no sustenance for him or his mother, and so she despairs.
Hagar’s response to unwanted change is to believe that nothing good can ever happen to her again. It’s a very understandable response: she has obeyed God in the past, even being willing to go back to an abusive situation, but now it looks as though God has abandoned her completely.
I can identify with Hagar’s response. In my teens and early 20s I visited regularly, and later worked in, a Lutheran conference centre where the staff lived and worked in community. It was there that I first got bitten by the community bug, and also learned about peace and justice issues. In the mid 80s, the Lutherans couldn’t afford to keep the place on any more, and they sold it to a consortium of Christian families who were going to run it as a commercial conference centre. This was a big bereavement for me, as it was a place that had been deeply significant for me and formed my faith in many ways. It also happened close to the time when the minister who had baptized me, who was also a big formative influence, died very suddenly on the street at the age of 57.
Several years later, after I had got married and moved to Muswell Hill, Ed and I discovered the Mennonites, and it was as if God had given me back the relationship to an intentional community, and the style of Christian faith, that I had encountered years before among the Lutherans. But now God seems to be taking away a huge element of that situation again. I could be pardoned, like Hagar, for wondering what on earth God is up to.
Change can be highly traumatic, especially when several changes come at once. Hagar had lost her job, her home and it seemed she was about to lose her precious child.
But now we’re going to hear what happened next.
So God meets Hagar, for the second time. This time God provides for both her and her son, not only for their immediate needs but for their future. It may not be the future she has envisaged for him, but the earlier promises to her still stand; Ishmael is still a son of Abraham, and he has a place in God’s purposes.
We could see Hagar, then, as an example of despairing when unwanted change happens. Yet she finds that despite her lack of trust, God does actually provide for her both physically and spiritually. Change comes, but God remains faithful.
A side note here. I’m always a little suspicious when people or hymns declare that God never changes. It’s often an excuse for blocking any change in the way we worship or serve God. Actually the Old Testament is full of examples of God changing his mind, not least in the story of Abraham, where God agrees to spare Sodom if there are ten righteous people there. But one thing we can say is that God never changes in his or her loving attitude towards us. Sometimes God’s love may be expressed in events which seem negative to us - but it doesn’t mean God has stopped loving us. It may just mean God is giving us freedom to choose, or allowing us to have experiences that train us in Christlikeness.
Back to Lot and Hagar. What can we draw out of these two characters’ stories for ourselves? I think we can say that when change comes, whether we have chosen it or not, we need to accept it as change. We should neither try to minimise its impact as Lot does, or treat it as a catastrophe as Hagar does. The old hymn says ‘Change and decay in all around I see’, but I don’t see why we should have such a negative view of change. Why not ‘change and growth in all I see’? Maybe I’ll write a new version of that hymn with those words in it.
Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, 6so that the land could not support both of them living together; for their possessions were so great that they could not live together, 7and there was strife between the herders of Abram’s livestock and the herders of Lot’s livestock...Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. 9Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” 10Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. 11So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward; thus they separated from each other. 12Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom. 13Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.
This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.
Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.
And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.