A sermon preached on June 22, 2008 based upon Genesis 21:8 – 21, Romans 6:1b – 11, and Matthew 10:24 – 39, entitled, “Standing with Hagar in the Desert, Ready to Die.”
I suspect that this story that David just read for us is not one that we know well. As I listened to it this past week, however, I found it gripping, deeply poignant.
We tend to filter Bible stories — to clean them up as we listen to them. We know, for instance, that Abraham and Sarah are supposed to be the good guys, heroes of the faith, the mother and father of all the children of Israel. But here they behave all too human.
To review, Abraham and Sarah have responded to a call from God late in life to leave their homeland and go to a new land, where their offspring will be a great nation, more numerous than the stars, blessed to be a blessing. They go on faith, despite the fact that they are quite old.
The years pass. They remain childless. At one point, Sarah takes things into her own hands. Despite God’s promise, she doubts she will ever be able to conceive. Sarah decides to give Hagar, her slave girl to Abraham to sleep with, so that a child might come forth by Abraham’s seed. A step child, Sarah figures, is better than no child.
When Hagar conceives and becomes heavy with child, she can’t help but look with contempt at old Sarah with her barren womb. In this culture, as in many throughout history, the sole purpose given to women was to bear sons, and Hagar has succeeded where Sarah has failed, and she cannot resist the temptation to look down upon the woman who has lorded over her as her master.
Sarah recognizes the contempt in Hagar’s eyes, mirroring probably the contempt she feels for herself as one who cannot conceive. She complains to her husband Abraham, he tells his wife to do what ever she wishes, and so Sarah beats Hagar, who flees into the wilderness. There an angel calls her back to Abraham’s household.
Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, Abraham’s first born son, who proceeds to grow up in the household of Abraham and Sarah. Years pass, but still Sarah remains barren.
And then one day angels come to visit Abraham, and as Sarah listens in on their conversation, they announce to Abraham that within a year, the promise will be fulfilled: Sarah will give birth to a son. Sarah thinks this is so foolish that she laughs out loud, and when nine months later the child is born, she names the boy Isaac, which means “laughter.”
In those days a family would hold a party on the day in which a baby was weaned from her mother, sort of like the parties often held these days when a child is baptized. During the course of the party, Ishmael, a boy now of about 12, is playing with his little baby half-brother, making him laugh out loud, and seeing this, and perhaps suffering from post-partum depression, Sarah’s heart turns cold. Ishmael will not cut into her son’s inheritance — no way! She commands Abraham to send the boy and his mother away.
Abraham feels badly about this, but he gives in to his wife in her rage, and early the next morning he sends Hagar and their boy off into the wilderness with nothing but a loaf of bread and canteen of water.
In the hot sun of the wilderness their water soon runs out. “Momma, I’m thirsty. Momma, I need something to drink.” Hagar has nothing to give her son. Her despair is too heavy. She leaves her dying son under the shade of a bush, and goes off far enough where she won’t suffer the sight of his slow death. She is ready to die herself. There is nothing to live for — no hope.
It is a powerful image: Hagar in such deep darkness and despair, ready to die. She represents all the poor mothers of starving children in the world, but there are ways in which she can identify with her as well. If we are honest, there have been points in our lives where we felt something of Hagar’s utter hopelessness, even as it is not so hard to identify with the depression, the jealousy and pettiness of Sarah, or for that matter, the cowardice of Abraham.
Hagar is ready to die, but suddenly, grace shows up. An angel of the Lord alerts Hagar to the presence of a well of fresh water in the wilderness. The angel assures her that her life does in fact have a good future, full of hope.
Not a single sparrow falls to the ground without the Father’s attention. Every hair is counted. No one is lost. Though there is much that may well be against us, including dark and destructive powers within our own selves, there is One who is for us, from who’s love no power in heaven or on earth can separate us.
We began our worship this morning with the words of the Apostle Paul reminding us of the meaning of our baptism. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3,4)
To a large degree, we have lost the power of the Biblical imagery of baptism. We associate it with beautiful little children so full of life, receiving a few drops of water on their brow. We forget that baptism is about death.
When we are baptized into Christ, we stand with poor Hagar in the barren wilderness, ready to die.
In the early Church, the power of the imagery couldn’t be missed. The adults who were to undergo baptism were taken at night into a dark crypt, where, stripped naked, they were led into at pool of water in order to experience drowning. Three times they would be plunged backwards into the water, signifying the three days Jesus’ body lay in the tomb.
In 4th century Jerusalem, a Christian described the meaning of the experience this way: “By this action, you died and you were born, and for you the saving water was at once a grave and the womb of a mother.”
The well of fresh water appears to Hagar in the wilderness. A basin of water appears before us, as we too reach the point of despair.
Perhaps the meaning of baptism would be brought home to us more directly if instead of this baptismal font we were to place a coffin, or at least, an urn for our ashes.
I find myself thinking of all the coffins and urns that I have seen over the years resting on this altar, containing the earthly remains of people I have loved from this church family, who reached that day in which there was no more hope for them here on earth, requiring the great letting go. Their hope was in heaven, with Jesus who had preceded them in making the journey through death.
And I realize that in all likelihood, one day on this very altar, my coffin, if not my urn, will rest.
My baptism tells me that in a certain sense, I have already died — that is, my little, old self — me ego — into which I invest so much significance. God desires that a much larger kind of life live within me, one that cannot ever die. Stubbornly, however, I’ve been trying throughout my life to resuscitate my little, old self back to life.
My baptism reminds me, as Paul said, that “our old self was crucified with (Jesus.)”
We must undergo a kind of ego death in the course of lives in order that the full meaning of our baptisms can take root within us — so that resurrection life can become a reality for us.
Scott Peck, a psychiatrist and author of some immensely popular books about human development and spirituality, converted to Christianity in his middle years, undergoing the rite of baptism. He wrote these words regarding what it means to approach baptism:
“Certainly it is understandable that we should not want to die before our time, no matter what promises Jesus might hold out to us. Still, as a wise priest said to me when I was dragging my feet over becoming baptized: `We all have to die sooner or later; why not get on with it?’”
Sing with me, if you will the first and last verses of the great hymn, “Abide with Me.”
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
(At this point, standing before the baptismal font, we read together the liturgy for Congregational Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant.)