LENT — Even in Affliction

6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.
7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” (Genesis 16:6-10 ESV)

The great question of our age is about suffering. Why does a God, who is all-good and all-powerful, allow suffering?

We try to answer that, to square the circle, to make sense of all the things we see in the world that go against what we believe in our hearts and should to be true. Many give up in despair because there is no reasonable answer.

No answer past, “who are you, mere mortal, to question the ways of God?”

God promises justice, mercy, deliverance. And we live in a merciless, unjust, unredeemed world. It makes sense to ask, “How long, O’ Lord?” or even “Where is God?”

Abram and Sarai have been made a promise — descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky or the grains on sand in the desert. God has made that promise, and then has seemingly gone silent. A promise, and then no fulfillment.

Abram and Sarai take matters into their own hands. “If God is not going to do this, we will have to do this ourselves,” they say. Sarai gives her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar to Abram. “Go make a baby with her,” Sarai says, “and that will fulfill this promise God has made to us.”

Abram does. Hagar conceives, and looked with contempt upon her mistress — “I have done something you cannot!” Sarai regrets having done this, is cruel to Hagar, and compels her to flee.

This is a very human drama. Hopes and aspirations meet human effort, consequences no one anticipated result, and we act — whether out of anger or fear or regret, we act.

It is a very human thought, especially in modernity, especially in the wake of our murderous 20th century, in the wake of the Shoah, in the wake of all the death and suffering we are capable of imposing upon ourselves. “If God will not save us, we must save ourselves.”

But note what happens here. God does not prevent or stop Sarai from abusing Hagar. In fact, God orders her back to her abusive mistress. Indeed, when Sarah later decides to expel Hagar and her son, Ishmael, from the little tribe that Abraham, God goes along with this, and sends her into the wilderness.

There’s a lot of human cruelty here which seemingly does not concern God or to which God actively consents.

But condoning the expulsion, demanding a return to abuse, this is not all God does here. Hagar is blessed too, and given her own promise, that her son shall be blessed, and her own offspring shall be too numerous to count. The name Ishmael (יִשְׁמָעֵ֔אל) itself means “God hears.” And God has heard Hagar’s cries, and her son’s cries later too, and will provide water for them both.

God is present. God promises, and God saves. But not in any reasonable way. And not in any “moral” way or “good” way that we might understand. Like Hagar, we are not redeemed from history, we are redeemed in our history. The world is not remade anew. What came before — the very human acts that set into motion suffering, dislocation, and even death — are not undone. Everything that came before matters.

Hagar is made whole with a promise. Not that she will return to Abram and take the place of honor as the one who bears the promise of God to Abram (and to us), but that God will care for her and her son in the wilderness, and that he too will become a people more numerous than grains of sand. She is promised too, and so is Ishmael.

A lot more suffering is coming in this story of the promises to Abraham — war and conquest and exile. Much of that is seen as a deliberate consequence of the failure of Abraham’s descendants through Isaac to live up to their end of the covenant they will receive from God, but all that becomes the foundation for Israel’s great question — what does it mean that God has promised us so much and we are living like this, defeated and scattered and so far from home?

It is also a reminder that God is in the seemingly small things that tend not to make up the narrative of history — unending pots of oil and flour, thousands fed with a few fish and loaves, lepers made clean by a touch or a word, water turned to wine, the blind made to see, and a dead man who rose from the dead. These are what truly matter.

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