"For Such a Downer"#87-11
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 10, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Genesis 21
It was just before the start of the service. All the kids were up in the front of the sanctuary on the plush red carpet, and the adult choir was there with them. They were rehearsing a song that they'd been working on, and they were going to sing in the service that day. And the children—we don't have a lot of children in our church—it's a small congregation, but the children who were there that morning, they were full of so much joy and so much energy that even the older members in the adult choir, they were catching on to some of the spirit and some of the joy, and I could tell it was going to be a good morning.
I saw a middle-aged woman sitting toward the front of the church, and I went over to introduce myself. You know, when you're a member of a smaller church, you can recognize a visitor right away, so I went over and I introduced myself, and I'm thinking as I'm doing this, I'm thinking like, "How cool is it that God brought her here on this day when there's so much joy and energy with the children's singing!" I'm thinking maybe that God brought her here because He wants to pour out some blessings on us through her.
And I say to her, "Hey, I'm Mike," and she tells me her name. I'll call her Candace, and then Candace starts in on her story, and it is a long and sad story. She's got problems. She's got problems with her husband, problems with housing, problems with money; she's got lots of problems. As I'm listening, I'm trying to look concerned, but I'm thinking, and I'm not proud of this, I'm thinking, "Candace, why you got to be such a downer?"
How do you deal with downers? How do you deal with people or circumstances who spoil the mood, who bring down the atmosphere, who kill the vibe? Me, personally, I normally fall between two reactions: I get dismissive of them, or I get drug down by them.
On this program we've been listening to the book of Genesis and Genesis 21—it's kind of a downer. Abraham and Sarah, this couple that God had promised through them, He would make this family that would be a blessing to all the families of the earth, and from their offspring there would come this King, this King who would negate the downer of sin and death, this Seed, this Son of Man, this Messiah who would restore the goodness of God's creation. And Abraham and Sarah, they've been waiting 25 years for this promise to come to fruition, to have just one son through which they could have this family that would be a blessing. And now it's arrived. Against all the laws of nature, Sarah gets pregnant at 90 years old, and she has a son and they name him Isaac. And they're so filled with joy and laughter at what God can do and God's strange timing, and they celebrate. And Abraham, he throws a feast and invites the whole camp, and then right there in the midst of this celebration, and the food and the singing and the dancing, we remember that, "Oh, yeah! Abraham's already got a kid, a teenager with this other woman, Hagar, because they didn't think Sarah could have any children." So Abraham's got this second family on the side. Dude, a major downer.
Listen to how it goes in Genesis 21. "Now the Lord, He visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what He had promised. She became pregnant, and she bore a son to Abraham in his old age at the very time God had promised. And Abraham called the name of his son Isaac, Isaac which means 'he laughs.' And on the eighth day, Abraham circumcised his son, Isaac, as God had commanded. And Abraham was a hundred years old when Isaac, his son, was born.
"And Sarah, she said, 'The Lord has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.' She said, 'Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? And yet I have borne for him a son in his old age." And the child grew, and he was weaned, and on the day that Isaac was weaned, Abraham held a feast, but when Sarah saw that son, the son that Hagar the Egyptian had born for Abraham, she said to Abraham, 'Get rid of that slave woman with her son, because that slave woman's son will not have any share in the inheritance with my son, Isaac.' And this thing, this matter was evil in the eyes of Abraham, concerning his son, but God said to Abraham, 'Do not let this be evil in your eyes concerning your son and your maid servant. All that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice because it is through Isaac that your seed will be named, but I will also make the son of the servant woman into a nation because he is your seed.'
"Abraham arose early the next morning. He took some bread and a skin filled with water, and he gave it to Hagar, put it on her shoulder, and gave her the boy. And he sent her out, and she walked, and she wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. And the water in the skin ran out, and she laid the boy under one of the bushes. And she went opposite him a good way off about the distance of a bowshot because she said, 'Let me not see the boy die.'
"And there she sat opposite him. And she lifted up her voice and wept, but God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven. He said to her, 'Hagar, what is it? Do not be afraid because God has heard the voice of the boy. Get up, help the boy up, take him by the hand, because I will make him into a great nation.' And God opened the eyes of Hagar, and she saw a well, a well of water. And she filled the skin with water, and she gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy. And he grew up and he became an expert with a bow, and he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran. And his mother found a wife for him from the land of Egypt." The Word of the Lord, Genesis 21.
A downer kills the mood, but a downer is not always what it seems. Years later, there was this Jewish rabbi, Jesus, from the family of Abraham and Isaac. His followers thought that He was the Messiah, the promised King, the Son of Man, who would ultimately fulfill the Lord's promise to Abraham, who would be a blessing to all the nations.
Jesus is walking along with His disciples and He calls them aside, and He says to them, "It is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and to be rejected." To be rejected? Rejected by God's chosen people? Rejected like Hagar and Ishmael? Rejected and to be killed, and after three days to rise. And Peter, one of His disciples, pulls Him aside and says to Jesus, in effect, "Jesus, You're really being a downer right now, Man." And Jesus says to him, "You are not thinking the things of God but the things of man." And I wonder, how does Peter's thinking play out in my life, in yours? How do you treat the people that you see as downers? Do you dismiss them? Do you push them aside like Abraham and Sarah to Hagar and Ishmael—like me to that woman in my church, Candace—like the chosen people to Jesus? How do you deal with people that you see as downers? Do you push them aside so that they don't kill your vibe? Or maybe you're on the other side of things. Maybe you're the person who's dragging people down.
I knew this woman who was trying to get out of a bad situation, and when her friends realized that she was trying to make positive changes, they sabotaged her. And I don't know if it was conscious or not, but they were dragging her down with them. "Misery," as they say, "loves company." Well, who said you had to make yourself miserable?
When I listened to the Bible, I hear something, I see something different in Jesus. He does not dismiss His servants. He does not let them drag Him down with them. He dwells with them wherever they are. Peter thought it was a downer, but for Jesus, the cross was at the center of His mission. The cross of Jesus is not a downer, but it is an equalizer. You think you're up on top and you're pushing others aside? The cross of Jesus will bring you down, and if you are down and desperate for some company, you have a friend in the crucified Jesus. But you did not drag Him down there. He came down by choice to raise you up just as He is risen from the dead.
Genesis 21 is kind of a downer, but it's more than that. It foreshadows the work of God in Jesus to dwell with us, all of us, so I want to invite you to listen to the story once more. This time from Hagar's perspective I'm going to retell some selections of a book titled The Blessing of The Lord. It's a creative retelling of accounts from the Bible by author Gary Schmidt, Gary Schmidt, in this chapter, he uses his skill as a storyteller to invite us to walk with Hagar, to invite us to bear the cross, the rejection with Hagar so that we might know Jesus.
"The words thudded into the heart of Hagar like a dull tent peg into hardened sand. Sarah is with child? Impossible. It could not be, but again and again on that hot dusty morning, she heard the news until even her son Ishmael came running into the tent giggling at the joke of it. 'Sarah would have a child,' he said, 'Can you imagine Sarah with child?' After he left, the goat skin flap of the tent still shaking in the hot breeze, Hagar held her robes around her face and wept bitter tears. And no one tried to comfort her. Not Abraham, he was busy preparing for the feast. Not her maid servants, they knew how Sarah would react to the favorites of Hagar. Not Ishmael, he did not know what the birth of this child would mean for him.
"The hope and joy of 14 years gone in a moment. Before Ishmael had been born, Ishmael the most precious gift that God had blessed her with, before he had been born she had been nothing, nothing but a maid servant herself, bought by the wealthy Abraham from a caravan out of Egypt. She learned quickly, she had learned how to please her mistress, Sarah, who was not an easy woman to please. She learned Sarah's moods. She learned what Sarah's favorite foods were. She'd learned the songs that Sarah loved, and so no one in the camp was surprised when it was Hagar whom Sarah chose to bear a child for Abraham in her place.
"But when Hagar had become pregnant, she began to taunt Sarah. She would remind Sarah of what she did not have in a hundred small ways. She would lean close to Abraham and laugh and smile. When he inquired after her health, she would often rest her hand on her growing belly and talk to the child inside, knowing that Sarah was listening. She would point out the herds of sheep that whitened the hills and promised the child that one day all this would be his. And it was this that had become to Sarah as bitter as the waters of the sea.
"She began to torment Hagar, treated her so badly that finally Hagar had fled the camp into the desert, heavy with Abraham's child, to die. And it was there that she had received the blessing. She had not expected it. Certainly she had never expected it from the God of Abraham. Out there in the desert, the Lord spoke to Hagar. Hagar heard God. He said, 'Hagar, return to Sarah and humble yourself unto her hand. I will bless you. I will make you into a great nation. Your descendants will be so many that you will not be able to number them. I will watch over Ishmael.' So she had returned to camp and learned to please Sarah again.
"But now 14 years later, God's words were bitter to her. Ishmael would no longer be Abraham's heir. There would be no descendants. There would be nothing. The day came as Hagar knew that it must. Abraham was at her tent. He did not look at her when he told her that she must go, stretching out his hand toward the wilderness beyond the camp, back toward Egypt. He handed her a bundle of bread and some water in a skin. He promised that God would be with her. She did not answer him. She called Ishmael to her side and without gathering anything else, she walked away from Abraham. She would never see him again.
"So this is how Abraham's God keeps His promises. The sand and the rocks of the desert are His blessings. The scorpions are the descendants of which He spoke. They walked for three days until they could walk no more. They didn't see anyone. Their bread had run out, their water had run out. Ishmael was feverish with thirst. Hagar gathered her child in her arms and laid him in the shadow of a bush, and then she lay down. Perhaps this God of Abraham's would at least be merciful enough to let her die before Ishmael. Hagar held her hands to ears against the sound of Ishmael wailing, and when it had stopped, she was sure that he had died, but he had not.
"'Hagar,' the voice came again as it had 14 years ago. 'Hagar, do not be afraid. I have heard the voice of your son. I will bless you and make your son into a great nation and your descendants will be so many that you will not be able to count them.' And God opened up Hagar's eyes and she saw a well. She filled the skin with water and gave her son a drink, and the two of them rose. And Hagar looked off into the distance. They had a long way to go. There was a new nation ahead of them. The Lord had told them so." The Blessing of The Lord by Gary Schmidt.
That morning at church as I was listening to Candace's story, part of me wanted to dismiss her. Even as I prayed with her before the service, there was a voice, a cynical voice in my head saying, "Why do you bother? Nothing you do makes any difference," but as the morning goes on, I see other people from the church reaching out to her. One helps her follow along during the worship service. Another gives her a little money to help get her through the week. Others are talking with her, praying for her, and Jesus is there, down with her, with me, with you. He has told us so.
I invite you to pray with me. Lord God, lift me up when I am down. Though You did not choose me to be part of the family line leading to the birth of Your Messiah, Jesus, You have adopted me through faith in Him as You did for Hagar and Ishmael who also trusted in Your promise. Walk with me through this wilderness and open my eyes so that I might see the wells of living water that You have provided along the way. Amen.
Note: The Lutheran Hour is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio at lutheranhour.org. It includes emotion and emphasis not reflected in the transcript.
Reflections for November 10, 2019
Title: For Such a Downer
Mike Zeigler: I have joining me today, Dr. Gary Schmidt. He is a prolific award-winning author of literature for children and young adult readers. He's also an English professor at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Gary, thank you for joining us today.
Gary Schmidt: Mike, thank you so much for having me.
Mike Zeigler: So Gary, you've done some work retelling biblical narratives in this book you wrote back in 1997 titled The Blessing of the Lord. And I just wanted to let you know your book came to me by recommendation of a friend, her name's Jessica. She said that she loves your book because your retellings help her see that Bible characters are real people and they deal with real situations and real emotions and has appreciated your writing style and insight there.
Gary Schmidt: No, it's really easy to look at some of these biblical stories and just imagine them as these characters as stone faced as someone on Mount Rushmore, right? So there's no humanity in them or that they're only this one thing, but of course they're not. They're human beings. And that's what makes the story so powerful and so poignant that God deals with human beings in this world who have a whole broth, a whole mix of emotions, and so I hope the stories pick that up.
Mike Zeigler: Again, the book is The Blessing of the Lord, and you can find that wherever you find books. So Gary, what was something that surprised you in the process of crafting these retellings that brought forward these well-known stories but with some fresh insight, some fresh depth and emotion?
Gary Schmidt: One of the big things that came across, and this still, I mean 20 years later, I still think about this when I think about Bible stories is how much room is left in the story for us to understand or to imagine different parts of what's going on.
Mike Zeigler: So let's talk a little bit about Hagar. What was it that got your attention with her perspective?
Gary Schmidt: Well, she is all of us. I mean all of us have at one time or another felt, "Hey, I thought there were these promises. Where is God in this moment that I'm going through?" Or, "This is what I had been led to expect. And now I see it differently," or something along those lines. And Hagar is so archetypal of every human being who has those moments of strong doubt. "Is this all hooey. Is this something I really believe? Have I been wrong?"
Mike Zeigler: You're retelling helped me see Hagar as a Christ figure, which I never had imagined. But all the things you've just mentioned, being rejected by God's chosen people, going out to die, being at least by all appearances forsaken by God. It makes what I saw as allusions, perhaps even to the cross, like your opening line, that the words thudded into her heart, like a dull tent peg into harden sand. And you referenced a couple of times that she went out in the wilderness to die and I saw a Christ figure in her and in that she's not alone in this, Christ is walking with her.
Gary Schmidt: Christ on the cross is the ultimate expression of it. He is that cry. I mean it's from Christ who says, you know, "Where are You, God? Where are You? Why have You forsaken Me? I mean, that's to me in some ways the climax of the Scriptures in terms of the pain of humanity and the pain of our mortality, the fact that we are mortal, we must die. I mean, that's such an incredible climax. Even Christ feels that isolation. We all have that sense that somehow, you know, "You didn't keep Your way with us. You didn't keep Your promises to us."
Mike Zeigler: I love how you end with a note of hope so that God speaks to her. Don't be afraid. And I think the final words are they had a great nation before them. The Lord had told them so. I just love how you end it like that.
Gary Schmidt: And she believes, I mean, she's gone through her crisis, and she has gotten affirmation, that strong, powerful sense that God is not only present, but is personal and has made promises. And that's the thing we all cling to, right? Even in our darkest moments, that God has made real promises to us, and they will not be abandoned. And I think that's the way I wanted that story to end.
Mike Zeigler: It was beautiful. So she's saved by the grace of God through faith in God's promise. Just like us.
Gary Schmidt: Right. Exactly.
Mike Zeigler: Well, thank you so much for joining me, Gary.
Gary Schmidt: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"From God Can Nothing Move Me" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)