Offbeat #5 - Hagar & Ishmael

Many of us who grew up in church may well remember the Sunday school lessons about biblical heroes and their faith that we should emulate. While sometimes there are good examples for us to follow, the larger purpose of the biblical accounts is to teach us something about God and his relationship to creation, rather than to give us human heroes. The Bible is packed full of flawed and faithless “followers” of God. Yet God repeatedly intervenes in their stories, bringing mercy and correction, reestablishing his covenant with them ultimately and working to bless humanity with himself.
Abraham and Sarah were two such flawed heroes. God had promised to give them a child, even in their old age, but (understandably) they just didn’t see how that could possibly work out. Thus, Sarah came up with her own way to help God fulfill his promise, by having her husband sleep with one of her servants (Hagar) in order to produce an heir. Consequently, Ishmael was born to Hagar. Of course, this wasn’t God’s plan at all, and he followed through in his own way by enabling Sarah to conceive and bear a child of her own, Isaac, who was the child of promise, from whom God would establish the nation of Israel.
So what of Hagar and Ishmael? What would God do about the product of Sarah’s failure to trust? We find this story in Genesis 21. Sarah herself, perhaps ashamed of the constant reminder of her unfaithfulness, commanded Abraham to cast them both out of the household. Abraham was appalled, but God told him to go ahead and do it anyway.
So, is that the answer? God simply cut off those who were outside the plan? That is certainly what Hagar thought. A victim of ill usage by her masters on several levels, likely feeling abandoned and hopeless, Hagar staggers into the wilderness and immediately gives up on the life of her son. She leaves him under a bush to die. It’s into this mess that God intervenes. Even though Ishmael is not the child of promise, even though he falls outside of God’s covenant with Abraham, God “heard the voice of the boy” crying under the bush. He responded by calling out to Hagar, “What troubles you Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.” He then led Hagar and her son to a well so they would be able to survive in the wilderness.
But, the craziest part of this story isn’t that God intervened to protect Hagar and Ishmael, but that he promised to make Ishmael into a great nation. That’s supposed to be the covenant with Isaac! And indeed, it is. It is from the descendants of Isaac that a blessing for the whole world would come (Jesus), but God gives Ishmael a covenant of his own. This is especially odd considering that Ishmael’s descendants do not go on to become what we would consider orthodox (right believing) worshippers of God. Islamic tradition holds that Arab Muslims are that great Ishmaelite nation. Perhaps, though, the growing number of Muslim background believers in places like Iran gives us a glimpse into God’s plan in this instance.
God is certainly the hero of this story. He works a miracle for Abraham and Sarah despite their lack of trust and he works once again to show love to the outcast and marginalized. From this story we learn that God will bring about his plan of redemption no matter what. We also learn that God’s love isn’t restricted to the “in crowd.” His love is lavished upon all people and he pours his mercy out upon those who are far from him, inviting them to embrace relationship with him.

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Because sometimes we just need a laugh...

Phil Vischer (creator of Veggie tales)  - In this chapel message for Olivet Nazarene University, Phil shares candidly his personal story of success that turned to failure. He was driven by his dream to make an impact and that became an idol. God stripped away everything to turn his heart back to waiting, listening and desiring intimacy with his creator.

Missions Spotlight:
White Ribbon Day

A Message from Sarah Blickens:
“... The second crash came at shortly after 2:00 AM.It was actually more of a wet ripping sound followed by an impact that I felt from across the house.

“Ah man…” I rubbed my eyes, sat up in bed, and swung my feet onto the floor.

I hadn’t really been sleeping anyway.

The first crash had come at 1:37 AM - I had stumbled from my bedroom into my home office to find that a four-foot section of sheet-rock had broken from the ceiling, spilling soaked pieces of dirty insulation onto the carpet.

I had been expecting this, but it affected me more deeply than I had anticipated - it felt a little like being punched in the stomach - but I had cleaned up what I could and felt my way back to my bedroom in the dark.  

Twelve hours earlier, our city of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, along with several other Midwestern cities, had been hit with a massive storm system that sat over our area for 40 minutes.  Sustained winds had reached 112 miles per hour, and a large section of our roof had been torn off.  Portions of the roof had eventually come to rest nearly twenty feet above the ground in one of our neighbors’ trees.

Thousands of large trees in the city and many of our electrical poles were uprooted or destroyed and all power and cell service in the city had been out since the storm.  I suspected that it would probably be out for a very long time.

And now a second section of ceiling had fallen.

It looked like I wouldn’t be going back to sleep any time soon.

I was exhausted and overwhelmed, and I knew that it was only going to get worse.

Over the course of the night, a total of four large sections of our ceiling collapsed, leaving a clear view of the thin, flapping tarps that my son-in-law Pierre and I had attached to the roof in attempt to repel the rain as soon as the storm had begun to let up.

Shortly before sunrise, after hours of working frantically to clean and protect whatever I could, I realized that I was honestly, at the end of my own ability to cope with the situation in front of me.

I knew I needed to pray - to talk with God - and to ask… for help.

I staggered out of the house into a darkness lit with stars that were brighter than I had remembered ever seeing in the Iowa sky.  

Part of my brain registered that the stars probably seemed brighter because I had never seen them without the competing light of the city , but a larger part of me just thought that they were beautiful.

I started to walk - somewhat aimlessly - following a familiar walkway that was now strewn with massive fallen trees.

“God, I’m not even sure what to say,” I shook my head, “I’m not really sure what to do, but please… just walk with me.”

And for the next few minutes, I just walked.

And Jesus walked with me.

I knew that He was holding me, sustaining me, and loving me.

And that was enough.

In Romans 8:28, the Bible says that “…all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”  I knew that someday I would look back and acknowledge that God had used this challenging circumstance to create something beautiful, but I also knew that I was going to need strength for the days ahead.

And now God was giving me the strength I needed.

Because God is good.  

All. The. Time.

We have watched Jesus bring life and freedom to thousands of people around the world, and we have personally experienced His love, peace, and covering in the midst of some truly challenging situations.

We have seen that Jesus is ready to walk with us through any storm, and we are more convinced than ever that He longs to bring freedom, forgiveness, and healing to those who desperately need it.

And this is why we do what we do...”

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