Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Challenge of Comfort

This sermon was preached on June 25, 2017 at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling, KS.

Read Genesis 21:8-21.  Listen to the sermon here.

One Sunday after church, a Mom asked her young daughter what the Sunday School lesson was about.

The daughter answered, “Don’t be scared, you’ll get your quilt.”

The Mom was perplexed. Later in the day, the pastor stopped by and the Mom asked him what that morning’s Sunday school lesson was about.

He said, “John 14 in which Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Be not afraid, thy comforter is coming.’”[1]

When Jesus tells the disciples in John 14 that God will be sending the comforter, Jesus is talking about the Holy Spirit (John 14:16).  The Holy Spirit is God with us, helping us, encouraging us, teaching us, and comforting us.

How do we find comfort?  There are a lot of ways to answer that question.  We see God offering comfort to Abraham and Hagar in our story today from Genesis 21. 

Abraham has a dilemma.  God had promised he and Sarah that they would have more descendants than the stars in the sky.  A great promise, but they are old and have no children.  So Sarah gives her servant Hagar to Abraham to try to solve the problem. 
As odd as that sounds to us, that was actually a standard custom in those days.  It was even written into some of the laws of that time that if a woman hadn’t had children within a few years of marriage, she was required to get a slave for her husband so that he would have heirs.[2]  What’s unusual is that Sarah waited until she was almost 90 to get Hagar involved.  Hagar then has a son who is named Ishmael.  And then Sarah also has a baby who they name Isaac.

Since Sarah is 90 when Isaac is born, she’s probably the ultimate helicopter parent, hovering over Isaac and being very protective of him.  So when Hagar’s son Ishmael is getting too close, she flips.  We’re not certain exactly what Ishmael is doing, but we do know that the writer is having a little fun with the word for laughter. 
  • ·       When Sarah heard God say that she would have a son, she laughed in disbelief. 
  • ·       Isaac’s name means laughter.
  • ·       When Isaac was born Sarah laughed again, this time with joy. 

·       Now here in the story about Ishmael, that same word is used to describe what Ishmael is doing.  He’s laughing.  But since that word can mean something positive or something negative, we don’t know whether Ishmael was just having fun, or poking fun.[3]

Regardless of what it was, Sarah wants him out of the picture, and so Abraham has to make a tough choice.  He has to send his son Ishmael away.  Next week, we’ll be reading about another tough choice that Abraham makes regarding his other son, Isaac.  This week’s story is foreshadowing that one, and maybe preparing us and Abraham for that one.  God offers Abraham comfort, but not by making everything ok the way it is.  Instead, God is asking Abraham to trust that God will take care of Hagar and Ishmael, and that their care will happen without Abraham’s involvement.  God is telling Abraham, just like God tells us, to:
  • ·       Be still and know that I’m God and I’ve got this covered.  
  • ·       Be still and know that I’m God and you’re not. 

The Holy Spirit comforts us by helping us to trust God.  Very often that’s a big challenge for us, just like it is for Abraham.  He does what Sarah has asked, and sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness with a skin full of water and some bread. 

This is not the first time that Hagar has been out in the wilderness.  Back in Genesis 16, she had some trouble with Sarah and ran away into the desert.  She was already pregnant by then, and that was the first time that God promised her that her son Ishmael would have many descendants (16:10).  Now, here in the wilderness, God comforts her by reminding her, saying again, “Your son will have many descendants…” In other words, you will not die here today.  Notice how God works.  God repeats the important stuff to make sure that we don’t miss it. 
Have you ever felt like God can be a little redundant?  He is.  On purpose.  We forget.  We change and hear things differently.  We grow and learn the same lesson in a deeper way.  This is another way the Holy Spirit comforts us – by reminding us of what God has said in the Bible, or through other people.

This happened to me this week in the office. I was wondering whether something I was doing would be too redundant.  Our secretary Brandi Clark helped me decide it wasn’t when she said, “Isn’t that what God does?”  Yes, he does.  Thank God for Brandi!
Names in the Old Testament are part of that repetition.  Many of the people in the Bible have names that remind us of their stories.
  • ·       Abraham means “father of many.” 
  • ·       Isaac means “laughter.”
  • ·       Sarah means “one who rules.” 
  • ·       Hagar means “flight or fugitive or immigrant.”[4] 

Ishmael is my favorite.  Ishmael means “God hears.”  Ironically, Ishmael’s name isn’t used in this part of the story at all.  He’s only referred to here as the “son of Hagar” or the “son of the slave woman.”  But the word ishmael is there at the beginning of verse 17 in the Hebrew text.  In our English text it says, “God hears.”[5]  That’s what Ishmael means.  God hears.  And God does hear.  Both Abraham and Hagar are troubled.  Neither one of them says anything about it to God.  But God hears them anyway, and responds. 

This is another example of how the Holy Spirit brings us comfort.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for us, and helps God hear the cries of our hearts. (Romans 8)  God hears, and God’s presence and assurance comfort Abraham and Hagar.

·       Did you hear about the new restaurant in outer space?
o   The food is good, but there’s no atmosphere.[6]

When we talk about comfort, how many of you think of food?   Food gives us comfort for a few reasons.  One is that some foods are effective at making us physically feel better.  Bananas and turkey do because they have tryptophan.  Another food that makes us feel better physically is spinach!  Spinach makes us happier because it contains folate which boosts serotonin which affects our moods.[7]  No, really!  Spinach is a mood booster. 

I did another survey on Facebook this week about comfort food.  You might be surprised to hear that nobody said spinach!  I got a wide variety of responses, which isn’t surprising.  Many comfort foods give us comfort because we associate them with people or events from our past.[8]

We find comfort in familiar things and familiar places, whether or not they are actually good for us.  One of the ongoing issues that Israel has when they are wandering in the desert is that they long to go back to Egypt, even though they were captives there forced into doing grueling manual labor, because Egypt is familiar and we find comfort in the familiar.  Notice that sticking with the familiar or keeping things the same is not an option for Abraham or Hagar.  Their challenge instead is to find comfort in knowing that God is still there.  Abraham has to let go of Ishmael, and Hagar has to make a new life in a new place.  They are challenged to get out of their comfort zones and trust God.

Let’s look again at that promise that God makes to Hagar in verse 18: “I will make him a great nation.”  It’s the same promise that God has made with Abraham.  For the rest of the Bible, the focus is on Isaac because Isaac is the one who’s the ancestor of the people to whom the story is being told – the people of Israel.  If the storyteller had been talking to descendants of Ishmael, we’d have a different story.  What’s particularly remarkable about God making this promise to Hagar is that she’s a slave and a woman, and a foreigner who came from Egypt, someone who would have been disregarded by most people in her time.  But God’s promises are for all people.  Jesus also tells us this in the passage we read from Matthew 10.  “Don’t be afraid. God cares for the sparrows, and God cares for every one of us.”

So what happened to Ishmael? Well, he took a job on a whaling boat, wandering in the wilderness of the sea,[9] searching for the great white whale along with Captain Ahab.  Nah, just kidding.  That’s the story of Moby Dick.  The first line of that book is “Call me Ishmael.”  That’s a different Ishmael.  The Ishmael in the Bible, according to verses 20-21, survived being cast out into the wilderness, became a skillful archer and married a woman from Egypt.  And God was with him.

We see Ishmael again in Genesis 25 when he helps Isaac to bury Abraham.  And there we are also told that Ishmael had 12 sons who became 12 tribes.  Isaac’s son Jacob also had 12 sons that became the 12 tribes of Israel.  God had promised Abraham and Hagar that he would make both Isaac AND Ishmael into great nations, and he did.
We have been talking about the ways that God comforted Abraham and Hagar, but the only place in the story that specifically says something about comfort is in verse 18, where the angel of God tells Hagar to “lift up the boy and hold him fast.”  The New Living Translation says, “Go to him and comfort him.”

We’re not sure how old Ishmael is here.  Some scholars say he is somewhere between 12 and 14 years old, but others say that the story isn’t chronological and that Ishmael is still a toddler in this section.  Hagar’s comfort to Ishmael will look quite different depending on how old Ishmael is.  Regardless of his age, we know it involves physical contact.  Holding his hand, maybe hugging him, or even holding him in her lap.  At first Hagar is too distressed to help Ishmael at all. But God comforts Hagar, and then tells her to go to her son.  Hagar has been comforted so that she can then in turn offer comfort to Ishmael.
God hears us and comforts us so that we in turn can comfort others.
2 Corinthians 1: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 
Receiving comfort from God is important for us because then we can comfort one another.  This is one way that God turns our hurts into helps.

There are lots of ways to offer comfort.  Sometimes our challenge is knowing what’s right for the particular situation and for that particular person.  Remember that name Ishmael.  God hears.  Both Abraham and Hagar received comfort from God who heard their distress.  We too need to turn to God for comfort, and also talk to God to help us know how to offer comfort to those around us.

Sometimes we offer comfort just by being there.
There’s a wonderful example of this in the book of Job.  That book is 42 chapters long, and most of the book is speeches Job’s friends are making about why all these bad things have happened to him, so it’s easy to miss the verse at the end of chapter 2 that says, “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him.” That’s 7 days of sitting silent. So often we don’t go to someone who is grieving or in trouble because we don’t know what to say, but words aren’t always necessary.  Just our presence can be a comfort.  We can be the reminder to that person that God hears their cries and they are not alone.

Physical contact can be a big comfort.  In our reading today, Hagar comforts Ishmael by holding him.  The summer that I was a chaplain in a hospital, they encouraged us to make sure to touch patients when we were visiting them – to hold their hand or even give just a brief pat on the arm or shoulder – because we might be the only non-invasive contact they would have while they were in the hospital.    Touch is comforting. Studies have shown that there are actually measurable results.  A comforting touch affects heart rate and breathing, and reduces pain.  The greater the level of empathy, the greater effect on the patient.[10]

The Holy Spirit comforts us by helping us to trust God, helping us to remember what God has said and done, helping us to know that God hears us, helping us to know that there is hope and grace, helping us to share that same comfort with others.

This past week I was blessed to be able to join the women’s circle for their monthly lunch and Bible study.  They were talking about the apostle Paul and his emphasis on the cross in his letters.  The study leader asked us to think about what the cross means to us.  There were some wonderful responses, pointing out the awfulness of what happened to people who were executed on crosses, and the awesomeness of Jesus’ willingness to sacrifice for us by being put to death on a cross.  To many around the table the cross meant comfort because it is a way to remember how much God loves us, how God gave his only son Jesus to die for us, and how God has promised to be with us always through the Holy Spirit.

There are a lot of ways to find comfort in this world.  We are good at figuring out ways to comfort ourselves.  God know us well, and he knows that our best comfort is that comfort we find in turning to him and trusting him. 

God is our refuge and strength, our ever-present help and hope. 
And that comfort comes full circle when we share it with others.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing. My associate pastor preached from Genesis 21:8-21 on last Sunday as well. The title of her sermon: "Don't Fear, God Provides." It was an awesome sermon as well.