Sermon - Ordinary 12  Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |


 Ishmael: God hears him

Ishmael: the name means "God hears him". Ishmael, the child left under a bush to die in the wilderness, cries out and God hears him. 

God has heard the voice of the boy. "God hears" is the meaning of the boy's name: Ishmael, the son of Abraham born of his wife's slave Hagar. They are now cast out with a loaf of bread and a skin of water to wander in the desert. The water has all gone, and Hagar, saying that she could not bear to look at her son as he dies, "cast him under a bush" and watched from a distance (Genesis 22:15-16). Actually, according to the literal record she said prayerfully, "Do not let me look on the death of the child". But God hears the cry of Ishmael and opens the eyes of his mother so that she sees that there is water nearby, and they live.  

The voice of the angel continues:  

So began the tradition of the Bedouin tribes of the desert, who till this day, together with other Muslims of the Middle East, symbolically, trace their ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael, the one whom "God hears". Of course, Islamic believers area found today among all races of people, but the biblical origins of the wandering Ishmaelites, linking them to Abraham, serves as a symbol to remind us the common cultural heritage that Muslims share with Christians and Jews. 

He too is a son of Abraham

Before I review how the boy and his mother were placed in their predicament, and what it meant for Abraham and Sarah, let me come quickly to a point of application for us today: God in his gracious love is able to hear the hopeless who are cast out of the covenant community, out of the family of God as we understand it. They are not beyond his hearing and his care. He may, indeed he does have a special place for those whom he has called to be a particular people of God, but that does not mean that he will not bless others as well. Whatever the destiny of a particular nation under God, he has a purpose for others also. At this time in the history of international relations, of disturbing clashes of peoples of different ethnic and religious identities, when many in the West feel a threat from the people of Islam (that is, the followers of Mohammed, the "children of Ishmael"), it is time to think deeply about what purpose God may have still for those who identify with this other child of Abraham. The whole of the tradition we follow is through Abraham's other legitimate son, Isaac, the father of Jacob who was known later as Israel, from whom came the twelve tribes and the great history of God's saving them, leading and teaching them, until in our understanding the Messiah came to complete the revelation of God begun among the descendants of Abraham. The test of their identity was that they worshipped "the God of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob". But there was that other son of Abraham, Ishmael, and God heard him too, and according to the Bible his descendants too became a great nation.

Thinking of Ishmael too being a son of Abraham, I am reminded of that occasion when Jesus said of another outcast He too is a son of Abraham. It was when Jesus confronted one who was considered a notorious traitor to the nation of Israel, the tax collector Zacchaeus, who responded to his call and enjoyed "salvation": 

Of course, Zacchaeus did call Jesus "Lord" as he also repented of his evil ways and promised restitution to people he had defrauded. Calling Jesus Lord is a confession of faith that through him a new kind of membership in the people of God was possible. There is more to this being a son of Abraham than simply being born into a particular tribe, as Jesus was to make clear in many other ways. So the message is not a simple one about accepting outsiders in general, or the inherited rights of a child born in particular circumstances, let alone a perverse doctrine of condoning or even preferring whatever people of a different culture may do, as some in our alienated groups falsely teach. Zacchaeus was changed by his encounter with Jesus and new possibilities opened up for him through his relationship to Jesus. It was not a matter of accepting an outsider and saying that all he had done before was also accepted. He was changed as he turned to God in Christ. But just the same, when Jesus went on to stay at his house they said "tut tut", and what is more, Jesus had said he would accept his hospitality before Zacchaeus made his confession, so it was entirely an act of grace: 

We know that does not mean that sins don't matter! Nor does it mean that faithful members of the household of God are forgotten: as the father said to the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son: 

How easily we assimilate what we hear to what we already think! To hear these words from the gospel story of Zacchaeus and the parable of the Prodigal Son in the context of thinking about the relations between Christians and Muslims, can all too easily be taken to mean, "God will accept the outsider rejected by good people who have a mean rejecting attitude", or, depending upon what we expect to hear, it might be, "Of course God cares for them, and they will be saved if only they will turn to the Lord and believe in him." Now it is true that God will accept anyone who renounces evil and turns to him, and indeed, the Muslims teach that too, except that we say it in the name of Christ: that the promise is clear and will always be kept, whenever anyone trusts in Christ as his saviour; but the message of God's dealing with the outcast Ishmael is that God can choose to hear even those who are outside the family and have no way yet of coming to the warmth their father's camp. At the same time that does not mean that he has abandoned his call and promise to those who are within the camp. 

The children of Ishmael today

In our present circumstances of a Western society that is in some respects Christian, but in many others deeply corrupted, Muslims may well say, that God still hears them, as he heard Ishmael; and they might well say that they have heard God while we have been deaf to what he has to say, and then they wonder if he will hear us at all until we change our ways. Do you think it is possible that Muslims with their understanding of God's compassion and his righteousness, will have the moral right in future to rise up and accuse us Christians, "the adopted children of Israel". What does it mean to us that God may choose to listen still to the children of Ishmael? 

This way of thinking is quite dangerous. It invites all sorts of prejudice, both in alienated sympathy with the outsider and in defence against the threat he is seen to pose, but it does bring out and make visible some of the monsters we still have to tame, or better, some of the evil in the world that has yet to submit to the rule of God. And when we are thinking of submitting to the will of God, let us remember that "Islam", the name of the religion of the followers of Mohammed, means "resignation", complete submission to the will of God: that is what it is all about. It is a kind of faith in God, who is merciful and compassionate and can be trusted. Christians and Jews can recognize such faith, but the differences are profound and give rise to serious conflict, not only in what we believe privately or in the church, but in social, political and economic affairs. Sometimes these conflicts are little more than tribal or nationalistic prejudice. In other respects they go the heart of what we believe and the guiding principles by which we live. 

The principal difference for Christians is our belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the word that was with God from the beginning and was God, who became incarnate of the virgin Mary, taught and did great works for God in an earthly life without sin, who died a sacrificial death and was raised to life again. It is our belief in what we call the divinity of Christ and his place in the Holy Trinity of the one God, that Muslims reject. Furthermore the Koran, the sacred book of Islam, attributes to Jesus sayings which we can safely say he were not his teaching, and which Muslims take to mean that he endorsed the authority of Mohammed who was still to come. That is wrong, but we need to recognize that they still have a high regard for Jesus as a prophet, and for Mary as a faithful servant of God. There is a chapter in the Koran about Mary with an alternative account of the birth of her child Jesus and she is highly praised, as is Jesus; but in the same chapter there is strong condemnation of those who say that he is the Son of God:-

Those who say: 'The Lord of Mercy has begotten a son', preach a monstrous falsehood, at which the very heavens might crack, the earth break asunder, and the mountains crumble to dust. That they should ascribe a son to the Merciful, when it does not become him to beget one!

Christians, like Jews, are described in the Koran as unfaithful and liable to terrible punishment. While Christians and Jews are accepted as "people of the book" and given some recognition that "pagans" do not have, they are all the "unfaithful", that is, Christians and Jews together with pagans, are all believed to be going to hell. The threat of punishment in hell is repeated many times and is much more prominent in the Koran than it is for any purpose in the Bible. Furthermore the "faithful" are called upon in the Koran to "make war on the unfaithful", although many modern Muslims qualify this a good deal especially in regard to protecting the innocent from harm. 

I am not skilled to interpret the Koran as a Muslim teacher would, and I expect that a broader view is taken by many, but the words are there: Prophet, make war on the unbelievers and the hypocrites and deal sternly with them. Hell shall be their home, evil there fate. I am sure that many Muslims would find a more tolerant interpretation than the literal meaning of these of words might suggest, while others certainly do not. I said it is dangerous to pay attention to such differences, but the reality is that there are profound differences and the basis for possible conflict runs deep. If you think the threat of conflict can be consigned to the dustbin of history, just have look at what is still happening in the world today, the aftermath of "September 11th", along the borders of what was once the Islamic empire in the South East of Europe, or consider the difficulty of finding peace for Israel and the people of Palestine, or on the border India and Pakistan, or the civil war a few years ago in Lebanon, or the point of violence in the oppression of Christians by Muslims today in the south of Sudan. There is no point in saying in the face of such realities that it does not matter what people believe as long as they are sincere, - as misguided well-intentioned Christians and liberal humanists in the West are inclined to think. It matters a great deal: what people believe has serious consequences in what they do. But as I said, this is dangerous territory. Perhaps we should leave it for now and return to the Bible and the story of Ishmael. 

The effect of doubting God's promise

Ishmael was born because Abraham and Sarah did not trust God to fulfil his promise that their descendants would become a great nation, as numerous as the stars in the sky: 

He believed God then, but not later as they aged and still had no son: 

So who they named "Ishmael". There was conflict in the household as you might expect. When Hagar found that she was pregnant, she had contempt for her mistress, and then when her mistress dealt harshly with her she ran away. But the Lord told her to return: 

She was to be blessed by God, and it might have looked like the fulfilment of God's promise to Abraham, but there was something wrong and the conflict surrounding the birth of her son would continue: 

You see there a reflection of that conflict between the different descendants of Abraham which was to continue through the centuries. The drama still had other elements to come. When God's promise of a son born of Sarah was renewed, (and she was now called Sarah not Sarai), Abraham fell on his face with laughter, and he pleaded with God to accept Ishmael, but God insisted that his covenant would be kept with Sarah's son Isaac: 

See how God continued to bless Ishmael, even if his birth was a sign of the lack of faith of Abraham and Sarah, while the blessings he had promised would also come to them in spite of their lack of faith. So Isaac was born and perhaps all might have been well, but the seeds of conflict had been sown long before. Sarah could not bear the thought that her son might inherit equally with the son of her slave, as we learned on the reading today: 

Abraham was very distressed at this, but believing now that God's promise would be fulfilled through Isaac he acceded to Sarah's demand and sent Hagar and Ishmael away (Genesis 21:11-14). Then came the event in the wilderness, when the dying child is heard by God and saved. Ishmael, "God hears him", was a sign of the faithfulness of God in spite of the unfaithfulness of those whom he calls. That symbol still stands, the children of Ishmael are still with us, as are the children of Israel, and God remains ever faithful whatever conflicts our lack of faith may bring upon us. For this we are thankful. In the name of Christ, Amen.

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