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Genesis 21:8-21

Not Easy to Let Go

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Genesis 21:8-21

Not Easy to Let Go

Dr. Keith Wagner

In recent weeks we have been witnessing reports about the flooding rivers in the Midwest. Some towns, like Cedar Rapids, were completed under water. As the waters rise, cities and communities are facing the possibility of losing their towns, their homes, and many of their possessions. Fortunately there has been minimal loss of life due to advanced warnings. But many families are going through the pain of losing their houses and most of their belongings.

Some communities are faced with making difficult choices. If they allow some small levies to fail, towns will be saved while many corn fields will be lost. The decisions they make won’t be popular to everyone. It will be painful as people watch the flood waters consume their land and homes.

Letting go is never easy. Perhaps you have experienced the letting go of some of your prized possessions. Perhaps you have lost a love one. Some may have lost jobs. Others have had relationships which have ended. Some of you will experience the loss of your children as they leave for college, start their careers, get married or enlist in the military service.

Abraham had a hard time saying goodbye to his son, Ishmael. Ishmael was Abraham’s first-born son. His mother was Hagar, a slave girl. Abraham was instructed by God to send both Hagar and Ishmael away. Ishmael was only 14 years old, an age when a young man really looks to his father as a mentor and friend. Consider how painful it must have been for Abraham to follow through. He must have been devastated. What a difficult choice he had to make. If Abraham failed to listen to Sarah, he would lose her respect and go against God’s instructions. On the other hand, his obedience to God would result in the loss of his first born son.

This is a complex story for us to understand. We can’t imagine a God who would tell us to send our children away. We can however understand the jealousy Sarah must have felt with the presence of Hagar and Ishmael in her home. This story in many ways reflects the true to life problems we humans must sometimes face. In her book, Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible describes Hagar as a symbol of the oppressed and outcast. “She is the faithful maid, the surrogate mother, the resident alien, the other woman.” Hagar represents the women of society who are rejected, scorned or looked down upon.

Another view which is overshadowed by Abraham’s grief is the fact that Hagar and Ishmael, who are living in slavery, will be set free. Abraham had to make a difficult decision, one that resulted in a painful loss for him but Hagar and Ishmael will be free to live their lives no longer dependent on Abraham.

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I remember leaving my entire family in Florida and returning to Ohio in 1979. The call to ministry has resulted in moving five times. Each time we experienced the loss of friends, familiar places, and homes. My children still lament leaving friends and having to start over. We all experience losses: such as the loss of family, jobs, health, financial security or even stuff. Letting go is never easy. I believe we can all appreciate the agony that Abraham must have experienced.

God, however, did not leave Abraham without hope. God did not abandon Abraham. God told him not to be distressed. Ishmael would be the leader of a great nation. This was the same promise God had made to Abraham when God told him to leave his homeland and journey to Canaan. God’s promise could be trusted and so Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away early the next morning. Imagine the fear Hagar must have felt as she was forced to leave. She was alone, a woman in the wilderness, with virtually no chance of survival.

When Hagar got lost and ran out of water and food, she became desperate. Consequently, she placed Ishmael under a bush and walked away. All she could do was pray for help. She said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” Then grievously she wept as she prepared herself for the loss of her only son.

She had been sent away, but God did not leave her. God was listening. “God heard the voice of the boy and an angel of God called to Hagar.” “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid.” “Then Hagar opened her eyes and there in front of her was a well.” Just when all seemed hopeless, God came through.

As the story unfolds we discover that God was true to God’s word. God fulfilled the promises that were made. Even though we may find ourselves at a crossroads in life where difficult decisions have to be made we too can still rely on the promises of God. God does not abandon us. In fact, God is always with us.

God did not abandon Hagar and Ishmael and God will never abandon you. God is with you in your journey. You do not have to be a victim of the past. You are free to live your lives, because God wants you to be free and God will provide for you.

Henry Ward Beecher has been considered by many to be one of the most powerful preachers in US history. He had a reputation for being sensitive and he also had a great love for the sea. Beecher once stated that his mother never held him back. Rather, “a true mother’s thoughts follow the imagined future of her child.” A true mother joins her child as he/she sails through life.

I believe that verses 20 and 21 are the key to this whole story. It was in the wilderness where Ishmael grew up. It was in the wilderness where he received his wife. Had Hagar and Ishmael remained with Abraham they would have never been free. And, Ishmael may have never found someone to marry. In other words, although they were cast out, they moved forward, and God was with them.

Sometimes I feel guilty for the moves I have made in ministry. My children have had to change schools, homes and leave friends behind. When I look back, however I realize that each one has been blessed with a spouse. At least for our family, the tension and hardship of making changes and having to let go many times has resulted in meaningful relationships.

This story is unusual because we don’t normally find men in the bible listening to their wives. But God said to Abraham, “Whatever your wife Sarah tells you to do, do.” Had it not been for Sarah, Abraham would not have let go of Ishmael. He needed her help just as God needed Sarah to fulfill God’s promise.

The older I get the more I am convinced that women do indeed have a sixth sense. If the world leaders listened to their wives I am confident there would be world peace. Remember the perfect storm? Linda Greenlaw was the captain on the Hannah Boden, the sister ship to the Andrea Gail. She warned Captain Billy Tyne to avoid the storm that was approaching. But Tyne wanted to return to port with a full load of swordfish. Had he dumped his load he could have saved his ship plus the six men who were aboard.

My wife and I just celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. I have to admit that I do not always listen to her. When I am discouraged or stuck with some decision I know I can confide in her and she always has something to say. I don’t always agree with her, but I am learning that when I listen, things have a way of working out. It was after all through Sarah that Isaac was born, their child of promise. It was through him that the descendants of Abraham would multiply as God had promised.

I am sure that many men of faith are threatened by the fact that Sarah told Abraham to send his other son away. But it was the only way for Isaac to fulfill God’s promise that he would be the heir to Abraham’s leadership. We aren’t always able to see the bigger picture. There is no doubt that Abraham grieved over the situation. Thankfully Abraham acted on Sarah’s words and the faith community continued on. At the same time Ishmael was free. There can be no doubt that Abraham’s response to Sarah changed history.

The decisions you make may not be as dramatic or profound. Nevertheless, you can be assured that God will be with you and God will be with others who are affected by what you do. God loves all God’s children.

Copyright 2008, Keith Wagner. Used by permission.