The world is full of [img maze] shortcuts and sidesteps. Many of them look good on the surface, but if you use them you end up with an [img bank erosion] eroded hillside that is ugly and unstable. As I was thinking about some illustrations from my life on the topic of shortcuts, the first one to come to my mind was from my construction time in Africa. As an engineer, I knew a little about concrete and rebar. I had been asked to build some structures on the sands of the Kalahari Desert and I wanted them to last and hopefully to correct some of the construction deficiencies that plagued previous buildings, the biggest one being slabs that cracked and heaved. So I set out to design a slab that would last. I came up with a plan and got the materials ready.We had a work team come over from the US headed by a gentleman who had lived and built in the same location a number of years earlier, in fact, he had built most of the buildings that were having slab failure. Well, I handed him the plan, showed him the materials and told him exactly why we were using this particular rebar configuration. He nodded and I headed off for a few days of work in the city. When I returned, I found ½ of the rebar still on the ground, not in the slab and a note telling me that we didn’t need that much steel since this was Africa. He had taken a shortcut. You know what, I was livid, and a few months later, the very thing I feared began to rear its head – cracking slabs and that meant there would be shifting walls in the future causing costlier, more difficult repairs to ensure the building was safe for human occupancy.
I am not an [img drafting squares] expert designer, but as an engineer recently out of school, I knew that sand construction was different than typical solid ground construction. I also knew that shortcuts can be disastrous. Shortcuts always lead to bigger problems down the road, whether it is shorting the switchbacks on a trail which leads to [img bank erosion] erosion, leaving out the rebar in a slab which leads to cracking and failure or sidestepping God’s plans for building the church, growing in the faith or raising a family which all lead to the body of Christ failing to enjoy the vibrancy it could.
Today’s story about Sarai and Hagar addresses this reality of sidestepping God’s plan. Let me paint the picture: Abram has been promised some great things from God. He is going to become a great nation and [God] will bless [him]. The Lord continues by saying, “I will make your name great and you will be a blessing, I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3). To accomplish this end the Lord has promised Abram that he will have a son, from his own body. And this son will become his heir and if he can count the stars in the heavens, then he will know how many descendants he shall have (Gen 15:4-5). God is promising to work. Abraham is called upon to have faith in God’s plans and God’s ways.
But those promises have been 10 years in coming and still no children. His wife Sarai is roughly 75 years old now and he is about 85. Given these realities: a barren wife for your entire married life, old age, menopause has taken its course and this odd promise of posterity given by a “crazy” God who sends you away from your family and homeland to wander around in the desert, and it is no wonder that both Abram and Sarai started looking for shortcuts toward the promise of a son.
This story seems odd to many of us. First, it is hard to imagine owning slaves for most of us. Second, it is even harder to reconcile in our minds how one can just give a slave to her husband as a wife and then take the child born from that union as own’s own. But this was a fairly normal practice in many Ancient cultures from Egypt in the West to Babylon in the East. It was normal because barrenness was viewed very poorly and having children, especially a son to carry on the name and care for one in old age, was a sign of God’s graciousness and blessing, so many women in the wealthier classes who struggled to bear children used surrogate mothers in order to build families (WBC Gen 16:2).
So in one respect Sarai and Abram were very normal. They were conforming to the cultural patterns of the day in order to secure posterity and a future. But in another respect their actions showed a great lack of faith in the promises of God. Even more than that, their actions showed a lack of faith in God himself to accomplish his word. They had given up on God’s ways and were determined to take matters into their own hands and as we will see, these actions didn’t turn out for the best interest of all involved. In fact, stepping out of God’s will and taking a shortcut resulted in sin and damage.
First, both [img pointing fingers] blame everyone but themselves for the predicament in which they are found. God is blamed for Sarai’s barrenness and failure to bring forth children – “The Lord has kept me from having children” (Gen 16:2a). Abram is blamed for Hagar’s response to her mistress – “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering” (Gen 16:5a).
Second, there is self-righteous vindication present in Sarai’s life as she declares, “May the Lord judge between you and me” (Gen 16:5d) Oh, how quickly Sarai has [img who’s fault] forgotten whose plan this was, and now she stands before Abram declaring herself innocent of all wrongdoing, calling God to side with her and convict her husband. She dares to ask God to adjudicate the wrongs committed and find her innocent but him guilty for failing to protect her and her rights. And third, to make matters worse, Abram blows it all off and says, It isn’t my issue, “Do with her whatever you think best” (Gen 16:6b), which results in a fourth sinful reality expressed in these words penned by William Congreve, in The Mourning Bride, 1697, “Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d, Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.”
For that is exactly what Sarai unleashes onto Hagar – Hell. The NIV says Sarai mistreated Hagar (Gen 16:6c) but that would be a huge understatement. This same word translated here as mistreated is used to describe the conditions under which the Israelites lived when oppressed by the Egyptians. (Ex. 3:7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery (cognate) of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.) Sarai was taking all her frustrations, all her discord, all her pent up anxiety and shoveling it upon her maidservant to the point that Hagar flees.
Now Hagar wasn’t innocent in this whole thing either. Her sin in the process grew out of her response to her mistress. Instead of respecting her, she despises her. Despising is a strong word, but most of the time this word is used in the Bible it is translated as cursing. Here is one prominent example: (2Sam. 16:13) So David and his men continued along the road while Shimei was going along the hillside opposite him, cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt. The act of despising that David endured involved not just verbal curses but a rejection of his authority and right to rule. (when Absalom, his son, mounts a rebellion.) Hagar is responding the same way – she is rejecting her mistress, she is probably reminding her that, according to custom, God has cursed her and who needs to obey one who is cursed, as well as possibly feeling used in the whole process. And so when life gets hard, Hagar flees to the desert safe from the hardship and the pain.
All of this was the result of side stepping God’s plan. Instead of trusting God’s promise and God’s ways of fulfilling that promise, they created a situation where pain and suffering abounded and sin multiplied? The very foundation of life was cracking around them all for shortcutting God’s plans. So how is it that as people in 21st century America we sidestep God’s plans for the family, our growth in the faith and the life of the church? Here are some thoughts:
In his word, God clearly calls us to a family life that is centered on one mother and one father parenting a child and then discipling and training up the children of that monogamous union in the ways of God. But when God doesn’t cooperate with human desires, many turn to other ways. They sidestep God’s plan for the family and in that shortcut the world has ended up with the struggles surrounding divorce, alternative sexuality and its battle for equal rights. There are ethical questions and legal battles fought over embryo ownership and research as well as the rights of modern surrogate mothers. We find ourselves with large numbers of teen pregnancies, a broken foster care system, and parents and grandparents suing for rights all because we have strayed from the monogamous union of one man and one woman which God instructed us in his word.
But God’s way of forming a family is not the only place we fail to trust His ways for our families. Once these children are born into the world, there is a responsibility to train up our children. Deuteronomy 6:6-7 says, “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” But what happens when we don’t trust God’s plan of impressing his Word upon our childrens’ hearts? According to a 2011 Barna Study over 28 years, only 3 out of 10 Christians raised in the church will stay actively involved with it after leaving their parents home. That is 70% of kids raised in Christian homes who don’t stay connected to the institutional church, not all of them leave the faith, but the effects on the Church and their growth in the faith is definitely substantial. Why? I think it is because one hour’s worth of church and 2 hours worth of youth group, gems, cadets, and the like is not enough to compete with 40+ hours a week of indoctrination received in the schools, extra curricular activities and media in which we involve our children. It is hard to impress something on one’s children, if you aren’t around them all day long instructing, teaching and discipling.
In our manner of growing in the faith do we not pursue Hagar, if you will, sidestepping the directions of the Lord? Instead of meditating on the Word of God and storing it up in our hearts as so many Psalms and proverbs instruct us to do, why are so many believers woefully uneducated in simple Biblical history and doctrine? Why do we claim we are unable to learn the word of God and memorize it? Don’t we believe the word of God which says, Be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2b)? Guess what, our children aren’t the only ones being indoctrinated. Every time you as an adult open the newspaper, turn on the TV, listen to the radio, read a book or novel, whether it is high brow literature, trashy romance or non-fiction, you are being indoctrinated into a way of thinking and perceiving the world. You and your mind are being shaped and formed, that is why Paul calls us to Be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom 12:2b).
How else can the mind be renewed unless that which fills it is replaced with the Words of Life? And that takes memorizing! Is your mind being filled with the things of God in sufficient quantity to counteract all the lies, rubbish and junk the world is feeding you? Do you studying the Word of God, attend Sunday School lessons, and read meaty theology, or do you survive on the junk food of Spiritual life? Are short devotionals that only mention the Scriptures tangentially while [img syringe] inoculating with heart-warming stories the sum total of your Bible diet? Is the junk pandered in the Christian bookstore the meat of your spiritual intake or do you read good, solid thought provoking, God exalting literature? While we are talking about the renewal of the mind, how better to be renewed in our minds than by praying fervently[img church praying] (Eph. 6:18) And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. Prayer is another way of individually and corporately focusing upon God. Are our thoughts directed towards God always? Pray without ceasing the Scriptures command. Why do so many believers pray only in times of hardship and possibly at meals thanking God for their food but forgetting to thank God for his many other blessings. Why are we afraid to pray with others, when God has given us a Christian body to support and encourage us? Why is prayer so lacking in the life of the Christian church in the west?
Or what about the mistaken idea that one can be mature in the faith without practically living out the things confessed. Doesn’t James remind us: As the body without the Spirit is dead, so Faith without deeds is dead (James 2:26). Paul tells Timothy (2Tim. 1:13) What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. It is knowledge combined with action that God uses to grow and bless his people and when one is separated from the other we end up paralyzed at best and heretical at worst.
Finally, in our desire to build the church, how often do Christians fall victim to the lie that says, “God is responsible, therefore, I don’t need to do anything?” And so believers never get out and share the gospel message or even invite a friend, neighbor or stranger to hear the gospel in their church. And then we placate our consciences by saying, “The time just isn’t right to talk with them.” Didn’t God declare to us that the church grows by preaching to the Lost? (Rom. 10:14) How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? Have our excuses become one approach to shortcutting the ways and means of God for building the church?
Do not all of these sidestep the simple commands and promises of our Lord to (Mark 16:15) “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation,” because we have faith that the fields are ripe for the harvest (John 4:35)? God has instructed us in the path to take in order to enjoy his blessings – Trust him and his ways, as already revealed. Don’t veer to the right or left from them. Anything else brings hardship upon the body and leads to sin.
All of these examples have been given for the simple purpose of begging you to ask the question, “How do I try to sidestep God’s plans in order to get what I want?” And once that question has been answered, we can understand what follows from our sin. The story of Abram, Hagar and Sarai gives us a sobering look at the consequences of taking shortcuts from God’s plan and means. The son of Hagar will be a “wild donkey of a man, his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers” (Gen 16:12). The consequences of their sin brings forth a man who will live in stubborn hostility, burrowing deeper and deeper into his own desires and drawing further from the people of God. Those who won’t live by the Word of God become stubborn and defiant. It is inevitable, the heart is always moving either toward God or away, into submission or into rebellion. And sidestepping God and his word always leads away and into rebellion. And if that is where you find yourself today, on a shortcut, or with a hardened heart toward God and his word, let me tell you that there is a message of hope in this story and it is found when the Angel of the Lord appears to Hagar and declares the gospel to her.
“The gospel?” you say. “Yes, the gospel.” God incarnate appears and he calls Hagar to repentance. He reminds her that she is a “servant of Sarai” (Gen 16:8) and then she is instructed to “Go back to [her] mistress and submit to her” (Gen 16:9). Repentance is about turning around from the sin we find ourselves engulfed in and living into the God directed plans he has for his people.
In Chapter 30 of Deuteronomy, Moses declares the means in which one caught in the curses of sin can escape and return to the blessing of God. Listen, (Deut. 30:2-3) and when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.
Repentance isn’t easy. It involves turning from things that seem fond and inviting, but ultimately which lead to death, hostility, rebellion and separation from God. Jesus Christ is the Angel of the Lord calling all who hear to return to a life of faithful discipleship even when it is hard.
But even more than that, Jesus Christ, our Lord, the Son of God, came into the world, he suffered the wrath, he was despised, he was cursed and abused, rejected and disdained, beaten, flogged, humiliated and crucified so anyone who believes in his name and repents will become a spiritual descendant of Abraham, and a participant in the promises of God, even those who began life, or find themselves currently taking shortcuts.
- Opening illustrations
- Repeating the Fall, Sidestepping God’s plan, Taking matters into our own hands
- Sarai taking and giving Hagar –background information (Gal 12:2-3)
- Sarai – Blaming, Self-righteous, Oppressing (Gen 16:2, 5, 3:12, Ex 3:7)
- Abram – Not my fault, do what you want to her (Gen 16:6)
- Hagar – Despising & fleeing (2Sam 16:13)
- Ways we Sidestep God’s plan
- Building church (Mk 16:15, 2Tim 4:2)
- Receiving the blessing & Growing in Faith (Eph 6:18, Jam 2:26, Lk 11:28)
IV. God’s has heard your cry but sin still has consequences
- Ishmael the wild man (Gen 16:8-9, 12, Eph 6:5-8)
- Repentance means going back and serving faithfully even under oppression.
- Christ not only sees, but he also redeems. (Gal 3:13-14)