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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 06/25/2017

When I was gone back in May and had quite a bit of time on my hands waiting around in airports and riding on planes I read this book titled “The Old Testament is Dying.”  Without going into a lot of detail, what Brent Strawn, the author does is to treat the Old Testament as a language, and what history shows is that when fewer and fewer people use a language, it dies, it disappears.  He cites the fact that there have probably been 150,000 languages throughout the course of human history and now there are only about 6000 and linguists suspect that by the year 2100 only 600 of the current 6000 will still exist.  He acknowledges that there are probably some good things about having fewer languages, but when a language dies, bits of culture and history disappear too, and that’s not a good thing; it’s why native groups up here try to keep the Ojibway language alive.

The premise of the book then, is that the Old Testament is in imminent danger of experiencing such a death among Christians and in the general public because except for a few stories like the creation story, Noah’s Ark, parts of the Exodus story, maybe David and Goliath and a few others, most people, including those who worship regularly, are quite unfamiliar with the rest.  They aren’t learning or speaking the language.   In part he blames those of us who preach, citing statistics on how infrequently the Old Testament reading is used as the main text. 

Using the semi-continuous Old Testament readings though the summer and into the fall gives me a chance to perhaps pump some life into the Old Testament, around here anyway.  It is an important task.  As Christians we sometimes make this great distinction between the Old Testament and the New but as you study the Bible, you find that the New Testament is very dependent on the Old.  Especially in the gospels, many of the stories are told in ways that retell Old Testament stories or recall Old Testament stories and themes so it helps to know about those stories and themes. 

Anyway, as I preach this summer, some of the sermons may unapologetically include elements of Old Testament Bible study.  For some it might be review but I would hope that for everyone you might learn something new.  As Lutherans we claim to be about sola scriptura, scripture alone, and if that’s the case we should know our Bible.  The ELCA’s Book of Faith initiative which started about ten years ago and in theory is ongoing, said it quite well:  The goal was “That the whole church become more fluent in the first language of faith, the language of scripture, in order that we might live into our calling as a people renewed, enlivened, empowered and sent by the Word for the sake of the world.”

One of the problems with the Old Testament is that it includes texts that are difficult, sometimes even disturbing.  Today’s reading fits somewhere in the difficult to disturbing category, not as bad as next week’s where God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, but still a text that raises questions.  To review a little bit, last week the first reading came from chapter 18 of Genesis where God repeated to Abraham and Sarah the promise that they would have a son despite their advanced age, despite the fact that it hadn’t happened yet although God have first made the promise many years before that.  It was a promise that caused Sarah to laugh because it seemed so absurd.   The promise though, was ultimately fulfilled with the birth of Isaac.  In the meantime though, not trusting in the promise and doubting her ability to conceive, Sarah had offered Abraham her slave girl Hagar, an offer that resulted in the birth of Ishmael.

That more or less sets the stage for today’s reading.  Having given birth to Isaac, Sarah becomes resentful of the presence of both Ishmael and his mother Hagar.  She doesn’t want Ishmael to share the inheritance she sees as belonging to Isaac.  In fact, she doesn’t even want Hagar and Ishmael around; she’s offended by their presence and so she says to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  For Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael don’t even have names anymore; they’re just this slave woman and her son; her disdain toward them is clear.

As the father of Ishmael, Abraham doesn’t want to do it, he doesn’t want to cast them out.  But God assures him that things will be OK.  He says that it will be through Isaac that Abraham’s line will descend but at the same time, Ishmael will also be the father of a nation.  With that assurance, Abraham packed up Hagar and Ishmael and sent them off with some bread and water to wander in the wilderness.  Under the circumstances, God’s assurance or not, it seems to be a death sentence and that in fact is Hagar’s conclusion as the bread and water run out.  Anticipating the inevitable, she separates herself from Ishmael so she doesn’t have to watch her son die. 

At this point in the narrative you get an important play on words that gets lost as we read the story in English.  In English, verse 17 begins, “And God heard the voice of the boy.”  In Hebrew, the name Ishmael means “God hears,” so while “and God heard” is an accurate translation at the same time, Ishmael’s name is being stated.  This play on words creates double meaning which also creates some ambiguity.  Is it the name that’s most important or is the fact that God hears the cries of the outcast and has compassion most important or is it a little of both, intentionally intended to create some tension? 

Probably the latter; in any case I think it’s safe to say that it’s an important verse and one that brings us to the appearance of an angel.   An angel of God speaks to Hagar and says what angels always say.  Do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid because God has heard the boy.  God has heard and with that, God will save him and he will make a great nation of him.   As Hagar looks up, she sees a well; water in the wilderness is provided for her and for Ishmael and you know that providing food and water in the wilderness is always a sign of God’s compassion, always a sign of new life and possibilities.

This part of the Abraham story does tend to get neglected.  It’s not the main story because Isaac is the son of promise.  Abraham’s story will continue to be told through Isaac and his descendents; that’s where things are headed.  But then there is the other son, Ishmael who the text won’t dismiss easily.  Biblically, this is pretty much the end of the story for Ishmael; there are a few additional references to Ishmaelites and of course Muslim tradition claims him as the father of Islam but in the Bible Ishmael does fade into the background.  In today’s story though, something important is said through him.

The verse to pay attention to is verse 20 which begins, “God was with the boy…”  Ishmael is not the main story; he is not the chosen son; he will not be part of the chosen people.  But God is with the boy, with this outcast son of an Egyptian slave woman, a son who has been abandoned by his father.  God is with the boy.  There is grace here, grace that is given even though Ishmael is not one of the chosen ones.

Just as some of the stories of the Old Testament pose challenges, so do some of the themes.  One of those themes is that of God choosing one group of people over another and then sometimes choosing one particular line of those chosen over another line, Isaac chosen over Ishmael being one such example.   Our modern sensibilities tell us that it’s unfair.  Keep in mind though that being chosen isn’t a free ride.  The chosen ones are held to a high standard and they do face trials and difficulties.  They also have responsibilities being blessed to be a blessing, called to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.  Still, the apparent arbitrariness of it bothers us.

But…God was with the boy.  Being chosen is a privilege; it is an act of God’s undeserved grace, but it’s not an exclusive claim on God.  It doesn’t exempt all others from privilege or grace.  God cares about and provides for this other son.  God was with the boy.

This story winds up being another caution on limiting God’s grace.  As I’ve said before, as soon as we start putting limits on God’s grace we’re not talking about grace anymore; we’re talking about something else.  If there are limits, they’re God’s concern, not ours.  This story of Ishmael though is a reminder that we might be surprised by the extent of God’s mercy and grace.  It’s a reminder that just as God hears our cries, he hears the cries of others too, others who we might not choose.  Again we go back the pivotal verse that says “And God heard the boy” and we remember that the boy he heard was Ishmael.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”


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