PUSHED INTO DESPAIR
Genesis 21: 8 – 21, Psalm 86
June 23, 1996, by Tad Mitsui
The Genesis passage chosen for today is a terrible and cruel story. Preachers dread having to deal with a Bible passage as this. How do you make sense out of a beastly act committed by good people? The story does not match our images of apparently nice people like Abraham and Sarah. An innocent slave woman was forced to have a baby by Abraham in order that an important family would have an heir. She had no say in the matter. As a mere slave, she was not much better than a cow. Furthermore when a child was born of the legitimate wife, the woman, whose body was treated like a convenient tool, was pushed out into a desert so that she and the child would disappear and hopefully die. What is the message of such a terrible story?
Let me try three points. You may think of more.
1. There is a dark and evil side in all of us.
2. There is a spiritual disease which rejects all hope.
3. Salvation is always nearby.
Point No. 1: We do not want to admit it, but all of us have a dark side inside of us that we don”t want to admit exists. The Bible tells us about the dark sides of many good people. King David, a beloved figure for all Jewish people, once stole another man”Ñwife, using his position as the Commander-in-Chief of the Army arranged her husband to be killed on a battle front, and married her. Peter, the most passionate one of all Jesus”s disciples who came to be known as the vicar of Christ, disavowed Jesus three times one evening in order to save his own skin. Paul, before he became a disciple, had persecuted Christians and facilitated the first martyrdom of Stephen and condoned his execution. The Bible never hides the ugly sides of people no matter how otherwise faithful and good they were known to be.
Sarah was a good woman, worthy of being called the mother of a nation. But when she saw her son playing with his half-brother by another mother, she was consumed by a sudden surge of jealousy, and told her husband to get rid of Ishmael and his mother Hagar. It did not matter that it was Sarah”s idea that her husband took another woman to have a child. Now, she hated her husband”s mistress and her son. What a terrible raw hatred. It is easy to condemn Sarah. But what this story is telling us is that all of us have a dark nature within us. It is terrible to admit it even to ourselves. But it is true.
Why did God create us with such an awful nature? It is because God gave us freedom. If there is only one option before us, there is no choice. That is not freedom. Without freedom, we are like other animals who have no choice but to follow our natural instincts. Freedom requires the conditions wherein one can choose. But there is also an awful risk in freedom. We can make good decisions or bad decisions. It is entirely up to us. That is what it means to be free. So we must be honest and admit that we are capable of making a bad decision and committing cruelty. This is why it is very important to believe in forgiveness. We are made acceptable despite our faults by the grace of God. Let us be honest about ourselves, and recognize evil in us without being crushed by guilt.
Point No. 2: Now Hagar and her child Ishmael were pushed out into the desert with nothing more than a skinful of water and some food. She didn”t know where to go. Mother and the child wandered about Sinai desert under the hot merciless sun for several days. Eventually food and water ran out. She put down Ishmael in the cool shade of a bush. He was crying feebly for water. And she walked away as far as she could so that she did not have to hear the child cry. She could not stand to watch him die. Yet she could not walk away. This is a picture of absolute despair. She loved the child, so she could not walk away from him. But also because she loved him, she could not bear to listen to the feeble cry of a dying child. She was in limbo. She had lost all hope.
When you are in despair, you don”t see any sign of hope, even though it may be nearby and clearly visible. One of the most tragic things about people, who have lost all hope, is that they refuse to be hopeful even if it is possible. They are determined to be pessimistic. Hagar was so despairing that she did not see the well of fresh water nearby.
A friend of mine, a United Church minister who was sitting with me at the same table at the Conference in Ottawa last week, told me about a woman who was dying of anorexia. She was abused as a child and became convinced that nobody liked her nor loved her. Worst of all, she was convinced it was all her fault. She stopped eating as an attempt to be slim and presentable, so that she could be acceptable at least in physical appearance . She had reached 80 lb and was still convinced that she needed to reduce weight. At that point, people around her began to ask if it was no longer a psychological disorder, but rather something even more profound – i.e. a spiritual disease. She could never accept herself. She basically wanted to disappear. No medical doctor nor psychiatrist could help her, so she was referred to the minister. And my friend was not sure if she could help her. When one has totally lost hope, one can not see even a very visible sign of hope nor accept a helping hand.
The final point: When Hagar lost all hope, God heard Ishmael”s cry. It is interesting. Isn”t it? The Bible was describing Hagar”s conditions until then. But suddenly the attention was switched to her son. The Bible said, “God heard the voice of the boy.” Obviously, the boy never stopped crying. Hagar was so much in despair that she had even stopped crying. Her tears had dried up. One cries when one subconsciously knows that there is someone who can hear the cry and help. One cries when one hopes to be heard. Ishmael did not give up hope. Weeping is a hand stretched in search of help – a manifestation of hope. I still remember when I wept for the first time as an adult in the presence of other people. It was when my father died. I had just finished Theological School. As one who was brought up to behave like a man in the macho culture of Japan, I had tried hard not to cry. But it was no use. I had to cry. I immediately became conscious of the eyes of other people. What would people think of a grown man not being able to control himself? I realize now that at that moment I was asking people to help me. Soon I felt the whole weight of despair lifted while weeping. People did not look at me with disdain. Instead, I rediscovered a community of people who cared.
God heard Ishmael”s cry and helped to open the eyes of Hagar. She found a well-spring of fresh water, which had always been there. They regained enough strength to find food in the desert and eventually learnt to live there. God promised Hagar that her son, Ishmael would grow up to be a mighty hunter and a provider in a desert. According to the legend, Hagar and Ishmael were the ancestors of the present day Arab nations, who have thrived in the desert lands of the Arabian peninsula and North Africa. Hagar found Ishmael a wife in the land of her birth – Egypt, and became the matriarch of a mighty nation, no longer a slave. She was a victim no more. The cry of an innocent child, who did not know how to give up hope, helped her to find salvation. That cry in the wilderness also meant she found her freedom; she became the mistress of her own destiny, because she found hope beyond despair.