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Strength For The Journey

A Misdirected Faith

Erwin W. Lutzer | October 9, 2005

Selected highlights from this sermon

Faith and doubt can co-exist in the same person. Abraham had experienced the covenant with God in Genesis 15, only to give in to frustration, culture, and the ticking of the biological clock. He listened to his wife instead of trusting God, and conceived a child with Hagar.

His impatience and doubt lead to both short-term and long-term consequences that are still felt today. But God brings hope, healing, restoration, and grace to those who trust in Him and in His Son, Jesus Christ.

[A man] in the New Testament in the presence of Jesus said these words. He said, “Lord I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” What this man said in those words is first that it is possible for faith and doubt to coexist in the same person. Even while we believe it is possible for us to doubt. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Secondly, by implication what he is saying is that it is possible for believers to make decisions and to act in ways that sometimes betray their doubts.

Today our message is about decisions—good decisions, bad decisions, decisions we have made, decisions other people have made for us that may be good or bad, and the whole business of the need to seek God in making those decisions. Abraham is our example here in chapter 15 of the book of Genesis. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. In chapter 16 Abraham is wondering and doubting God.

The story is very interesting and instructive, and if you have your Bibles please turn to the sixteenth chapter of the book of Genesis. In order for us to understand the context we need to paint the picture. God had said to Abraham, “I am giving you this land, and it is for you and for your offspring eternally. I’m giving you the land forever.” Well that was fine, but the question was how is he going to have offspring? Abraham was getting very old and Sarah was already beyond the point where she could really bear a child and so he and Sarah were obsessed by this question: “How is God going to do it? We believe that we’ve heard Him correctly, but the problem is we can’t see how this can happen.”

Back in chapter 15, Abraham says to God when they are having a discussion, “What about Eliezer of Damascus? He could be my heir.” That was in keeping with the customs. If a couple were childless it was possible for them to take the steward of their house, the one who had the most responsibility, the one who represented them well and to say, “You’re going to be my heir.”

But God says, “No Abraham, you are wrong. Someone who actually comes from your own body, your own son is going to be the heir.” But what God did not say at this point was that the heir was going to come through Sarah. So, that sets us up now for the sixteenth chapter of the book of Genesis where Abraham is taking another step on the interesting journey of faith.

First of all, we are going to walk through the sequence of events. Then, we are going to talk about decisions and what this passage really does have to say to us today and the need that we have to listen to the lessons that it has. But first let’s walk through the sequence of events.

First of all, in verses one through four you have what we could call a desperate decision. I’m reading the text: “Now Sarah, Abraham’s wife had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant named Hagar, and Sarah said to Abraham, ‘Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarah. After Abraham had lived in the land ten years, Sarah Abraham’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abraham her husband as a wife.” Wow.

Childlessness in those days was considered such a curse that there was a common custom which was very accepted in that society, that if a woman couldn’t bear a child she could designate a servant and give that servant to her husband. When that baby was born, it would be regarded as hers.

What are the elements that went into this decision that Abraham and Sarah made? First of all, time. Their body clocks were ticking and it was getting too late for them to have children. Sarah apparently had already passed that point and Abraham was on the verge of no longer being able to father a child. So time was very, very important here if God was going to do something.

The second was frustration. You’ll notice what Sarah says, “Behold the Lord,” verse two, “has prevented me from bearing children.” And she was right. God does have these things under His control. But, “Here’s God who gives us a promise, and all that we have is the promise. We don’t have a son. So God, where are you? If you are the God that promises, why aren’t you the God that does?” And so she’s saying, “It’s God’s fault. He gives us hope but He doesn’t come through.” So there was that frustration. The promise was not complete.

The promise was a little bit ambiguous. When God spoke to Abraham in the previous chapter He said, “That the person that is going to be your heir will come from you.” But, He did not say that Sarah was going to be the mother of the child or needed to be.

And then something else went into the decision, and that was opportunity. “Culture said that it was okay to do it this way, and we are going to go with culture rather than God’s Word. We can’t wait for God! We have to help God out and culture has found a way.” It’s Sarah’s idea and she says, “Abraham do this.” We don’t know whether he did it eagerly, but at any rate her husband did what she suggested.

The text tells us this: “Now Abraham listened to the voice of Sarah,” last part of verse two. How we wish that the text would read, “And Abraham listened to the voice of God.” He didn’t. He went with what Sarah has proposed. He was on the verge of a decision that would have implications that he could not possibly have understood—implications for 4000 years.

On Tuesday I was sitting in a barber shop. I got a haircut, you might not have noticed, but I did. While I was waiting, I picked up a copy of the Chicago Tribune and read an article on page five or six that has to do with the Abrahamic decision found in this chapter. Wow. The whole question of who inherits the promises: is it the Israelis because of their heritage through Isaac, or is it the Arabs, largely Muslim, who believe that they should inherit the promises because of Ishmael? All this is happening in Israel today because of the decision that Abraham is about to make. And, he listens to his wife rather than God. So that’s the desperate decision.

What are the consequences? Here we are talking about short-term consequences. You’ll notice that the text says that they have an argument in the home because Hagar conceived. And when she conceived, “When she saw that she had conceived she looked with contempt on her mistress.” Hagar thought that she was superior to Sarah. Because after all, Hagar was bearing a child and children were highly prized. So now she looks with contempt at Sarah.

You can almost hear it in the kitchen, can’t you? “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. I’m having a baby and you’re not!” How does Sarah react to this? She reacts with anger. You’ll notice it says in verse five, “Sarah said to Abraham, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you. I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me.’”

Wait a moment Sarah, not so fast! Whose idea was this anyway? Isn’t it interesting in human nature that we want to take credit for all the things that work out that are successful, and then we love to blame other people for decisions we make that turn out to be wrong decisions? Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. When there is failure you can’t find who caused it. But if you are successful you’ve got all kinds of people lined up to take the credit. So that’s Sarah. She’s frustrated, she’s angry, and she’s the one who made the decision. But, she is blaming Abraham for the results.

Now Abraham doesn’t come off to well here either because you’ll notice he says in verse six, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Wait a moment Abraham. I know that what he’s trying to say is that, “Hagar is your servant and you have the responsibility for her.” But I think there is something else going on here in the text. I think he is advocating his responsibility as the head of his home. He should have stepped in and said, “Now I know that we have a problem, but this is what we should do to bring peace to this situation.” You would think that Abraham would step up to the plate. But he’s simply saying, “Do to her whatever you want to do.”

She said, “All right, since you’re giving me that permission,” the text says that, “She dealt harshly with her.” That was a bad response. There is a different way to take care of Hagar than to deal harshly. But, Sarah is angry and frustrated and she made it very, very hard for this maid. And the Bible says that, “Hagar then fled from her and went into the desert.”

I’ve often thought, “What was Hagar thinking anyway? Did she think she could survive in the desert?” The desert is relentless, the desert is cruel. There’s very little water and there’s very little food in the desert. How in the world does she expect to live?

Maybe she went into the desert hoping that she could return to Egypt. Silly decision, impossible decision, because she would be the prey for animals as well as marauders and men. And, there’s no way that she would have made it to Egypt on her own. Maybe it was even an attempt to commit suicide. “I’m going to go into the desert, I’m going to be there and I’m going to die. I’m rejected by this couple even though the husband is the father of my child. What I’m going to do is to simply end it all because I can’t take it anymore.”

Well, those are the immediate consequences. But now in the midst of this there is God’s intervention. God comes on the scene. We read these words in verse seven, “The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur,” the angel of the Lord Jesus.

We’ve learned before and if we had time today I’d prove it again, that whenever you have reference to “the angel of the Lord”—not “an angel of the Lord,” but “the angel of the Lord,”—we are talking about the second person of the Trinity. “The angel of the Lord” in the Old Testament is spoken of as both being the Lord as well as being distinct from the Lord God. And, the only person who could possibly be God and yet not be the Father is Jesus. And so Jesus made many appearances on this earth; He was a guest on this earth before He came in flesh in Bethlehem.

So what does He do? He finds this woman and asks her something. Don’t you like the way in which the Bible puts it? It’s not because He was looking for her and she was lost, but the angel of the Lord shows up and says, “Hagar, servant of Sarah, where have you come from and where are you going?” Once again He doesn’t ask the question in order to learn new information. The angel wants Hagar to do the speaking, to let Him know, and she can say it on her own.

It’s something like in the Old Testament where God says, “Adam, where are you?” It’s not because God is looking and you are hiding among the trees and He can’t find you. What God wants Adam to do is to, “Tell me where you are. Admit where you are, admit your need. Tell me what’s going on in your life and then we can dialogue.”

So the angel of the Lord says, “Tell me where you came from and where are you going?” And may I say maybe that’s what Jesus is asking in you to do? I don’t know who you are today, visitor, somebody who’s attended for a while, or somebody who’s trying to find their way in life when life gets very harsh. Jesus comes to us today and says, “Where have you come from and where do you think you’re going? Tell me.”

And then very graciously this angel gives a command and also some consolation. He gives a promise. Speaking to her He says first of all the command, “Return to your mistress and submit to her. You stay out here and you are going to die in this wilderness. There’s no hope that you are going to survive. Life is tough back there, but if you go back and if you act differently,” I’m sure that’s implied, “and you begin to submit yourself,” and in fact that is what the text says. “Submit to Sarah, she’s going to treat you better. It’s time for you to knuckle under. You can’t run from your problems. You can’t think to yourself that you can make it on your own and the way to get out of this is to escape. No, no, no. Go back and live differently. Tell Sarah, ‘Sarah, I’m going to be submissive to you. The arguments are going to end.’”

That’s His first command. Then notice what He also does is He gives a promise. He says, “‘Behold, you are pregnant and you shall bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael.’” Ishmael means “the Lord hears.” It has essentially the same meaning as the name Samuel, the Lord hears. “God heard you in the midst of your misery; God heard you there in the desert. And so you name this boy that you are going to have Ishmael.”

And then you’ll notice also, and I happen to have skipped it, not intentionally but unintentionally. In verse ten the angel of the Lord said to her, “‘I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.’” Wow! She’s going to have the same promise as Abraham. God says, “Abraham you won’t be able to number your seed.” God says to Hagar as a result of bearing Ishmael, “You will not be able to number your seed.” The promises superficially appear alike, and at this point they are alike. Of course they are going to have major differences, but that’s another story. So He says, “You’re going to be blessed.”

Then you’ll notice that it says in verse 12, “This child will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.” It was probably a reference to the nomads and the difficult life that is going to be lived in the desert as well as the restlessness of the Ishmaelites. The Ishmaelites will be in conflict. There is going to be disagreement with their kinsmen, particularly with their cousins and with their brothers. So God says, “This is the kind of people that there will be.”

In the midst of the experience you’ll notice it says in verse 13 that Hagar, “Called the name of the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘I have seen Him who looks after me.’ Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.” She says, “God you see me, you heard me(that’s Ishmael, the meaning of the word). “You heard me and now it is very clear that you are actually seeing me in my need and in my distress.” And this well, later on in Jewish history, was considered to be a sacred place because God had revealed Himself there and it is a reminder of the fact that God does indeed see us.

Now when Hagar goes back she tells Abraham and Sarah about her experience. Evidently they believe her because the text ends by saying, “That she gave birth to a son and they named him Ishmael.” She must have said, “God says that the name is to be Ishmael,” and Sarah and Abraham went along with that and that’s what the baby was named when she gave birth to him. What an interesting story.

But now let’s talk about decisions and lessons that we learn from the historical account. First of all, impatience leads to regrettable decisions. You think of the decision and what it means in this home. And I can maybe put it this way: when we don’t wait on God before we make a decision, when we don’t wait on God we will always wish that we had. Or perhaps I can even put it this way: when we fail to trust we can be trusted to fail. The decision seemed rational, it seemed reasonable, it was keeping with culture and culture was dictating what they would do. And, it was consistent with what they thought God might have done. But it did not represent the kind of faith and the kind of waiting and the kind of seeking that would have given God the opportunity to direct them differently.

Now think about the consequences of this decision. We’ve talked about the immediate consequence being conflict in the home, and the conflict doesn’t end, as we shall see in the next message. But then think also of the long term historical consequences. Ishmael would be born, he would leave the land, and actually a wife would be given to him from Egypt, the Bible says in chapter 21 of Genesis. So, a wife would be given to him from Egypt.

Think of it this way: Isaac is going to be born. There’s Isaac and Jacob, and Jacob is going to have a son whose name is Joseph. Joseph is going to be in a well and his brothers are going to drag him out of the well, and he is going to be sold to Ishmaelites, who are on their way to Egypt. So the whole conflict here is being set up. Furthermore, the Arabs today, largely Muslim, believe it is actually Ishmael that should inherit the promises. The argument is that Ishmael is the firstborn. So, the promise to the land and the promise to the descendants is not rightfully that of Isaac but rather it is to Ishmael and to his descendants.

This explains why there will not be any peace in the Middle East ever until Jesus Christ returns. You have two conflicting groups of people, each of whom believe that God gave them the land, each of them claiming Abraham as their father, each of them claiming descendants that are like the sand of the sea, innumerable, and each of them insisting that the city of Jerusalem and all of the territory belongs to them.

In the next message I am going to discuss this in more detail. We are going to see what the Koran has to say about it because it actually is not explicit on that point. But, throughout the centuries Muslim interpreters have always assumed and have argued that Ishmael is the inheritor of the promises. Now they are wrong, but the point to be made is that this strife that God predicted, this unsettling conflict between Ishmael and Isaac and their descendants is all set up right here in this text.

I find it interesting that in chapter 12 God says to Abraham, “I am going to give you the land. Leave your kindred and come into this land.” And so he does and he goes into the land. And then it says that there is a famine in the land and Abraham went down into Egypt. He failed at that point; we preached a message on it. But while he was there he evidently met Hagar and she became a part of his entourage. He had 318 men. I mean, Abraham was a great, great man. And so he probably had many people from Egypt.

Do you think that the time that Abraham went into Egypt and they met Hagar and then after that this incident, did Abraham have any possible inkling of the fact that his decision is going to set up a series of dominos that would still have impact today? There is no way on God’s green planet that he could have thought that this decision would have such great impact.

And sometimes that’s the way our decisions are too. I’ve made decisions that are very minor that on the surface appear to have no great consequence. And then you look back and you realize, “I was going through a door. I opened a door which led to other doors, which led to other doors, to other doors that became part of a whole sequence.” Nobody can predict the long term impact of a decision.

And when you are down and desperate you make disastrous decisions. If you have decisions, and some of them are more critical than others, if you are deciding whom you are going to marry or even where you are going to work or what are you going to do with your life, you have to keep moving forward in the will of God. But, those plans must constantly be submitted to God because you might be making a decision that will have consequences that are negative because you failed to trust. So the first lesson is that impatience leads to regrettable, regrettable decisions, and we could give many, many examples of that.

Secondly, God comes to us in our distress and in our misery. Here’s Hagar who basically is a single mother. She is in a home where she is not liked by the wife. And by the way, God does not recognize her to be one of Abraham’s wives. The angel of the Lord says, “Return back to your mistress.” So she is to go back as a servant into this home. But here she is in desperation. We could argue about whether or not it was a wise decision. Of course we’ve argued that Abraham’s decision was unwise.

But here she is and she could say to herself, “I’m in the midst of a predicament that was not made by me. It was made for me by others. And now I am part of a whole network of events here over which I have no control.” When we make bad decisions does God say to us, “Well you know, I think that’s the end of it. You didn’t seek Me and you just go ahead and live with the consequences, and misery will track you for the rest of your days”? No, God comes and gives hope and gives mercy. And if you want to find some of the most wonderful Christians you’ll ever find—wonderful believers, they are of Arabic descent.

Now I have to clarify something that we don’t have the opportunity to go into in detail here and that is this: it is not true that you can always trace the lineages and the various genealogies with accuracy because there has been so much intermarrying. But I will tell you without fear of contradiction that there are many descendants of Ishmael today who are believers in Jesus Christ, who are our brothers and sisters, who are being blessed by God, more blessed by God than the descendants of Isaac if they reject God’s Messiah. So let’s keep in mind that in the midst of a bad decision God always brings grace, God always brings strength. God always does something with whatever it is that we give Him.

You’re here today and you say, “Pastor Lutzer, I have made a very bad decision that I have to live with.” Yes, you have to live with it. But I want you to know that God comes and He takes those bad decisions and He makes something of them. And He says, “Out of the consequences, good is going to come.” In wrath He remembers mercy and in failure He gives grace. So if you are sitting here today living with a bad decision, visualize the angel of the Lord coming to you and saying, “I am going to bless you and I am going to be with you.”

This past week I met a man who had a marvelous conversion story. Because of anorexia, did I get that word right? No, I have the wrong word. Dyslexia, that’s it, big difference. He was told by teachers he would never be able to read. He was 17 years old and had never been able to read and he was gloriously converted. He basically took a fast track and crammed in his education and ended up going to college and almost getting straight As. His conversion was so miraculous and what he said was that his parents despised and rejected him; the schools rejected him and said, “You’ll never amount to anything because you’ll never be able to read.”

And this is what he said to me, he said, “I learned something. People do not have the last word regarding your life. Jesus does.” Isn’t that great? And you might be a victim today of other people’s bad decisions. But people do not have the last word in your life—Jesus does. And God comes to Hagar and says, “Hagar, I am going to bless your descendant anyway.”

There’s a third lesson, and that is that Jesus Christ is the one that both sees and hears. “Oh Lord, you see me, Beer-lahai-roi, the God who sees me.” And she’s there at the well and she says, “Lord, even though I didn’t know that anyone was out here, you are there.” He sees people today abandoned in their own deserts. He sees people today who are not only abandoned but those who feel very empty in their lives. The desert is outside and the desert is in their lives. He comes and He brings hope, He brings healing, He brings restoration and He brings grace.

I was reminded of the fact that Jesus met someone else at a well. There’s a story in the New Testament of Jesus coming to the well, to the woman at the well, or rather He was seated there when she came with her bucket to draw water. What’s remarkable about that story is that she is the first person in the Gospel of John to whom Jesus revealed who He was, that He was the Messiah. She had been through a bad series of relationships. She had had five husbands and now was living with the sixth husband without the benefit of marriage because marriage had become a charade.

And there she is and Jesus says to her, “I have living water to give you.” She couldn’t look to her husbands for any sense of strength or satisfaction and she didn’t have a home where she could derive some ability. But Jesus said, “If you believe on Me, from within you there will be rivers of living water springing up into everlasting life.” And she became the means by which an entire town essentially was converted. They listened to her testimony and they said, “In light of your humility and in light of the fact that you are saying that this man knew all about you and we know all about you, sinner, He must be the Messiah.” And many more believed because of her testimony and they went out to see Jesus.

Jesus meets us at our extremities. He meets us in our despair, He meets us in our deserts and He comes to us. “Wonderful, merciful, Savior, precious Redeemer and friend, who would have thought that a lamb would rescue the souls of men? You are the One that we praise, You are the One we adore, You give the healing and grace our hearts always hunger for.”

Let’s pray. “Father thank You for Your love and grace, and for Your mercy that has been given to all of us. Thank You also, Father, that You came to Hagar. We want to thank You today that You did not abandon her. Thank you that You blessed her and said that her seed would be blessed. Thank You that you took a decision that was not Your perfect will and used it for Your own purposes. And today we thank You that even history is Your story, and that part of the conflict is a part of the picture that You are painting in history. We pray today, Father for those who are here who feel that they’ve made decisions that have been unfruitful and wrong, and they are living with those decisions or decisions that were made on their behalf that have caused them pain. Show them, Lord God; show them that You are the God who sees and the God who cares. Come to them in their despair, we ask in Jesus’ name, amen.”

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