The Lord Hears Us When We Cry
In a heart-wrenching and desperate scene from the book of Genesis, Abraham, in order to please his first wife Sarah, sends his wife Hagar and son into the desert with little food and a skin of water. The two refugees travel far enough into the wilderness that they are alone and isolated, and their meager resources depleted. The mother places the boy under a bush protecting him from the glaring heat of the sun and walks a short distance away. She cannot bear to watch her son die. And the Bible says that she sobbed. A moment later, the boy began to cry, too. The words of Ecclesiastes come to mind. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to laugh and a time to weep. In the midst of a very anxious and dreadful moment, when all seemed lost and the day was full of weeping, God heard the boy crying. The Lord would keep his promise to Abraham. Ishmael would survive.
I stand here this morning to acknowledge our own moments of desperation, when the only thing we know to do is to sit down and cry. A poet writes that when we cry it is important to listen to God with a broken heart for the Lord is not only the doctor who mends it, but also the Father who wipes away the tears. (Criss Jamie)
When Jesus learned that his good friend Lazarus had died, the Bible says that he wept. C. S. Lewis shares the perspective that crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But we have to stop sooner or later and decide what to do. Jesus stopped crying and decided what to do. He visited a tomb and ordered Lazarus to come out. An Egyptian woman stopped her crying, too, as she responded to the divine assurance that God would be with them. As I ponder the jealousy of Sarah and wonder why Abraham yielded so easily to Sarah’s request without a word of resistance or hint of protest, it is quite riveting to see how God is involved behind the scenes. In a very powerful statement, it is said that God was with the boy as he grew up.
Ishmael’s blood was a mixture of Abraham, a wandering pilgrim chosen by God to father a new nation of special people, and that of an Egyptian maidservant by the name of Hagar. The boy would grow and mature, and become a “son of the desert,” well-known for his ability to navigate harsh terrain. From his blood would come another nation and the rest is history.
This story is an odd story for me. For the sake of companionship and maybe love, two cultures are briefly united only to push against one another because of strong feelings of pride and jealousy. The story serves to remind us that our decisions can have long-lasting consequences, sometimes good and sometimes not so good. As a mother and son are exiled, we can only speculate about the mood in the camp they were forced to leave behind. Here we draw a blank. The Bible adds nothing more. All we know is that this man Abraham who listened to the voice of God, who made the decision to leave his country, his people and his father’s household for a new land, honored the request of Sarah and did what appears to be the unthinkable. He sent two people into the desert, with no assurance for their safe passage to anywhere much less the hope of returning. And I wonder. I wonder if Abraham stood there watching as two members of his family walked and faded away.
The likelihood of a woman and child surviving the brutal environment of a desert was not likely at all. Maybe Abraham cried, too, even though we have no record of it. Such is the way of human relationships. They are not always fluid and smooth. Sometimes they are complex and befuddling. As we try to make our way through life, there are times and places where we encounter our own exile and place of wilderness. We find that life is uneven and unpredictable, and there is a threat of danger. Whatever comes our way, however, the Bible is clear: The Lord hears us when we cry.
In his book “The Sea Is Never Full,” Elie Wiesel writes about the events of the late 1960’s noting that the times were dramatic and filled with intervals of freedom punctuated by brutal interventions. A lot of people cried in the 60’s. In the midst of war and demonstrations, rebellion and social change, Wiesel asked a revealing question, “Where does God fit in?” (pages 14 and 16)
Today, we, too, live in times that are dramatic. Chaos and horrific violence have come to the people of Syria and Iraq. Refugees by the thousands pour into Jordan and other places seeking safety and refuge. Now the political pundits begin to debate and wonder what will become of Afghanistan after the American military pulls out after twelve long years of war. Closer to home, evil raises its ugly head as we have endured 74 shootings on school campuses since the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
Meanwhile excitement builds as team USA prepares for Portugal later today while thousands of miles away a suicide bomber in Nigeria shatters the peace. Human trafficking and modern day slavery plague the countries of Thailand, Malaysia and Venezuela. Pope Francis argues against the legalization of recreational drugs while the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA approved a recommendation to change language in the Book of Order to indicate that “marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”
In a pastoral letter addressed to congregations of the Presbyterian Church (USA), it is stated that the decisions of the General Assembly came with much thought, discussion, and prayer, and that the Assembly’s actions are the result of deep discernment to hear God’s voice and discern God’s will. In the meantime, in this season of both happiness and sadness over the Assembly’s decisions, the call is now issued for us to remember the overflowing grace and love God gifts us with, and to take seriously our charge to bestow the same grace and love to one another.
Where does all of this leave us? It seems to me that our best course of action is to stay the course, to remember who we are and to whom we belong. Jesus Christ is Lord! Our mission and work tomorrow will be the same as it is today, as it was yesterday. The apostle Paul wrote about grace. Our call in these dramatic times is grounded in the commitment to be students of Jesus Christ and to bear fruit in his name, to practice a lively faith, to live with hope, and not give in to any form of despair, to pick up the cross, again and again and again, and follow Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
In the name of Jesus Christ, I wish to assure you this morning that our future is filled with hope. As the Psalmist proclaims, there are uncertainties and insecurities in this life, but we can always depend on the love of the Father. It is for this reason that there is light even in the midst of darkness, incomprehensible joy in the midst of confusion and sorrow. (Psalm 32, paraphrased by Leslie Brandt)
And let us hold tight to another biblical truth. If God can give attention to the young boy Ishmael who was unable to defend himself and provide a holy presence in a time of great need, the Lord will offer his holy presence and also his help to people of the church as well.
The question surfaces again as it will some other time down the road, “Where is God in the midst of this?” The answer is simple, “God is where his people are.” And the biblical record supports the faith and conviction that in the darkest hour of human need, when all seems lost and the day is full of weeping, the Lord is with us.
In the words of Jesus, this is not a time to be afraid. It is a time in which to show total allegiance to Jesus Christ, the One who has come to offer us the gift of eternal life. Amen.