God is faithful

Scripture: Genesis 21:1-21

Title: God is faithful


  • Introduction
  • God’s faithfulness to Sarah & Abraham
  • God’s faithfulness to Hagar & Ishmael
  • Conclusion


On the wall here is a picture of the newly elected Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad

–         At the age of 92 he is the oldest elected Prime Minister of all time

–         He looks in pretty good nick for 92 I reckon

–         This morning we continue our series on Abraham & Sarah, picking up their story from Genesis 21

–         By this stage Abraham is 100 years old and Sarah is 90

It has been about 25 years since Abraham left Haran in obedience to God’s call

–         More than once during that time God promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation

–         Because Sarah was unable to have children they did, on one occasion, take matters into their own hands and Abraham had a son (Ishmael) through Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar

–         But God made it clear that the son who would inherit God’s promises would come from Sarah

–         From Genesis chapter 21, verse 1 (in the NIV) we read…

Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.

When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”

11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us


On the face of it Genesis 21 tells the story of two mothers in very different circumstances

–         We don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface though to see God’s faithfulness at work

–         God is faithful in keeping his promise to Sarah & Abraham

–         And he is faithful in taking care of Hagar & Ishmael

God’s faithfulness to Sarah & Abraham:

On the wall here is the picture of a Cabbage Tree – an iconic sight on the NZ landscape. Some facts about Cabbage trees… [1]

–         The trunk of the cabbage tree is so fire-resistant that early European settlers used it to make chimneys for their huts.

–         Conveniently, too, the leaves made fine kindling.

–         Cabbage trees have a strong root system which gives the tree stability and helps stop soil erosion on steep slopes and along river banks.

–         Māori used cabbage trees for food and medicine. The root, stem and top are all edible, a good source of starch and sugar, while the leaves can be made into tea to cure diarrhoea and dysentery

–         Cabbage trees generally live for a long time – there’s one in Golden Bay that is thought to be between 400 – 500 years old.


We have a cabbage tree along the boundary of our section

–         Just over a year ago I cut the trunk off about a metre from the ground because it was becoming a problem to my neighbour

–         Given I had pruned it so hard I thought it would die – but it didn’t


The root system is so strong it regenerated new leaves straight out of the trunk where I had cut it off.

–         This is a picture of the regrowth. The tree has resurrection properties


In some ways Sarah & Abraham remind me of the humble NZ cabbage tree

–         I don’t know if they had a cure for diarrhoea but they were hardy souls

–         They had longevity, a strong root system and a God given ability to regenerate when they had been cut off at the stump


At the age of 90, and after a lifetime of disappointment, Sarah becomes a mother for the first time

–         This is nothing short of a miracle of God

–         Although Sarah & Abraham were probably in pretty good condition for their age Sarah had been through menopause and shouldn’t have been able to conceive – yet God, in faithfulness to his promises, made it possible for her to give birth to a son

–         The miracle of Isaac’s birth is on a par with the virgin birth of Jesus and the miracle of his resurrection


The message here at the beginning of Genesis 21 is that God is faithful – he keeps his promises, and when promises are kept trust is strengthened


You may be wondering why God made Sarah & Abraham wait so long

–         Why wait until Sarah’s biological clock had stopped ticking?

–         That’s sort of like cutting her off at the trunk

–         Why not just give them a child when they were young and could handle the sleepless nights?

–         Well, I think God may have been developing their root system

–         The longer we have to wait for God the deeper the roots of our faith grow

–         If God fulfilled is promises to us too quickly the roots of our faith wouldn’t have the time they need to develop properly

–         When the roots of our faith grow deep the tree of our life (that is, our relationship with God) is stronger and more stable – better able to handle the pruning’s of life


Genesis 21 gives three reactions to Isaac’s birth

–         Praise, obedience and scorn


In verse 6 Sarah responds in joyful praise saying…

–         “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” …Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”


Isaac’s name means ‘laughter’

–         A year earlier Sarah had laughed in disbelief when God predicted she would give birth to a son

–         Now, a year on, she laughs in gratitude and praise at the miracle God has performed – no one would’ve thought she would become a mother at 90

–         Notice how Sarah refers to herself nursing ‘children’ – not just a child

–         Isaac was Sarah’s first and only child – why then does she refer to herself as the mother of children (plural)?

–         Well, since God fulfilled his promise to Sarah her eyes have been opened, in faith, to see a nation being born through Isaac


Sarah responds in joyful praise and Abraham responds in obedience

–         Abraham named his son Isaac and circumcised him at 8 days old as God commanded him

–         Circumcision, we remember, is the sign of God’s covenant with Abraham – obedience follows faith


Sarah’s praise & Abraham’s obedience are fitting and appropriate but Ishmael, Isaac’s older half-brother, mocks Isaac (he treats him with scorn)

–         Ishmael (who incidentally isn’t named at all in this passage) laughs at Isaac but not in a good way

–         To give you some context Isaac is about 2 or 3 years old at this stage and Ishmael is about 16 or 17 – so it’s not a good look for Ishmael


When Sarah sees this she tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael packing

–         This may seem like an over-reaction on Sarah’s part but we need to remember that 16 or 17 years earlier Hagar had treated Sarah with similar contempt when Hagar had a son and Sarah couldn’t

–         So this touches on an old wound for Sarah and old wounds are often the most sensitive

–         It seems to Sarah that Ishmael is following in his mother, Hagar’s, footsteps – Sarah doesn’t want her son bullied


This puts Abraham in a difficult position – he is the meat in the sandwich between two people he loves – between Ishmael and Sarah

–         Whatever choice he makes he loses


But God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah because Isaac is the one to inherit the covenant

–         God, in his grace, makes it easier for Abraham by reassuring him that he will take care of Ishmael


Sending Hagar & Ishmael away like this might seem a bit harsh to us (through our super sensitive, over anxious, 21st Century lens) but we need to look at God’s action practically & theologically


Practically, it’s not really going to work for Hagar & Ishmael to stay – it’s already problematic and (as Sarah can see) it’s only going to get worse


Theologically, by separating Isaac & Ishmael God is performing an act of creation

–         You remember in Genesis 1 God created by separating things: light from darkness, earth from sky, land from water

–         Separating Isaac & Ishmael was necessary for the creation of Israel


The other theological point not to be missed here is that God is asking Abraham to trust him – God is testing Abraham’s faith

–         In a sense God is asking Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael

–         Later in Genesis 22 God will ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac

–         Will the roots of Abraham’s faith run deep enough to obey God?

–         On this occasion Abraham passes the test – first thing the next morning he sends Hagar & their teenage son, Ishmael, away with some food & water


God’s faithfulness to Hagar & Ishmael:

In 1980 the pop band Abba released a song called “The winner takes it all”

–         It’s one of their sad songs

–         Bjorn wrote it after separating from his wife and fellow band member, Agnetha

–         It’s about a divorce where one person doesn’t want to separate and clings desperately to the marriage

–         Bjorn said: “I had this image of a man walking through an empty house with all the furniture removed for the last time as the symbol of divorce and just describing what I see.”

–         The winner takes it all, the loser has to fall…

–         To the one who doesn’t want the marriage to end it feels like they are the loser and the other partner (the winner) takes it all

–         It is a feeling of powerlessness, of hopelessness

–         Having said that, Bjorn insisted the song wasn’t about him & Agnetha, it was more of a fictional imagining

–         In reality there are no winners in divorce


Hagar wasn’t officially married to Abraham but she may as well have been – she couldn’t marry anyone else and yet was forced to separate from him

–         We don’t know if she loved him but we can be pretty sure that, as a single woman at that time in history, she was vulnerable on her own, without a husband to protect her or a welfare system to provide for her

–         I imagine, that to Hagar, it must have felt like Sarah was the winner who took it all and she was the loser who took the fall


Now at this point we may feel some sympathy for Hagar & Ishmael

–         While they weren’t perfect they do seem to get a raw deal

–         It’s not like Abraham was paying child support or maintenance – he just sent her off with food & water to last a couple of days (good bye & good luck)


We might also be looking at God sideways because he seems to condone Hagar & Ishmael being sent away

–         Well, I don’t think we can blame God for this situation

–         Through the history of their relationship together Sarah & Abraham, along with Hagar & Ishmael have all made some poor choices which have resulted in a less than ideal situation for everyone

–         God is now in the position of having to work with the choices other people have made – God is having to make the best of a bad situation


Interestingly, God does not come to Hagar & Ishmael’s rescue immediately

–         God waits until both the boy and his mother are at the end of their rope and crying out in despair. What was it Jesus said?

–         Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

–         Hagar & Ishmael are poor in spirit and they know it

–         I think God waits for us come to the end of our own resources, before stepping in to help, so that we will learn the vital lesson that our life depends on him – that we can’t save ourselves  

–         You see it’s an awareness of our need that brings us to God


17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”


This is the second time the angel of the Lord has called to Hagar – the first time was in Genesis 16

–         Hagar is a foreigner, an outsider and a servant – she is literally down & out, but God is attentive to her and to Ishmael

–         More than simply being attentive though, God is faithful and provides


The angel of the Lord says five things to Hagar…


What’s the matter Hagar?

–         God knows Hagar’s name and calls her by name

–         In the ancient world, to know someone’s name was to know their character, to know what they are like on the inside.

–         God knows your name too – he gets you, he understands


Do not be afraid

–         Do not let your thoughts run wild. Do not anticipate the worst. Be calm


God has heard the boy as he lies there

–         In other words, God is listening. He understands your situation and your concerns for your son – you both have his attention


Lift up the boy and take him by the hand

–         God gives Hagar something to do – he basically says, ‘You’ve got an important role to play in your son’s life. Don’t abandon your son. Your job is to lift your child up’

–         I love that. Whether you are a single parent or parenting with someone else, your job is to lift your children up and take them by the hand


‘Lift your child up’ could mean speaking words that build them up, that encourage them, words that help them to see a perspective beyond the little piece of dirt they are sitting on at this present moment

–         ‘Lift your child up’ might also mean helping them practically with things until they get the hang of it themselves, setting them up to succeed


‘Take them by the hand’ means leading them gently in the way they should go.

–         We shouldn’t drive our kids with threats or pressure

–         Take them by the hand. Walk with them.

–         We don’t need to be hovering over them all the time, but it is helpful to listen and be present when they need us


…for I will make him into a great nation.

–         In saying this God is giving Hagar hope – the future is bright

–         From our perspective in history we see the fulfilment of this – the Arab nations claim descent from Ishmael


God then opens Hagar’s eyes to see the next step (that was always there) – a well from which she can draw water

–         Interesting that God doesn’t give a detailed plan in advance

–         He doesn’t spell out to Hagar how she and Ishmael will go from utter despair to being a great nation – God simply shows her the next little step

–         Refill your water skin and give your son a drink



Genesis 21 tells the story of two mothers in very different circumstances.

–         In this respect it reflects our experience too…

For some (like Sarah) mothers’ day is a happy time of laughter and family gathering.

–         If you find yourself in Sarah’s position then you need be free to praise God and to celebrate, without feeling bad about that

–         There is no sin in showing gratitude


For others (like Hagar) mothers’ day only highlights what is lost or perhaps never was.

–         If you find yourself in Hagar’s position, a solo parent, feeling alone and overwhelmed by your problems, in a place of dryness and utter despair

–         God knows you by name – he understands

–         Don’t try and solve everything at once, just take little steps

–         First cry out to God – he is big enough to handle your heartbreak

–         Then open your eyes – look around

–         Find the well (the source of refreshment) God has provided – it might be right in front of you

–         Drink your fill, refresh your child, lift up those in your care.


And then there are those (like Abraham) who feel torn and in an impossible situation – the meat in the sandwich, perhaps caring deeply for two parents who no longer care for each other

–         If you are a daughter or a son and you find yourself in that situation then I want to say to you, ‘Unlike Abraham, you don’t have to choose’

–         It doesn’t always have to be either / or, it can be both / and

–         What transpires between your parents is their problem to solve, not yours

–         You need to be free to love, honour & forgive both your mum & your dad


We are so accustomed to thinking of God as a Father because that is the way the Bible usually presents God to us

–         But the Bible does at times shine a light on the motherly nature of God

–         In Isaiah 49, verse 15 we read:

–         “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.”

–         In this verse God is saying to his people in exile, I love you like a mother (to the moon and back)

–         Whatever feelings mothers’ day touches for you, God is faithful, even more faithful than your mother.


Questions for discussion & reflection

1.)    What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?

2.)    In what ways was God faithful to Sarah & Abraham?

–          In what ways has God been faithful to you over the years?

3.)    Discuss the three reactions to Isaac’s birth (i.e. praise, obedience & scorn/mocking)

–         How can we respond to God’s faithfulness to us?

4.)    Why do you think God agrees with Sarah in telling Abraham to send Hagar & Ishmael away? (e.g. theological & practical reasons)

5.)    In what ways is God faithful to Hagar & Ishmael?

6.)    What does it mean to ‘lift up your child and take them by the hand’?

(Think of some practical examples)

7.)     What feelings does mothers’ day touch for you?

–         Who do you identify with most in this story and why?

8.)    Take some time this week to reflect on Isaiah 49:15 and the motherly aspects of God’s character



[1] https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-plants/cabbage-tree-ti-kouka/