The following sermons was preached by Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink at Wine Before Breakfast on 20 September 2022.
Sermon on Genesis 16: “the wild God who sees me”
My church tradition, the Christian Reformed Church, has strict guidelines for how we are to speak about God. The official position of the church is that we ought to speak of God in the way that Scripture speaks of God, using the standard biblical names, titles, and designations for God. In other words, we are to use only the names that we have been given in the Bible and not to name God ourselves.
I can see the wisdom of this position. We do not, after all, want to create God in our own image, to shape God into exactly who we’d like God to be. But I wonder whether we limit our understanding of God if we don’t challenge some of the traditional ways we’ve thought about God or if we refuse to try on new images of God, like how we might put on Christ like we put on a favourite blue sweater.
If you know me, or if you know anything about campus ministers, you’ll know that we don’t like being given too many rules. And if you know anything about academics, you’ll know that we question almost everything and are often looking for exceptions to rules.
The text, Genesis 16, feels like that exception to my church’s guideline of how we are not to name God. Because in this text, Hagar does name God. She calls God, El Roi, the God of seeing. And when so often it is men who have come up with the rules and guidelines, including still too often, in the church, I find it powerful to have a woman – and not just any woman, but one who has so little power – to be one who names God.
I had planned to write a sermon about how inspiring I found it that the Bible has Hagar, a person of little power and seeming insignificance. I had expected to share inspiring words about how God sees the downcast and gives power to the powerless. How God shows up in unexpected ways.
And then God – the Spirit – did show up in an unexpected way. Because while all that I’ve just said is true of who God is, I also saw that I was shaping God into being exactly who I wanted God to be and thus risked ignoring what this text actually says. With the help of folks at GCF, this community’s grad fellowship, I saw more of God in this text than I had originally seen.
You’ll notice in the text that when God’s messenger speaks to Hagar, she is told that she will have a son, Ishmael. This son will be a wild ox of a man, living at odds with others. These do not seem to be words of blessing. Yet, Ishmael’s name means “God hears,” suggesting that God has indeed heard Hagar. In Ishmael’s wildness, Ishmael is everything that Hagar is not but has wished for: he will be free and independent, and he will not be controlled by people who don’t see him or try to use him for their own ends.
Like Ishmael, God is wilder than I might be comfortable with. Hagar’s reaction in the text to God’s appearance captures that a bit – she seems astonished, as if she’s pinching herself to check that it really happened, and that she’s still alive. This is not our usual reaction to meeting God in church or elsewhere. Hagar’s reaction seems appropriate after an encounter with a God who, even more so than Ishmael, can not be controlled. God cannot be controlled or limited, no matter how positive or inspiring those limitations might be.
If I could control God or the text, I’d fix up some of the things that I don’t like here. I don’t like how the messenger of God names Hagar, as slave of Sarai, as if her identity is tied up in this relationship where she has been treated unfairly. And then, what feels worse, Hagar is told to return to that situation. If God really saw her, if God really heard her, shouldn’t Hagar herself have been given freedom? But if we are indeed to take the Bible seriously and allow the Spirit to speak through the text, we don’t get to edit out the parts we don’t like. Instead, we are allowed to question, and we can give thanks that this is not the only picture of God we see in the Bible. The God whom we encounter in the OT prophetic books cares very much for those who have no power, for those who have been harmed by those in power. And Jesus Jesus raises up the downcast and takes down the powerful in ways that both inspire and make us uncomfortable. (I’m happy to say more about it).
Back to the text of Genesis 16 and how we can not make God only into who we’d like. Trying to force God into being and doing what we’d like is, to some degree, what we see Sarai and Abram doing in this text. Sarai assumes that God has prevented her from having children, which honestly seems a reasonable assumption since she hadn’t any children yet. And so Sarai tries to fix things, using the cultural norms she knows – here, Abram, take my slave, Hagar, bear a child with her and I can them claim the child as mine. The text says that Abram goes along with the plan. Perhaps Abram even goes along because God, as we can read in the previous chapter, had indeed promised him children.
Both Sarai and Abram act on God’s behalf, and they appear to do so foolishly, as if they assume that God had not seen or heard them. As we continue reading the story, we see how wrong that assumption is: God not only sees and hears Hagar but also sees and hears Sarai and Abram, who act foolishly multiple times.
In looking more closely at the story of Sarai and Abram, I am struck by how I want the God in this chapter to be the God of Hagar, and not actually the God of Abram or Sarai. I want God to be for the outcast; I want God to fight for the powerless and to help Christians, as we strive for justice for all. But I don’t really want God to be for the powerful. I don’t want God to show up for the foolish, but for the people who have their act together, or at least the ones who can’t help their situation. Ironically, Sarai and Abram, in taking things into their own hands, would be the ones who are considered by our society to have more of their act together.
If I’m honest with myself, I recognize that I am more like Sarai than Hagar. As a person who is white and who has lots of education, I tend to be a person with power, a person who can make things happen.
There is grace in God being not only the God of Hagar but also Sarai and Abram. God does not show up as I’d always like, and for this I am deeply thankful. Whether we act foolishly or not, whether we use whatever power we have well or not, God sees us. And we can trust that we won’t get written out of the story, no matter how unimportant our characters may seem to be.
As we look at different images of God this semester, I pray that we continue this journey of allowing ourselves to be surprised by the text, surprised by how God is not who we expect, surprised by how God is wilder than we might even be comfortable with. I pray that we might have the courage to question God when God does not act in a way that seems fitting of how we imagine God – and may we have the courage to question ourselves and how we might be limiting God.
And through the whole journey may we be comforted that this is a God who is in relationship with us. God who hears us and wants us to speak and question. God who sees us and who wants us to see God. And maybe even pinch ourselves, like Hagar, in astonishment: Is that really you, God?