Genesis 21:8-21; Luke 1:26-33, 39-40, 46-55

December 5, 2021

  • Advent 2

A wise person once said that brick and mortar make a house, but it is the heart that makes a home, even if you cannot remember which box you packed it in.  That’s right, friends.  Box up your books and pack your dishes; wrap up your valuables and figure the furniture.  We are moving today in the sermon.

Over the last year and a half, there has been a lot of moving going on in America.  You yourselves noticed the spike in house prices as the market went nuclear in the mad dash to get a new-to-you home.  Some have moved to get away from urban areas to more rural ways of life.  Some have moved for new jobs.  Some have moved out of the workplace into retirement.  There has been lots of moving going on.  The Presbyterian Outlook (a national magazine out of Richmond) was sending out email ads to my inbox for some kind of moving service every week for a while for some reason.  It was getting right annoying to keep getting a new ad the moment I deleted the last one.  I hope you all did not tell them that I might be in need of moving services. I hope that is not a hint. That “terms of call” meeting at which you vote on the preacher’s pay for next year is coming up in a couple of weeks.  Merry Christmas, right?…

If we stop and think about it, moving is an important and fascinating part of modern life.  Of course, people in the pre-industrial age did not move as much, unless you were heading out west.  That was a big, life imperiling move, of course, but you would not make that move every couple of years, for instance.  Whether you went out far west or stayed closer to home, once people found a home and a community, they seemed to stay there many years.  Many jobs were tied to the land, so you had to stick to the land you had.  Even if you left to go somewhere else for employment, you still had a homeplace to return to.  I, on the other hand, can remember living in 14 different homes over the course of my life, and that does not count college, and I am only 49.  Some of you have a history of moving around, too.  I wonder if you have ever really thought about why we move around, though.

It is about more than jobs or opportunities.  There are always opportunities out there if we want to look hard enough.  As we have moved over course of our lives, the reason is because we believe that a new place, a new situation, a new location, a new job, or whatever the enticement will be somehow better than what we have.  NO ONE moves to a WORSE situation on purpose.  No one surmises that things are SO good where they are, so it is time to give it up for something LESS good.  Even in the ugly truth of evictions or domestic problems, when people are forced to leave their homes, it is the threat of legal action or physical harm that makes them go.  As lousy as it is to be forced to move, it is better than getting arrested or hurt or killed.  Moving is about looking for something better or preserving the good over the bad.

Now what I find striking is that in both of our stories today, we have two women on the move, also.  It turns out that neither one of them is in the safest of spots, and both head out in search of something.  So let’s get into it.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is a terrible tragedy on so many levels.  Hagar falls victim to the lack of faith of Sarah and Abraham who push God’s agenda aside for their own.  They force her to have a child with Abraham so that he will have the heir that God promised.  She does conceive and bear a son, Ishmael.  He IS Abraham’s son.  But then, Sarah ends up with that child that God promised decades earlier.  She has Isaac and suddenly the world is turned around.  She does not want Abraham’s legacy, his household, his wealth, his name, his ANYTHING to be shared with Ishmael.  Abraham struggles with this cruelty, but God assures him they will be OK and to send them away.  Still, that reads more calloused than we would like.  Literally, Hagar believes in the wilderness they are about to die and abandons her son so that she will not hear his screaming to death.  She has literally lost all hope; any semblance of hope is evaporated like their water.

I want you to see what has happened here.  Even though Hagar was a slave, she was brought into a position of some favor with the birth of her son.  Certainly, she knew what their plan was.  Her son would have become the heir to Abraham.  Ishmael would have received the biggest part of the inheritance, the lion’s share, since he was the oldest son.  He would have made sure his mother was cared for.  Their life and future were about as set as they could be.  They would have had as much hope as they could have hoped for.  Then, it all changed when she was forced to move.

Hagar does not seem to threaten a fight or to try to stay.  She acquiesces, and we can imagine she probably knew it might have gotten very bad for them if they had stayed.  They took the only reasonable route left, assuming they would somehow make it.  They left with SOME kind of hope that there was a life for them out there.  If she had believed that it was certain death for them both, we cannot imagine that she would have left.  As lousy as it was, she believed their best hope under Sarah’s vengeful eye, was to leave.  Then, once they are out in the wilderness, any chance, any glimmer, any vestige, any hint of hope is stolen. That is where God steps in and points out that (by the way) there is a well right there.

This movement to a new life opened a door Hagar never saw coming, and it seems that Ishmael was bring set up for just about as good of a life as he could have.  A great nation would come from him, and he would be an accomplished hunter/warrior.  They literally moved from hope to hopelessness and then back to hope.  Their path took them through that journey of hope.

Mary’s story is a bit more complex but no less real.  Everything was fine and dandy in her life before an angel showed up.  She was a normal village girl, respectable, and at the proper marrying age, say 12-14.  Her life was being worked out by her parents.  Her marriage was arranged.  It was only a matter of time before their engagement would be formalized in marriage.  She had the reasonable hope that you might expect from someone in this situation: she was looking forward to marriage and a family.  That’s when Gabriel shows up and throws everything on its head.  She can still get married.  She is just going to first be the mother of the Messiah, God’s anointed, the one who would come to restore the throne of David and Israel’s glory as the people of God.  This seems like great news, and we hear that great news in her song.  She genuinely believes it is fantastic that the Messiah is coming.  It has been a long time since the people of God were strong.  They were living under oppression, and the nation’s only hope seemed to be doing whatever the Romans said.  Now, there was the possibility for something better.

But first she has to become pregnant.  I skipped that part but you remember it.  She is quite concerned how this is going to happen.  Why?  She is not nearly as worried about God’s hand as she is the hand of her people, her village, her family.  A woman in her situation who turned up pregnant could have been legally stoned to death.  You remember that when Joseph found out she was pregnant, he opted to do the nice, kind, and generous thing and just let her go.  She could go off to live in the scandal, but she would still be alive with her baby.

Mary’s journey in hope is a different route than Hagar, but she also felt the need to head out immediately.  She left her village to somewhere safer where her cousin just so happened to be pregnant with John the Baptizer.  This was a double blessing.  She could get away for safety and help her cousin who was very pregnant by that time.  Mary found hope for herself and her child there, rather than back home where she would have been more threatened.  After three months, Elizabeth was to have the child and Mary had to go.  We don’t really know why, but I suspect it had something to do with Elizabeth had enough to deal with without having a pregnant girl around, too.

Mary had to return home, but she did it with that experience in her life.  Luke records her thoughts in her song.  This is the substance of her hope.  This is really the point of this passage.  A nobody girl was picked to bear the Son of God.  Everyone would know her through history forever.  She was right.

God is great and powerful.  God is great and powerful forever.  She was right.

Those who care about God are blessed; those who do not care about God are undone.  Here is where we try to find our hope, as well.  Mary moved from a place of security to less security to greater security and perfect security.  As she was sitting at the foot of the cross, we can only imagine she still believed that God was bringing the world into God’s heart.  She was one of the very few who stuck it out until the end and returned to find Jesus alive.  She lived with a hope and faith that we can only begin to understand.  She saw God beginning something in her where the lowly can be exalted and the high and mighty can be thrown down.

We are still waiting for the perfect rule of Christ and the power of his coming to grip this world in the kind of love it has never seen.  Mary’s hope must be our prayers, too.

It is a song for the little people, for the weak and despised, for the overlooked and undervalued, for the easily forgotten and the least desirable.  The journey of her life kept her looking for more and more hope that God was coming and bringing the world to something better.  God’s glory was born through her and returns to us all the time.  We are here today because we want the same hope that enabled that country bumpkin little girl to give her life to this sacred task of trusting God.

There is something out there that is better for us all.  God’s amazing and redeeming love is at work in this very moment every time one of God’s children dares to trust in love and lives out that trust.  Some of us may be nervous about moving where God wants us to go.  Maybe we are so comfortable with where we are that we settle for less blessing but more of the same.

Someone who was not afraid to step out in hope was our brother in the Lord, Harry McKissick.  From Blackstone to Japan and China and back, he followed his faith in the hope of God.  He walked into some of the most significant devastation the world has ever witnessed, but he came back because of his hope that we would all get through the war.  His journey brought him to Louise and in hope, they made their life in Virginia Beach and here in Farmville.  Every step of their journey was in the search of God’s greater hope for them.  His blessings spilled over from the lives of his family to all of this church family and our community.

Now our hope is in meeting him, again.

Hope is tremendously important these days when it is too tempting to sit and wallow in self-pity or to settle for lesser living.  There is so much out there for which to be hopeful for all of God’s people if we are willing to go find it.  Our journey’s are not done as long as we have breath, and while we live, we cling to our hope.

Let us pray…Fan our hope, O Lord, our God.  Lift up our hearts in the anticipation of what you are about to do, O God, and bring us out to follow you wherever you would have us go.  As your faithful and hopeful people, we pray.  Amen.