Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 21:8-21)

I recently read a fascinating post by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg which offers a different slant on the story of Hagar and Ishmael, paticularly how this relates to what happens with Isaac and Abraham later.

Basically, through a complicated series of domestic events, Sarah’s slave Hagar has given Abraham a son, Ishmael. Later, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, whereupon Sarah wants Hagar and Ishmael sent away so that Isaac won’t have to share the family intelligence. This is where things get messy, because when Sarah insists that Ishmael goes away, God agrees – because he’s going to make Ishmael into a nation just like Isaac.

Which, given that Abraham is told about this destiny, it seems suspicious that he gives Hagar and Ishmael a limited amount of food as they disappear off into the desert. Could have dropped them off at the next available city but no, they run out of food as they head deeper and it looks like they’re about to starve to death under a bush until God intervenes to save them.

Ruttenberg’s treatment of what happens next is what made the article so interesting to me. Because I’d never appreciated how close this story is to the passage in which Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac. And while the idea that this is a test of Abraham’s faith is the traditional interpretation, maybe the form that this test takes is linked to the fact that he’s just ‘sacrificed’ his other son… Only with Isaac he’s going to have to look him in the eye while he does it.

God intervenes again and Isaac goes on to be the forefather of another great people. But given the treatment of Hagar, the article’s suggestion that the binding of Isaac doubles up as a punishment is compelling, a confrontation with the sins of the past. I wonder if Abraham thought about whether Ishmael had survived while he prepared to sacrifice Isaac?

Hagar is a victim of the power structures within the story, an inconvenience who is expected to disappear once her usefulness is at an end. But by linking Ishmael’s fate with Isaac’s we see how the consequences of Abraham and Sarah’s actions influence and inform events. It reminds us that the ‘fringes’ of our narratives are full of people falling beneath the wheels; the margins are full of people who’ve been abandoned in the wilderness. And yet God meets them there; a great people can emerge from the fringes as well as the centre.

But only if recognise people’s humanity; only if we stop the sacrificing.

Gotta Kick at the Darkness ‘Til It Bleeds Daylight (The Feast of the Transfiguration and World Humanitarian Day)

Once, long ago, four men climbed a mountain, they climbed a mountain and at the top one’s face shone like the sun as he was transfigured in front of his friends. It’s a moment of revelation, and it points to Jesus’s identity as the Son of God incarnated here on earth, but I’m never sure what to do with it. It’s liminal and mystical, and we don’t live in a particularly liminal or mystical world.

But the Eastern Orthodox Feast of the Transfiguration and World Humanitarian Day both fall on August 19th, and so it feels like the two should be in conversation with each other. After all, the Transfiguration states that not only is another world possible, not only is another world out there, but that another world is here. And it may be hidden and it may be slow in being revealed, and it may be wearing sandals and tired from the climb, but it’s present, incarnated among the shouting and the weeping and the chaos.

When Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, the disciples didn’t see an alternative reality, they saw something yhat’s already here, often invisible but always present, the light of the world breaking through the walls we build around it and the veneer we paint over it. And it drove them to their knees, because in the face of occupation and oppression, poverty and prejudice, Reality broke through and they never wanted it to end.

But they had to come down the mountain, had to go back into the world, had to watch the One whose face shone with the glory of God get nailed to a cross, had to watch the Divine fall victim to state sponsored violence. “Gotta kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight,” a wise man once sang, but sometimes all you do is kick, kick until you’re exhausted and frustrated and your foot hurts like hell,  kick until you’re bleeding but the daylight isn’t.

Maybe that’s still part of the same thing though, a refusal to quit, a conviction that the light will break through, eventually, that if Christ is enthroned on a cross then there’s a Transfiguration of sorts in the kicking too, because it also points to a different world that may be hidden now but that eventually breaks through.

What does it mean to live in a world where we talk about Glory on the mountaintops but down in the valley kids stumble through the rubble, dusty and bleeding and crying for their mothers?

It means that we can’t remain silent.

It means that we can’t remain complicit.

It means that we can’t ignore the image of God in the refugee, or the wounded, or those who lie in bombed-out hospitals as the power cuts out.

It means that sometimes we shut up about the righteousness of our politics and allow ourselves to weep.

It means we let the sun get in our eyes so that we see something more than the raging and the rubble around us.

It means we honour those who go out there and try to help, it means we offer them support here at home, it means we all peer into the darkness looking for the light, because while sometimes that light is salvation, other times it’s a beacon towards which we’re being called.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John talks about this in the opening of his gospel because it shapes everything that comes after it. And it should shape us, because it means we can live in the awareness of that light, we can see it on the mountaintop but also let it sustain our hearts and hands when we’re down in the valley. And we carry it with us, and sometimes we’re the ones who have to allow it to shine through into the dark corners of the world, the war zones and refugee camps, the politics and the prejudice. And be conscious, also, that the light is already there, that we witness a reality rather than create it. And the light of that reality will not be overcome.


A few years ago I wrote a post about Mary and the Magnification for Advent. As today is the Feast of the Assumption, I thought I’d repost it today.

We often see Mary as an almost ethereal figure, immaculate amid the dirt and squalor of the stable, serene during a seventy mile donkey ride, peaceful during childbirth. In many ways, centuries of pious art have separated Mary from the world around her; this does her a disservice.

Because let’s face it, Mary was a teenage girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances able to deal with her situation because of her faith, a faith that doesn’t just make her her open to God’s will, but a faith that expresses some seriously radical qualities. She’s aware that this is the moment God is going to change the world and she wants to be a part of it, regardless of the cost to her relationships and reputation. We see a hint of this radical faith in the Magnificat, the poem she uses to express her feelings and her worship in Luke 1:46-55:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

In many ways this echoes Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 – Mary realises she’s part of a biblical tradition, a history of miraculous births. But both songs have political overtones – God is almighty and sovereign, and he raises up the poor while breaking the power of arrogant rulers.

Look at the language used in the second half of the poem: what dies “He has brought down rulers from their thrones” mean in a country ruled by a puppet king and occupied by a hostile empire? What does “filling the empty” mean when Mary and her friends and family faced crippling taxation, all of them born, living and dying in poverty? This isn’t just a hymn of praise because Mary loves the idea of a virgin birth, it’s awareness, an announcement, of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

This is something the church seems to be rediscovering over recent years and it’s an important theme of the New Testament – Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom, and while it isn’t totally fulfilled, it’s being raised up, often through the action of his followers. It’s a radical thing to say to Rome that an Empire will ultimately give way to a better Kingdom.

But here’s a terrifying implication of the Magnificat: the Church isn’t in Mary’s shoes, at least not in the West. No, in the UK bishops walk the corridors of power; in the US, the Church can swing elections. The Church is rich. The Church is powerful.

The Church can become an Empire.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think God will tolerate that, if we think God’s going to rubber stamp our politics and prejudices while his Kingdom mission to the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable and the outsider goes unfulfilled. Mary knew that God is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with corrupt power structures, and as we learn from her son, he’s not afraid to tackle them when they’re religious structures misrepresenting God’s Kingdom – just look at the conflict between Jesus and the Temple authorities throughout the Gospels.

But that’s the negative side of things. Mary’s song is also a celebration of what God can do through his people, how we’re honoured to be a part of the Kingdom. It’s a celebration of every time the Church is a blessing – a celebration of all the soup kitchens, all the youth clubs, all the cake sales raising money for the local hospice, all the Christmas presents sent to children on the streets, all the love shown to people on the margins, all the hope illuminating times of darkness and tragedy; all the joyful songs and all the tearful prayers.

2,000 years ago, a teenage girl expressed praise and awe for the majesty of God, the power of his Kingdom, and amazement that people like us are asked to take part in it. Maybe it’s time to discover our own place in building that kingdom in the year to come.

Listening to the Needs

Here’s a question: What are the greatest challenges facing your church at the moment?

Here’s another question: What would your church’s next door neighbour say were the greatest challenges facing your community at the moment?

Third question: Do the two answers have anything in common?

I was listening to an episode of the podcast Seminary Dropout recently in which the story was told of how an orphanage in Africa expressed frustration with short-term mission trips. Because while it was nice for the kids to play with people from a different country for a couple of weeks, the orphanage had now been painted several times (in different colours), which was a job that could have been given to a local contractor. And that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with going on mission trips, but if they’re about meeting needs then those have to be actual needs.

Now, the smart answer to this is obvious, because you’ve probably been to Sunday School and know that the answer’s always Jesus. But look at the gospels – how did Jesus engage with people?

He healed people.

He fed people.

He told people stories.

He confronted people, he comforted people.

He got people to give up most of their money.

He got between a woman and a bunch of rocks that would have been heading her way.

In all these different cases, he engaged with an immediate need. And yes, he taught them too but the teaching was often rooted in how he met the need.

The moral of the story is that we can’t genuinely, effectively meet the needs of the community around us if we don’t know what they are. And the people we’re trying to engage understand what they need, they know they’re hopes and fears and opportunities and all the things that keep them up at night.

And if we don’t talk to people, if we don’t ask questions, if we think the communities around us are going to be impressed by three hour church council meetings about the colour of our church carpet then our buildings, which should be embassies of God’s Kingdom, will end up nothing more than boarded-up relics that used to have a Poke-stop in the car park

Or, TL:DR – do stuff with people, not to them and we might become a genuine part of the community rather than an interfering group that occasionally parachutes in from next door.

If we talk to people, if we listen to their stories, if we sit with them and pray with them, then we’ll know organically what needs our churches need to meet. And that might not match up with our ideas of rockin’ worship or increasing tithing, but it will be bringing the Kingdom of God into the spaces around us.

And, once we’re there, we should prepare to be surprised. Because there’s a good chance the Holy Spirit was already there, waiting for us to show up.

Keeping the Bible Weird

800px-Gustav_Jaeger_Bileam_EngelThe Bible can be weird.

I don’t mean the laws about mildew. I don’t mean the miracles (which are there precisely because they’re, well, miraculous). I don’t mean the bits that don’t seem to tally with how we normally see Jesus. I don’t even mean the Book of Revelation. No, I’m talking about the really weird stuff.

I mean, there are giants in the Bible. Not just Goliath, who gets all the press, but Anak and Og and the Rephaites. There’s a talking donkey. There are demons who have conversations with Jesus, and there’s a witch who (apparently) successfully summons up the ghost of the prophet Samuel. There are sea monsters. It’s weird.

And you know what? I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t get the story of the Witch of Endor. I’m fascinated by the fact that the fledgling kingdom of Israel seemed to keep having problems with warriors of unusual size. I get what’s going on with Balaam himself, but why it has to involve a talking donkey is beyond me. The rational part of my brain would like to ignore them; after all, they seem to exist in a strange, liminal space that isn’t really touched upon by mainstream thought. We can point to mountains of philosophy and theology that talks about how Jesus can be the Son of God. There are fewer works on the obvious effectiveness of the Witch of Endor.

Sometimes it’s easier to ignore these stories. After all, they get in the way; if you’re trying to talk about Jesus, it’s no fun when someone else brings up the talking donkey.

And yet they’re there for a reason. The people who originally handed down the original scriptures kept them in, and they knew as well as we do that animals don’t talk. They didn’t worry about the giants lurking in the corners of the first few books of the Old Testament. And I like that, I’m glad they did that, because they knew all those weird stories meant something. And to ignore and disregard those stories because they don’t fit a 21st Century western worldview would be a mistake, because it’s never good to stop listening to people’s stories. And these stories supported a whole people throughout times of invasion and exile, and we should remember and respect that.

Of course, it’s easier to get embarrassed or frustrated by the giants and the donkeys if all those stories and poems and histories have become codified and canonised into a big leather reference book on the shelf. They’re perhaps a little more potent when you’re living in an alien land, and the night is dark, and you don’t know if you’re ever going to see your home again. The stories keep and sustain you. They forge your identity and carry your memories.

So I think I’m over my worries about the strange bits of the Bible. I still don’t know what to do with the talking donkey, but I’m happy for her to be there. And I’m happy for the Bible to keep being weird, because if it ever gets too easy, ever stops being challenging, ever ceases to provoke new questions and new ideas and new insights then we’re reading it wrong.

And maybe that’s when we’ll start fearing giants again….