Genesis 21:1-21 - You Can't Have It Both Ways
[NOTE: Due do technical difficulties, the sermon was not recorded. Below is the manuscript from which the sermon was preached.]
[Text: Genesis 21:1-21)
Scripture Intro: Even though we’ve seen the mercy of God and His compassion for His people throughout, we’re coming out of three chapters filled with the dark reality of human unbelief and sin. Now chapter 21 opens with deep joy and laughter as God brings His promise to Abraham and Sarah into reality and sets a pattern for the redemption that would be fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth – that life comes through the work of God’s Spirit, not through human effort.
[Read and pray]
You might know the expression, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” The original phrase actually makes a little more sense: “You can’t eat your cake and have it, too.” The meaning is simple. It’s impossible to both eat your cake and expect it to remain in front of you after you’ve eaten it. You can’t have it both ways. Other cultures have similar expressions. In German it’s, “please wash me, but don't get me wet!” For Czech folk the expression is, “The wolf is full and the goat stayed whole.” In Chinese it comes out as “Wanting a horse that both runs fast and eats no feed.” No matter what culture you’re from, people understand that in much of life, you can’t have it both ways.
When it comes to the redemption of this broken world, you can’t have it both ways. It is either the work of God from start to finish or it depends on humans and our obedience to God or our own efforts to make this world right. The credit belongs either completely to God or somehow we keep it for ourselves. You can’t have it both ways. Otherwise you want a horse that runs fast AND eats no feed.
It’s not a small thing that this passage immediately follows story after story of the unbelief of Abraham and Lot and their attempts to make life right again through their own means. Abraham fathered a child by a slave woman in an effort to force the Story of Redemption forward apart from God. Lot moved his home closer and closer to the deep brokenness of Sodom until he was inside it (and it was inside of him). Abraham continued in an old lie to save his skin even though he’d seen God’s hand protecting him time and time again. And like Abraham and Lot we often seek out our own means of making life the way it is supposed to be. We look to our families and jobs and the comforts of this world to be our Everything; our identity, our happiness, our source of peace. We often believe that our relationship with God’s depends more on our obedience – which we usually limit to how we are doing in our bible reading or prayer – than on His gracious provision for us in Jesus.
But this passage stands as a testimony that the redemption God accomplishes is not the result of human effort or human morality or anything human at all. God lifts the veil of darkness that hung over the previous chapters as the joy of a God who fulfills his promises overwhelms Abraham and Sarah. We have to rejoice with them that redemption is a work of God alone and the credit doesn’t go to anyone else.
And we can also rejoice that in His mercy toward His people He will sometimes take away the things that might otherwise be a temptation to trust in. But the credit belonging to God and His removal of other means of making life right does not lessen the joy of His people. Even though His mercy toward us can be painful, even severe at times, as He works on our hearts to draw us to Himself, it only deepens the joy and pleasure in our hearts as we see the faithfulness of God and celebrate together in worship.
Just look at the opening phrases of the passage! The parallelism of the first verse is highlighting the work of God alone – His word and His actions revealing His perfect faithfulness to restoring His world to the way it was meant to be. He visits Sarah and she conceives and bears a son “in his old age” – emphasis on the OLD. That’s how Paul can later say that the LORD made this happen when Abraham was as good as dead (Romans 4 – also Hebrews 11). And it happened “at the time of which God had spoken to him” back in chapters 17 and 18; not sooner and not later. God waited for just the right time to show that all His promises would come true because of Him…not because of any human effort.
But notice that the LORD still used human actions to bring about the reality of His promise. Isaac was certainly born by the power of God, but his was not a virgin birth. Though the promise depended on the power of God at work in them, Abraham and Sarah had “a part to play.”
But they keep no credit for themselves. In reverence to God and His work, Abraham names Isaac and circumcises him in obedience to the instructions God gave him back in chapter 17 when Abraham laughed in respectful disbelief at the promise. Isaac means, “He laughs.” But the laughs of disbelief from Abraham and Sarah have turned into laugh of great joy and we hear it all through Sarah’s words.
I imagine how laughter might have infused her words in verse 6 when she says, “God has made laughter for me (she’s laughing); everyone (more laughing) who hears will laugh over me (hard laughing).” “Who would have said to Abraham (her stomach hurts from laughing) that Sarah would nurse children? (even harder laughing) Yet I have born him a son (losing control of herself) in his old age. (laughing and crying)”
That’s the joy of a person who has seen God keep His promise to her - not because of her faithfulness or her obedience (and certainly in spite of her body’s age). It’s simply because He cares for her and for the redemption of His creation broken by sin.
And Abraham is rejoicing, too. When Isaac was weaned (probably when he was two or three), Abraham throws a blow-out party to celebrate.
Take a lesson here. When you see the blessings of God in your life, it’s good and right to gather people together and celebrate the kindness God has shown toward you. When you see growth in your life and you live in obedience when you used to live in disobedience, celebrate. When you pass milestones as a family, celebrate. Wherever you see the grace of God at work in you, celebrate that and bring others into your joy.
But in this case, the celebration for Abraham is short-lived. Calling up old memories from chapter 16, Sarah sees the son of Hagar the Egyptian, laughing. At first glance this seems innocent enough. After all, weren’t Abraham and Sarah just laughing? But seeing Sarah’s reaction hints that something is different here. The word for Hagar’s son’s laughter here means something different than the word for Abraham and Sarah’s laughter from joy. The slave woman’s son’s laughter is a mocking laugh – laughter that comes from a heart that hates what is happening.
Hagar’s son has been the heir apparent for about 16 years now. But now there is another son. And Hagar’s son is old enough to know the promises about Isaac. He knows that this child is a miracle, a blessing from God not only for Abraham but through whom the Story of Redemption would move forward. Calvin says that the son of the slave willfully turns “the blessing of God, from which joy flowed, into ridicule… (and he) attempts to destroy (the)…joy of faith.” And by doing so, “he insults, in the person of his brother, both God and his word, as well as the faith of Abraham.”
We experience this reality, too, as the very truth we celebrate and love is the object of scorn for the world. But see what happens next. The son of the promise remains, but the scoffer, the mocker does not.
There’s not much doubt that Sarah’s reaction comes from mixed motives. We are not invited by the text to commend Sarah’s jealousy and (fairly obvious) pent-up anger toward both Hagar and her son. But God does something that is surprising on one level. As Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar and her son away, something that the text says is displeasing to Abraham because he loves his boy, God steps in and says, “Listen to Sarah. Do what she’s asking and don’t be displeased by it.” But then God gives two reasons why he should do it and not be displeased by it. God says, “…for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” That’s the main reason. Then God says, “I will take care of Ishmael, too, because of you. He’ll be a nation, too.” So, early the next morning, Abraham obeys God and sends Hagar and her son away.
The question that first came up in my mind is, “Why would the LORD make Abraham do this thing?” To our ears it seems so severe, so harsh!
Some may say, “It’s because God is vindictive. He doesn’t really care about humans and simply loves punishing people.” But that answer doesn’t fit this story at all as we see God rescuing Hagar and her son in the very next part of this story. God comes to her and opens her eyes and is “with the boy,” as v. 20 says. God is concerned with Hagar and her son, but the blessings they experience are merely earthly blessings because they remain outside of a covenant relationship with the LORD. Hagar remains unbelieving and we see it in her failure to call out to the “God who sees” whom she had encountered in chapter 16. Her son has shown his contempt for Isaac and through that for God Himself as well as God’s promises and Abraham’s faith. Still, God does good to him. He grows up. He finds a wife and becomes a great nation of people. That’s what we call “common grace.” And God provides it in some way to all of humanity.
But common grace is not the same as saving grace. You’ll notice that throughout this passage, Ishmael’s name isn’t mentioned a single time. That’s pointing us to the fact that God knows His people differently, intimately, and Hagar’s son isn’t one of them.
There is another answer to why God told Abraham to send Hagar and her son away. And I think it’s the more likely reason because Paul points us in this direction in the Galatians 4 passage we read earlier. God sends Hagar and her son away not because He doesn’t care about them, but because He has a special care for His people and wants them to understand that the redemption God has in store for His people comes through His work alone.
To allow Hagar’s son to remain in the house as a son would have meant that Abraham had two sons – a son of the promise brought into existence by the power of God and through whom the Story of Redemption was promised to move forward and a son of the flesh who would remain as a temptation for Abraham to hold onto as back-up hope for true joy.
The LORD had to take Hagar’s son away from Abraham because there can’t be a back-up “child of the promise.” There isn’t a Plan B for salvation for Abraham. God underscores that reality in v. 12 when He reaffirms that Abraham’s offspring - a vitally important word in the Story of Redemption going all the way back to God’s promise that the offspring of the woman would have victory over the serpent - would be named through Isaac alone, the miracle child brought into the world by the work of God alone when Isaac’s parents were as good as dead. It is through Isaac, the son of the promise, not through the son of the slave, that hope and life would come. For Abraham, there is no alternative. He can’t have it both ways. He will have to either direct all his hope into the LORD and His word or he’ll have to keep the son of the slave woman and trust that his own efforts will bring about the redemption of the broken and corrupt world.
In the same way, there is no alternative to Jesus for us. We will either direct all of our trust and hope to Jesus, God’s promised Rescuer, and his work and his promises or we will trust our own efforts and goodness and look somewhere other than Christ for this world to be made right.
Paul looks back at this very story in Galatians 4 as proof that God has always saved people by the power of His Spirit and not by human effort. He’s writing to a group of people who called themselves Christians and claimed to be trusting in Jesus, but who have begun believing the lie that our forgiveness and the restoration of this fallen world depends on Jesus AND human obedience to the Law of God. Salvation, in that wrong thinking, is Christ PLUS something else. It’s the same fundamental issue that God was correcting in Abraham’s life.
And just as God removed the “God PLUS something else” hope from Abraham, so that in the very next chapter it says that Isaac was Abraham’s ONLY SON, God also challenges us to never add anything to Jesus to be our hope of rescue and forgiveness. Jesus alone is enough for us and to add to him anything (expecting it to gain us a better standing before God or to be the source of our joy) is to insult and mock Jesus just like the son of the slave mocked Isaac.
Paul’s point in the passage is that by faith we are no longer sons or daughters of the slave woman, who represents those who depend on human effort or obedience for salvation. By directing our faith to Christ alone; by resting in his death and resurrection on our behalf and rejecting all other paths to salvation we have been made sons and daughters of the promise. As God, by His Spirit, unites us to Jesus by faith alone, God says we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. That means we who believe are children of the promise – born of the Spirit and rescued by the power of God alone. Even our faith, the Scriptures say, is a gift of God so that, although we cannot boast that we’ve added something to our salvation, we can laugh and rejoice with Sarah and Abraham that God is faithful to save us in Jesus even when we are powerless to save ourselves.
And rejoicing is the right response as we see how God has worked out a rescue for us in Jesus that is certain and secure because it depends on Him alone. And God doesn’t change His mind when He decides to set His love on someone. He doesn’t change like we do. The Scriptures say that the “steadfast love of the LORD never ceases. His mercies never come to an end.”
And that joy in the power and faithfulness of God actually motivates us to turn away and give up on those other paths we sometimes walk down, thinking that they will make us happy or make life the way it’s supposed to be; our families, our jobs, our sexuality, or what people think of us. When we can’t say that we’re saved because we grew up in a covenant family or because we go to church but we know that we have a redeemer in Jesus who loves us and has saved us completely, then our can’t be taken away because it doesn’t depend on us anymore. It depends on God alone and He can’t and won’t let us down.
So, you Christians, rejoice and always rejoice. Although you cannot save yourself you have been saved by your faithful Lord Jesus who has bought you with his blood. He knows you by name and He has called you by name and drawn you to himself.
And you who do not yet believe., know that God cares for you, too. But right now that care is shown simply in the common grace He gives to all His creation. But do you want to know Him? Do you want to experience the life and saving grace He gives to His people? I hope so. If you do, pray to Jesus to rescue you, too, and turn away from other paths you’ve followed that have left you hungry and empty and lost. Jesus is enough for you, too. He will satisfy you. But if He meets you and rescues you, know now that it was by His grace and power alone. That is why we rejoice the way we do.
(This Sermon lead into the celebration of the Lord's Supper. What follows was the transition to the Table.] We live in a fallen world where our joy is often, in a way, short lived. Yes, we can rejoice in all situations in life. We rejoice and always rejoice. And yet, like Abraham, our joy can be interrupted by pain and we go from joy to displeasure in a moment’s time. We experience seasons of joy that are interrupted by pain now, but there will come a day when the party won’t stop and we will enter into joy eternal with our Father. Before you is the down-payment and the assurance of that reality: the body and blood that Jesus freely gave for your life is your joy. And in this meal he is still nourishing you with himself to strengthen and encourage you that He has come and still comes to you in your weakness to display the perfection of His power and love for you.
 Calvin’s commentary on Genesis, Chapter XXI, v. 9, 542-543, passim.