As I was preparing to speak at my church this past Saturday Night I had chosen a couple of down-loads of famous people who talked about how they met God. I had Vitor Belfort the fighter cued up, next would be Alec Baldwin and then the best one was former Korn Rockstar Brian ‘Head’ Welch. “These are good!” I gushed to myself. Then I thought for a moment, ah but these may give the wrong impression about our series called, “Life Journeys.” Life journeys are about God encounters for every life and not just for the rich and famous people of the world. Growing up, my church would always bring people who had some claim to fame to give testimony. In my young mind I felt like God had these big plans for the “important and talented” people of the world. The rest of us, well, maybe he is not that interested in our lives. That kind of thinking is the opposite of who God is and what God loves to do. Truth is, great or small, good or bad, whether we are close to God or not; He loves to show up in everyone’s life in order to transform us and give us joy.
Over the last few weeks our community had looked at the life journeys of some Bible characters. Jacob, who in fear of an angry brother, was trying one more ruse to get himself out of a jam with his angry brother. That’s when he met his match in the wrestling ring. “Ouch, I now believe!” Elijah was discouraged from perceived failure and on the run from his enemies when he had an encounter with the still small voice of God. Abram had detoured to Egypt and found himself without a wife and thus jeopardized the promise of God to him. God intervened and made a happy Pharaoh scared. This now angry-with- Abram-Pharaoh kicks Abram and his gang out of Egypt! Now that’s a curious way for God to redirect an errant step to where we need to be!
Yet every last one of us, at times, finds ourselves with our back to the wall. We lose jobs, our marriages struggle, our children (or even us) go off the chosen path, not to mention accidents and sickness… Now imagine if God only looked out for the important and famous people of this world and that we were not one of them… we would all be in big trouble!
I want you to meet someone in the Bible who is one of those overlooked little people! She was in a lose-lose situation and her life journey looked hopelessly bleak. Yet she had an unexpected encounter with God that would change her whole life forever.
The first moment we meet her in the scripture is in Genesis 16. She happened to live with Abram and Sarai. Yes you know them, especially him! This is the guy who would one day be called the spiritual father of all those who believe! The ironic thing is that living out her journey in the company of these two important God-called people was actually the source of her greatest dilema.
Her name is Hagar and she was an Egyptian slave girl given as a gift to Abram from Pharaoh, in exchange for his “sister” (read wife!!!!) Sarai. This girl who was used to living in the chamber of the Pharaoh in the most high-Tec city of the then known world was given away to this Nomad. Quite a step down for her in the social ladder!
Some scholars think the name Hagar could mean “flight” or to “run away”. Others think it means “stranger.” Whatever it means, she must have felt like the stranger that did not belong and because of that she would one day take flight!
The abbreviated version of the story goes like this: Abram and Sarah were promised by God to have many descendants. But no matter how hard they tried, Sarah’s womb was as dry as the Sahara desert! Eventually (Ten years later) Sarah became greatly discouraged and offers Hagar to Abram, thinking she could raise a family this way.
Genesis 16:2 “Go, sleep with my maidservant Hagar; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
This seemed like a good plan because legally in that day the child would belong to Sarai. So not long later, Hagar turns up pregnant. Hagar is thinking that this is good news; she’ll be treated with great respect by Abram. And not knowing her place, as the baby began to show in her stomach so also did her contempt begin to show towards Sarai. Sarai’s pride is wounded and begins to become infected. That’s when the godly woman started to treat Hagar horribly to show her who was the queen of the tent!
So Hagar did what most of us do. She ran away. Where to? Just anywhere, cuz anywhere was better than there!
She ended up in the wilderness of Shur. Interesting enough the Hebrew word Shur means “wall.” Hagar, like so many of us in life, had her back up against a wall! Alone she had no more options. She was hopeless. Have you noticed that when we go through the roughest times in our lives it is then that we need someone, anyone to lift up our spirits. When no one shows up, often it’s in those moments that God comes and reveals himself to us. It has been said, “The two ways that God speaks to us is through pain or through the act of love.” Often we don’t pay attention until we experience pain and our backs are against the walls. That’s when we become most receptive to hear experience a grace encounter. In this engaging story the Lord sent an angel to find her becoming a beautiful picture of God’s grace coming to us even when we are least expecting it.
Indeed she was pitiful… discouraged, despondent and miserable. She was pretty hopeless. Hopelessness is like carrying an empty heavy bag. Odd description I know. The bag is odd because it is empty, but it still feels so heavy. You open all the zippers and pour out the contents… but it is as empty as it was before and still as heavy. That is what it is like to feel hopelessness; empty and heavy. Another word comes to mind, gloomy. You’ve felt it before, right?
Wonderfully God never overlooked this slave girl on the run. The angel of God starts up the conversation, “Hagar, where did you come from and where are you going?” She doesn’t say anything about where she came from or where she was heading toward. All she says is, “I’m running away…” (“That’s all he needs to know,” she thought.)
Notice that the angel doesn’t respond, “Ah you poor thing…hey heaven knows how unfair life has been to you. Poor sweet thing, you better just keep going, get as far away as you can from those two nasty people who want to use you! Things will get better, you’ll see.” But the angel surprisingly says the opposite…
“Go back to Sarai and submit to her…”
How would you feel? Go back to that same unpleasant situation? To that abusive woman? Why does encountering God always seem to include some unpleasant task to do or something hard to overcome? Why doesn’t God just smooth out the path and ‘fix’ the problem? You could say, there is mystery in ever encounter with God. You could say He’s after our transformation more than the situation around us.
This is what was happening then and there in Hagar’s life journey. It began with what we call a paradigm shift. She saw that God had a greater purpose for her life journey. As the messenger of God begins to show her a picture of a great nation through her soon to be born son… she sees that God is in control. And then the name giving, OMG! God said to her, “Call your son this, ‘Ishmael’” It means, God hears. Isn’t it awesome to know that God hears our cry and responds?
So here it is, her situation is the same, but she is no longer the same. She is with Abram’s child and with a new found faith in Abram’s God. By faith she dares to do a U-turn back because she could now trust God in spite of her less-than-perfect circumstances. She concludes that God’s goodness outweighed Sarah’s hostility. She knew that if God had a greater purpose for her life, he could take now care of her anywhere and anyhow.
Maybe, like Hagar you are in a place you don’t enjoy. Things aren’t actually going your way. You feel like you don’t belong and want to run to who knows where. Ever had that feeling? It’s a heavy empty feeling. Maybe its the stage for you to have a God-encounter. Don’t laugh, I’m serious.
After Hagar’s God encounter I love what Hagar does, she does something few people have ever done. She gives God a name. Can you imagine giving God a name? She did, she calls him “El Roi” Want to know what that means? Ready for this? It means the God who sees!
“I have now seen the One who sees me.”
That was what she said. That is truly powerful! She was expressing for us all that the God of all is a personal God who attentively watches over all his children all the time. God’s eye is not just on the important and the famous and the good people… his eye is on us all! What does this all mean to you right now? You are not overlooked.
Well, can I repeat this again, anyone can encounter God, including you. As one pastor used to do in the opening of every service, he would say, “Today you can touch God…. Right here….right now…you can enter his presence and touch God.” Then the extra sentence, “But more importantly than you touching God… God can touch you.”