Summary: Through Abraham’s story with Ishmael, we learn that we cannot be saved by works but only by trusting in God’s works done for us. Then impossible things can happen!
New York Times, April 16, 2011: So unshakable was this town’s faith in its sea wall and its ability to save residents from any tsunami that some rushed toward it after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of northeast Japan on the afternoon of March 11. After all, the sea wall was one of Japan’s tallest and longest, called the nation’s "Great Wall of China" by the government and news media. Its inner wall was reinforced by an outer one, and they stretched 1.5 miles across the bay here.
The surface was so wide that high-school students jogged on it, townspeople strolled on it and some rode their bicycles on it. A local junior-high-school song even bragged about its safety.
But within a few minutes on March 11, tsunami waves tore through the outer wall before easily surging over the 34-foot-high inner one, sweeping away those who had climbed on top, and quickly taking away most of the town of Taro.
"For us, the sea wall was a source of pride, an asset, something that we believed in," said Eiko Araya, 58, the principal of Taro No. 3 Elementary School. Like several other survivors, Araya was walking atop the inner wall recently, peering down at the ruins of Taro. "We felt protected, I believe. That’s why our feeling of loss is even greater now."
As we turn back to Abraham and Sarah, we find them about to have a similar shock – what they took security in, was not so secure! A shock that brings them back down to the reality of who they are and who God is. Their “wall” of plans was certainly not as solid as they thought.
Genesis chapter 16 ends with these words, “Abram was eighty six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.” Chapter 17 begins: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram…”
As we compare these two verses one after the other we find a gap of thirteen years. What happened during those thirteen years? Scripture tells us nothing. But we do know that Ishmael grew up. He became a teenager.
What was going on with Abraham and Sarah? Nothing. Well, Scripture tells us nothing but we can conclude that nothing was happening in the spiritual life of this couple. Why? Because they were living under the assumption that they were DONE. They had fulfilled the covenant promise of God to have a child.
Remember how we looked at this last week? They had figured out from their cleverness how to fulfill the promise of God to Abraham to have a son and did so by having Abraham sleeping with their maid Hagar. He had a son by breaking his marriage covenant with Sarah. That’s what people did at that time and that is what they figured out was the plan of God.
So Abraham and Sarah were living in the illusion that Ishmael was the child of promise. Through their cleverness and ability to go around the Word of God they were able to make it happen. For thirteen years they were living not in the promise of God but in the accomplishment of the flesh. And as a result, they were dead spiritually. They didn’t need to trust in God – but in their own smart planning.
How many today are living their lives in the same way? Living according to what they have accomplished in the flesh, with their body, with their mind, with their good deeds toward neighbor? Oh there are many wonderful works that we do and should continue to do. Ishmael was a beautiful child of God and a blessing to his father. But what you do in your body does not make you any more pleasing to God. It does not make you any more acceptable before him. Isaiah 64:6 says “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
I’m reminded of the large package we received in Poland one year. A church had made a collection of clothing and sent two large packages to us as a love offering. We were thrilled to receive such a gift but as we opened up the boxes, our joy turned to shock. As we reached into the box we pulled out piece after piece of old and very used clothes - some with holes in them or stains. “What can we do with this?” we asked. “We can’t even give them to friends who are needy.” So basically, we threw almost everything into the recycling bin.
Don’t we do the same when we come before God with our good works – with our Ishmaels. I helped my neighbor! I took care of my husband! I made meals for hungry children! I’m friendly, polite, and an all-around nice person. I even loyally go to church and contribute to the needs there. We come before God with a package like that and what does he see? Old stained clothes - “filthy rags” according to Isaiah.