“Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother… And you brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise.”
We are in the Fourth Week of Lent as of today, Mothering Sunday, and we have heard three excellent sermons delivered by Fr. Gene and our seminarians Sean and Mark and I wish to build, in part, upon their good work. In fact I want to do more than I can possibly do. So what I will do instead is to tie in some themes from their sermons to our Epistle and try to open it up a little bit more. One issue that all our preachers have confronted is the matter of our Lord’s performance of miracles which performances attest to the existence of an unseen world that lay all around us; an unseen world that is inhabited by unseen creatures called angles whipping and dashing about like flames of fire; and of course there are as well those unhappy, lead-footed creatures of rebellion and unrest we call demons. In particular we have focused on what we call miracles as evidence not only of that invisible world but also as evidence of Jesus’ supreme authority over all things seen and unseen.
In the Epistle for Rose Sunday the story that Paul narrates is the account of God’s promise to Abraham that he, Abraham and his family, would be the instrument of God’s blessing and benediction upon all creatures. Paul retells the narrative in the Epistle and he makes the Sign of the Promise, Abraham’s unborn child, the center of our attention. He does the same thing in the fourth chapter of Romans, as he unloads all the weight of the storyline upon the fact that both Abraham and his wife Sara were well past childbearing age. For Sara to conceive a child from Abraham’s seed would be a miracle in itself because it was frankly a biological impossibility. Permit me say what I mean by the word miracle: a miracle is an extraordinary event, a startling event that is at least in principle observable, verifiable, and furthermore it is an event that cannot be explained in terms of human abilities or known forces working in the universe. Therefore a miracle is an event “that is the result of a special act of God, doing what no human power can do.” To build on what Mark said last Sunday, Abraham and Sara did not need to wait for the Enlightenment to learn that octogenarians and beyond were not going to have children the old fashioned way; not between with one another. So Abraham and Sara decided to lend God a hand with a little human engineering and with the help Sara’s servant Hagar, who was young and who could, with Abraham’s help have children, as I said, the old fashioned way. And so they did and she named Abraham’s first born son Ishmael.
This is a darkening of the story. The problem is that Abraham and Sara thought of nature, creation, like everyone around them, in terms of decay, disintegration, and eventually death. In their world becoming ended in nothingness. People who believe that the meaning of life can be summed up with the notion that becoming ends in nothingness have always been around. There is not anything new or clever about that error. But be sure, it is an error, an intellectual error that has heinous consequences in life. If you live in a world where becoming ends in nothingness then it is all up to you make something out of it, isn’t it? Most existentialism, that of the atheistic brand in the last century, was based on just this notion and ironically it was thought to be the really, real scientific truth of all nature; everything ends in annihilation. So, from that perspective, to be an authentic person you have to face your own inevitable extinction, which is the scientific truth of reality, and create your own meaning and purpose and you must do so unswervingly. You have to be resolute and you have to act while facing ultimate extinction. Time is your enemy, nature is your enemy, and so you must take charge and make things happen. You don’t need me to do the math for you on that one, but just for clarity’s sake I will say that such resolve ends up breaking up what is meant to be whole. But, as I have said, that way of thinking is inaccurate and God means to correct such flawed intellectual constructs that have become the darlings of the modern university and Hollywood.
The really, real truth of the matter is that becoming ends in being and being blossoms. The reality of life is that God has been busy from the beginning perfecting nature not annihilating it. So, what I want you to see is that God’s promise to Abraham that he would give him a child of his own flesh through his own wife Sarah is part of the whole deal and we do not get to reduce it to a fable no matter how embarrassing it may be to you. And by the way, when Paul says it is an allegory he emphatically means that was using the historic event as an allegory not that the story was merely an allegory. God’s promise to Abraham that he would give him a child of his own flesh through his own wife Sarah is part of the whole deal and if you look at it this way then the miracle of Isaac’s birth does not overthrow and thus destroy nature — it is not a so-called “suspension of nature’s laws” — but rather that miracle, any miracle really, is an instance of the perfecting of nature by God Almighty. The Child of the Promise, Abraham’s and Sarah’s son, is an instantiation of God’s work of perfecting his creation, of God achieving, bring about creation’s natural finality through his supernatural work.
Ishmael is representative of a world in which becoming ends in annihilation. He is representative of human beings of self-will who strive to control the uncontrollable; the truly atheistic existential man who is determined to create some grand purpose out of nothing because he believes in nothing. But we are not of Ishmael, we are of Isaac, the Son of the Promise who was born not of self will, but of God and of faith and trust in Jesus the Messiah.
Because we of children of the promise and born of God, we live a life in both the visible and invisible world and we pray. We pray because prayer addressed to God Almighty is the most important activity we can engage in on behalf of ourselves or anyone or anything thing else in life and God wants us to pray because for some reason and in some manner he has chosen to use our prayers to reach creation’s destiny. I was speaking with priest (not one of our’s) a few weeks ago who told me about a family he was concerning about in another state and he lamented that all he had to offer was prayer. And then we both stopped and we needed not to say what came to both our minds because we instantly knew: as a matter of fact there was absolutely nothing better, nothing more powerful that he or any of us could do than to place those we love before the God and Father of our Lord Jesus who loves us better, more completely, and more powerfully than we imagine.
We pray to God in heaven, in the Jerusalem above, and we are always looking up when we worship — lifting up our heart to the Lord, acknowledging angels, archangels, and the whole company of heaven gathered around God, pleading the blood of the Lamb in the heavenly court. All this aids our recollection that we are pilgrims in this world. These are reminders that this earth, in her present state of disorder, is not our permanent home. We are children of the Promise because through baptism we have been ingrafted into Jesus the Messiah. We are the free children of the “Jerusalem which is above.” These are also reminders that we are part of a cosmic struggle. And our relationship with Jesus is not merely personal or private — it is cosmic and we are part of a band of brothers and sisters who have been taught to address God Almighty as “Our Father” and this God is the One who rules all things visible and invisible. A little god, hoping for the best, or for that matter all the so-called authentic, existential, self-generated purpose and resolve in the world is only vanity and foolishness and worth nothing. Our needs and the needs of our friends and families is crushing and self-generated purposefulness is a puny response. The need of ourselves, our families, our world is greater than the sum of all our self-will, our social activism, our good works, our politics, and our attempts to engineer a better world. And we must not forget that it is no accident that every attempt to engineer the human good ends up in a fireball that reduces cites and nations to rubble. Evil is not just the nasty little things we do or say to one another. Evil is organized, massive, subtle and cosmic. Darkness and death have invaded the world. In another place St. Paul comments on this fact:
“For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but
against rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of
this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in
heavenly places…” Ephesians 6:12
The narrative we have studied today is the story of how Abraham did not wait for the child that God had promised but in his attempt to engineer the human good he fathered his child Ishmael through Hagar. But God kept his promise and against all odds Sarah conceived the child of the promise and gave birth to Isaac. Paul gives, as he puts it, an allegorical interpretation to the narrative: Hagar is a slave; Sarah is a free woman. Hagar’s child is the son of a slave, born according to self-will and human resolution; Isaac is the son of the free woman born through the promise of God. Hagar represents the Mt. Sinai, the Torah and the Jerusalem of Paul’s day ruled over by apostate Jews and pagan Romans – she and her children are enslaved. But the Jerusalem which is above is free and she represents Sarah the once barren mother of Isaac, the child of promise. Paul ends his narrative of Sarah and Hagar with the exile of Hagar and her son from Abraham’s family and the declaration:
“So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” Galatians 4:31
I will end with this very short quote from C.S. Lewis that I have cited before. It seems to apply very much to our Epistle today. Lewis one time simply said that are two classes of people: “those who say to God, Thy will be done; and those to whom God says, thy will be done.”