by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
It’s a pretty safe bet that everyone reading this reflection knows at least one person who’s part of a blended family. What’s a blended family? Most people have seen old reruns or remember the old, family style, 70s sitcom called the Brady Bunch. In it, Mike Brady, a widower with three children, marries Carol Martin, a divorcee with three children. All-together, they become the Brady Bunch. From there, cute, G-rated rivalries and resentments inherent in blended families dominated the stories of each episode to create charming, old fashioned comedy.
In this Sunday’s Epistle Reading (Galatians 4:22-27), St Paul calls to mind another kind of blended family from the Old Testament, Abraham, Sarah & Hagar (Genesis 16), which resulted in a much more tragic experience of rivalries and resentments.
As the story goes, God had promised the Old Testament patriarch, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah, that they would have countless descendants. But the problem with this was, even ten years after God’s promise about this, Sarah had still been unable to have any children, and the couple was on the verge of becoming too old to have children at all. Well, Sarah had an Egyptian slave named, Hagar, to personally care for any of her needs. So, instead of trusting in God to fulfil His promise, Sarah took matters into her own hands and chose to give her servant Hagar to Abraham, in accordance with the custom of day, so that Abraham could have a child through her (Genesis 16:2).
When Hagar indeed became pregnant, not surprisingly, the two women became caught up in a tangled mess of loathing and resentment. Sarah treated Hagar with so much contempt, that Hagar finally had to flee into the desert to escape the abuse of her mistress. Out of compassion, the angel of the Lord met Hagar in the wilderness, telling her that she should return to Abraham and Sarah. The angel relayed a promise from God to her: “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count” (Genesis 16:10). The angel also said that Hagar’s son should be named Ishmael (which means God hears), because God heard Hagar in her misery (Genesis 16:11-12).
Later, however (when Abraham was 100 years old), God fulfilled His promise through Abraham’s own elderly wife, Sarah. She finally became pregnant and gave birth to a son named, Isaac (Genesis 21). Ishmael would have been about 14 years old at the time of Isaac’s birth…and in a combination of teen angst, sibling rivalry and inferior resentment, Ishmael began to ridicule little Isaac. So eventually, Abraham felt he had no choice but to remove Hagar and Ishmael from Sarah’s and Isaac’s presence. It was all a pretty far cry from the light comedy of the Brady Bunch. In her banishment, Hagar took Ishmael back out to the desert. There, God cared for her needs and repeated His promise to Hagar that Ishmael would father a great nation. Ishmael and his mother went on to live in the wilderness of Paran, where he became an expert archer, and eventually took an Egyptian wife for himself (Genesis 21:20-21). Ishmael, the son of a bondservant, went on to became the father of 12 sons who were called princes, who indeed went on to populate the entire nation of Arabia. On the other hand, Isaac’s descendants, “the children of the promise,” also went on to become the Jewish nation, from whom we have the long promised, Jesus, the Anointed Savior of the world.
In this Sunday’s Epistle Reading, Saint Paul brings all of this to mind when he says, “Brethren, Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai [in the midst of Arabia during Paul’s time], bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above [the New Jerusalem from heaven] is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in travail; for the children of the desolate one are many more than the children of her that is married”” (Galatians 4:22-27).
Isn’t it amazing, that in spite of Sarah’s lack of faith in God’s promise, in spite of Abraham’s reckless participation in her faithlessness, in spite of Hagar’s resentment and Ishmael’s ridicule, in spite of Abraham and Sarah’s mess of a blended family, and in spite of Sarah’s barrenness…God continues to be faithful in fulfilling His promises to all of them and in bringing about salvation for all of our sakes.
I’m ashamed to say that, looking back on my life, there were a considerable number of times when I wasn’t all that different from Sarah and Abraham in this story, expecting a certain outcome from God, according to my own sense of timing. It’s embarrassing to talk about, because, when I took matters into my own hands to try to force a result, the consequences were always pretty dreadful. I was always sorry I’d done so. Regardless, when another situation came up, there I was all over again, forgetting what had happened when I tried to force God’s hand to make things turn out the way I wanted. It was my own disastrous pattern of Abraham’s “blended family” …but I was blending what started as my trust in God, with an overarching kind of trust in my own understanding, which I thought was best for me. I can tell you from experience that when I eventually settled myself back into a trust in God, He always had something in mind for me that was far better than anything I could have imagined.
And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, that’s the way it is for a lot of us professing Orthodox Christians who consider ourselves as followers of Christ, but we don’t really delight in doing and being what He asks us to be. We only attend Sunday services (halfheartedly) because we feel some uncomfortable constraints like social pressures or fear of hell or desire to impress someone. So, we go through outward motions of obedience, unenthusiastically, lukewarmly, showing that the desire of our hearts is, in reality, fixed somewhere else. We show up to Divine Liturgy infrequently, and when we do come, we come in late, as mere consumers, not offering our lives in joyful worship as the work of the people—in service to Christ. Such a life has no power to transform, and so we’re (rightly) too embarrassed to pretend that our experience of Christ is worthy of offering to the world. When we live this way, we’re in bondage to destruction. Such halfhearted Christianity doesn’t enjoy the freedom of desire which Christ (the child of the promise) gives when we devote ourselves to His likeness being formed in our heart.
Have you, like Sarah, lived a Christian life in such barrenness, such bleak infertility, such utter fruitlessness? So, let’s set aside Abraham’s blend and grasp firmly to the hope that we’re children of promise, having been born of the Holy Spirit in baptism…and put on Christ. Let’s be converted, changed, transformed at the center of our lives, so that we discover our truest delight is only to be experienced in Him. Let’s hate the remaining tendencies in us to trust in our own way or other people instead of God. Our delight is in the wisdom of the Lord, and our choicest food is to do His will, relying on His grace. This is what it means to be born according to the Spirit. This is what it means to say I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. His desire becomes our desire. This is what it means to live free from bondage.