a sermon at the launch of a resource for Christian women and church leaders on abuse and family law by METRAC

It’s my privilege to be here with you today. I’ve been excited to learn about your work, and the resource you’re launching today is an important one.

I want to be sensitive to the time constraints, so today what I what to do is to simply tell two stories. The two stories come from two different worlds, but they have one thing in common. Both are about women who faced abuse in very different ways, and yet found hope in the most unexpected of places.

Hagar

The first story is from the Hebrew Scriptures. If you ask me why I believe the Bible is true, one of the many reasons is that it is painfully honest about the people it describes. The first story I want to tell you is about Abram and his wife Sarai. They are two heroes, a patriarch and a matriarch. Yet the story I want to tell isn’t about their greatness. The story is about how their actions led to a brutal situation for a woman called Hagar.

The true story goes like this. God promised Abram that he would have a son, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, and that they would be a great nation. There was only one problem: Abram and Sarai were old and they had no children.

It’s very hard for us today to understand what being childless was like in those times. Infertility is still a big problem today, and many know the pain of not being able to have the child that you long for. Compounding the pain in those days was the fact that children were literally your security and your future. If you didn’t have children, you had nobody to look after you in your old age.

Not only this, but the stakes were even higher when it came to Abram and Sarai. God had promised they would have a son. As someone has written, “Her inability to conceive is no longer just a thorn in their marriage or a grief to her heart, but now is an obstruction to the promises of Yahweh!” It’s a horrible situation.

So Sarai took the initiative and suggested that she and Abram fulfill this promise themselves by using a surrogate mother. This wasn’t uncommon in that culture. Sarai offered her servant Hagar to Abram. Hagar became pregnant. But things went horribly wrong between Hagar and Sarai. Hagar displayed a bad attitude towards Sarai, and Sarai became fed up with Hagar. Abram told Sarai to do as she’d like, and we read, “Then Sarai mistreated Hagar” (Genesis 16:6). I don’t know exactly what she did, but the verb there means things like “to afflict, to oppress, to treat harshly, to mistreat, to humiliate.” The same term is used later to describe the suffering endured by the Israelites in Egypt.

So, we read, Hagar fled and ended up in the desert, alone, pregnant, and forgotten, presumably on her way back to her native land. It’s a total disaster for everybody concerned. Hagar has lost her home, Sarai her maid, and Abram his second wife and newborn child.

But something happens that has been called a severe mercy. At her lowest point, a stranger came and addressed her as Hagar, Sarai’s servant, and asked, “Where have you come from, and where are you going?” It turns out that this is an angel, and the angel told her to return and submit to Sarai, but then made a remarkable promise. The angel said, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count” (Genesis 16:10). Not only that, but the angel told her to name the child Ishmael, which means “God hears.” And the angel also promised that this son, Ishmael, would not be servile, but would be aggressive.

Ishmael. God sees. And then Hagar says words that have been remembered for thousands of years since:

She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13)

Hagar literally called the Lord “the God of seeing.” Ishmael – God sees. And, Hagar says, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” This is remarkable. In fact, this is the only time in Scripture that a person confers a name on God. God is the one who sees those forgotten by everyone else.

I won’t go into all the details, but a similar thing seems to have happened 17 or 18 years later. The tensions boiled over, and Hagar and Ishmael were sent away again. This time they wandered aimlessly in the desert. When they ran out of water, Hagar walked away from Ishmael because she couldn’t bear to see him die. We then read:

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt. (Genesis 21:17-21)

From this true story we learn two things. We learn something about us and something about God. First, we learn how horrible it is to be the victim of abuse. Hagar’s situation breaks your heart. Humiliated, mistreated, ostracized, powerless, alone, afraid for her own life and the life of her child. What’s even more horrible is that Hagar’s story has been repeated countless times since then. It’s why METRAC exists. It’s why the resources you offer are so important.

But Hagar’s story also teaches us something about God. God is the God of seeing. God sees those who are invisible victims. He hears the cries of those who are not heard by others. God sees and hears, and he takes action. God is concerned with the afflicted, whoever they may be, even if they are downtrodden foreigners living in Israel.

This becomes a major theme throughout Scripture: the Lord looks after the oppressed.

Hagar heard the words, “You will give birth to a son and name him Ishmael, for the Lord has noticed your oppression.” Thousands of years later, another woman, “Behold, you will conceive … and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” In Jesus we learn that God not only sees and hears the afflicted, but that he willingly became afflicted. God not only sees and hears suffering; God himself suffers. God himself became a man and willingly experienced the full force of evil on our behalf.

As Tim Keller puts it in The Reason for God, “God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself…We can know that God is truly Immanuel – God with us – even in our worst sufferings.”

We don’t have easy answers for the suffering that people go through. But it does mean something – a lot actually – that God sees, God hears, that God himself suffered in the person of Jesus Christ for our sakes, and that he will set this world right. He is the God of seeing.

One More Story

My second story is brief. It’s about a mother, a recent immigrant, with four children: two teenagers and two young children.

It’s a story of emotional abuse: days, without explanation, of her husband not speaking to her. It’s also a story of physical abuse: young teenagers hiding the knives when they go to bed at night out of fear of what could happen. One night he pins her down on the living room floor with the entire family watching. The oldest son crawls out a basement window to get help from the neighbors, and is never forgiven by his abusive father.

It’s also the story of a church that had never had to encounter domestic abuse or divorce before. If you were to guess how the church would react, you would have guessed that they would be judgmental and cold. They tended to be on the strict side, and as I said, they had never encountered a situation like this before.

This terrified mother one day put an end to the abuse. She called the police, changed the locks, and took her family to a hotel for safety. She now faced an uncertain future: no car, no job, a husband who refused to pay the court-ordered support. She had almost no resources, but she did have a mortgage, bills, and four very hungry children.

The story is a gritty one. At one point she was hospitalized for a couple of weeks because of the stress. Her days were filled with endless work. At times it was unclear how the bills were going to be paid.

But she learned that God is the God of seeing and the God of hearing. And her church, which was supposed to not know what to do, was there for her in ways that nobody could have expected. And they did this without making her feel like a charity case. They offered emotional support, legal support. They offered food. Mysterious envelopes of money would show up. Rides were offered. The kids were almost adopted by people in that church. Men were put on call to deal with things if the abusive dad ever showed up looking for trouble.

That woman was my mother. That church became a visible demonstration of a community that is shaped by the Son of God, who gave his life as a sacrifice for our sins. We literally could not have survived without that church’s help.

Two women, separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years. But both who found that God is the God of seeing.

I am so grateful for the resource that you’re releasing for Christian women and church leaders. I wish we had had it years ago. My prayer is that our churches would be places that help those who are victims of abuse in every possible way, proclaiming that God is the God of seeing and hearing; that God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself at the cross. Amen.