When I do premarital counseling, I help couples understand some of the differences in their family systems. I do this by getting them to talk about traditions they have around the holidays.
If a couple has to go to only two homes, it’s not so bad. But if one comes from a divorced family that’s different. If both couples come from divorced homes, that’s four sets of families they want to see and have to try to make happy during the holidays, plus grandparents. And this gets even more complicated when children come along because everyone wants to see them.
Who do you invite over for Thanksgiving dinner or whose invitation do you accept for Christmas Eve without making someone jealous or upset? It becomes an impossible puzzle that we are unable to piece together and make everyone happy.
While all family units can have problems, it’s fair to say that whenever there is the merging of more than two family systems, there are more chances for emotions to run high and for more problems to develop.
My generation learned about this by watching “The Brady Bunch.”
Today, nearly half of American adults have at least one step relative in their family – a stepparent, a step or half sibling or a stepchild. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/01/13/a-portrait-of-stepfamilies/
Now if you think that the blended family is a modern-day creation, you haven’t read Genesis. There’s more than one.
The first blended family in Genesis is about half brothers Isaac and Ishmael. They had the same father, Abraham, but they had different mothers. Hagar was the mother of Ishmael, and Sarah was the mother of Isaac.
Here is their story.
God promised Abraham that he would become the father of nations, with descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky.
Abraham waited a long, long time for God to make good on His promise, but his wife Sarah never got pregnant. Abraham and Sarah gave up on God. Since she was long past her childbearing years, she convinced Abraham to sleep with her handmaiden, Hagar, to produce an heir, an accepted practice in ancient times.
This decision to bring another child into the world through Hagar literally changed the world.
Hagar gave birth to a child, but Sarah raised the child as her own. He was named Ishmael. So this is how this family became a blended family.
Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar raised Ishmael for fourteen years, thinking he was God’s answer to the promise Abraham had received from God–that through him God would keep his promise to Abraham.
Then one day some surprising news came through some visitors who were messengers of God, heavenly beings, who told Abraham that Sarah, though past her childbearing years, would conceive and deliver a son.
So appropriately, when this child was born, they named the child “Laughter.” In Hebrew, he is called Isaac.
We have been taught that Isaac is God’s chosen one, not Ishmael. It is true, through Isaac came the Messiah. As we make our way through the history of the Bible, we move from Isaac to Esau, from Esau to Jacob, from Jacob to Judah, eventually to King David, and then we make our way all the way to Joseph, who was the earthly father to Jesus of Nazareth. All of these, of course, are Jews, with a few Gentiles sprinkled in Jesus’ family tree. It is from our Jewish heritage that Christianity was birthed.
I said earlier that the decision by Sarah to give her handmaiden to Abraham changed the history of the world. That is not an overly dramatic statement because the Muslims are descendants of Ishmael. So three of the world’s major religions claim Abraham as their father.
So what does the story say so far about this first blended family? It sounds like God chooses favorites and blessed one son over the other. He blessed Isaac over Ishmael.
That is what Jews and Christians like to point out in this story, especially when there are flashpoints between Muslims and Jews and flashpoints between Muslims and Christians.
“God is on our side,” we say. God loves the Jews. God loves the Christians. God has rejected the Muslims, because God rejected Ishmael. This has done nothing but fuel the anger and hatred we see moving against us by many Muslims in the world.
When we read the Bible we are often guilty of reading the parts we want to read and identifying with the parts we want to identify with while skipping the parts that don’t fit our purposes. This story is one of those examples.
It is true that the Jews are God’s chosen people. It is not Muslims; it is not even us. The Bible is clear that God chose the Jews to share His love with all the nations of the earth. God’s love came to us through Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew. Once the love of Jesus came to us, we were taught to share His love with all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
When we sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children of the World,” we don’t make any exceptions, do we? We say that God loves all the children of the world.
Unfortunately, we then act like God has step-children, that he loves some children more than others and we get to pick and choose which ones God loves more than others.
So, let’s look at this story a little closer.
Three years after Isaac was born, the laughter stopped. Sarah saw Ishmael, now seventeen, interacting with Isaac who was three, in a way she thought was inappropriate.
One way to interpret the Hebrew is that Ishmael was teasing or making fun of Isaac and it set off some kind of motherly protective jealousy within Sarah and she told Abraham to “Send this slave woman away with her son, for this slave woman’s son shall not be an heir with my son Isaac.” (Gen 21:9-10)
Now we see just how deep Sarah’s resentment is for Hagar and Ishmael. For fourteen years she raised this son as her own, but now she hates him and his mother and will not even acknowledge that Abraham is Ishmael’s father.
Nor does she even take into consideration how Abraham might feel about sending away his own son. Abraham is heartbroken at Sarah’s demand. By sending them away, it’s essentially a death sentence.
Abraham is alone in his thoughts and his heart is heavy as he complies with Sarah’s demands. End of story?
I am afraid that in many families, blended or not, this becomes the end of the story. We pick and choose who is going to be loved. There is a dominate parent or person who decides who is blessed and who is not. Someone is showered with love and blessings and someone else is sent away in shame and disgrace, forced to carry some form of the family’s guilt.
There are some of you right now who feel uncomfortable going home during the holidays. Some of you are uncomfortable welcoming some of your family into your home but not others. There’s tension. You love one but you cannot bring yourself to love another.
Some of you are not accepted and you know it and it is difficult for you to be in the home of one of your own family members.
Some of you are like Sarah. Something has happened that angered you. You feel justified in how you’ve treated someone. You’ve washed your hands of the matter and there will be no relationship.
Others of you are like Abraham. You are confused. You love all of your family and you wonder why there can’t there be enough love for everyone.
Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the desert to die. There is great grief expressed by both Hagar and her son.
But please note that it was not God that rejected them.
The scripture says,
“Meanwhile, God heard the boy crying. The angel of God called from Heaven to Hagar, ‘What’s wrong, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy and knows the fix he’s in. Up now; go get the boy. Hold him tight. I’m going to make of him a great nation.’ 19 Just then God opened her eyes. She looked. She saw a well of water. She went to it and filled her canteen and gave the boy a long, cool drink. 20-21 God was on the boy’s side as he grew up. He lived out in the desert and became a skilled archer. He lived in the Paran wilderness. And his mother got him a wife from Egypt” Genesis 21:17-18 (NIV).
What does this passage tell us about God?
(1) God Hears Our Cries For Help. Even though Sarah and Abraham rejected Hagar and Ishmael, God didn’t.
Ishmael’s name means, “God has heard.” God heard Hagar’s misery and he heard the boy’s cry for help. In fact, this wasn’t the first time they had been sent out into the desert by Sarah and Abraham. God heard their cry once before and saved them.
2) God Identifies With the Rejected. Not only had God not rejected Ishmael, but he promised to make Ishmael into a great nation, a great word of hope for people in nations who feel rejected and in families who feel rejected.
God identifies with the rejected. God has empathy with those who are struggling to receive a blessing. Even if someone in your family has rejected you, you are still loved by God. God has not forgotten you.
God has heard your cry and God still knows your name.
3) God Wants to Bless Us All. While Ishmael was not the one God chose to fulfill the Messianic promise, he was still chosen, and he was still blessed.
There is some evidence in our nation that we are a divided people.
There is some evidence that we are a divided world. There is evidence that religion is fueling this divide.
Religion will not solve it, but you must know that the one true God is always working to bring about healing and reconciliation.
We can see that even in this very first blended family.
I want to show you a couple of verses few people ever pay any attention to.
Look at these verses in Genesis 25:8-9: 8 Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. 9 His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, 10 the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah.
Many people never think about these brothers ever having a relationship after they were separated when Ishmael was 14 and Isaac was 3, but here they are together burying their father. Notice who is also dead, Sarah, Isaac’s mother.
Rabbinic scholars believe that a renewed relationship began between Isaac and Ishmael after Sarah died. The scripture says that after her death, Abraham’s servant went to look for Isaac a wife in Aram Naharaim and while he was gone, Isaac went to Beer Lahai Roi.
What is significant about that place? That is where Hagar lived. (“Not in God’s Name,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Schocken Books, p. 120)
The Rabbis believe Isaac could not bear the thought of having a wife of his own while his father lived alone. (Ibid)
They piece this together because Genesis 24 tells us that Abraham remarried and had six more children. This passage may be here as a way to explaining how Abraham became a father of many nations. But it may also be here as a way of telling us how Isaac and Ishmael made amends.
Genesis 24 tells us that the name of Abraham’s wife is Keturah.
The Rabbis believe that Keturah was Hagar.
Remember, it wasn’t unusual for people to change their names after some significant life event. After all, Abram became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah.
Hagar means “fight.” She was a slave woman who had to fight for survival, for her place in the family. Keturah means “incense.” She may have become a woman whose place in the family became an incense, a sweet-smelling fragrance to those of her family.
This would be one explanation of why Ishmael and Isaac could stand together at the grave of Abraham, half brothers who were once torn apart, but now bound in brotherly love.
We don’t know if it happened this way, but something happened to soften the hearts of these bothers as they stood together at their father’s grave. This is an image of biblical fact.
Isn’t this a picture of peace that families need to see and embrace?
Isn’t this a picture of peace that communities need to embrace right now?
Isn’t this a picture of peace that the world needs to embrace right now?
A family that was torn apart was reunited.
We need to bury hatred. We need to bury a belief that families don’t need each other. We need to bury racism. We need to bury a lack of respect for the law. We need to bury a belief that God loves us to the exclusion of others. We need to bury a belief that we can live divided and without God.
If we are going to be indivisible as a nation, we must strive to be one nation under God, but that will never happen if we don’t work for liberty and justice for all.
If you are in a family system where you are having to fight for survival, to be blessed, to find self-esteem, please hear me say that God is on your side.
God is on the side of the rejected. God identifies with your pain because his son Jesus was rejected. He suffered, and died for all who have been rejected. He knows your pain. He’s walked your path.
Regardless of what it was that inspired Isaac and Ismael to stand together at their father’s grave, this scene becomes a powerful symbol that love, forgiveness, and healing can occur in families. God can use examples like these to help heal individuals, families, communities, and our world.
This morning, I encourage you to do your part to bring healing to those who feel rejected, even if others don’t do theirs. Allow the power of God to give you the strength to stand for the rejected, to offer forgiveness for the pain inflicted by others, and the courage to believe that the future can be better than the past.