Thursday, 20 December 2018

Advent Breathing Space 3: God is this person

Over these last three Thursdays we’ve been thinking about the message that all angels communicate, that God is here, that God sees and knows us. The angels remind us of God’s presence, in the places where we are, in the times when we are.

In this final thought for Advent we’ll think a bit about the God who is here in our lives and the lives of those around us.

It might seem strange to begin with Hagar and Ishmael. After all, they don’t figure at all in the story of the Bible after this point, and in some ways, we could argue they weren’t meant to feature in it at all. Abraham had been promised as many descendents as the stars in the sky, but his wife, Sarah, bears him no children. In an attempt to manipulate the situation, she tells Abraham to father a child with her slave, Hagar. Hagar becomes pregnant and has a son, Ishmael, Abraham’s first born. But a few years later – we heard this story last week – Sarah becomes pregnant and also has a son. Now there is a problem. Hagar and Ishmael are really redundant, no longer needed, and Sarah wants to be rid of them, in case there is any suggestion that Ishmael should inherit instead of his younger half-brother, Isaac. So she tells Abraham to drive the mother and child out into the desert, presumably knowing they are likely to die there. And die they very nearly do, as we hear. But at the last minute, an angel intervenes and points the way to a well. They survive and, as the story ends, we are given just a hint of what is to come – Ishmael becomes a renowned hunter, we are told, marries an Egyptian and makes the desert of Paran his home.

They walk off into the wilderness and into a whole new life. Hagar and Ishmael just seem to be extras in the Biblical story, with brief walk on parts that move the tale along, but without any lasting significance, and yet the fact that their stories are told at all is important. “God has heard the voice of the boy where he is” says the angel to Hagar . “I will make a great nation of him” says God through this angel. We may hear no more of the two of them, but they matter to God, and he hasn’t finished with them. 

It’s interesting that Arab peoples believe they are descended from this first son of Abraham, Ishmael. According to Muslim tradition Abraham and Ishmael set up the Kaaba,  the sacred stone in Mecca which is still the focal point of the pilgrimage – the Haj - there.

This story is a reminder of the significance of every single person, however peripheral they may seem to our own lives. We may sit next to someone on a train or pass them in the street, and never know their names, but they are as important to the world, and to God, as we are.

In the first of this series of talks I talked about Jacob and his dream of the angels ascending and descending a heavenly ladder. “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!” he says in wonder. We could say the same of the people whose lives we only encounter briefly, “Surely God is in this person, in every person, even if I did not know it!

The story of the Bible is full of apparently insignificant people who turn out to matter very much indeed – an apparently abandoned baby in the bulrushes called Moses turns out to be the liberator of his people. A childless nomad called Abraham turns out to be the father of not one but two nations. A little shepherd boy, called David, the youngest of his brothers, is almost overlooked when the prophet Samuel comes to his home, but eventually becomes the greatest king of Israel.

And it’s the same in our Gospel reading. A young girl in a backwater town in Galilee, receives a visit from an angel who tells her that she will bear God’s son. Why her? Is she holier, braver, more devout than any other young girl of the time? There’s no reason to think so, and we are never told why she is chosen, and maybe that is just as well. Because it  says to us that God could, and does, chose and use anyone. He could even choose and use us.

God is here, say the angels to us; in this place, in this time, in this person. In our place, in our time, and in our person too, if we will open our eyes to see him, and like Mary, consent to let him work in us.

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