Genesis 21:8-21

Second Sunday of Lent, 2023
Joanna Harader

This is Hagar’s second trip into the wilderness. The first was years earlier when she was pregnant with Ishmael. Sarah, her master, was jealous that Hagar was able to have a child for Abraham when Sarah wasn’t. So Sarah beat her and Hagar ran away into the wilderness. She was a runaway slave. That time in the wilderness she found a spring of water to keep her alive and God came to her and told her to return. Which is fairly problematic in my mind, but she did.

In that encounter, Hagar names God. She is the only person in scripture to name God. A slave woman lost in the wilderness. Telling God who God is: El-roi, God who sees.

In the story we heard this morning, Hagar does not run away to the wilderness, but is sent there by Abraham—at Sarah’s insistence. Like her first trip to the wilderness, Hagar encounters God and finds water. Unlike her first trip, this time it seems that she stays in the wilderness. She and Ishmael make a home there.

Hagar’s story is a significant one within the Black Christian community—and particularly among black women, many of whom consider themselves the daughters of Hagar. We can see Hagar’s story echoed in the stories of women—mostly African, like Hagar–who were enslaved in the United States; women who faced sexual exploitation and other forms of physical abuse; women who were “given” and “sold” to other people as property; women who loved their children fiercely and too often had to watch them suffer; women who courageously escaped to their own wildernesses, seeking freedom in an unknown land.

In a white Christian context, “wilderness” tends to have negative connotations. But for those who are oppressed, it seems that the wilderness is not such a scary place– not as frightening, not as dangerous as “civilized” society.

The wilderness was Hagar’s safe place, her sacred space. It is where she finds refuge and where she meets God. And, I realized, she is not alone among biblical figures in her experience of wilderness. I looked through—to be honest, I didn’t get through all of the references, because there are a lot—but I looked through several mentions of wilderness in the Bible, and realized that it is, very often, a sacred place. It is a place where people encounter God in intense ways. Like Hagar, giving God a name and being rescued by God from death.

It is in the wilderness that Moses encounters the burning bush where God gives the Divine name. It’s in the wilderness where God leads the Israelites with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. Where Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit. Where John the Baptist baptizes people.

The wilderness offers freedom for the enslaved Hagar, for the enslaved Hebrew people. It is a place of respite from abuse, a place of self-determination for people who have been controlled by others. The wilderness is a place of equality and community, where everyone works together for survival. It is a place where priorities are clear and gratitude comes easily. It is a place where people find God—or where God finds them.

In scripture, the wilderness is very often a place that poses a threat to the established and powerful while nurturing the oppressed and marginalized. So it is no wonder that these wilderness stories are central texts for the field of liberation theology.

Liberation theology is an approach to understanding the Bible and God that prioritizes the perspective of the marginalized. In general, this approach understands the Christian message to be one of justice, equality, freedom—physical, economic, spiritual, mental, liberation for all people. Formally recognized liberation theology began among Latin American peasants, and there are different emphases within that branch of theology today: feminist, womanist, black, queer, disability . . . any people who find themselves oppressed and marginalized can look to scripture for words of hope and calls for justice. For liberation.

And these wilderness texts are key. Because the wilderness is a place of freedom; the wilderness stands in contrast to places of hierarchy and domination, places where people are exploited, systems that privilege one race, one class over others; the wilderness is an equalizer. Sarah and Abraham might cast Hagar into the wilderness as punishment, as a way to get rid of her, but God comes to Hagar there and makes the wilderness a sacred space for her.

There are many blessings in the wilderness.

And yet. . . . And yet.

The barrenness, the danger, and the disorientation of the wilderness are real. People die in the wilderness—of hunger, of thirst, of exhaustion.

The wilderness is . . . a paradox.

It is a dangerous space and sacred space. A place of deprivation and a place of deep provision. The place where we face disorientation and where we find clarity.

And . . . so what?

That’s the question I’m supposed to answer in my sermons for you every week. So what? What does this ancient text mean for you—for us—today? And I have to tell you, that’s where I’ve been stuck this week. Writing this sermon has been a bit of a wilderness experience for me, I guess. I can happily talk about Hagar and the biblical wilderness and metaphorical wildernesses all day. But I keep bumping into the “so what?”. And I have typed and deleted and cut and pasted and walked away and come back. And I finally realized that the reason I was struggling so much with the so what is because the answer to that question is quite different for different people.

Those of us experiencing relative ease and privilege should be careful not to co-opt a story that is, at its heart, for the marginalized and oppressed. A significant “so what” for me in this story is to listen better to people who have been in the wilderness—those who have needed to be there, who maybe are living there now. Hagar’s story can teach us to trust that those among us who are true wilderness dwellers—whether they have fled to the wilderness or been sent there by others—that these wilderness dwellers have had encounters with God that we cannot expect to have. That they have received names for God that we do not know. And so we must listen well. That’s my “so what.”

But that “so what” might not be for you. Because maybe you do know the wilderness. Maybe you need to run away from abuses or are about to be cast out into the wilderness and you need assurance that, despite the hardships, there will be blessings in the wilderness. Maybe you are in the wilderness now and need a reminder to look for the water God provides, an assurance that God will hear you as you cry out. Maybe you have come out of the wilderness with blessings, with new names for God, and you need encouragement to share what you have learned and to treasure that sacred space of your life. Maybe that is your “so what.”

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t like having a sermon like this—unfocused with no clear conclusion. But maybe it’s fitting when we are talking about the wilderness to have a sermon like this. A sermon where you’re not sure where it starts or where it’s going or what it’s doing. A sermon that you just have to sit in for a while and hope that, somewhere in there, God has a blessing for you.