If We Had Only Known Then What We Know Now

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 15, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21 GNT

Abraham.  Father Abraham.  Father of many nations.  Revered as the father of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths.  Natural father of at least two children—Ishmael and Isaac.  So from all indications, a story involving Abraham would be a perfect passage for Father’s Day.  But we all know that there are no perfect fathers.  All fathers have their weaknesses, and all fathers sometimes err in their judgment.  So it was, I believe, even with Father Abraham.

AFTER YEARS of tryingto have a child, Abraham’s wife Sarah finally gave up and decided to give her servant Hagar to her husband as a second wife in hopes that she could bear him a son. Hagar conceived and bore Abraham a son whom they named Ishmael, a name meaning “God hears.”  Then as the story goes, some years later, Sarah, in her old age, finally conceived and also bore a son whom they called Isaac, which means “laughter” or “he laughs.”  It was inevitable, I suppose, that jealously would develop between the mothers of the two sons who would both vie for Abraham’s attention and blessing.  And so, Sarah, Abraham’s first and natural wife, considering Ishmael to be a threat to her own son, Isaac, asked that her servant Hagar and her son, Ishmael, be sent away.

At this point the story gets complicated and a little disturbing.  Abraham doesn’t want to send Hagar and Ishmael away.  He has love for Ishmael just as he has love for Isaac.  The point that disturbs me is that the biblical writer states that God went along with Sarah’s demand that Hagar and Ishmael be driven away.  Honestly, I find that hard to digest, as the God later revealed by Jesus is not the kind of God that would find pleasure in sending a mother and her son away with nothing but a meager amount of food and a water bottle strapped to her back.  Sometimes the biblical writers, who often wrote hundreds of years after the fact, wrote their own interpretation into the ancient stories, attributing to God words and deeds in order to rationalize the outcome of history.

At any rate, Abraham, I believe, in a temporary lapse of judgment, gave into Sarah’s whim and sent Hagar and his son Ishmael away into the wilderness.  Even though Abraham was told that a great nation would come from Ishmael too, I don’t think he fathomed how history would play itself out.  Both Jews and Christians trace their faith history back to Father Abraham through the line of Isaac.  But let us not forget that nearly 1 billion Muslims also trace their roots back to Father Abraham, but through the line of Ishmael.  For centuries there has been discord between the descendants of Isaac and the descendants of Ishmael.  A question for us to consider is, How will we seek to relate to our “cousins in the faith” who are also children of Father Abraham?  Can we not arrive at a place in our world when all of us can learn to love each other and get along, so that no one is cast out?  But here is the point of the sermon: Had Abraham been able to see into the future, do you think he might have done things differently?  That he might have tried to deal with Ishmael and Isaac in such a way that there was no jealously, but rather, mutual understanding and respect.  That history might have played out differently?  If Abraham could have only known then what we know now!

BUT ISN’T that the way with human natureand with being a parent?  As we look back on the years of parenthood, if we could have only known then what we know now.  How often have we said that—if I could have only known then what I know now?  As a father myself, I know I have said it many times.  There have been times when I have wished that we could go back to when our children were young, knowing what I know now.  Though I feel I was somewhat successful as a father, there are some things I would do differently if I could go back, knowing what I know now; things like:

  • Letting my studies slide some and spending more time playing with our kids when they were young;
  • Being more patient and trying to understand things from a child’s perspective;
  • Not expecting our children to act as adults;
  • Spending more time talking with our kids and learning from them what they had to teach me.

But we can’t go back.  We can only start where we are right now and go forward.

AND SO, as we think about fathers and realize that all fathers are imperfect, what might we need to do?

  • Well, those of us who are fathers (or grandfathers or parents in general, for that matter) can make the changes in our lives and relationships that we wish we had made years ago, changes like spending more time with our children (or grandchildren), regardless of their age.  There was a long article in this past week’s Wall Street Journal about the importance of fathers and their rough-and-tumble play with their children, and how important that is to a child’s development
  • We can strive to be more understanding and try to see things from our children’s perspective;
  • We can be ready and willing to listen and learn from what our children and grandchildren have to teach us (if you want to know something about electronics, ask your seven-year-old grandson);
  • We can be careful to not favor one child over another.
  • And you could probably add some things of your own to the list.

SOMETIMES FATHERS make mistakes, you know, even when they have the best intentions and are trying to do what is right.  There is an old story about a father and son who had a falling out, all because of a simple misunderstanding.  The son was ready to graduate from high school.  He had worked really hard throughout high school and had made good grades.  Part of his motivation was to impress his father.  The son had his heart set on a car as a graduation present, and when his father asked him what he would like for his high school graduation, the son told him the exact car he had in mind.

The day of his high school graduation arrived, and when they returned home to celebrate, the father presented his son with a box.  The boy opened it to find a brand new Bible.  He opened the inside cover of the Bible to the dedication page, and the father had written, “Son, I am very proud of you.  I hope this gift will help you and give you guidance throughout your life.  Love, Dad.”  Well, the son was crushed.  And he was disappointed.  And he was angry.  He had his heart set on a car for graduation, and he thought that is what he was going to get.  Instead, his father had given him a Bible!

In anger the boy packed a quick bag and left the house with the unwanted Bible in hand, ran to the railroad tracks, and caught the next freight train leaving town.  For some time, the boy bummed around the country, still hurt and angry at this father for disappointing him.  No one knew where to find him.

Then, not unlike the prodigal son of Jesus’ parable, the boy fell upon hard times.  One night in desperation, he opened the Bible in hopes of finding help and guidance, as his father had written.  This time the boy turned to the back of the Bible looking for an index.  And there he discovered, taped between the back pages of the holy book, a slender key with the words written down below it:  “Here is the key to the car you wanted for graduation in appreciation for all your hard work in high school.  May you drive it with pride.  Love, Dad.”  The boy’s heart sank.  His father had not disappointed him after all.  In fact, it was just the opposite: his father had exceeded his expectations.  Filled with humility and joy, the boy returned to his father who received him with open arms.

The lessons we can learn from this story are many.  But the lesson pertinent to today’s thoughts is that as fathers, even though we may have the best intentions, sometimes our best intentions are misunderstood or we don’t go about our best intentions in the best way.  Certainly it was so with Father Abraham.

LOOKING BACK, maybe we can learn from Father Abraham’s mistakes.  We can be more careful as parents and grandparents in the way we relate to our children or grandchildren, not favoring one over another; we can be careful to really communicate with our children and grandchildren and let them know we are listening; we can strive to better see things from our child or grandchild’s perspective; and, as much as possible, we can try to consider the long-term consequences of how we relate to and raise our children.

There is no perfect parent; that is a given.  And hindsight is 20/20 vision, as they say.  But we can learn from the mistakes of others, and from our own mistakes and determine to do better in the future.  Amen.

1Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2014.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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