One of the most popular songs requested at funerals is Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. In this song he sings ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.’ I’ve only ever met one person who claimed that they had never regretted anything they have done in their life. I suspect that most of us will regret things we have said or done in our life, or not done, missed opportunities. I know I do.
The truth is, all of us have made mistakes. None of us our perfect. The Apostle John writes ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ (1 John 1:8)
What is important is not that we make mistakes, but that we learn from them. Like the inventor Thomas Edison, who said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Or Richard Branson who said “Don’t be embarrassed by your failures, learn from them and start again.”
In Hebrews 11, the great heroes of faith are listed, amongst them Abram and Sarai. What is interesting about this list is that when you study their lives, you discover that these people were far from perfect. They often made terrible mistakes, many of them doubted and questioned God, and they were deeply flawed individuals. And that can be said about most of the people in Scripture that God calls.
For example, think about the twelve disciples, if you were setting out on a new venture like Jesus, they would have probably been the last people you’d want on your team, but they were the ones Jesus chose. I draw great comfort from this, because if God can use someone like them, then he can also use someone like you and me, as weak and foolish as we may be.
This is why Paul in 1 Corinthians writes ‘God chose the foolish things of this world to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame. What the world thinks is worthless, useless, and nothing at all is what God has used to destroy what the world considers important.’ (1 Cor 1:27-28)
Although Abram and Sarai are held up as great examples of faith in Scripture, we see too that they made plenty of mistakes along the way, mistakes which if we’re not careful we also can make.
Mistake #1 Lack of Trust
In Genesis 15:4 God gave a promise to Abram who was childless that he would give him an heir. That promise was not just for Abram, but for his wife Sarai as well. But her hopes of becoming a mother and giving to Abram the son God had promised diminished with every passing year.
There was a stigma attached to not being able to bear children, and it was seen as punishment from God, and so after ten years of waiting and trying, Sarai’s patience ran out, and she told Abram to sleep with her servant Hagar, in order to produce an heir. But what Sarai’s and Abram’s actions demonstrate was their lack of trust in God.
For us as Christians, learning to trust God is one of the most important but difficult lessons we need to learn. Proverbs 3:5 says Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.
The great 19th century evangelist and preacher DL Moody said this: Trust in yourself, and you are doomed to disappointment; trust in your friends, and they will die and leave you; trust in money, and you may have it taken from you; trust in reputation, and some slanderous tongue may blast it; but trust in God, and you are never to be confounded in time or eternity.
God’s way is ALWAYS the best way, even if to us it seems all wrong. If you asked God for one thing and received another, TRUST. You can be sure that He will always give you what you need at the appropriate time.
The second mistake Abram and Sarai made was they tried to do things in their time and not God’s.
Mistake #2 Their time not God’s
Sarai took matters into her own hands by giving Hagar to Abram. Like Abram, she had trouble believing God’s promise that God would bless them with a child. Out of this lack of faith came a series of problems.
This invariably what happens when we try to take control from God, trying to make a promise of his come true through efforts that are not in line with God’s specific directions. In this case, the greatest test Abram and Sarai faced was time, waiting for God to fulfil his promise. This can be hard.
For St Matthew’s, you’ve had to learn an important lesson about learning to wait and trust in God, as you searched for a new Rector. I imagine that by the time you’d been through a second round of interviews and no one was appointed, there may have been some who were starting to worry about whether you’d find a new Rector. But the waiting was worth it, because in Jim you are getting a fantastic Rector, and someone who feels really called to be at St Matthew’s.
In these times of waiting we need to remember God’s promises, and not lose heart.
There is a beautiful Taize chant which has the words, Wait for the Lord whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch take heart.
The subsequent problems that developed between Abram, Sarai and Hagar were all the result of not waiting on God, and allowing him to supply their needs.
The third mistake Abram and Sarai made was
Mistake #3 Blaming others
Sarai was the one who arranged for Hagar to have a child by Abram, but when Hagar conceived we are told she started to look with contempt on Sarai. And so Sarai’s anger turns against Abram, who she blames, forgetting that she was the one who first suggested that Abram should take Hagar.
It is always easier to put the blame on someone else than to face up to our own faults, to strikeout in frustration and point the finger at someone else than to admit an error and ask for forgiveness.
The Apostle James writes ‘My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,’ (James 1:19) And Jesus warns us against seeing the speck in your friends eye, but not noticing the log in our own eye. (Matthew 7:3)
Elton John wrote a song called ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’. It’s not easy to acknowledge when we’ve done something wrong, and upset or hurt someone by our words or actions, but it is extremely important, which is why Jesus taught us to pray ‘Forgive us our sins’, to acknowledge the times we fail, and make mistakes.
Paul warns us that “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26), this is the fourth mistake we see Abram and Sarai make as they mistreat.
Mistake #4 Mistreating Hagar
In response to Sarai’s complaint, Abram says “She’s your servant; do to her as you please.”
Hagar is not treated with care, respect or dignity as a fellow human being, but as an object to be used as they see fit by both Abram and Sarai. There is no love, concern or compassion for Hagar, instead we’re told Sarai dealt harshly with her. She took out her frustration and anger against Abram and herself on Hagar, punishing her for their own mistakes.
I realise myself that when I am frustrated and angry it is all too easy to take out my frustrations on those closest to me, not because they are at fault, but because they are there.
This is why, Paul says in your anger do not sin, because if we are not careful we can lash out at others for no reason at all, or say something that could all too easily hurt them. And a careless word said in haste, can cause considerable harm. That is why the psalmist writes “Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.” (Ps 141:3)
The fifth and final mistake is the one Hagar made.
Running away from our problems does not solve them
Faced by mistreatment, Hagar attempted to run away from Sarai and her problems. But an Angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar and told her to return to Sarai – the cause of her problem and to submit to her.
Although Hagar had been wronged by Abram and Sarai, she herself carried some of the guilt in the way that she had despised Sarai, and God was challenging her about her attitude towards Sarai, no matter now justified it may have been.
When faced by challenging situations, we may feel like running away from them, but that rarely solves the problem. Instead God challenges us to face up to our problems, correct our attitudes and act as we should, not as we would like to.
For Hagar it was a hard thing to return, it involved turning, the basic move in repentance which is the first stage in finding God’s way, but with this came a wonderful promise, that the Lord will “increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”.
What this showed, is that God noticed and had compassion on Hagar. She had not been forgotten, God had noticed her suffering.
In these verses we see three people make serious mistakes.
Sarai, who took matters into her own hands and gave her servant girl to Abram.
Abram, who went along with the plan but who, when things began to go wrong, refused to get involved in solving the problem.
And Hagar, who ran away from the problem.
But in spite of this messy situation, God demonstrates that he is not limited by the complications in our lives. He can bring good out of any situation. Sarai and Abram still received the son they so desperately wanted, and they clearly learned from their mistakes (see Genesis chapter 22) and God solved Hagar’s problem despite Abram’s refusal to get involved.
No problem in your life is too complicated for God, if you are willing to allow him to help you. And no matter how messy or complicated our lives may be, God wants to, and can use you.