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The Joy of the Lord

We’re going to pick up our story today in Genesis chapter 21 – hopping over chapters 19 & 20 – but I would certainly encourage you to go back and read those chapters sometime this week – that will help you fill in the blanks of the story yourself.

Now while you’re turning to Genesis 21 in your Bibles, let me give you just a really quick summary of the story so far.

As I’ve pointed out before, the key issue in the whole story of Abraham is the issue of descendants. Namely that Abraham had none. One of the first bits of information that we read about Abraham was that his wife Sarah, had been unable to become pregnant. And of course, this is a big deal for any family, but it was particularly an issue for Abraham’s family because God had specifically promised to Abraham that his descendants would grow to become a great nation and they would inherit the land of Canaan or as we often call it “the Promised Land”. God was going to bless all of Abraham’s descendants and they in turn would be a blessing to every family on the earth.

However, through most of our story, Abraham has been childless. Several times God has appeared and reaffirmed his promise to Abraham – but by the time Abraham was 85, he still had no child on the horizon. So Abraham and Sarah decided to be proactive and help God out a little bit. They decided that Abraham should have a child with Sarah’s servant, Hagar. This was culturally acceptable – but was certainly not what God had in mind. The problems and the discord that this caused in the family became evident almost immediately. As soon as Hagar was pregnant, Hagar treated Sarah with contempt and Sarah treated Hagar so harshly that she ran away even before the child was born. Thankfully, God intervened and Hagar returned to Sarah and Abraham – and in due time, Hagar had her baby – little Ishmael.

Well, for many years, Abraham raised Ishmael as his dearly loved, one and only son – the son that he presumed was God’s promised child. But when Ishmael was 13 years old God appeared to Abraham and again reaffirmed his promise that Abraham would have a son – and that son would be born from Sarah – even though she was now 90 years old. God further clarified that Sarah’s son, Isaac, would be the one whom God would bless and would cause his descendants to grow to be a great nation – they would inherit the promised land, and they would be a blessing to every family on earth.

Of course, this was exactly what God had promised 24 years earlier – God’s plans had not changed even though Abraham and Sarah had not been careful to follow his plan. Despite their lack of faith, God remained faithful and today, we finally get to the part of the story where God finally does exactly what he said he would do for Abraham & Sarah. So in Genesis chapter 21, verse 1 we read:

The Lord kept his word and did for Sarah exactly what he had promised. 2 She became pregnant, and she gave birth to a son for Abraham in his old age. This happened at just the time God had said it would. Genesis 1:1-2

I love how this chapter starts: The Lord kept his word. He did exactly what he had promised. Despite the impossibility of it all – (considering that Abraham and Sarah were well past the age of having children – Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90) – despite the impossibility of them having children, God kept his Word.

If there is only one thing that we learn from this whole series on Abraham – I hope that this is it – that God always keeps his Word. He is 100% trustworthy.

This situation with Abraham and Sarah wasn’t a one-off for God. He always keeps his word. We see this throughout the Bible. For example, in Joshua we read a very similar sounding verse.

Not a single one of all the good promises the Lord had given to the family of Israel was left unfulfilled; everything he had spoken came true. Joshua 21:45

And that’s just the character of God. By his very nature, God must always keep his Word. That’s part of what makes Him God. Numbers 23:19 emphasizes this. It says…

God is not a man, so he does not lie.

    He is not human, so he does not change his mind.

Has he ever spoken and failed to act?

    Has he ever promised and not carried it through?
Numbers 23:19

Of course, these are rhetorical questions and the answer is No. God has never spoken and failed to act. He has never promised and failed to carry it through. God is the definition of faithfulness. He is 100% trustworthy. No matter how outrageous God’s promises seem to be – He will always keep his Word. 

And so, after 25 years of waiting, God finally fulfilled his promise to Abraham and Sarah and gave them a son. And to his credit, Abraham responded to God’s faithfulness by obedience.

3 And Abraham named their son Isaac. 4 Eight days after Isaac was born, Abraham circumcised him as God had commanded. 5 Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born. Genesis 21:3-5

Abraham did exactly as God had commanded him to do. Back in chapter 17, as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham’s family, God had commanded that Abraham and every male in his household were to be circumcised. Also in that same visit, God instructed Abraham to name his promised son Isaac.

Abraham obediently followed through on both of those instructions. And I think that obedience ties in directly with God’s faithfulness.

You see, it’s not hard to obey somebody that you trust. 

You’ve probably seen this principle in action at the swimming pool. Quite often you’ll see a little kid standing on the edge of the pool with mom or dad in the water – and mom or dad says to the little kid, “Jump. I’ll catch you.” And wouldn’t you know it, despite his fear, the little kid jumps. Why? Because he trusts that Mom or Dad will do what they say. Now, if instead of mom or dad, it was your older brother saying “Jump, I’ll catch you.” You might not jump quite so eagerly…. Older brothers typically haven’t proven themselves to be that trustworthy.

But that principle shows up all throughout life. It you trust someone, it’s easy to do what they say. When you don’t trust someone, the chances of you doing what they say goes down dramatically!

I think we could argue that this principle was in play when Adam & Eve committed the first sin. Most of you know that story.

God had told them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because if they were to eat it they would surely die. But that old serpent came along and caused them to doubt God. He caused them to think that God wasn’t being entirely truthful with them.

In the end, Adam & Eve disobeyed God because they didn’t trust him. They didn’t believe that He had their best interests in mind.

The same thing happens to us. Our disobedience happens when we don’t trust God either. Every time we sin, it’s because we’re taking matters into our own hands. Maybe we don’t trust God’s timing, or we don’t trust God’s provision, or we don’t trust that God’s ways are best… 

But that always gets us into trouble because as we’ve already seen, God is 100% trustworthy. He always keeps his Word. We have no good reason not to trust him.

And it seems that Abraham was beginning to learn that. I happened to be reading through Romans 4 this week and I came across this passage talking about Abraham and I think it affirms exactly what we’ve been talking about.

18 Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” 19 And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.

20 Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. 22 And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous.

Romans 4:18-22

Do we have that kind of faith in God? A faith that doesn’t waver – it only grows stronger over time – because we are absolutely convinced that God is able to do whatever He promises? 25 years Abraham waited for God to come through. That’s a long time to wait. But Abraham trusted that God knew exactly what He was doing. He was able to trust and obey.

Do we have that kind of faith? I know all of us face a wide variety of struggles in life. Some struggles are fairly minor – maybe they last a day or two and are quickly resolved, other struggles last weeks, and some struggles – like Abraham’s, seem to last a lifetime.

And I would just encourage you today – in whatever struggles you’re going through – to trust and obey. First of all, trust that God really does love you. Trust that God really does want what is best for your life. Trust that God’s ways and God’s timing are ultimately better than any alternative.

Because if we can trust God like that – if we are convinced of those things – then it’s going to be so much easier to obey him – and to reap the rewards of doing things God’s way.

We always reap what we sow, right? If we sow obedience to God, we will most certainly reap those rewards. And the flip side is true as well, if we sow disobedience – doing things our own way, we will most certainly reap those rewards – or rather those consequences.

And for Abraham and Sarah, they were in a season of reaping – both their rewards for trusting in God – as well as some consequences for their lack of faith earlier. But let’s take a look at the rewards first. Have a look at verses 6 & 7.

6 And Sarah declared, “God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me. 7 Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse a baby? Yet I have given Abraham a son in his old age!” Genesis 21:6-7

The name “Isaac” literally means laughter. And certainly there was a whole lot of laughing surrounding the circumstances of his birth. When God told Abraham that he was going to have a child at the age of 100, what did Abraham do? He laughed. Remember back in chapter 17 after God told him that he would still have a son? It says….

17 Then Abraham bowed down to the ground, but he laughed to himself in disbelief. “How could I become a father at the age of 100?” he thought. “And how can Sarah have a baby when she is ninety years old?”  Genesis 17:17

He laughed in disbelief. And then in the next chapter when God brought this up again and Sarah overheard the conversation, what did she do? Same thing!

11 Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. 12 So she laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” Genesis 18:11-12

And of course, their laughter back then was laughter of disbelief. It was crazy to think that God would give them a son. But now that God had actually done that –  Sarah and everyone who heard about it would laugh again – but this time it would be a laughter of great joy.

6 And Sarah declared, “God has brought me laughter.” Genesis 21:6

After a lifetime of enduring the shame and the stigma of being childless, God had given her – not just a child – but he had given her laughter. He had given her joy again. I can only imagine the years of heart-ache and feeling inadequate and the continual disappointment that Sarah must have experienced. And so now to have a child of her own – especially in her old age – her heart must have been so full of joy!

Maybe you know what it’s like to be missing joy in your life? Maybe you’ve gone through a time – or maybe you’re going through a time right now – where joy seems really hard to find. I think we’ve all been there at some point or another. It’s so easy to get stuck in a state of discouragement – where joy just seems to be elusive.

And while I’m not suggesting that there’s an easy fix to all that – because I know that sometimes you have to work through a lot of stuff – but I would still tell you this: That God is the source of joy. 1 Chronicles 16:27 says…

27 Honor and majesty surround him;

    strength and joy fill his dwelling.

1 Chronicles 16:27

God is the source of joy. I was listening to a song this week by Rend Collective and the song is called – “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” That’s actually a verse right out of Nehemiah 8:10.

“Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” 1 Chronicles 16:27

Now certainly there is a time and a place for sadness and mourning – but even in those times, we can still have the joy of the Lord, because that joy doesn’t come from our circumstances – that joy doesn’t come only when things are going good in life. 

The joy of the Lord comes from knowing that the sovereign, all-powerful, all-knowing God of the universe loves you like crazy! It comes from knowing that you are forgiven, you are loved dearly, and that you have an eternity to look forward to in the presence of your Creator and there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more death. All those things will be gone forever.

That’s where we get the joy of the Lord and that’s why the joy of the Lord is our strength.

Jesus said in John 15:9….

9 “I have loved you even as the Father has loved me. Remain in my love. 10 When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11 I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” John 15:9-11

Knowing and experiencing the love of our Heavenly Father – remaining in his love as Jesus says by obeying his commands – doing that can’t help but fill you with joy. In fact, Jesus says that your joy will overflow! It will spill out all over the place. It’s like trying to hold in a laugh – you can’t help it, it just bursts out!

I’ve found that to be totally true in my life. I always experience the most joy when I am doing exactly what God wants me to do – when I am obeying his commands, living a life that is pleasing to Him, simply trusting that God loves me more than I can understand. That’s when I experience joy.

It’s not necessarily when life is going great – when work’s good, the family is happy, there’s money in the bank, things are going swell. Joy isn’t dependant on that kind of stuff. My joy is dependant on me abiding in God’s love.

And God wants you to experience that kind of joy. Like Sarah, God wants to bring you laughter! He wants to fill your heart with overflowing joy. And not a joy that necessarily comes from happy circumstances – even though God delights doing that for us as well – but it’s a joy that comes from knowing that no matter what the circumstances – God loves you like crazy and He’s going to work everything out in the end.

The joy of the Lord is our strength – or at least it can be if we remain in his love.

Well, as I said earlier, it was a season of reaping for Abraham and Sarah – there was certainly a harvest of joy as little Isaac arrived on the scene. But there was also a harvest of hurt as well – stemming out of Abraham & Sarah poor choices earlier regarding having a child with Hagar. Let’s look at ver 8.

8 When Isaac grew up and was about to be weaned, Abraham prepared a huge feast to celebrate the occasion. 9 But Sarah saw Ishmael—the son of Abraham and her Egyptian servant Hagar—making fun of her son, Isaac. 10 So she turned to Abraham and demanded, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son. He is not going to share the inheritance with my son, Isaac. I won’t have it!”

11 This upset Abraham very much because Ishmael was his son. Genesis 21:8-11

You can see that the consequences of the choices that Abraham and Sarah made probably 15 or 16 years ago are still coming in to play. The tension and discord between Sarah and Hagar has continued all these years later and Abraham is still caught in the middle. 

This is yet another reminder for us that we reap what we sow. Sin always has consequences. Now certainly, we can be forgiven. Certainly, God doesn’t give up on us – he can still redeem our situation – flipping things around – taking our bad situations and using them for good. But the fact remains that our sin will always have consequences. And many times they are long-lasting and deeply painful – as we can see in this story.

But the other thing to note is that our sin doesn’t just effect us – the consequences of our sin impacts others as well. Think about poor Ishmael in all this. What has he had to go through because of the sins of his parents? I can only imagine how Sarah must have treated him for the past 16 years or so.

I think as parents, we need to be painfully aware that our sin will impact our kids. Maybe we won’t see the fullness of that impact immediately, but you can be sure it’s there. It’s so important that we are walking closely with God in our every day lives – not just for our sake, but for the sake of our kids, for the sake of our spouse, for the sake of our friends, for the sake of the people around us. Galatians 6:7-9

7 Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. 8 Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. 9 So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.

Galatians 6:7-9

We always harvest what we plant. Abraham was harvesting some pretty painful consequences. But even in those consequences, God was not absent. verse 12

12 But God told Abraham, “Do not be upset over the boy and your servant. Do whatever Sarah tells you, for Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted. 13 But I will also make a nation of the descendants of Hagar’s son because he is your son, too.”

14 So Abraham got up early the next morning, prepared food and a container of water, and strapped them on Hagar’s shoulders. Then he sent her away with their son, and she wandered aimlessly in the wilderness of Beersheba.

Genesis 21:12-14

Just one quick note before we finish up the story: Notice again that Abraham obeyed God. He got up early the next morning and did exactly as God instructed him. And I’m sure that was no small matter for Abraham to do that. That must have been one of the hardest things that Abraham had ever had to do – to send away his wife and his son. But Abraham obeyed God, because as we said earlier “It’s not hard to obey someone you trust.”

Abraham believed that God was 100% trustworthy, and if God said to send them away, then as hard as that must have been, Abraham trusted that that was for the best.

And so what happened to Hagar and Ishmael as they wandered off into the wilderness? Let’s finish the story. Verse 15.

15 When the water was gone, she put the boy in the shade of a bush. 16 Then she went and sat down by herself about a hundred yards away. “I don’t want to watch the boy die,” she said, as she burst into tears.

17 But God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, “Hagar, what’s wrong? Do not be afraid! God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Go to him and comfort him, for I will make a great nation from his descendants.”

19 Then God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well full of water. She quickly filled her water container and gave the boy a drink.

20 And God was with the boy as he grew up in the wilderness. He became a skillful archer, 21 and he settled in the wilderness of Paran. His mother arranged for him to marry a woman from the land of Egypt.

Genesis 21:15-21

If you remember from several weeks ago, this is now the second time that God has appeared to Hagar. Once again, He has taken notice of her distress and has reassured her of His watchful care and has given her hope.

God is not just concerned about Abraham and Sarah – He’s also concerned about Hagar and Ishmael. It’s clear God doesn’t love Hagar any less than he loves Abraham.

It would seem to me that Hagar experienced the joy of the Lord that day. Not because God changed her circumstances – not because God brought her back home and made everything better – because he didn’t. She was still out there in the wilderness with her son! But despite her circumstances, she could have joy because she knew that God cared about her and that in the end, things were going to be alright.

And that’s the note that I think we’ll end on today. I don’t know what circumstances you find yourself in this week.

Maybe like Hagar, you feel like you’re just wandering alone in the wilderness. You feel lost. Abandoned. Rejected. Maybe joy isn’t something you’ve felt for a long time.

Maybe like Ishmael, life’s gotten hard for you because of no fault of your own. Maybe you’re suffering the consequences of someone else’s sin. It’s unfair. It doesn’t seem right – but maybe that’s the reality of your situation.

Or maybe like Abraham & Sarah, unfortunately, you’ve created this problem for yourself. Maybe the consequences of past decisions are catching up with you and you are reaping that which you’ve sown. And I know, that can be really painful.

Whatever the cause of your circumstances, it doesn’t really matter. What you need to know is that God still loves you. He still cares about what happens to you. He’s right there in your current circumstances – as difficult as they may be – and He wants to give you joy. The joy of the Lord can be your strength even in the most lousy situations. How? By putting your trust in God.

The question is, do you trust that God does really does love you – Do you trust that He knows what He’s doing – Do you trust that in the end, things are going to be ok? Because that’s exactly what God has said in his Word. He’s said that he really loves you. He’s said that He knows what He’s doing. He’s said that things are going to be ok in the end if you trust him – and as we’ve repeatedly seen – God always keeps His word. He is always 100% trustworthy. That’s just who He is.

So will you trust him? Will you put your faith in the one who loves you more than you can imagine? Will you trust and obey and reap the benefits of obedience? Will you remain in his love?

Because if you do, I think you’ll quickly find that the joy of the Lord will be your strength.

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