Honey, I Shrunk the Promise
My friend recently became obsessed with raisins. I know that sounds like something a pastor makes up for a sermon, but I promise you it is 100% true. He’s not interested in just any old raisins, he has developed a tooth for golden raisins—sultanas, as they are formally called—the sweeter and richer sunshine colored counterpart to your typical raisin. He spent a good deal of time researching how he can special order his favorite kind of sultanas, and so he has. There is a special bond between him and his golden raisins. And yet, raisins (even sultanas) are nothing more than a grape that has been shrunken down.
The same is true of prunes, a somewhat divisive treat. I, for one, am pro-prune, and I hope you’ll stand with me. But whether or not you like them, we all recognize that prunes are simply plums that have been shrunken down. What we do not all agree on, I presume, is if the shrinking improves or destroys the deliciousness.
Another friend of mine recently reminded me of those vacuum seal bags, the ones that you fill with clothes for traveling or extra sheets to be stored under the bed. The large bag, when you attach the vacuum tube to the bag’s port, shrinks down smaller than you could ever imagine—or so the infomercial purports.
Not all shrinking is as pleasant as they make it look on television; some use force to reduce their object down. If you don’t believe me, ask this old couch: Crushing a huge 4 seat sofa to fit into a garbage can using a compacting garbage truck. Some shrinking can be a form of violence to the object. If the witness of a loveseat isn’t convincing, ask Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie (Star Wars Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) - Trash Compactor), who nearly lost their lives to shrinking. Or what about that 1989 comedy, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? While it offered a laugh or two, it becomes clear that:
Some things are not better when shrunken.
Just like some of you might feel about plums, there are some things that are not meant to be shrunk at all. And with all of that being said, we are now ready to read the Scripture for today.
“8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.”
Here’s what we need to remember. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would be the source of blessing to all the nations of the world and that they would parent a child, the foretaste of innumerable descendants. They tried to fulfill the promise themselves by having Abraham father a son with Hagar. Their plan worked, Hagar bore a son for them, but God still intended to use Abraham and Sarah to bless all the nations and to give them descendants. Let it go on the record that, if I were overseeing this process, after Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands and did their own thing, I would have started taking applications for a new matriarch and patriarch. But God in God’s mercy remains faithful to the promise, Sarah has a son by Abraham, and it seems that all is well.
In our text today, Sarah perceives Hagar’s son as a threat to Isaac’s inheritance. The translation above says that Sarah sees Hagar’s son playing with Isaac, but ‘playing’ is not the only understanding of that Hebrew verb. The root word is tsachaq, meaning ‘to laugh.’ This reminds us of the part of the story directly before ours today:
“Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (21:3-6).
They name him Isaac. Do you want to guess what the root word of Isaac is? Yep, it’s tsachaq, the same as the word describing what Hagar’s son is doing in 21:9. So it could be translated that Hagar’s son was laughing, but I think linguist Robert Altar has really grasped the heartbeat of the text when he writes,
“Mocking laughter would surely suffice to trigger her outrage. Given the fact, moreover, that she is concerned lest Ishmael encroach on her son’s inheritance, and given the inscription of her son’s name in this central verb, we may also be invited to construed it as ‘Isaac-ing-it’—that is, Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir.” 
What does Sarah do about it?
“So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (21:10).
So what is the heart of the problem here? This is how I would describe it. Sarah is excluding Hagar and her son because she has shrunk God’s promise down to something that can be held in her arms, or, to be more precise, she thinks that the promise God has made to her is nothing more than the boy Isaac that she holds in her arms. She isn’t seeing the size of the promise. If you continue reading Genesis you will hear God say to Abraham,
“I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (22:17).
The promise of God is one of those things that does not benefit from being shrunk, but nevertheless Sarah sends Hagar and her son into the wilderness to die. She excludes those unlike her and those she doesn’t like because she imagines the promise to be too small for all of them. Sarah is so wonderfully human it nearly makes her a saint for so accurately portraying the characters she represents—namely, me and you. If we are honest, we will confess that we also find ourselves shrinking the promise of God to exclude those who are not like us or those we do not like. This shrinking does not result in a delicious sultana, it is like putting your couch in the trash-compactor truck just to keep others from sitting on it; this always results in others being sent into the wilderness to die.
But the story doesn’t end there. God gets involved and responds by assuring Abraham that the promise will always be bigger than the imagination of those who want to limit God. To Hagar and her son in the wilderness on the brink of death, God becomes present and remains faithful, extending and expanding the promise to include the Egyptian slave women and her son born out of wedlock. God’s behavior tells us that God will always inflate the promise that we try to deflate. We can try to shrink the promise, but God will eternally be undoing that activity by offering the promise to those we call ‘enemy’ or ‘other’ or ‘unworthy’ or ‘outsider.’ Sarah’s plan for Hagar and her son to be excluded from the promise is thwarted by God, who clarifies that the promise is also for Hagar and her son.
Essentially, shrinking the promise of God down to something that we can own and administrate is nonsensical, but totally something that we try to do. It is like trying to put all of Niagara Falls into a 24oz thermos. It just doesn’t fit. It never will. What’s worse, is filling your bottle with water from the Falls and then toting it around proclaiming that you’ve got Niagara Falls in your pack. “You want to see the Falls? You really gotta see! It’s amazing!” So you pull out your water bottle… tada! Now you get to decide who does and who does not get access to the Falls, you can restrict access to those who have checked all the boxes on your list, and one added benefit, because the Falls belong to you, is that you are never away from the Falls. Do you know what we call this? It is a delusion, a false reality, a mirage. One bottle of Canadian water doth not Niagara Falls make.
And if you don’t think that we are tempted to the same kind of delusion with God’s promise, I submit to you the lyrics of a song I was taught in Sunday School:
“I wish I had a little white box
To put my Jesus in
I’d take him out and
Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!
And put him back again.”
First, Jesus was raised from the dead in the body, and he would not be able to fit in a ‘little white box’ without doing him harm. And as much as I’m sure he’d appreciate the kisses, I don’t think that Jesus ever gave the slightest indication that he wanted to be treated in the same way we presently treat our cell phones. It is a picture of God that has been domesticated. It is this kind of theology that forms us at a young age to believe that the promise has been shrunk down to something that we can fit in our pockets and pull out when we need a little pick-me-up. That is, unfortunately, not Christian at all. We would benefit from remembering C.S. Lewis’ depiction of Aslan the Lion: “Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good.” The song’s second verse doesn’t get any better.
“I wish I had a little black box
To put the devil in
I’d take him out and
Smack! Smack! Smack!
And put him back again.”
Secondly, in addition to the subliminal message to prefer white over black (perhaps this is an example of how the church has been complicit in systemic racism continuing without opposition), this verse makes it clear that inherent to this shrinking down is an element of violence. Not only is the Smack!-Smack!-Smacking an act of violence toward the devil, the same is true of trying to keep God in a box that we get to control—it is a shrinking that requires violent force to accomplish. When we try to shrink the promise, we do it violence. We know in our innocence that the promise is big, but it is teaching like this song that reverses what God has placed within us.
As a child, I asked if I could pray for the devil to be saved. I was told that was not allowed. I’m still not sure why. Isaac, to our knowledge, had no problem with his older brother laughing like him and being a recipient of the inheritance. To children, everything is absolutely enormous. As we grow, we can more easily see the beginning and end of the thing, its sides and seams, and we are formed into the belief that God’s promise must be the same, limited and finite. We fear the promise will be taken from us, but we must become convinced that the promise is always available to us, even after we have abandoned it for small potatoes, just like the promise is still kept for Sarah after she has totally misunderstood it.
If we are going to be healed of our shrinking imagination, it will require us to give up our tribal notions of God’s promise. This is what Jesus came to do, according to his words in the Gospel for today.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
These words are hard to understand. Perhaps we can hear the truth of the first line if we read it this way:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a scalpel.”
This picture shows us what Jesus intends to do with his “sword.” He does not, as we know from the rest of the story, intend for others to take up swords with him and fight. Remember the cross? That’s what Jesus takes up instead of a sword, and it is what his followers will eventually take up instead of swords as well. This text does not imply that anyone is to have access to this sword except Jesus. So if Jesus isn’t going to use it to fight his enemies, why does he need a sword? Because he wants to cut away his followers from tribal loyalty that keeps them from being faithful to him. Jesus picks on one of the most important loyalties of the first century, family. He says that he wants to cut away a loyalty to the family unity that becomes tribal and keeps others (and therefore him) out. He will use his sword like a skilled doctor uses a scalpel, cutting away the loyalties that necessitate the shrinking of the promise to those inside our circle.
Jesus might indeed still need to cut us away from familial loyalty that compromises our loyalty to him and his promise, but he might also need to use his sword/scalpel to cut us away from our loyalty to a political party (Jesus does not save us to be Republican nor Democrat, that is a perversion of the promise), our loyalty to nationalism (God’s promise is not especially true for America, and when we think it is we are shrinking the promise), our loyalty to our whiteness (Jesus is not white), or any other loyalty that does violence to the promise of God. The tool Jesus uses to do this (in other words, the sword/scalpel) is the cross.
“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
The Apostle Paul puts it this way:
“Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
When we enter into his death we enter into the cross, which means that we submit ourselves to letting the cross do its work of trimming away the parts of our lives that shrink the promise (Paul names the trimmings ‘sin’). And so, to have the imagination that Jesus has for the promise, to be infused in every part of our being with a sense that the promise is not just for us, that it cannot be shrunk down to fit in our palms, that Jesus cannot fit in our little white box, that it is all so much bigger is what Paul calls walking in newness of life.
The truth is: we have shrunk the promise. We are shrinking the promises. I’d guess that it will probably happen again in the future. But here’s the Gospel: Jesus has wrapped up all humanity into radical acceptance and forgiveness.
I know this to be true because there are times that I have shrunk the promise. Because of fractured relationship or rising frustration or fear rearing its ugly head in my heart, I want to exclude someone or some group from being recipients of the promise. I want to draw a line in the sand that shows who gets the inheritance and who doesn’t, and luckily for me the line is formed into a circle that’s just about big enough for one person to stand in—and oh yeah, how convenient, I happen to be standing in it already!
One time I asked someone with whom I was working for help in making a change; let’s call this person Wilburtita (because why not?). Wilburtita looked me in the eyes and expressed that I would never get Wilburtita’s help on that. Not only was I surprised by that reaction, but I immediately put Wilburtita outside the circle. The promise obviously wasn’t for Wilburtita. Oh well. Wilburtita was a lost cause.
God, in a classic God-move, expanded what I had shrunk. Wilburtita not only helped me make that change, but eventually Wilburtita became a great ally in that work. I, on the other hand, eventually realized that I would need to get out of my little circle if I was going to make room for Wilburtita. That was difficult. It’s always difficult to give up our small perception of a person. It is much easier to complain about someone than it is to let Christ cut away the parts of our mindset that keeps me safe while others are left out to fend for themselves.
God will see to it that the promise is expended, with or without our permission or participation. If we are going to be faithful to the God of promise, then what we need is an imagination of that promise that is big. And I mean really, really big—God-sized. We need a vision like the one that Phineas F. Bresee, the founder of the Church of the Nazarene, who wrote privately about an experience he had while pastoring in Southern California during the latter part of 1884.
“I sat alone in the parsonage, in the cool of evening, in the front parlor near the door. The door being opened, I looked up into the azure in earnest prayer, while the shades of evening gathered about. As I waited and waited, and continued in prayer, looking up, it seemed to me as if from the azure there came a meteor, an indescribable ball of condensed light, descending rapidly toward me. As I gazed upon it, it was soon within a few score feet, when I seemed distinctly to hear a voice saying, as my face was upturned towards it: ‘Swallow it; swallow it,’ and in an instant it fell upon my lips and face. I attempted to obey the injunction. It seemed to me, however, that I swallowed only a little of it, although it felt like fire on my lips, and the burning sensation did not leave them for several days. While all of this itself would be nothing, there came with it into my heart and being, a transformed condition of life and blessing and unction and glory, which I had never known before. I felt that my need was supplied.” 
He goes on to describe how thereafter there was an expanding nature to his ministry, how more people were awakened to their relationship with God and then empowered to live faithfully to the promise. It is no surprise that his kind of vision of God’s promise resulted in a powerful move of the Spirit. Bresee begins by noting that the door was open to the world, a detail that I find to be relevant to our text today and formative for us today. It offers us a picture of the kind of posture that makes the vision possible. Having the door open to the world is a way of being, a sign that the promise is bigger than whatever is inside the lines that we have drawn, and if we are going to experience this kind of transformation of imagination will certainly come to us from God through the world outside our door. God’s promise is other than us, and yet it comes to us, bright and overwhelming, to enter into our very bodies.
What really strikes me today about this vision is the fact that the light (in other words, the promise) is bigger than he anticipated; he is only able to take a little bit of it into himself. What a scene to behold! The promise of God is bigger than you or I can take in. It is exactly the size needed for each and every human to be benefactors of its goodness into themselves. Perhaps it is even bigger than that.
The Psalm for today provides a nice line of poetry to conclude these thoughts, one that is formed by an imagination of a promise that is expanding rather than shrinking.
“All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God” (Psalm 86:9).
 Robert Altar, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, 69.
 Bresee’s account is presented by Timothy L. Smith in his book Called unto Holiness: The story of the Nazarenes: the formative years, page 97.