Have you ever had one of those moments when you are scurrying through a congested train station, crammed against the door in an overwhelmingly full tube – or even sat in a jam-packed church service – and suddenly felt overwhelmingly lonely? Felt that you are surrounded by people, and yet no one has really noticed you? That no one knows what is going on inside the deep areas of your soul?
I have known what it is like to feel like that. Even as a church leader I have been busy 'doing' things in church, including listening to others as they share with me what is going on in their lives, but deep down inside I have been longing for someone to notice the real me, the one that could do with a hug, or a word of encouragement.
Our world is busy – and full – and yet, even though I have very supportive friends and family, I think there are times when I can feel unnoticed or overlooked (and I am sure I am not the only one). That is when I'm so glad that the story of Hagar is in the Bible. She had far more reason than me to feel alone, and yet God took the time to reach down and show her that, even if everyone else had overlooked her, He hadn't.
Hagar isn't the star of the main story – Abram and Sarai (who become Abraham and Sarah) are. Abram had been told by God to leave his country and go where God showed him to and He would make him into a great nation (Genesis 12).
In Genesis 16 we see that Abram and Sarai took matters into their own hands in order to see God's promise of becoming a great nation become a reality. As they had not been able to have children, Sarai asked Abram to sleep with her servant Hagar to get the heir God had told them they would have. This was a custom allowed in those times back in Ur, where Abram and Sarai had come from: if a wife could not conceive, she gave a servant to her husband and any resulting children were seen as the wife's. We are not told how Hagar felt about this arrangement, but it could have meant a change in her position – for the better – as she would have been seen as a concubine or second wife (see Genesis 16:3). Through our modern eyes it can seem like they used Hagar cruelly, although Hagar did seem to take advantage of the situation to lord it over her mistress at times...
Hagar obviously wound Sarai up too much (see 16:4-5), or perhaps Sarai simply couldn't deal with seeing her servant pregnant with her husband's child, as Hagar was so badly mistreated that she ran away. It was during this time that an angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar and told her to go back and submit to her mistress. This 'angel of the Lord' may have been God Himself; many commentators point out that this is the first instance of God appearing to someone recorded in the Bible.
It is also the first time he names a child that is still in the womb. Isn't that amazing? Of course, at this time of year, the echoes of the encounter between Mary and the angel of the Lord shouldn't go unnoticed. But, back with Hagar, God was reaching out to the one who had felt so let down she ran away. He began by asking her questions that allowed her to speak freely.
As a result of God's visit, Hagar calls him 'the One who sees me' (see Genesis 16:7-16). It seems like, for the first time in this story, she felt she was known and loved. Isn't that what we are all longing for? God reminded me of this exact phrase a few weeks ago in church, where I felt it was right to point out that we have a God who sees each of us, who knows what we are going through and who wants us, like Hagar, to be able to say: 'I have now seen the One who sees me' (Genesis 16:13).
Hagar did return to her mistress, but the treatment she received by others was still far from fair and decent (you can read the rest of her story in Genesis 8:8-21). However, God saw when Hagar had reached the end of herself, reached down once more and gave her a promise about her son being a great nation too. He saw and looked after Hagar and her son Ishmael even after others had turned them away. That's another echo of Mary and Joseph's story isn't it, when they needed a place for Mary to give birth? God may not take us out of the difficult circumstances, but He sees what is going on – and is right there in the midst of them with us.
Hagar's story always reminds me that we have 'One who sees' us. Being known by, and knowing, Him is the surest foundation we can have for life – whether we are happy and secure or feeling troubled and uncertain in our present circumstances.