Genesis 15: 1-6, 16: 1-5,12, 17: 17-21, 21: 1-7
If God promised you a child would you expect it to happen through your maid? No! You would expect your wife to conceive. Abraham’s decision to have a child through Hagar the maid was an act of unbelief. Even in a culture where barren women occasionally resorted to having children through servants, you would not expect a promise of God to be fulfilled that way. And Abraham knew this; that is why he initially waited for it to happen through Sarah. But he and his wife started to doubt when it was taking time and they soon colluded to have a child through their maid, and Ishmael was born. Ishmael was a work of Abraham not God, and he became a source of trouble even while he was still in his mother’s womb; fruitful Hagar despised barren Sarah. And later he and his descendants were a continual problem for Isaac and his descendants. The angel of the Lord summed Ishmael up saying he would be a wild donkey of a man, constantly hostile to all around him (16.12).
Through Abraham wavered in his belief God stuck to his promise to give Abraham a legitimate son, and Sarah gave birth to Isaac; and how different he was. Isaac means ‘he laughs’ and he brought laughter to his parents because they both knew his birth was humanly impossible, he really was a work of the Spirit. In fact when the apostle Paul compares Abraham’s two sons in Galatians 4.21-31 he calls Isaac the son of the Spirit and freedom, and Ishmael the son of the Law and slavery. And he goes on to say “We are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.” He opens the story up to symbolic interpretation, and we will too.
Abraham isn’t the only one who gets impatient waiting for the work of the Spirit, we all do, and often we create an Ishmael when God wants to give us Isaac. I would like to highlight two areas where believers and whole churches do this.
Have you ever been to a church service where the worship was a work of man? Can you remember the feeling? The leader upfront tries to talk you into doing things like clapping or dancing, and you attempt them but it’s awkward because what they’re asking isn’t inside you. And you look at our friends and they are also trying but their smiles are forced and their feet are stiff. This is Ishmael, an attempt to act like the Spirit is moving when he isn’t. Ishmael is a fleshly counterfeit of Isaac.
But perhaps you have also been to a service where the worship was driven by the Spirit of God; there was an ease and a grace from within and you could not believe the things God got you to do. There you were singing a verse as usual and suddenly it had new meaning, and as you sang it over and over you felt a presence on you that made you want to smile, and when you looked up you saw that your friends were smiling too, and soon their smiles turned into passionate weeping as they experience the touch of God. This is Isaac, the work of the Spirit. It is different to the work of man, but you have to wait for it. Isaac comes when God chooses.
Many believers assume there are only two options; either we are alive Christians who clap, dance and shout every week, or we are dead Christians who never do any of these things. But what if we clap, dance and shout when God is initiating it and don’t when he isn’t? What if we follow Jesus’ example and only do what the Father is doing? Isn’t ‘alive’ worship led by the Spirit? If we clap, dance and shout every time we are in church, it’s the law; just as never doing it is the law. And Ishmael is about the Law and doing things in our strength. But Isaac is a work of the Spirit, and the Spirit could do something totally new every Sunday. And if continue to clap, dance and shout when God is initiating something else, Ishmael disrupts Isaac, man’s efforts hinder the Spirit’s activity.
So how do we move with God’s Spirit in worship? I would suggest that it’s a bit like a surfer catching a wave. Surfers don’t go into the sea to paddle about in their own strength, they go to catch a wave, and when it comes they ride a power that’s not their own! But surfing is an art, you have to learn to recognise a good wave, and a surfer will watch the rising swells and judge with some experience when it’s time to stand and go. Likewise worshippers and especially worship leaders will look for signs that a wave of the Spirit is rising. They are constantly aware of what’s going on within, what’s happening in the atmosphere around them, and what others are experiencing. And the wave they catch may involve clapping and dancing, but it could also be a deep and intimate wave, or a wave of surrender and repentance. If we are moving with the Spirit worship will be different every week.
When we are choosing worship leaders and musicians we must be especially careful. You do not want Ishmael leading your worship! You want a work of the Spirit, not a work of man. Remember music is not worship. Anyone can hire a musician and have good music. But worship is something that involves the leading of the Spirit and you need someone who is a true worshipper and knows how to follow God to do that. When music replaces worship, Ishmael replaced Isaac. Musicians are for hire, worship leaders are not. A genuine worship leader will join your church months before you know what he can do just because God called him, and he won’t force his way in, he will wait for God to do it.
In Kenya many churches tip their musicians and this has resulted in musicians roaming around from church to church to make as much money as they can. Tipping (or ‘blessing’) musicians has created wrong motives for leading worship, and in many places concert style entertainment has replaced the work of the Spirit; Ishmael has replaced Isaac. So don’t run out and hire someone, wait for God to send the right person.
I will just touch on this briefly because ministry and worship have similar dynamics. When I say ‘ministry’ I mean the activity where we lay hands on people for God to do a work of power.
Have you ever experienced ministry that was obviously the work of man? I have; pastors have tried to push me over, ministers have told me I was healed when I wasn’t. But I do not deny that God does these things. The Spirit’s presence has caused people to fall in our church when no one was praying for them, they were just worshipping; and have from time to time people have experience healing. We must be careful. When Abraham created Ishmael he was trying to do God’s work for him, and when we fabricate God’s power by pushing people or making false claims about healing we are doing the same thing. This is Ishmael, the work of man. But how wonderful it is when Isaac comes. There we see the real hand of God, and because we know it’s not us, we laugh like Abraham. But we have to be willing to wait; Isaac comes when God wants him too.
If you are a real believer, insist on what is real; it’s time for the church to get real.