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Ishmael's mocking a type of the world's treatment

of Christ and His people.

by the Rev. John Keble
Sermon XXX from Sermons for the Christian Year: Sermons for Lent to Passiontide
GAL. iv. 29.

“As then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him

that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.”


THE Church sets before us to-day a parable from the history of Abraham: and wonderful it is to see how in the good Providence of God the things which happened so many years ago among the men of the East so many thousand miles off, are made to signify the greatest counsels of the Almighty, and to help us and all Christians in our daily duties to God and to one another.  Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid and the other by a freewoman, the Law of God at that time allowing, as you know, of more than one wife.  Ishmael, the son of the bondwoman Hagar, was born in a natural way, without any thing strange or miraculous.  After him was born Isaac, the son of the freewoman Sarah, in a wonderful manner, by miracle; his father being a hundred years old, and his mother past age: and this in fulfilment of a special covenant which God had made with Abraham a great many years before, during all which time he had been waiting for it in faith.  This difference between the two sons the Apostle explains by saying, “Ishmael, the son of the bondwoman, was born after the flesh, but Isaac the son of the freewoman was by promise.”  And then he goes on to explain that this whole matter was an allegory or parable.  Abraham represents Almighty God, the Father of us all; Ishmael represents mankind in general, who are the children of God born after the natural way; Isaac represents the Christian people, God’s children by adoption and grace; God’s children, because by a heavenly and spiritual union they are made members of His Only Begotten Son; born again of God, born of water and of the Spirit.  The elder son is in bondage, because until people are mystically united to Jesus Christ they are in slavery under sin, death, and the devil; they are not free to obey God’s holy commandments; even if they have misgivings, and some sense of what is right, they must confess as one did of old, “The good that I would, I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do.”  But the younger son Isaac, is free, because the children of Christ and of His Church have power given them by His Holy Spirit to keep His commandments if they will.  Those then, who choose to go on as if they could not help sinning, are in fact making themselves slaves, when God has made them free: those only are free indeed, who stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ “hath made them free,” and do not suffer themselves to be again entangled with the yoke of the world, the flesh and the devil.  The children of the bond woman, like the heathens who know not God, are content to be in slavery to their sins; the children of the freewoman are free to serve God, and try with all their might to do so.  With one sort or the other you and I and all of us must take our place.  Which shall it be, my brethren?  On which side shall we be found?  It is no small matter: it is for our life.  And we have but a short time to choose in.  Very quickly the time is passing, at the end of which it will be too late for us to think of having any choice at all.  And if any man say, “Well, I do not wish to choose; I had rather not have any thought about the matter; I will take my chance, as so many others have done: “ the Word of God tells that man loudly and plainly, “it cannot be so with you: you must make your choice; if you go on thinking to have no care about your soul, know that there is one close at hand who is all the while busy in destroying that soul, winding his net about it, that it cannot escape.  To say, you will not care for your soul, comes to Just the same as if you said, I will give my soul up to the hands of the devil.”


Look to It well therefore, my brethren, that you are really behaving as children of the freewoman.  Why should you of your own accord invite the Evil One to put his chains on you again?  And Holy Scripture gives you many signs, whereby you may know on which side you are at present.  One of these signs is, whether or no you are going on in a way to hurt and distress the people of God.  You heard just now what the Apostle says of persecution, “As then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now.”  He that was born after the flesh, in Abraham’s family, was Ishmael: he that was born after the Spirit is Isaac.  How did Ishmael persecute Isaac?  The history tells us: it was by scorning and mockery.  On the day that Isaac was weaned, Abraham made a great feast to his household: and in the course of the festival hours it came to pass that Sarah, Isaac’s mother, saw Ishmael mocking.  Ishmael was then a lad of fourteen or fifteen years old, likely enough to have high spirits and rough ways: and when Sarah saw him inclined to be so disrespectful to his father and herself, so unbrotherly towards Isaac, she spoke to Abraham of casting him out, and the Lord confirmed his word.


Now, this mockery of Ishmael’s was a type and token of the Jewish people, the children of the bondwoman, the Synagogue, rejecting, mocking, persecuting, murdering first the Lord Jesus, and then His members, for which also the Jewish people were cast out of the Lord’s house, as Hagar and Ishmael from Abraham’s.  Even so it is now, saith S. Paul: the children of the bondwoman stood round the judgement seat and cried out, “crucify Him;” they stood round the Cross deriding and saying, “Let the Lord deliver Him now, if He will have Him.”  Thus they sported themselves, they made a wide mouth and drew out the tongue, against the Holy One of Israel, against their Lord and Redeemer enduring the worst of torments for them.  Was not this the very depth of malice, the very extreme of unpitying persecution?  not being themselves carried away with the heat of false zeal, to have pleasure in, seeing how cruelly others treated Him, Him the very God of pity, the most meek and merciful Saviour!


And as it was with our Lord, so it was with His Apostles and His Church: according to His own prophecy, “If they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”  [S. John xv. 20.]  The Jews and the heathens too, being both children of the bondwoman, both in slavery to their sins, did from the beginning persecute in all ways the members of Christ, the children of the freewoman.  And so the noble army of Martyrs grew, as you know, to a great number, and their blood was the seed of the Church, it bare fruit an hundred fold: as was said of the Israelites in Egypt, the more they were afflicted, the more they multiplied and grew.  You might think that upon this the persecutions would at length be worn out, that Christians would no longer have to suffer for their religion, that the son of the bondwoman, being effectually put down, would cease to disturb the son of the freewoman.  But it is not so: the same Apostle informs us, that “all who will live godly in Christ Jesus, must suffer persecution.”  [2 Tim. iii. 11.]  Somehow or another it must be so, in our time and in all times as well as in the beginning of the Gospel: in our country and in all countries, as well as in Judea and ancient Rome.  There are the same Church and the same world as ever: and these are contrary the one to the other; there can be no peace nor truce, nor mutual agreement.  The one sort cannot bear the other anymore now, than in our Lord’s own life time.  The Pharisees (for instance,) who were covetous, and derided Him then, would no doubt deride in our days those who tried to walk in His steps.  The children of those Pharisees, proud and unbelieving, yet outwardly decent and calling themselves respectable, are in general violently set against all, whom they see generous and devoted in the service of Christ.  The passionate, haughty man cannot bear the humble and meek; he frets against him, he is glad to get out of sight of him.  The mere lover of pleasure cannot bear the lover of God: it is a trouble and a vexation to him; very irksome and uncomfortable to an irreligious person, when he is thrown into company with one who tries to be thoroughly and consistently religious.  This is the spirit of persecution: and however its outward violence be restrained by a good Providence, it is sure to break out more or less one way or another.  Whoever comes in earnest to serve the Lord must prepare in good earnest to suffer persecution from men.


You will say, “How is it then that any Christians live in peace?  How is it that if we look round, in this or any other place, we appear to see so many living quietly, with no trouble, no ill usage to endure for religion’s sake?  Do not people in this country go in and out, to Church or elsewhere, as often as they please, and no one interferes to hinder them?  Are there not many who are accounted more or less in earnest in their Christian duties, and instead of losing their lives and properties, they appear to be all the better thought of, and many are anxious to help them in one way or another?  How can it be said that all these suffer persecution?  and yet the word of God plainly says they must do so, if they really wish to live godly in Christ Jesus.  How can these things be?


Holy men of old explain, that ridicule and contempt and evil report is one sort of persecution, and to many, most terrible.  Ishmael, as you heard just now, did but mock at his brother Isaac, and it was judged such direct persecution, that the two could not dwell together in the house.  Here is something for us to think of, when we see persons stricter than others, or supposed to be so, brought into reproach or contempt: a bad name given them, every thing said and done to put them out of countenance, and make men ashamed of belonging to them.  Some years ago, if anyone was at all more serious than his companions liked him to be, he was presently called, as you know, a Methodist, now it may be some other name: but the spirit which gives men such names is just the same, and you may depend upon it they are a part of real persecution, though they touch neither a person’s body nor his estate: yet they give many a real pang, and cause many a sad disappointment.  To be mocked and scorned is to many (as to holy Job himself) the bitterest of pains: and it proves a sad hindrance in the way of our being useful: and this in itself, to a good and charitable mind, is a sore trial.  They seek to make others better and happier, but they cannot, because in some way those others have been taught not to respect or trust them.  Again and ‘again they try, and again and again Satan hinders them.  It is really as bad, in the way of disappointment, as if they were banished or imprisoned.


But further; holy men teach us that the very suffering which the servants of Christ endure when they see others, especially those belonging to them, wicked and setting themselves against Christ, those very sufferings are really and truly a persecution.  Righteous Lot in Sodom, how sorely was he vexed; with the filthy conversation of the wicked, how did he from day to day by seeing and hearing, vex his righteous soul with their ungodly deeds! Very loud and rude were the people of Sodom in their wickedness, they made no secret of it, they prided themselves on shewing and practising it in the open streets: and this all the more, when they saw how it shocked and distressed the righteous man.  They were as truly persecutors as if they had sought to throw him to the wild beasts or to cast him down headlong.  Our blessed Lord as His Passion drew on vouchsafed to endure more and more of this kind of persecution as well as of all other outward and inward suffering.  When he saw Judas giving way to covetousness first, then to black-hearted malice and treachery; was it not, think you, a sorer pang by far to the heart of that Blessed One, than all the torment of the thorns, and stripes, and nails?  Imagine My brethren, as well as you can, what it must have been to Him to look down day after day and hour after hour for many months into that wicked and corrupt bosom of His false disciple, and to see the evil brood of sins one after another coming into being, and growing into strength within him! according to that saying of the Prophet, “They hatch cockatrice’s eggs, and weave the spider’s web.”  [Isa. lix. 5.]  Even to a mortal man who has any real love of goodness, to be aware of certain grievous sins committed very near him, is absolutely loathsome: who can understand that deep suffering Judas’ fall must have occasioned to our Lord Christ?  the Scripture teaches us to call the like of it, “crucifying afresh:” is not this the worst of persecution?  And as Jesus Christ was, so are they that belong to Him, in this world.  If it was unspeakably bitter to Him to see the wickedness of those whom He came to save, be sure it is bitter, in its degree, to His people also; the more bitter, the more truly and entirely they are His.  Not bitter in the sense of making them angry, as if they were better than the rest, and it were an affront and indignity to have any thing so foul brought near them; that is the Pharisaical feeling, not the Christian; but he who is beginning to love Christ will love all souls because Christ died for them, and loving them, it will break his heart to see them ruining themselves and affronting Christ.  Now to bring upon a person that which will break his heart is surely very like persecution.  You see then brethren, what you were doing, if ever any of you through wicked wantonness, and braving as it were all consequences, has been tempted to make a shew of any sin, and bring it on purpose before the eyes of persons who would be most shocked at it, not caring how you annoyed and vexed them.  Is it so very uncommon a thing, for a person to swear, or utter other bad words, or go on with other wickedness, all the more recklessly and impudently because there is some one near whom such things shock and distress, and who feels it his duty to speak a word of warning against them?  Alas, when young persons or persons of any age are gathered together not in the fear of God, when they are set to have their own way, to please themselves with all greediness, too certainly they will be guilty of this sin of persecution too: him who is unwilling to sin with them they will persecute by mockery and ridicule, and when, being helped by God’s grace, he shews himself unmoved by their scorn, they will often still go on to persecute him, as the men of Sodom did Lot, by the very sight of their sins.  “He will needs be a judge,” they say: “now will we behave ourselves more fearlessly than ever, to shew that we do not care for him.”  This is direct persecution: but it is also quite real, though less direct, when people suffer from beholding the general wickedness and unbelief, uttered and practised, without any thought of them.  A man writes and publishes, we will say, a scornful sentence against something holy in a book or a newspaper: that man is a persecutor: he sets himself to vex and punish all who are pained, when holy things are set at nought.  Or it may be a profane word spoken: the pain and persecution to a believing hearer, is just the same.  By this one instance you may judge what a common sin this of persecution is: and it will no longer sound strange to you to be told, “Even so it is now, all that will live godly in Christ Jesus must suffer persecution.”  [2 Tim. iii. 12.]


Fearful indeed must it be to take part with the persecutors, i.e., to take part with the Jews and Judas against our Lord: but one word of caution may be not amiss, for those also on the other side, who wish to do right, and are therefore in danger of suffering persecution.  Our Lord encourages them not only to be patient but joyful: “theirs,” he says, “is the kingdom of Heaven:” well may they rejoice .and leap for joy, for they are beginning to enter into the portion of the Saints and Prophets.  But let them be very careful that their suffering is really for righteousness’ sake, that they do not bring it on by any conceit, any inconsiderate selfish ways of their own : if the Ishmaels, the children of the bondwoman, seem to persecute them, let them see to it that they are themselves not in ,bondage to any sin: let them make good their title to be free by forgiving and loving and doing their best to help others to be free also: in fear and pity earnestly praying for all who are now on the persecutor’s side, and if they may, tenderly warning them of the peril they are in, in so taking part with Christ’s enemies.