We have a guest writer this week, taking us further in our explorations with Abraham and Sarah (at this point in the story known as Abram and Sarai). Many thanks to Stephen Baldock.
Until the end of April, our Sunday morning series will focus on the life of Abraham. Last week it was based on the first half of chapter 12. If you miss a talk in the series, you can read here. Those opening verses form an important background to today’s passage; so let me summarise them.
After Adam and Eve, the writer of Genesis tells us about Noah and the flood and then about Noah’s descendants of which Abram was one but one whom God picked out to be the father of a great nation. Why Abram and not another member of the family we do not know but this is what God said to him:
‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’Genesis 12: 1-3
and Abram obeyed and off he went with Sarai his wife and his nephew Lot and all the property they had to the land of Canaan. At this point, we can only admire him for his obedience and faith. This is what the writer to the Hebrews says:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised).”Hebrewws 11:8-9a
So here we have Abram, a man of faith, chosen to be the father of a great nation and to possess a land given to him by God, apparently all set to see God fulfil His promises; but then a big blip which one commentator describes as “the saddest event in the entire life of Abraham”. There is a famine and he decides to leave the Promised Land and go down to Egypt where he has heard there is plenty of food. We can understand that and can we blame him? It seemed a sensible thing to do but it turns out that it runs him and his wife into trouble. Did you listen as it was read? He becomes afraid that because his wife is attractive, they will want her for themselves – perhaps even the Pharaoh will covet her – so they are likely to kill Abram and appropriate Sarai. So what does he do? He comes up with a cunning plan: tell the Egyptians that you are my sister – this will enable them to take Sarai into the palace and feel well-disposed to Abram. And this is what happens: she is given hospitality by Pharaoh and Abram is showered with expensive gifts. The plan had worked! But at what cost? Abram had told lies, he had lost his wife to Pharaoh, he had forgotten God’s call and promise. It is interesting that we are told he built altars to the Lord while he was travelling in Canaan and again after the escape from Egypt we find him building another altar in the same place where he had first built an altar; but there are no altars in Egypt or even mention of his praying to the Lord.
So what lessons can be reasonably take from this passage for ourselves? The fact is that Abram’s faith was severely tested. On the one hand, God had promised him both a land to live in and not just a family, but a great nation which will bring blessing to all the world. On the other hand, instead of trusting God to protect him and fulfil those promises, he took it upon himself to leave that land and to devise a way of saving his own skin. I wonder whether if we look at ourselves either at times in the past or even in the present, we have set aside our faith in God and looked for our own solutions? This is most likely to happen when we are faced with a crisis, which might involve our health or our finances or a relationship. There are other people in the Bible who went astray at key moments – think of Peter walking on the water and sinking or Jonah running away from God or the Prodigal Son.
Now the extraordinary thing about this passage is that God baled Abram out. Somehow Pharaoh found out that Sarai was Abram’s wife after all and came to realise that the plagues which had hit him and his household were caused by his appropriation of Sarai. So he sends Abram packing with all his ill-gotten gains! God is indeed going to be faithful to His promises, despite Abram’s bad judgment and disobedience. What does that mean for us?
Let’s think about those other Biblical passages when there was disobedience. Jonah tried to run away from God’s call; he was in a storm, the result (we are told) of his disobedience and had himself thrown overboard the ship. He was swallowed by a whale and the rest is history: it led to his repentance and arrival in Nineveh with God’s message. David orchestrated the death of Uriah and appropriated Bathsheba as his wife; he too was brought to repentance (Psalm 51). The Prodigal Son having spent all his inheritance found himself in poverty and hunger and came to his senses. The extraordinary thing about our Abram account is that God doesn’t afflict Abram himself as a result of his sin, but he afflicts Pharaoh and has His servant Abram returned to the Promised Land better off than he had been before! God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform! This is an interesting commentary on the relationship between disease and sin; there are those who talk of disease being the direct result of sin and who believe that once sin is confessed and forgiven, healing follows automatically; but there’s plenty of evidence in the Bible that it’s not as simple as that. The Pharisees put forward this simple diagnosis for the boy who had been blind from birth but Jesus said they were quite wrong: the blindness was the result neither of his parents’ sin nor of his own. What emerges here is that there are various ways in which God brings His people to their senses and to repentance when they have erred and strayed like lost sheep.
So there is a big picture and a big message and we are invited to lift our eyes in faith to see that big picture. God goes on loving and forgiving us, despite our failures. We can say with confidence “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”; but how much we need His Holy Spirit living in us, to keep us on that straight and narrow path, especially when life is tough and there seem to be more fears and questions than hopes and answers. Listen again to what St Paul says in Romans 8 (28,39).
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose….. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8: 28,39