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Entering the world stage - Genesis 14

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 21st May 2017.

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Let me tell you the story of Levi Hefner, a Confederate courier during the American Civil War. One night he was sent by his commanding officer, General Robert E. Lee, to take a message through an area partially occupied by Union troops. As he approached a bridge, his horse balked and reared nervously. Hefner dismounted and attempted to calm him in the darkness by singing softly an old familiar hymn, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul."  In a few minutes the horse became quiet; Hefner then mounted the horse, crossed the bridge without any incident and completed his mission. Well, a number of years after the war, Hefner attended a reunion of soldiers from both sides of the conflict. As they gathered in small groups to share experiences they remembered from the war, a Union soldier from Ohio recounted standing guard one dark night at a bridge having been ordered to shoot anyone approaching from the other side.  During the night only one rider came his way, and so he raised his rifle to shoot as soon as he could see the form in the darkness. Just then the horse balked, however, and the rider dismounted.  To calm the horse, the rider began singing softly an old hymn, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul."  The Union soldier told the circle of old soldiers that the sound of the hymn so touched him that he lowered his rifle and quietly turned away. He said, "I could not shoot him." Levi Hefner jumped up and embraced the Union soldier, saying, "That was me!"  He realized for the first time that his singing that dark night had saved his life, or from another standpoint, God had saved it.

 

What is the moral of that story? It is this: that in the midst of the big affairs of world history God is still at work in the special affairs of his people. While the world may have its eye fixed on what it thinks are the major players and events, God’s eye is firmly fixed on his people and his purpose- namely, the salvation of those who put their trust in the ‘seed’ of Abraham- Jesus Christ.

 

And this is perfectly illustrated for us in the passage we are looking at this evening in Genesis chapter 14.  

 

First, we have the care of God’s servant, vv 1-16

 

I guess you can think of this as the equivalent to a very hard Brexit! Forget negotiations- according to the ‘famous five’ of Canaan- they we are out of the ‘union’ which had been imposed by Kedorlaomer for twelve years and so they formed a new alliance. The news that the kings had failed to offer their customary tribute was not well received by Kedorlaomer who lived in what is now modern day Iran and so he sets off with his own alliance of three other kings to make the massive trek towards Sodom and her sister towns located on the southern end of the Dead Sea. The gang probably came down the Transjordanian highway through the area east of the Jordan taking out three opposing  groups (v5), then past the Dead Sea to Seir defeating the Horites (v6), then turning northwest to knock the stuffing out of the Amalekites in Kadesh (v7) before turning east and north to Hazezon-tamar, taking out the Amorites and then moving in for the kill against Sodom and her allies . In English terms this as if Kedorlaomer had come to England, and Oxford was where the four kings were located. He would come down from Northampton to Reading and then on to Southampton, turning northwest to Bath and then to Swindon and finally Oxford(map). Quite a trek! You may ask: Why not go straight for the original rebels? Who knows? Maybe it was to ensure the neutralisation of any potential supporters who might come to Sodom’s aid, as well as demonstrating their superior strength and so engaging in a bit of psych-ops, weakening Sodom and co’s resolve when news eventually reaches them about each successive triumph of the armies that were slowly but surely making their way towards them. Well, it seemed to have worked, because vv10-12 describe what was essentially a rout as the five kings make a run for it, possibly falling into the tar pits or using the tar pits as hideouts (the verb ‘fell’ can mean ‘let themselves down’). Whatever, it was a rather ignominious end to a rather foolish political move.

 

And if that were all that had happened, this event would have disappeared without a trace, not even deserving a footnote in the annuls of ancient Near Eastern history. So what made the difference so that this story has been read again and again by millions of people, throughout the world over thousands of years? The answer is that the triumphant kings had taken with them someone called Lot. It was a name which didn’t mean much to them, but meant an awful lot (pardon the pun) to God, for this was the nephew of God’s man- Abram. Touch him and his kin, no matter who you are, and you touch the apple of God’s eye.

 

And so we have an interesting take on the way the Bible sees history. For the BBC (the Babylonian Broadcasting Company), the big shots were the fab four under the leadership of Kedorlaomer. They are the ones who are centre stage. Not so according to the biblical text, rather it is this ‘Hebrew’ (v 13) (which probably carries a negative connotation as a foreigner, he doesn’t belong). And yet it is Abram with his band of merry men in v 14 who actually win the day by engaging in a night raid and splitting their forces, covering first, 111 miles and then pursuing the enemy a further 62 miles to make sure they didn’t come back. And the victory is really quite astonishing, having recovered everything and everyone (v16).

 

This is vintage Yahweh if I may put it like that. As we shall see in a moment, there is no doubt whose great hand is behind this victory and that what matters to him is keeping his promises to his people ensuring that nothing, absolutely nothing, gets in the way of him bringing about his saving purposes for the world. He said he would bless Abram and that he would be a source of blessing- well here we have one wonderful instance of that taking place. And that is the main thing, that God will weave all events, great and small- to that one great end. As one commentator puts it, you have ‘world history’ and ‘significant history’[1] the latter being embedded in the former like a series of pictures in a complex tapestry which make up the main theme of the tapestry.

 

And so while Caesar Augustus decides to call a census for tax purposes, God superintends that decision with a purpose of his own, namely, to bring a young couple to their home town in Bethlehem in order to fulfil his promise to his people that the Messiah would be born in the city of David (Lk. 2:1-4)- do you see? And so if you are a Christian here tonight then you are to cherish the knowledge that you are part of God’s significant history and he will superintend world history and do whatever it takes for the express purpose of getting you home to glory, as he did to ensure that Abram inherited his promises of having a people and a place. That is a measure of how important you are to God and that is a measure of how powerful God actually is. The true King at work in and through these events is not Kedorlaomer it is Yahweh.

 

And so we turn to the choice of God’s servant vv 17-24.

On his return Abram comes into contact with two contrasting Kings, the king of Sodom and the King of Salem (probably Jerusalem). Presumably having cleaned himself up, the King of Sodom comes out of hiding. And you can almost detect the sense of self-importance as he approaches Abram in v 17, only to be cut off by the King of Salem in v18,  ‘Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.’

In these two kings we find two different attitudes towards Abram and a very important choice made by Abram.

Melchizedek is a priest-king, whose name means ‘king of righteousness’- that is, the king who does what is right. He is also the king of ‘Salem’ which means peace. What is more he is priest of ‘God Most High’ which some take to mean that here in the midst of the moral cess pit of Canaan, as exemplified by Sodom and Gomorrah, there are still worshippers of the one true God and here is the chief of them. And all of these things are brought together as he meets Abram. He acts righteously, asking nothing from Abram, but giving something to Abram- bread and wine. This may be more than the giving of physical sustenance; it is a token of fellowship. Then he pronounces a blessing on Abram and God for he knows how to read history properly, that this victory has been given by God Most High- it wasn’t chance and neither was it all down to Abram’s military prowess. And Abram sees this man as God’s man and so in act of profound symbolism he gives to Melchizedek (and so to God) a tenth of everything he has. He knows who he is beholden to and does not begrudge the fact. And given that God has promised Abram that whoever blesses him will also be blessed then somehow Melchizedek is going to be in for one mighty blessing!

But how was Melchizedek to be blessed? After this episode we don’t hear of him again in the narrative, he disappears as quickly as he comes.  But let us think for a moment of how we tend to ‘bless’ or ‘honour’ people in order to see how Melchizedek was blessed. We name streets or ships after people who have made some major achievement, so we have ‘Wellington Street’ or ‘Churchill Avenue’. Perhaps children are named after them, so John Lennon’s middle name was ‘John Winston Lennon’. We erect statues or hang their portraits so that future generations can look upon them and maybe ask questions about them, who they were and what they did; and so in that sense keep their memories alive. But what about this: having your name linked to the eternal Son of God, so that God’s own Son is said to be like you? That is what happened with Melchizedek. This person, who more or less has a walk on part in Scripture, is, because of his attitude towards Abram, given such an honour that his name will be forever associated with Jesus Christ and that beats all your statues and street naming doesn’t it? In Psalm 110 Melchizedek is specifically linked to King David and an oath made by God that ‘you are a priest for ever in the order of Melchizedek.’ His memory is venerated in Jerusalem as a forerunner to King David no less. But the writer to the Hebrews takes it even further presenting him as a ‘type’ of Jesus saying that Jesus is a high priest like him, a king-priest who bestows blessings upon all of Abraham’s spiritual children, living forever to intercede for them. Just as Melchizedek blessed Abram, Jesus forever blesses us- do you see?

But what a contrast with the King of Sodom, whose name is proverbially associated with greed and perversion. Whereas Melchizedek blesses Abram, Sodom disdains him with his grasping demand, ‘Give me the persons and take the possessions yourself.’ No ‘thank you’, no courtesy.  The king is trying to bring Abram under his sway, whereas Melchizedek saw Abram as being under God’s sway. The offer for Abram to keep the possessions could be seen as an attempt to curry favour with Abram, drawing him into Sodom’s sphere of influence, so he ‘owes him one’. It is assumed that this is the way you operate- a demand here and gift there. However, Abram will have none of it, ‘But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ Maybe Abram had already anticipated such a move which is why he had made a resolution beforehand to accept absolutely nothing and so would be beholden to no one except God.

But can you see that had Abram not been prepared beforehand that he could have succumbed to such an offer? After all he had made such a catch, he was now somebody important, so important that a king approaches him with a deal, he is a ‘somebody’ now. What better way to get rid of the derogatory epithet ‘Hebrew’ by aligning yourself with the natives, perhaps this was God’s way of blessing him and ensuring he gets a foothold in the land God had promised him? It sounds oh so reasonable doesn’t it?

But of course as we heard last week, it seemed ‘Oh so reasonable’ to Lot to go into the land of Sodom in the first place and look what happened! What may seem reasonable is not always wise, especially if it is the way of compromise and accommodation to the point that your faith gets ruined.

In many ways the King of Sodom represents the world with all its enticements and condescending attitude towards God’s people. Sure, there may be an air of flattery but underneath there is contempt and the end game is always the same, to get God’s man to become the world’s man, Sodom’s puppet. And the same is true today. Enticements will be made to get the believer to make a little compromise here and a bit of accommodation there, until bit by bit the faith which was once vibrant and bright becomes lifeless and dim.

Let me tell you there are four stages by which we get seduced by the King of Sodom. Stage one is assumption when some idea in modern life is assumed to be worthwhile and superior to Christian belief. Second, there is abandonment, so whatever in the Christian faith doesn’t fit in with the new assumption is either modified or jettisoned. This is followed by adaptation, something new is assumed, something old is abandoned; everything else is adapted so while it still has some semblance of genuine Christianity, it is significantly modified, until the final stage is reached, assimilation so that what is left is absorbed by the modern world and effectively taken over, so what passes for Christianity is simply reflecting back to the world its own values and ideas in a thinly veiled Christian dress. Certainly Christian words are used, but the Christian content is removed.

Our youngest son, Philip, is a minister at a church in London which has many young professionals and students and he says they are so confused on the issue of sexuality, which is not surprising. It is perhaps here we see this Sodom process being worked out most effectively. It is assumed that our identity is bound up with our sexuality which we can define and express as we will. Then some sectors of the church abandon the Bible’s teaching that our real identity is found in relation to Christ and that our sexuality is God-given, expressed in terms of male and female, but which has been corrupted by sin. Then there is adaptation, so as far back as 1993 we read this in one Anglican Evangelical theological journal, ‘We ought to accept homosexual relationships that are not idolatrous as being part of God’s variety in creation. Those who are convinced under God that this is the form of life that they are called to ought to be respected whether they are lay or ordained.’ And now we have assimilation, so that the views of the world are being forced upon the church or happily embraced by the church, as expressed for example, in same-sex marriage.

But the fact is we all have to be aware of the choices we have to make between seeking the blessing of Melchizedek (Christ) and coming under the pull of Sodom (the world). And the choices we make in the little things and having the resolve early on will determine the choices we will make later in the big things. Let me say especially to those of you who are younger here this evening that you need to resolve before God in your heart that you will seek to be true to him, give your all to him, as Abram did, and seek the blessings of your great king-priest, Jesus, at whatever the cost. And why not make that resolve before God in your heart tonight.  If you do you will find a tremendous liberty and gain everlasting blessing. And those of us who are older, what are we going to do? Are we going to set an example to the younger people by showing that we are all out for Christ, or are we going to keep our heads down, collect our pensions and hopefully drift into heaven? That would be a shameful thing to do. No, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, a he ponders the example of Abraham and others, ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Dale Ralph Davies, Faith of our Father (CFP), p 42

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