Faith and sight - Genesis 12:10 - 14:24
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me tell you about Deborah Rickets. Everybody loves what she does, but nobody loves it while she is doing it. Everyone loves the product, but no one enjoys the process. You see, Deborah is an independent researcher for the film industry. If you want your film to be accurate and ensure the facts are reliable, then Deborah Rickets is your woman. For example, a film which is set in the 1920's needs everything to look like the twenties. You can't have a person reading a newspaper that didn't yet exist or a band playing a song not yet written. But such mistakes do occur. For instance, in the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the map that chartered Indiana Jones' flight route took him over Thailand. The problem was Thailand didn't exist in the thirties which was the setting of the film, it was Siam until 1939. The film, Ben Hur has an ice cream van in the background of the famous chariot race and you didn't have many of those in 1st century Rome! So, Deborah Rickets' job is to find these errors, tackle the screenwriters and directors, and niggle away until they get things right. To some she is a pain in the neck, for others she is a career saver. Now when you think about it that is something like the way God works in the lives of his people. It's not that God takes great delight in finding fault; rather it is that God likes to find anything that impedes our spiritual growth so it can be dealt with. When we start veering off course, we need putting back on course. When faith is flabby, God puts us in circumstances to make it tough. How we respond, however, is up to us. We can either pull back in a huff or go forward in trust. We can choose to walk by sight or by faith. Well, in the passages that we are looking at together tonight we see what it means when someone walks by faith or by sight and the consequences which follow. We see how by placing us in different situations God's design is both to test our faith and to demonstrate his faithfulness. And this works itself out in three different settings: in times of poverty, plenty and plunder.
First of all we have the test of poverty- 12:10ff. v10. 'Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe.' In many ways what we have here is the typical pattern of the life of faith. Let me explain. In the previous section God has met with Abram and given him some of the most amazing promises: that he would be the head of a great people, possess a great land and be the source of a great blessing to the entire world. Accordingly, he responds in worship, adoration and obedience. And that is precisely when the testing hits. The bright mountain top experience of spiritual encounter is followed by the dark valley of spiritual trial. So in v 9 we are told that Abram- God's man, travels to the precarious Negev region of the south. This is semi-desert. And the test is a famine- a severe famine. That is the way it tends to go. Do you remember what happened to Jesus after the spiritual high point of his baptism, with the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the affirmation of his heavenly Father, 'This is my Son in whom I am well pleased'? Well, it wasn't the marvel of the miracles or the adulation of the crowds; it was the testing in the wilderness. The writer C.S Lewis shrewdly puts it like this: 'Supposing that a man's reason once decides that the weight of the evidence is for Christianity. I can tell that man what is going to happen to him in the next few weeks. There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair; some moment in fact at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true.' (Mere Christianity p 121). Is that what you are finding at the moment? Then don't be thrown for that is exactly what Abram found. The question then is: who will he trust- God or himself? In other words will he choose to walk by faith (trust in God) or sight (trust in self). Well, as we see he chose the latter and in so doing showed himself to be lacking.
First, he left the land that God had promised him and decided to go to Egypt. Now Egypt in the Bible is always the portrayed as the place of opposition to God and his people. So it was not the right place to go to. But of course it looked like the right place. It was big, it was powerful and it was prosperous. The pew NIV is not quite accurate when it says in v10 that Abram 'went down to Egypt to live for a while.' The actual word used suggests that it was more or less a long term arrangement, with the intention to live as an immigrant on a semi-permanent basis. So much for trusting God that he would have land of his own.
In the second place Abram decided to be somewhat 'economical with the truth' when it came to his wife Sarai. Here faith gives way to fear in v11. Afraid that the Egyptians would be so taken with his wife's good looks that they would decide to kill him off so they could have her for the King, he says, 'she is my sister'. Not exactly an outright lie, but not exactly the truth either. She was his half sister and yet his wife. And so he jeopardises the promise God made that he would have children by more or less offering his wife to be the King's concubine to save his own skin. Quite pathetic really isn't it? What is more, it looks like the end justified the means in 16. So what that he loses a wife, he hits the jackpot on the possessions front. And yet it is so easily done isn't it? Sometimes for the sake of a quiet life it is simpler to bend the truth than to tell the truth. Even in a Christian organisation it may seem much more expedient to put a spin on things and seek to outmanoeuvre people to get your own way than it is to do the hard work of persuading people and committing the outcome to God in prayer. And this becomes all the more acceptable in an age like ours which places a premium on the power human intelligence, the pull of personality and the effectiveness of spin. But what did Jesus say? 'Let your yes be yes and your no be no.' In other words, be transparently above board in your dealings with other people. And we as Christians have to be so careful on this and not simply go with the flow of being truth benders. Of all people whose word should be trusted it is Christians, because they worship a God whose word is to be trusted. And just maybe that is something God is telling you to get sorted out tonight, your truth telling.
But if Abram failed the test at the first hurdle, no such weakness is found in God. Just because we lack faith doesn't mean that God will renege on his promises. And so we see God intervening to put things right in v 17 by sending a plague on the Egyptians as a warning shot across their bows. Now you may have thought that it is Abram that should have got the shingles, but the Egyptians shared some responsibility too. Strangers are not to be taken advantage of in any country, including ours, and there must have been some justification for Abram's fear that they would kill him. And so the King responds to God's wake up call by sending Abram and his wife packing. But isn't that just the way God works? He often works despite our faith not because of it. And a good thing for us too that he does or all of us would have been consigned to oblivion long ago. He is not even going to allow our stupidity and sin to upset his long term plans for our good. Of course, that doesn't mean we think that we can do whatever we like because God will come after us to clean up the mess. No, we still often have to live with the consequences of the foolish choices we make, as we shall see in a moment, and while God's goodness is not to be presumed upon, it can be relied upon. You know, sometimes people starting out as Christians can be thrown down into despair when they fail their Lord. 'I have committed that sin, yet again. I really let that person down so badly this time, I am sure God will give up on me.' Have you felt like that? Then look again at this story. God does not go back on his promises, even though we do. The question to ask to ask then is not 'Will God give up on me in failure?' but 'What have learnt from my failure?'
Facing poverty can be a tough test, but so can the test of plenty which is what we see being worked out in chapter 13. Look at v1 'So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold. From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the LORD.' This is the model for repentance. If we have gone wrong, like Abram we are to retrace our steps, go back to the place God met us and call upon his name. For Abram that meant going back to the altar at Bethel which means 'house of God'. For us it means going back to the altar of Calvary and the true dwelling place of God, where God tabernacled amongst us in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words we go back to the cross. And let me say that he never tires of taking us back there and I have constantly been coming back to that same place now for over thirty years, that is where you will find forgiveness and acceptance.
But how will Abram fare with his new test-the test of plenty v5 'Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram's herdsmen and the herdsmen of Lot.' Here is a tale of two men- Abram and his nephew Lot, and two responses- faith and sight. Both men are now well to do. They have so much that conflicts of interest have started to arise. It looks like, in the words of the old Western films, 'This town isn't big enough for the both of us.' And so someone has to get out of Dodge. The question is, who will it be and upon what basis?
Abram could have played the senior partner card, call all the shots and nab the best looking land for himself. That is almost certainly what pre-Egypt Abram would have done. But now, it seems he has learnt his lesson. First, he displays wisdom -v8 So Abram said to Lot, "Let's not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers. 'What is the point of having this unnecessary antagonism; it is doing no one any good.' Let me say there is nothing wrong in being pragmatic, sometimes for the greater good friends have to part company-even Christians. Second, he shows overwhelming generosity-v9 Is not the whole land before you? Let's part company. If you go to the left, I'll go to the right; if you go to the right, I'll go to the left." He really does cut the cake and say 'You choose the biggest piece'. Thirdly he demonstrates deep trust for he is willing to leave the consequences to God. That's the secret. He doesn't allow anxiety to eat away at him, 'If I do this then this may happen, or if I do that who knows what will take place?' No, he shows a godly contentment, he is going to let God be God and leave the outcome to him. And friends, that is real trust isn't it? And although God is no man's debtor, he does reward that kind of faith as we see in v 14 17 The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, "Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you." Not only are the original promises of chapter 12 reiterated note the threefold 'your offspring', they are also amplified 'all the land that is seen will be given to him for ever.' Abram begins with faith and ends with seeing the tangible tokens of God's blessings. Do you see what happens as we trust God? We go deeper and deeper into his blessings. Abram doesn't seek a new blessing, a new promise, he simply receives the same blessing and promise but more wonderfully applied. And so it is with us and the Lord Jesus Christ. We are not to go seeking blessings beyond Jesus; we can't for there aren't any. What we need to do is to go deeper into the blessings we already have in him, the answers to prayer made in the name of the Lord Jesus, the peace he offers which passes all understanding, the new lives made as we share the gospel with people, as well as enjoying the richness of fellowship as we encounter Christ in one another as we meet like this. Yes, faith does have its rewards in the here and now.
But on the face of it, so does living by sight as we see with Lot-v 10 'Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.)So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.' Here is a real man of the world, a proper little entrepreneur. No pie in the sky when you die for him, its steak on the plate while you wait. And what steak! His eyes must have been popping out on stalks like you see in those Road Runner cartoons. Why, he can't believe his luck. He looks (note the emphasis) and he sees what in effect is paradise- like the garden of God- Eden. Why it is like Egypt and we all know how rich Egypt is. What is more it has the seeming security of cities-like Sodom, hiding behind protected walls in case of trouble. But did you notice the one ominous black cloud on the horizon, a portent of the disaster to come? V 12 and 13 'pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked and sinned greatly against the Lord.' You see, what looks good isn't necessarily good. Even if he had not known about the activities of the people of Sodom (which is unlikely), he soon would have once he got near the town and yet he still goes forward. And I think it is very interesting that while in v 13 he pitched his tents near Sodom, by v12 of chapter 14 he is living in Sodom. Now, here is a warning to all of us, but especially to you young people here tonight. What appears to be attractive, popular, and even fun can soon become a snare. This is the test of plenty, like going for the job which offers so much money, but which destroys your family and church life with its demands; or getting romantically involved with a non-Christian who then makes wholehearted commitment to Christ more difficult. You see, Lot's choice wasn't a moral choice as such, a matter of right and wrong, it was a wisdom choice, a matter of wise and unwise, as are all the examples I have just given. The point is, Christians are not to be led by the eyes, or the gut or anything just below the gut, but by decisions based upon God's Word which is received by faith, asking 'what will be the wise thing to do? What will help me and others in my spiritual walk and what will glorify Christ?' Now, are you asking those sorts of questions when you face life decisions? For they will determine whether you pass the test of plenty.
Finally, and more briefly, we have the test of plunder- chapter 14. Without doubt one of the greatest tests of faith is time of war. We can say all sorts of things when life is going along swimmingly, but when our world is falling apart, when the bullets are flying, then who we really are trusting in comes to the fore. Let me explain what is going on. Basically, Sodom plus four other city-states have been subject to Kedorlaomer a king from up north in the Iran/Iraq area. They decide to rebel and stop paying the international equivalent of council tax. So Kedorlaomer comes, clobbers them and carries off a whole lot of Sodom's material wealth and people including Lot. So moving into the so called secure plains and cities was not such a good idea after all. But again, our faithlessness does not nullify God's faithfulness, and Abram comes to the rescue, or rather God uses Abram to rescue as we see in v20 ' It is God Most High who has delivered his enemies into Abram's hands.'Now again here we are presented with two contrasts, someone who walks by faith and someone who walks by sight. In this case they are two kings- the King of Salem and the King of Sodom and they could not be more different. Melchizedek, the Priest-King of Salem (probably Jerusalem- a name which means 'peace') for whom Abram has done very little, greets him warmly, lays on a banquet for him in v18 and blesses him in v19. And straight away we have the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abram back in Chapter 12, that those who bless Abram will themselves be blessed. So Melchizedek is given a tenth of the booty. Do you see how we worship a God who says what he means and means what he says? He shortchanges no one who will come to him.
The King of Sodom, on the other hand is cool and surly,-v 21 'Give me the people and keep the goods yourself' how bossy can you get? Indeed, how ungrateful can you get? After all it is Abram who rescued the people of Sodom, not the King, and not that they deserved any of it, but that is again a reflection in this man of the character of the God he serves, he is a God of grace. He is far more patient with us than we are mindful of him. And remember the warning which went with the promise of chapter 12, God said to Abram 'Whoever disdains you I will curse.' Well, this comes pretty close to disdaining as anything I know. But still, Abram responds in generosity giving him not only the people but the booty as well. One King, Melchizedek responds in faith and the other lives by sight and all the grasping acquisitiveness which goes with it. One , Melchizedek, was to live on into immortality in that he is taken by the Bible, Psalm 110, Hebrews 7 as a model, a type of the Lord Jesus, the true priest- King, the prince of peace and source of all blessing, that is some compliment! The other, the King of Sodom, was to be destroyed which, ultimately, is always the result of living by sight. So we have been warned.
I doubt it is easy for a scriptwriter to turn over his manuscript to someone like Deborah Rickets. He knows she is on the hunt for mistakes. But he also knows the end will be a better story. And I have to admit it is not always easy to turn our lives over to God who will test us. But then the result is going to be a better story. Remember he is faithful. The question is will we walk by faith or by sight?
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