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Faltering faith - Genesis 20

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 20th February 2005.

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Back in the late 1990's a young student won first prize at the Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair by urging people to sign a petition demanding strict control or total elimination of the chemical "Dihydrogen monoxide" because: 1. It was known to cause excessive sweating and vomiting. 2. It was a major component in acid rain. 3. It could cause severe burns in its gaseous state. 4. Accidental inhalation could kill you. 5. It contributed to erosion. 6. It decreased the effectiveness of automobile brakes. 7. It had been found in tumours of terminal cancer patients. He asked 50 people if they supported a ban. 43 said yes. Six were undecided. But only one knew that the chemical was, in fact, just plain old water. Every one of the "facts" presented by that student was completely accurate: 1. Water can cause excessive sweating and vomiting (you couldn't do either one without it) 2. It is a major component in acid rain (rain is water) 3. It can cause severe burns in its gaseous state (steam) 4. If you accidentally inhale water it could kill you (you'd drown). 5. It does contribute to erosion (rain washes away soil) 6. It does decrease the effectiveness of car brakes (you can skid on wet roads). 7. And water is found in tumours of cancer patients (because water is in every cell in our bodies). So why were 46 people taken in? Because sometimes the most obvious explanation and the most sensible solution is totally lost on some people. And people will believe and do anything else rather than face up to the reality of the facts. And in our passage for this evening, which is Genesis 20, we find Abraham doing something which to our minds is blatantly and obviously the wrong thing to do, but to Abraham seems the perfectly normal thing to do. Because he refuses to see reality as it truly is and makes another near fatal mistake.

  Now if you've been with us these past few weeks, you'll know that we are on something of a roller coaster ride of faith with Abraham. As we've looked together at these early chapters of Genesis, we've seen Abraham have some wonderful highs, and some depressing lows. Let me remind us of the details as we begin. And you'll notice on the sermon outlines that I've drawn these chapters in diagram form to show how up and down it was for Abraham. It began in chapter 12 when God gave to Abraham three wonderful promises of a people, a place to live and that all peoples will be blessed through him. We saw that Abraham was the beginning of God's amazing plan to rescue the world from rebellion against God and it would be done through a descendant of Abraham's. But then immediately after those promises had been given, we were plunged into the depression of Abraham's lack of faith as he tried to fob his wife off as his sister to avoid him being killed in Egypt. But in chapters 13-15, we are again raised to great heights with Abraham, as he wins a battle and a blessing and then receives confirmation of God's promises. But again we're plunged back in the pits of despair as Abraham makes a dreadful mistake in chapter 16, sleeping with another woman who is not his wife to produce an heir. But in the last few weeks we've been racing up high on the roller coaster of faith as the promises are again confirmed in chapter 17. And as we saw last week, Abraham has perhaps his most profound experience to date as he pleads with God for the salvation of Sodom.

So all the way through these chapters it's been up, down, up down. Hardly the great man of faith we often think of when we consider Abraham is it? But all along, God is teaching this old servant a lesson. And that is that he needs to keep trusting the never changing promises of God in an ever changing world. Abraham needs to keep walking by faith, and not by sight. For God is totally faithful and will never leave his servant. And in a few chapters time we'll see that all these lessons come to the fore as Abraham faces his biggest test of faith ever. And that of course is where the stories of Abraham apply to us. Because we too are aliens in a foreign land, pilgrims on our way to heaven. And we too need to live by faith trusting these same never changing promises of God which have now been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. And the same questions are posed to us. Will we keep trusting the promises and keep walking by faith? Or will we take our eye off the ball and trust in our own strength rather than God's? And when that happens then we're heading for a deep and painful downward dip.

And that, sadly, is precisely what happens for Abraham in chapter 20. After the great highs of chapters 17-19, we're plunged back into a stomach lurching downward slide as again Abraham makes a disastrous mistake. So before we find out what it is we can learn from this chapter, let's make sure we understand the story. And the terrible thing is that Abraham has made exactly the same mistake some 25 years or so before. At that point in Genesis 12, Abraham had gone down to Egypt to avoid a famine. And as they were crossing the border to go into Egypt Abraham had said to Sarah: "Look Sarah, you're very pretty and so if anyone asks say you're my sister." So why on earth would Abraham do that? Well because Pharaoh had a harem of women which he would add to occasionally. So whenever a pretty girl would come along, she'd be added to the collection. Because these ancient kings were polygamous. They had many wives. But they were not adulterous. So if a pretty girl had a husband, and the king wanted the girl, then he'd simply bump off the husband and the girl was his. So to protect himself, Abraham told Sarah to say she was his sister. It was a self preservation mechanism. But the trouble was it was wrong of Abraham then, and it was wrong now. Then it led to serious diseases being inflicted on Pharaoh's house. It was a near disastrous policy of Abraham's. And so now, 25 years on, Abraham should know better. Now he's older and wiser. He knows God as his friend and he's got 25 more years experience of life and serving God. And if we can excuse the young nainnocence of a 75 year old in chapter 12, then we certainly cannot excuse the older wiser man of 99 in chapter 20.

So what happens? Well it's the same old story. This time he's in the Negev region in verse 1, in a place called Gerar, which is just a little further north from Egypt. And Abraham and Sarah adopt the same policy, to say that she's his sister, which is apparently their policy whenever they travel according to verse 13. It's a well worn plan. It seems laughable to us doesn't it? Can you imagine me turning to my wife every time we went up the A1 towards Scotland and saying: "Look dearest! If anyone asks, just say you're my sister. I don't trust these Scots!" That's what it amounted to. Abraham thought in verse 11 that these inhabitants of Gerar were a bunch of pagan murderers. They'd surely kill Abraham and run off with Sarah if they thought they could get away with it. That's what Abraham thought at least. Well sure enough Abimelech the local king spots Sarah and takes her to be one of his girls. Now you might think that's slightly odd, given that Sarah is now in her nineties. I mean I know love is blind, but that's pushing it isn't it? But Sarah had a rich and powerful family in Abraham. So she was a great catch for Abimelech. But like Pharaoh before him, Abimelech is an innocent victim of Abraham's sin. Every girl in Abimelech's house is declared barren. None of them can have children. And so God appears to Abimelech in a dream in verse 3 and warns him that he's a dead man if he so much as lays a finger on Sarah. For she's a married woman, and the price of adultery is death. So next morning, Abimelech gathers all his men around them and explains the dire straits they are in, and Abraham is summoned to give an account of himself. And he gives a pathetic excuse saying that Sarah really is his sister, which is no more than a weak half truth. And it's Abimelech who holds out the olive branch by offering a huge sum of wealth to Abraham to take back Sarah. And Abraham prays for the healing of the barren women of Abimelech's kingdom, and they are healed.

  It's an extraordinary story isn't it, and it's even more staggering given who Abraham is and what's happened in his life to this point. So why on earth has God caused it to be recorded for us in the Bible? What lessons can we take away from one of the most sordid parts of Abraham's life? Well there are two lessons for us this evening, two lessons which we need to take to heart if we are to press on living a life of faith and trusting the promises of God:

1) Never Underestimate the Lure of Sin

2) Never Underestimate the Love of God

  

1) Never Underestimate the Lure of Sin

First we must never underestimate the lure of sin. Because the plain fact is that if Abraham can fall for the same old sin time and again, if he was a godly man who had been given staggering promises and who had walked with God, then we too can so easily fall for the same old sins time and again if we are not careful. Now no doubt if we'd interviewed Abraham before this incident and asked him about the Egypt debacle 24 years before, then he would have said: "There is no way I'll make the same mistake I made 24 years ago. That was a disaster, and it's gone. I'll never do it again." But he did! And we must never think that we have graduated beyond particular sins or that we are immune. We must never think we're safe. We must always be on our guard. Because the fact is the Bible teaches us that the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. And no doubt if we had interviewed Abraham afterwards he would have said, "Yes but it was just a moment of madness." But there is always a gunpowder trail of weakness and lack of ruthlessness with sin that leads to a moment of madness. The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. For Abraham it was a fear of man and a lack of trust in God, as we'll see later, that led him to do this sinful thing. And if he succumbed to temptation, then you and I are also in danger. We must never underestimate the lure of sin. And there are two reasons why we shouldn't underestimate the lure of sin.

a) Sin is very attractive- First because sin is very attractive. Have a look at verse 11. Now here Abraham is explaining his actions to Abimelech and he reveals why he did what he did: "Abraham replied, "I said to myself, 'There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.' Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother." ' " The fact is, Abraham thought it was easier and safer to tell a little lie than to risk getting into trouble. He was afraid of the consequences of telling the truth about Sarah. Because if Abimelech wanted Sarah for himself, then he would have killed Abraham and taken her. So to save the hassle, just say Sarah is your sister. And it's not entirely wrong. She was related to Abraham. So for an easier life, tell a lie and no-one will get hurt. It looks so attractive doesn't it? And do you notice how Abraham manages to persuade Sarah? Verse 13: "This is how you can show your love to me"Sarah, he said, if you really love me, then you'll do this for me." Abraham will do anything to get what he wants. So attractive is the sin that he'll even manipulate his own wife and get her in on the act to get what he wants, an easier life. Doesn't matter about the consequences, just get what I want. That's all that matters. And it's very attractive isn't it?

  And we fall into exactly the same trap. It so much easier to sin than to be godly isn't it? Because being godly costs us. It costs us in terms of denying ourselves our sinful pleasures. It costs us in terms of the flak that may come our way for standing up for God's ways and principles. It costs us in personal relationships to go God's way, because friends and family may not like the stand we take or the things we say. So why not bend the rules a little for an easier life? And we even say what Abraham says to get our way. So a young girl will say to her boyfriend, "If you really love me, you'll sleep with me, won't you? No-one will know. It's between you and me. No-one will get hurt. Besides everyone else is doing it. If you really love me, you will won't youAnd its very attractive. A friend of mine was once put in exactly this position. His girlfriend was pressurising him to sleep with her. And he came to me for advice. They'd been going out for quite some time and they were in their mid twenties by this stage. So I said to him: "If you really love her, don't take her to bed, take her down the aisle." Because a promise of lifelong commitment and care is true love. And that's the right God- given context for sex. Or we might find ourselves saying: "If you love me, you'll lie for me won't you, just this once?" "If you love me, you'll fiddle the figures for me, won't you." Just a little sin here and there is so much easier. Because it costs to be godly. And sin is very attractive.

  And yet the problem is that often what looks very attractive has very deadly consequences. Just this past summer Debbie and I had the great privilege of visiting Australia. And to be honest I was a little worried given what I'd read about the huge numbers of deadly creatures that lived on the continent. And I was expecting that the moment I set foot on Australian soil, I'd be attacked by insects and crocodiles and sea monsters all of which could kill me painfully and quickly with one bite. Well that didn't happen, but the very first morning we were there, we were walking along this beautiful beach which was a picture postcard type scene. Until that is we came across a sign which read: "Danger! Crocodiles inhabit this area of the beach. Crocodile attacks can cause serious injury and death." What looked so attractive actually was very dangerous, because if we'd gone any further, we'd have been in danger of death. And as if to confirm my growing paranoia, on day 2, we found another sign on the same beach which read, you've guessed it: "Danger! Swimming in sea during summer months can cause serious injury and death due to marine stingers!" And it happened on a number of other occasions too. Everywhere we went, we were in danger of a painful death. What looked so attractive was also very dangerous. And that is precisely the problem with sin. It looks so attractive, but is actually very serious. And that is the second reason why we should never underestimate the lure of sin. Because not only is sin very attractive, it is also very serious.

b) Sin is very serious- Because the truth is you can never sin in a vacuum. Our sin always has consequences. Abraham thought he could get away with a just a little lie. But the fact is it had devastating and near fatal consequences.

First sin affects our relationships with people. Have a look at verse 3 and see what Abraham's so called private little lie did to Abimelech: "But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, 'You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.'" And then in verse 9, Abimelech confronts Abraham: "Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said, 'What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done.' Here is the pagan king telling the great man of faith Abraham that he's done something wrong! And then what are the consequences for Abimelech's household? Verse 18: "For the LORD had closed up every womb in Abimelech's household because of Abraham's wife Sarah." So what did Abraham's little sin cost Abimelech? Well it almost cost him his life and it cost the women in his household having children. What a catastrophe! All because Abraham wanted an easier life! And what's even more galling in this whole tragedy is that Abraham should have been a blessing to the nations around him. That was one of the promises he received in chapter 12. But he's hardly a blessing to this household, has he? He's cursed it by his own selfish, ego-centric actions. He did it save his own skin, and look what happened!

And we need to realise that our sin is not done in a vacuum. It affects our relationships with others, sometimes catastrophically. And we must be especially on our guard when dealing with non Christians, because great damage can be done, as was done here, when Christians are selfish and try to get what they want without thought for others. One of my very best friends has been almost totally put off the Christian faith because of the selfish actions of Christians towards him. He was deeply hurt more than fifteen years ago now, and he's still got the scars to prove it. No, sin is very serious because it affects our relationships with people.

But even more importantly, sin is serious because it affects our relationship with God. Because notice what God says to Abimelech in verse 6. Abimelech professes his innocence in taking Sarah, and God replies: "Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her." Now you would have thought that God would have said: I kept you, Abimelech, from sinning against Sarah by preventing you from sleeping with her. But he doesn't say that. He says "I kept you from sinning against me." Because all sin is ultimately sin against God. For he is the one who gives us the standards to live by. And when we break his laws, we are shaking our puny little fists at God and telling him where to go. That is ultimately what sin is. So what was Abraham doing when he lied about Sarah? He was sinning against God. Because he was doubting God's power to keep him safe. God had already promised to Abraham that he and Sarah would have a child. There was absolutely no chance that he or Sarah could come to harm. Because God's plan was to use them. And they both knew that. So why on earth did Abraham go ahead with this whole debacle? And by his actions he was actually endangering the promises themselves and therefore the very salvation of the whole world. Because if Sarah did get pregnant, then there'd be no telling whose the baby was. They didn't have DNA testing in those days. Who could be sure who was the father. Abraham was in danger of wrecking the plan of salvation. So no wonder God stopped any pregnancies in the household during this period. And why did Abraham do it? Because he doubted that God could do what he promised. And on top of doubting God's power to keep his promises, he also doubted God's goodness in verse 13. Do you see what he says to Abimelech: "And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother." ' " He's actually blaming God for his travels over the last 25 years. It's almost as if Abraham is saying: "Well God got me into the this mess. I'm now going to have to take evasive action." He doubted God's goodness, and he blamed God.

Friends, whilst sin is very attractive, it is also very serious. It affects our relationships with others and more seriously it affects our relationship with God. And I want to ask us, as I ask myself, how serious are you about battling with sin in your life? Do you have a passion to fight sin? Do you hate your sin? Do you long to kill it and get rid of it? Or do you cuddle and it caress it and say: "No, my sweetheart, I could never let you go. You're too precious." Well see from Abraham's life how terrible the effects of sin are in person's life. And one of the antidotes to sin is to see what it is like in God's eyes. If you are a teenager in Mark 2, and you are being miserable and dishonouring to your parents at the moment, do you realise that you are sinning not just against them, but God. For it is God who says "honour your father and mother." Or maybe you are someone who is secretly living a lie at the moment, some area of your life you know is not right, and you think no-one will notice. Do you not realise that it is God you are sinning against? He knows all things. Well consider Abraham and never underestimate the lure of sin, because whilst it is very attractive, yet it is very serious.

2) Never Underestimate the Love of God

But if we were to finish there, then this talk would be very lopsided, because there is another part to this story. So as we finish, let's consider that we must never underestimate the love of God. Because thankfully amid the carnage of Abraham's sin, the grace of God is at work bringing rescue and salvation. And were it not for God, then we would all be facing the consequences of our own sin. Notice how God is first merciful and loving to Abimelech. Verse 3: "But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, "You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman." So God warns Abimelech what he is heading for, and then he tells Abimelech that God himself kept Abimelech from sleeping with Sarah, verse 6: "Then God said to him in the dream, 'Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her.'" God rescued Abimelech from the sin of adultery. And he rescued Abraham too from the consequences of his lie. Thankfully Sarah didn't get pregnant, so the promises were never under threat. Thankfully Abimelech didn't die, so Abraham didn't have innocent blood on his hands. And thankfully the women of the household were restored so that they could have children. God used Abraham's prayer, the prayer of a sinful rebel, to bring about healing for that household. Verse 17: "Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls so they could have children again, for the LORD had closed up every womb in Abimelech's household because of Abraham's wife Sarah."

  Now all these things testify to the amazing love of God in a situation where one man has sinned his way into a total mess. Praise God for the amazing love of God for sinful rebels like Abraham and you and me. You see if I were God, by this stage in Abraham's life, I would got a little miffed to say the least. Abraham had been up and down like a yo-yo in terms of his faith. One time standing tall with the promises of God. The next cowering in the shadow of his sin. But there was one constant throughout the whole story and that was the love of God.

And the fact is you and I are no different from Abraham. It was C S Lewis who said: "I am a zoo of lusts, a harem of fondled hatred, a bedlam of ambition- my name is Legion." And that describes our hearts before God. But time again what we must do is to fling ourselves on the never failing love of God and to cry to him for mercy again. You may think you have blown it big time with God. Maybe you have done something so shameful that you think God could never have you back. Well let me tell you, God's arms are wide enough to bring back the most far flung sinner. And his love is deep enough to cover the most wretched sin. And how do we know that?

Well believe it or not, the answer is contained in one word which comes at the end of this passage. Because in verse 16, Abimelech gives to Sarah a huge sum of money as if to pay for the hurt that has been caused to her. And he says in verse 16 that "this is to cover the offence against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated." And it's the little word "cover" that gives us great hope. Because that is the Hebrew word "kippur". And that little word is a word that will be used of the sacrifices in the OT which covered the price of human sin. Human sin needs to be paid for, so the sacrificial lambs covered the price of sin by their deaths. They died in place of the human beings, dealing with God's anger against human sin. But that little word also points us forward to the only way our sins could be truly covered or paid for. Because it was on the cross of Christ that all our sin was covered, all our sin was paid for, as The Lamb of God died in our place, bearing the guilt and punishment for all our acts of rebellion against the living God. And actually it is the cross which shows how seriously God takes human sin. Because it cost the death of God's own Son Jesus Christ.

So when it comes to your sin, do you sometimes worry that God will have you back? Do you worry that one day God will turn round to you and say, "I don't love you anymore". Well all you need do is come again to the cross of Christ, because it's there that the love of God is seen in full blown techno-coloured glory. Run away from your sin and run into the arms of the loving God who will never let you go. For it is he that has rescued us from the consequences of our sin. It's he that is rescuing us by his Spirit in our lives from the power of sin. And it is he that will one day rescue us from the presence of sin. Never ever underestimate the love of God.

So why is this passage here? Well like all parts of Scripture it is written to encourage us to trust in the promises of God and spur us on to live his way. And the lessons for us are clear. Never underestimate the lure of sin. Learn to hate your sin because it's very attractive and very serious. And never underestimate the love of God. "For I am convinced, says the apostle Paul, that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

  

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