A straight blow with a crooked stick
- Matthew 14:22-36
- Genesis 12:9-13:4
It happens slowly, gradually: we enjoyed the glow and presence of the God who called us out of darkness to his wonderful light. There was a time that we found ourselves on cloud nine: we cherished the goodness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ; we marvelled in the provision of the Lord, and our prayer life set the temperature for our daily walk with Him. We, almost romantically, expected of God provision for every day in every circumstance, and hardly did we let the opportunity go by to speak to Him and to speak to others about Him.
But then, slowly and gradually the glow seemed to become colder, our dedication and wonder for God’s grace declined. Our expectation of his provision faded, and our Christian walk became a drag and a tedious chore. The spark of trust and expectation have gone, and more and more we leaned on our energy to keep our relationship with God going, sometimes even feeling that it is all gone. Our prayer life halted, we found it difficult to speak about our Saviour, and our study of the Scriptures became dry and meaningless. We know our spiritual life has nothing more to offer than those who do not believe. It is just so dry within. And in these times we hear the constant charge of the Accuser that we have failed, and that following the Lord after all is not such a big deal. The effect of all of this is that we allow compromises in our life, and the world becomes an attractive place. We are now more inclined to let go of some of our dear-held principles.
To sum it up, we are not in a place where God wants us to be; we are exposed, vulnerable and spiritually fragile.
This is where Abraham found himself in the last part of Genesis 12. And in some way, this is where Peter found himself when he took his eyes off Jesus on that stormy night: he saw the wind, he was afraid and he began to sink.
The crooked stick
Abraham, a man like us
A brave move in faith
For some reason, we think Abraham must have been a very special person, even a sort of supernatural human being. But have we have seen last week, God saved him our of Mesopotamia where he was worshipping other gods (Joshua 24:2-3).
Yes, this is something in Abraham which makes us look up to him. When God called him to leave his country, his family and his father’s house, it took a special kind of obedience for him to back his bags and set out to a place where had he no idea about what it would be like.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8)
This land did not mean easy living: there were Canaanites there who were a hostile, war-hungry, devil worshipping, and child-sacrificing group of people. For Abraham then to build an altar to the God of glory who appeared to him in Mesopotamia right at the place of worship of the Canaanites is something we admire. This is the sort of thing God wants of his people: we need to brave to go out in this world to proclaim the wonders of Him who saves by grace. That’s why some leave home and loved ones go to places like Portugal, and others almost put their lives on the line to tell about Christ in our public schools.
A gradual shift away
But not long after we read about Abraham claiming the land in the Name of the God of glory, we hear about him setting out to the Negev, this is the southern parts of Judah, of which some were known to be desert-like. (Map) The Hebrew, if we would translate very literally, could sound like this: “Abram pulled up his tent pegs, and kept pulling up the pegs into the Negev.” It was a process; gradually he moved south.
I don’t think Abraham going south into the Negev was a such a sinful thing to do. He was still in the land which God promised to him. But there are two very important geographical markers in our text: in verse 8 he built a second altar to the Lord and worshipped Him there. Chapter 13:4 takes us back to this point, and Abraham once again worshipped the Lord; that’s the one geographical marker: the altar built to God where Abraham worshipped God. The second place which plays a role in this episode of Abraham’s life is Egypt – and we don’t read about Abraham worshipping God there. As a matter of fact, it is almost as if Abraham thought God is not in Egypt.
So, I think we need to focus on these markers to help us understand the story of Abraham.
A test of faith
Whilst in the Negev God allowed a drought to happen – not just and ordinary drought, the Bible says it was severe. Where Abraham found himself then there was a sort of a highway which ran north to south, from Damascus to Egypt. It was most probably here where Abraham heard that things looked much better in Egypt than in Canaan. It seems then that Abraham lent an ear to the rumours more than he would listen to the voice of God.
Point is, he thought had to do something: his existence was endangered because of the famine. He wanted to provide for his family. The man who trusted God earlier so much that he left everything behind for the sake of following God, now was in charge of his own plans. If we read Hebrews 11 correctly, he very well understood that going back to Ur or Haran was not the right thing. (Hebrews 11:15)
If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. (Hebrews 11:15, NIV)
So, Abraham must have been convinced that Egypt was the only option, but we don’t hear him speaking to God about it. In essence it was his idea to escape the famine. It was only later in his journey of faith that he learned to wait upon God.
Only temporary – “sojourn”
Abraham’s plan was not to leave Canaan permanently. The word for “live” in verse 10, comes from the Hebrew to live among people who are not blood relatives. It was not that Abraham gave up upon God’s promises, but, as we shall see in the rest of this series, Abraham sometimes understood them wrongly. Here he thought he had to step in and do something.
This is what happens when we slowly drift away from the presence of God and we think we need to step in for what seems like God is not with us. The problem of course is not that God is not with us anymore, but we are not with God anymore. Now we take things in our own hands. And it more often than not leeds to some sort of mess-up. Faith means trust; faith does not mean starting out in our own direction and then trust that God would follow. We might think that we are not moving away permanently or giving up on God’s providence, but the fact it we are moving away from Him.
Bargaining to save himself
Moving out of the Promised Land, Abraham is faced with a custom of the Egyptians: the Pharaoh had the first choice when it came to women. He held a huge harem out of which would pick and choose partners to give him children to secure his posterity. If you were married to a women, the marriage could annulled with you dying. If you were not married, the father or eldest brother would be given a handsome dowry and the women then became part of the harem. David had Uriah killed in the same way to get Bathsheba as wife.
Abraham and Sarah were actually half brother and sister (Genesis 20:12), but they were also married. For convenience sake when it was necessary he fell back on the “she-is-my-sister”act. A half truth is nothing else but a full lie. Abraham was extremely selfish: “Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” (Genesis 12:13). Maybe Abraham just could not work out that God honoured his marriage to Sarah and that both of them were important in the promises of God.
Abraham’s eye were not on God – he had to bargain for his future, and in the process is marriage, and God’s promise to give them children, were put at risk.
Unbeknownst to Abraham’s in his faithfulness God intervened. He kept their marriage from being desecrated, and inflicted the Pharaoh and his clan with serious diseases. Abraham’s half truth exposed his full lie: he and Sarah were married. The both of them were sent away in humiliation. They were not welcome even in the place they thought they would temporarily seek refuge. The chosen one of God faced the rebuke and a slap in the face by the world.
Their grand plan did not work out. It was a disaster. It was back to the drawing board for them, back to where they started to drift away from worshipping and trusting God. They journeyed back through the Negev. Not much is mentioned about his walk with the Lord until he got back to Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier; then we read, “There Abraham called on the Name of the Lord.” (Genesis 13:4)
Abraham is our father in faith, not because he was a hero. He is our father in faith because he was just like we are: there were times that he drifted away from God, he relied upon his own wisdom, he failed – but he learned from his mistakes. We should learn from him: life outside of the place where God wants us to be is doomed to fail, it is dangerous and precarious. We need to go back to our first love, there where we got to know God as He declared his promises to us, now true and fulfilled in his Sons, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. With our eyes fixed on the waves around us, in stead of on Jesus Christ, we are doomed to sink. Drinking from the cisterns of this world leads to spiritual thirst and starvation. A fountain cannot have fresh and brackish water; the water of this world does not satisfy – in fact, it causes diseases. So, lets go back to where we belong: at the altar where found grace, there where all the promises of God came true in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In Him we have an eternal promised land.
The straight blow
The Egyptians did treat Abraham well: he had been a wealthy man before all this happened, but now he got even more. But what he got more was nothing of his own doing. God bestowed it upon him. Not because he was disobedient as a form of reward for unbelief.
A precursor of salvation
We have to look at this episode in the light of the rest of the Scripture. Further in God’s dealings with his people He sent a famine in the Promised Land. This led to Jacob and his family of 70 souls to dwell in Egypt as sojourners. Then 430 years later God brought them out because He loved them and because kept his promise. In preparation for this mighty act of salvation Joseph was sold out by his brothers and was the reason for their survival, in the same way Jesus was sold out by his brothers to prepare salvation for us.
When they left Egypt, like Abraham, they left with the belongings of the Egyptians as God’s provision for them to survive the journey home.
A precursor to the cross
The story of Abraham is the story of man’s disobedience, but is also the story of God’s faithfulness. It is the story of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to not leave us completely fall when we lean on our own devises, but to provide for us on our journey home. It’s the story which points to Jesus Christ who remained faithful to the end, but was sent to the spiritual Egypt of this world to redeem us and take us home.
It’s the story which should be a warning to those who oppose God: don’t curse those whom God blessed; He will curse those who curse those who belongs to Him – all because Christ became the cursed One in our place. He is our only hope for salvation. In Him we will arrive home to call on the Name of our Father – forever!
Are we backslidden? Are we trying to work out our own thing? Are we where God wants us to be? If not, let’s go back to the altar of the cross, confess our sins, and follow Christ. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 27 July 2014