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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Abraham in the Wild (Genesis 21.22-34)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
March 11, 2012
Some Music Used
Prelude: "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me" (Billingham)
Song of Praise: "All I Have is Christ" (Jordan Kauflin)
Hymn of Response: "O God of Bethel, by Whose Hand" (Public Domain)

Offering of Music: "Behold the Lamb" (Getty,Townend)
Hymn of Sending: "O Great God" (Bob Kauflin)
Postlude: "Fugue in F Major" (G.F. Handel)

Abraham in the Wild
Text: Genesis 21:22-34

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we return to our series in Genesis 21-22, which will take us all the way to Easter. We took a break last week while I was away, and I thank Quay Youngblood for preaching in my absence. I continue to be amazed and blessed by the people God has raised up and equipped in this church to preach and teach so faithfully!

So we are picking up the story in Genesis 21. We began there two weeks ago, with the story of Hagar and the God who heard and ministered to her, even away from the chosen family of Abraham. We were reminded that God’s mercy, grace, and mission are not limited to what we carry on within the walls of the church, but indeed, God is constantly at work “out there” to redeem the world He loves. And as followers of God, through Jesus Christ, we are to share God’s character and be a people who see, a people who hear, and a people who speak and live out the hope of Christ in the world.

Today the story shifts back to Abraham and Sarah, the “in-crowd” if you will. They are the chosen people at the heart of God’s covenant. And yet we find them not yet at home in the land God will show them. We find them struggling, not for the first time, to interact with, make peace, and do right by the people out in that wild world “out there.” So I want to look at their story with you and then consider what we may learn as we seek to be God’s people in the wild world out there. 

The Covenant Promises (all of them)

Let me briefly remind you of the covenant promises God made to Abraham. They were for land, descendants, and blessing. At this point in the story, though Isaac is the only child by Sarah and still a boy, Abraham and Sarah understand through his miraculous birth that God is indeed being faithful to the covenant promise of children and descendants. Abraham and Sarah have more than once experienced the blessing of God to deliver, guide, and prosper them. And they are more or less getting to the place God will show them, though they keep getting bumped about by this and that circumstance.

So far, so good, right? All they need to do is get to the Promised Land, make a home, and draw in to fully experience God’s blessings. But wait, is there more to the covenant? Yes – there was that last bit, connected with God’s blessing. Abraham and his soon-to-be many descendants are indeed to have a land and God’s blessing… but they are the recipients of all that in order to BE a blessing to the world. How often that gets left out! Abraham and his family were not blessed to withdraw from the world, but to be a witness and blessing to the world.

Remember that as we remember two failed efforts to interact with the wild world out there and then as we look at this third more faithful response in Genesis 21. 

Out in the Wild World: Last Time(s), Genesis 12, 20

Abraham had at least two run-ins with the wild world out there prior to this chapter. Back in Genesis 12, he and Sarah had just reached the land God showed them when a famine drove them out and down to Egypt. Realizing that passing through Egypt as a foreigner was risky, he told Sarah (then Sarai) to pose as his sister, hoping that it would go well for him and he might live. (Genesis 12:13) Indeed, Pharaoh saw her and treated Abraham (Abram) well for her sake. Then God struck Pharaoh and his house with a plague because he took Sarah in, and the lie was uncovered. Pharaoh sent them on their way. Did Abraham do right? Not at all; he lied (or at least told a half-truth; Sarah was related to him) to save his skin. Curiously, God protected him anyway, not because of the lie, but in spite of it.

Apparently, Abraham did not take this as a lesson to be learned because he tried the exact same ruse some time later, when he had a run-in with Abimelech, King of Gerar, in Genesis 20. Again, he claimed Sarah was his sister (Genesis 20:2) and Abimelech took her in to his house. This time God came in a dream and told Abimelech the truth – that she was a married woman and his life was at risk. Abraham’s lie was wrong and potentially devastating all around. God intervened to protect Abraham and Sarah, as well as Abimelech and his household.

Now, in Genesis 21, Abraham has another run-in with Abimelech. It’s not a pretend-your-wife-is-your-sister kind of situation, but it remains to be seen how Abraham will interact when he has to play by the world’s rules and the culture of the day. 

Out in the Wild World: a Second Chance

Now Abimelech knows Abraham from the lying about Sarah incident in chapter 20. When God came to Abimelech in the dream, not only did God reveal the truth and spare his life and Sarah’s honor, but God told Abimelech that Abraham was a prophet. So Abimelech gave Abraham respect and a wide berth, knowing that he had God’s favor.

What happens in chapter 21 is that Abimelech comes to strengthen the relationship with Abraham, no doubt for his own good and favor, recognizing (as he says in v. 22) that “God is with you [Abraham] in all that you do.” So look at verse 23, at what Abimelech asks of Abraham:
“Now therefore, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me and to the land in which you have sojourned.”
Do you see the irony of that? Abraham has lied to Abimelech and put his honor and family at risk by doing so, and yet God has nonetheless accomplished the covenant blessing of the world through Abraham’s failings, lies, and sin! Abimelech recognizes God’s blessing on Abraham and calls HIM to relationship, truthfulness, and integrity.

And Abraham swears to it – to truth, relationship, and integrity. So I sure am relieved, in the very next verse, to see Abraham live up to that promise! In truth (if not grace), he “complains” to Abimelech about not being able to access a water well. Honestly, Abimelech comes off looking like the much better of the two in this exchange, but look what that grudging, complaining honesty leads to… Abraham gives sheep and oxen to make a binding covenant between them. Abraham establishes the relationship and the honesty according to the custom of the land.

And then he gives seven ewe lambs as a gift for clearing the air about the well. It seems as though Abraham, through the prodding of Abimelech and the Lord, finally does what is right and then some.

And finally, Abraham plants a tamarisk tree – one that needs water, provides shelter and sometimes food, and requires years to mature – as a visible and living testament to the covenant relationship between them.

What a strange, seemingly backward, and grace-filled story! 

Lessons Learned?

What can we take away from that? Quite a bit, I think.

First, God’s heart is for the world. Don’t ever let that get side-tracked or shuffled away. Yes, God’s regular pattern has been to call together some as His people, but always for the sake of the world. Abraham was blessed to be a blessing; Israel was God’s chosen people as a witness to the world; the Church is called together, as Jesus prayed in John 17, not OUT of the world, but TO the world. Our holiness is not an “out of” or “away from” separateness, but an “in but not of” distinctness, as demonstrations of and pointers to the goodness and glory of God.

Second, oh but there is godly mercy and grace all over this story. And it hits so painfully close to home. How often have we, as Christians, gone out into the world demonstrating everything but our holy distinctiveness. Like Abraham, we have lied, cheated, and manipulated, when the very honor, safety, and reputation of our worldly neighbors is at stake. And without letting Abraham or us off the hook at all for such behavior, did you hear God’s mercy in this story? God protected Abimelech, the pagan king, from Abraham’s lie. God revealed to Abimelech, the foreign adversary, the calling of Abraham as prophet of the Lord. God even prompted Abimelech, the enemy, TO REACH OUT TO ABRAHAM for relationship. Merciful God, if that isn’t convicting and reassuring all at once, I don’t know what is.

Where does that leave us, as God’s called and chosen witnesses? It leaves us without excuse for hiding away in Christian enclaves and subculture. It also calls us to the carpet for our public behavior and integrity as we move through our day to day lives. What so much of American Christianity has turned into is a once or twice a week club of false perfection, belied by our behavior and “witness” the rest of the time. What God demonstrates through Abraham and Abimelech is our mission to the world in truth and with consistency, dependent on the grace and mercy of God.

Abraham finally rose to the challenge, when called out before God. We must do no less. God is our witness – we are called to the world for God’s sake and God’s glory.

It is no wonder to me, then, that the next chapter, which we’ll look at in the coming weeks, explores, tests, and refines Abraham’s obedience to the Lord. We’ll pick up with that next week. For now, we are sent out in God’s name, in God’s love, and with God’s grace and truth. Amen.

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