A sermon by Steve Cooper
Good morning! The Bible is totally candid about the failings of those the Lord chose to be his servants. That’s a great encouragement for us. On first impressions many of the Lord’s servants described in the Bible seem like heroes. They trust in God and take steps of courageous obedience. But when we examine the account of their lives more closely we see how human they were. They struggled with weakness, failure and cowardice just like we do.
This morning let’s look closely at an incident in the life of Abraham. It was not an episode Abraham was proud of. It shows Abraham in danger, and failing badly. He deserts the path of faith, gives in to fear, and becomes self-absorbed. We can identify with Abraham’s weakness. We learn, along with Abraham, about the way of faith and the faithfulness of God.
Abraham is a man who began so well, but soon he faced a dangerous situation and failed to follow God’s ways. In Genesis 12 we’re introduced to him, and he’s portrayed as a great man of faith. The Lord calls Abraham to leave his country and friends, and travel to the land of Canaan. God gives him wonderful promises that the Lord will bless him, protect him, and bless the world through his many descendants. We admire the way Abraham responds with faith and obedience. He obeys without hesitation, and he worships the Lord. The text says ‘He built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him… There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord’ (Gen 12:7, 8). Abraham seems to have started so well. We have great expectations for this man.
Yet in the second episode of that same chapter, Genesis 12, we’re surprised by the unheroic performance of the hero. Soon Abraham encountered difficulties. The account says: ‘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’ (12:10). I’ve been to the southern parts of Israel, where Abraham was, and it’s dry and barren. A severe famine would be very hard to deal with. Abraham is discovering, early in his spiritual experience, that to be in the place of God’s appointment is not to be exempt from suffering.
Was it wrong for Abraham to go to Egypt when the Lord had promised Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan? Not necessarily. Abraham probably heard from travellers about the fertility of Egypt with the Nile Valley, so it was sensible to think of re-locating ‘for a while’. But it seems Abraham was only relying on his own ‘common sense’, his own reasoning and judgement. He didn’t pause to consult the Lord, who guides his servants. If he had stayed in the promised land he would have discovered that the Lord could provide for his people not only a land but also necessary food.
But as Abraham approached Egypt he became fearful and cowardly: ‘As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you”’ (12:11-13). Abraham was not trusting the Lord any more. He descended so quickly from faith to fear. His reasoning was self-centred. He had no awareness of the cruelty of his plans for Sarah – he hadn’t imagination about how it would be for her to be sold into a harem. Abraham now resorted to deceit in order to save his own skin. He told part of the truth, for Sarah was actually his half-sister (20:12) as well as his wife. But he wanted to conceal the full truth, which is deception. As it happened, the king of Egypt, the mighty Pharaoh himself, desired the beautiful Sarai and arranged for her to join his harem. Abraham didn’t have the courage to tell the full truth.
This morning we’re considering an incident in the life of Abraham. It shows Abraham’s failure. As he approached Egypt he became fearful that he might be killed by the Egyptians so Pharaoh could take his wife, Sarai, into Pharaoh’s harem. Abraham forgot to trust God. He gave way to his fears. He came up with a scheme to deceive the Egyptians in order to save his own life. He was cruel to his wife. Incidentally, he didn’t mind all the extra wealth and possessions from selling his own wife – so he was lured by material things as well as giving in to fear. The text tells us: ‘[Pharaoh] treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels’ (12:16).
The main problem for Abraham, though, was not his hunger, his fears and the lure of riches. His main problem was that he no longer believed the Lord’s promises. Earlier in the story when the Lord gave his promises to Abraham that Abraham will be father of a great nation, the Lord promised his protection to Abraham and his descendants: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse’ (12:3a). This is a promise of the Lord’s protection. If anyone tried to mess with Abraham and his descendants, the Lord will mess with them. Protection should be left in the Lord’s hands. The promise of God should have cast out fear of man. But no, Abraham couldn’t rely on God’s promise. He calculated that this situation of famine and fear calls for his own ingenuity. He had the Lord’s promise, but did not let it control him in his scary situation.
That sounds very familiar, doesn’t it! We all identify with Abraham at this point. We hear God’s promises, and we initially place our faith in the Lord. But when suffering and threat arises, we quickly forget the Lord’s promises. Jesus gives wonderful promises to his followers as they go out into difficult and dangerous places to represent him: ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul… Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows’ (Matt 28:28-31). These promises are a great reassurance to us all. Our heavenly Father cares for us. Each of us is valuable to him, and he notices every little detail in our life. We can trust a God like this – who is powerful and loving. He’s sovereign. He’s in control. We don’t need to be afraid.
Abraham was in danger. And the whole project of God was in danger too. The Lord had promised to make a great nation from Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, a nation that will inherit the land of Canaan. But Sarah is now in the harem of Pharaoh, and could become pregnant with a baby not from Abraham. Abraham is comfortably rich in Egypt, not in the promised land of Canaan. Abraham has lapsed from faith in his Lord. It’s at this point that the Lord intervenes. While Abraham may be a failure, the Lord is determined that by his power he will carry out his divine purposes.
Abraham failed badly, so the Lord intervened. The text says ‘The Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai’ (12:17). We’re not told what these serious diseases were, but they certainly got the attention of Pharaoh! Pharaoh summons Abraham and sternly rebukes him for not disclosing the full truth. There is no recorded answer or reply from Abraham – he is too ashamed of his cowardice and being discovered to give an answer. The final intervention of the Lord is to direct Pharaoh to order Abraham back to Canaan: ‘Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had’ (12:20). How humiliating for Abraham to be ‘sent on his way’ in such a public fashion! How embarrassing!
Abraham’s behaviour is humbling for us, as it was for him. We see our own weak faith in Abraham. As the old hymn writer expresses so well about his ‘wandering heart’: ‘Prone to wander, – Lord, I feel it, – Prone to leave the God I love.’ But what happens to Abraham also gives us hope. The Lord is faithful to his promises today, as he was then. The Lord is just as determined in our generation to act in power to make sure his plans succeed, even when his servants fail. The Christian church can be greatly encouraged that God’s plan and God’s kingdom will come because God will see to it and not because we are exemplary servants. One day people from every tribe, language and nation will worship Jesus the crucified Saviour and risen Lord (Rev 7:9) – they will be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:3).
There’s another reason why this second episode in the life of Abraham gives us hope. After his shame and humiliation, Abraham was able to turn back to the pathway of faith in the Lord: ‘So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev… From the Negev he … came to Bethel … where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord’ (13:1, 3-4). He returned to the place in Canaan were he had first ‘called on the name of the Lord’ (12:8). Abraham sought forgiveness for his failures. He was cleansed from his shame. His faith in the Lord was renewed. He had learned deep lessons.
It’s encouraging for us to know that when we fail to be people of faith, as we often do, there is a way for us to turn back to the Lord. We can come again to the foot of the cross, humbly acknowledge our failures, look to the mercy of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and receive from him grace and pardon. Perhaps this morning, as you reflect on Abraham’s failures, you’re ashamed of your own. You too have quickly forgotten God’s promises. You’ve not trusted God to provide for you. You’ve relied on your own reasoning, rather than consulting the Lord for guidance. You’ve given way to fears, and become trapped in temptations. Come to the Saviour now, admit your failings and sin, and receive from him the forgiveness and renewal which only he can provide. Ask him to strengthen your faith in him, to remind you of his promises when you’re in danger.
The apostle Paul described Abraham as ‘the man of faith’ (Gal 3:9). It’s true – Abraham believed God’s promises, trusted God, and obeyed God’s commands. But there were times when Abraham failed to follow the path of faith. Today we’ve thought about an incident early in Abraham’s journey when he was in danger, and he gave way to fears and cowardice. It’s an encouragement to us to know that when we fail God, as we often do, we can receive God’s forgiveness and learn profound lessons from our failures.
Let me pray: ‘Lord God, you call us to trust, love and follow your Son, the Lord Jesus. Give us courage to keep trusting, grace to keep loving, and strength to keep following. In your mercy, hear our prayer. In Christ’s name, Amen.