Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 42, October 14 to October 20, 2007

Genesis 20

A Sermon




By Scott Lindsay



One of the strangest experiences in life is the experience of Deja Vu - which, I think, is French for "Hey.....wait a minute.... or something like that. However, you guys know what I'm talking about, right? Most of us, I am sure, can relate to this experience of suddenly finding yourself in a situation that seems so familiar and which you are certain you have experienced before. Moreover, when you're in one of those moments it is almost like you have hit some sort of time warp, and you feel like you're repeating some part of your life.

Well, I cannot say for sure what was going through Abraham's mind, but when I look at the passage before us this morning, I cannot help but wonder if at any point Abraham experienced something like that when he found himself in the situation described in chapter 20. Whatever the case, this "deja-vu" sort of story, this "do-over", and what it all means, is what we are looking at this morning.

Before we do, let's pray....

Father in Heaven, it is good to gather again around your Word this morning. Help us especially now as we hear this familiar story. Help us to respond well to this account that you preserved for your people and which, as a result, is important for us to hear and understand - even and especially when it is echoing other things we have seen. Would you please use THIS reading of your Word to accomplish your purposes in us and then through us? We ask this in Jesus' name, Amen.

(Read Genesis 20:1-18)

In the account before us this morning, Abraham is, once again, in what he feels is a fairly threatening situation, personally. Nevertheless, this is not the first time. If you have been with us from the beginning of this series on "The Life of Abraham" then all of this will probably sound pretty familiar to you. You may remember how very early on, in Chapter 12, Abraham was in an almost identical situation.

Moreover, if you recall, at that earlier story, Abraham had only recently come to the Promised Land, receiving his call to leave his homeland not too much before that. So, after wandering about the land for a brief while, Abraham found himself in the midst of a severe famine and was faced with the prospect of starving to death OR ELSE journeying outside the land of promise and into the land of Egypt where food and water were still in good supply.

However, as he thought about this, he became concerned. He was concerned because he was married to a very beautiful woman and, as a result, he was worried that someone would notice his wife's beauty and then plot to have him killed so that they might then have Sarah. And so it was that Abraham instructed his wife that whenever strangers inquired about their situation she was to tell them that she was his sister - not his wife.

Now, technically, saying she was Abraham's sister was true in that she was a half-sister to Abraham, but not a blood relation. Nevertheless, the obvious intent of Abraham's instructions on this matter was to deceive people and thus conceal his marriage to Sarah.

However, you may ask, what was the point of all this? Well, his thinking was most likely that people who believed that Sarah was only his sister would not feel the need to do him harm in order to have her for themselves. Instead, they would see her, as single and "available" and so would probably begin discussing and negotiating with Abraham for her hand in marriage. Moreover, should such negotiations begin, this would give Abraham time to get whatever things he came to get in terms of food and supplies, and then slip away before anyone could act on anything.

Now, when we looked at earlier and similar events in Abraham's life, we saw how his actions back then were indicative of his weak faith. To be sure, Abraham's faith was not always, or even usually weak. At times Abraham could be a great example, a model of faith and trust.

However, there seemed to be just as many times in his life where his faith was not exemplary at all. Abraham was also prone to showing great fear and doubt. That is what we saw in chapter 12 — Abraham showing his tendency - in difficult circumstances - to engage in deception and to rely on his own cleverness and his own ability to manage a situation, rather than depending on God to keep His Word and to fulfill His promises.

Now, as you may or may not recall, that self-reliance was one of TWO main problems with Abraham's plan of deception. The other problem was that Abram simply failed to take into consideration all the possible things that might happen. In other words, he just did not consider all the angles so that, in the end, his great plan was undone by the occurrence of things that he had not foreseen or hadn't counted on.

What was the result? His wife was taken from him anyway and the fulfillment of God's promises were then placed in great jeopardy until, in His mercy, God stepped in to undo the terrible consequences of Abraham's faithlessness. Thanks to God's intervention, Abraham got his wife back, and in the process Abraham was, I believe, humbled and rebuked by God's undeserved kindness.

Now, in looking back on that initial incident, we might be tempted to cut Abraham some slack. After all, he had not been "one of God's people" for all that long. He had not really seen God do anything amazing - not yet. The whole walking with God, trusting God thing was still pretty new to him. Perhaps.

Fast forward now from chapter 12 to chapter 20. At this point, a lot of time has passed for Abraham - over twenty years. In addition, a number of things have happened in his life. Beyond hearing the voice of God calling him to follow obediently and to trust, on a number of occasions, Abraham has experienced God's self-revelation in a number of other ways:

....He saw God deliver his wife from the hands of a powerful Egyptian ruler....

....He saw God use him - and his inexperienced and un-trained army - to defeat and completely rout the combined strength of four kings who were seasoned veterans of war

....He had a vision from the Lord and saw a manifestation of God - a theophany - as God took upon himself the obligations of the covenant that he had made with Abraham....

....God had changed his name, as well as that of his wife, and had given him the bodily sign of circumcision as a guarantee that he and his people were special to the Lord....

....God had appeared to him again - this time in human form, along with two angels — and had actually fellowshipped with him in his own tent and confirmed His promise to give Abraham and Sarah a son. Following that God allowed Abraham the great privilege of knowing in advance a small glimpse of his divine plans and purposes - and then received and heard Abraham's prayers in response to what had been revealed....

....Finally, Abraham had personally witnessed the awesome judgment of the Lord as He completely destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, on account of their wickedness....

Therefore, after all that has taken place, Abraham is in a completely different place than he was so many years before. God has shown himself to be good and powerful and wise and faithful in so many ways. Now here Abraham is, having come full circle, facing almost the exact same situation he faced years and years before.

Surely, Abraham's response now will be better. This time he will trust God. Surely, someone who has been through everything he has been through and who has seen what he has seen would be able to trust God in this relatively small thing of guarding and preserving the sanctity of his marriage.

Surely.

Well, you know what happened. Almost as if he is on autopilot, as if he has not learned a thing, as if He has not seen God come through time and time again, Abraham gets into another situation where he feels his safety is threatened on account of his wife and he immediately resorts to the same, tired, old tricks. He perpetrates the same old half-truth, puts his wife in harm's way, and once again drags third parties into his mess - all in an effort to protect himself.

I mean, you wonder if this man has learned anything, don't you? What sort of man of God is this - who after twenty plus years is still struggling with the same sins, still vulnerable to the same temptations, still capable of the same sort of faithlessness? Well before we respond to those questions, let's look back at the story for just a moment.

Abraham finds himself spending some time - "sojourning" - as the text says, in a place called Gerar, making it known to those who inquired that Sarah was his "sister". Somehow, word apparently gets back to the king of that region - a guy named Abimelech - that there is this older, yet still beautiful woman who has come into the land and she is not yet married, and is living with her brother.

So, Abimelech then did what kings back then were prone to do - if they saw something or as in this case, someone they wanted, they went after it. The next thing we know, Sarah is living with the king - for how long, we cannot say exactly. However, as we shall see in a few minutes, she may have been there for a good while.

Returning to the story......

Sarah is taken, and then God graciously comes to Abimelech and warns him of the danger he is in because he has taken another man's wife. In addition, Abimelech, to his credit, is shocked and flabbergasted to discover all this and pleads his innocence to God.

Then two interesting things happen. First - God acknowledges the integrity of this foreign king's heart in the matter - which is a pretty amazing thing for God to do. At the same time, God goes on to remind this same king that - his integrity notwithstanding - the fact that he did not know Sarah was married does not change the fact that he is still in possession of another man's wife and, as a result, is in danger unless he returns Sarah to Abraham. God then tells him that he should do this very thing and that, as a result, Abraham would pray for him and he would live.

Now, at first, that last bit seems somewhat odd. Why would God bother to work through and use the prayers of the very same guy that, by his foolishness, has caused all this trouble in the first place? I think the reason is so that Abimelech can see that, in spite of his faithlessness, Abraham is still God's man on the job and he is still favored by God, in spite of himself.

In other words, by telling Abimelech that he will have Abraham pray for him, God would have sent the strong signal that He was still with Abraham, which would have assured him a certain amount of protection and even respect while he remained among Abimelech's people.

We also learn through this interchange that even though Sarah has been with Abimelech for some time, there has apparently been no sexual relationship between them. Moreover, the reason there has been no sexual relationship is because God prevented it, as verse 6 says clearly. Now, we are not told precisely what form that intervention took but judging from what is said in verses 17ff, it is likely that the way that God protected Sarah in that situation was by providentially afflicting Abimelech with some sort of sickness or illness that made intercourse either undesirable or impossible.

Well, after God lets Abimelech know what is going on and Abimelech responds to God's Warning. There is then this confrontation between Abimelech and Abraham in which, basically, Abimelech is God's instrument of rebuke upon Abraham. Through the words of this foreign king, God rebukes Abraham for his wrong assumptions, his deception and his general faithlessness.

In response, Abraham tries to justify his actions in three ways - Firstly, by saying that he was acting on the assumption - untested, mind you - that the people of Gerar were no respecters of God (v11); secondly, by trying to skate by on a technicality - that Sarah was his sister (v12); and thirdly, by hinting that the real cause of all his trouble was God - After all, it was God who set him off on this little adventure in the first place, wasn't it? (V13).

Does this pattern sound familiar? Do you hear the echo of Adam and Eve's excuses in the Garden of Eden in any of this? I certainly do.

Well, anyway, after all this, Abimelech, who has already shown himself to be an honorable man, goes even further in taking steps to make restitution to Abraham and to vindicate the honor of Sarah in the public eye. After Abimelech does all this, Abraham prays for him and his people and God restores them and removes the curse that had been upon them up until that point.

So, that is what happens in chapter 20 - a very close parallel to the events of chapter 12. Moreover, it brings us back to the question that was raised previously: What sort of man of God is this - who when he gets into the same situation he had been in earlier makes the same mistakes? What sort of man of God is this who - after twenty plus years of seeing God's faithfulness — is still struggling with the same sins, still vulnerable to the same temptations, still capable of the same sort of faithlessness, still showing the same doubts? What sort of person does that?

A person like you. A person like me.

I would be very surprised to discover that there was a single person in this room who has been a Christian for five years or longer and who, in looking back on his or her own life, would not see some of the same sort of tendencies and patterns as you see here in Abraham. You have learned a lot in the years since you became a believer. You have seen God do a number of significant things in your life, and in the lives of others that you know.

Yet, it still seems, at times, that you have not made any progress at all. You find yourself responding to some situations with a discouragingly predictable pattern that is a combination of faithlessness and resignation and just plain rebellion. You find yourself being tripped up by the same sins that have tripped you up from the moment you first realized they were sins. Moreover, you wonder, sometimes, how it is possible that you can still count yourself as belonging to the people of God. You wonder how it is that, one day, you seem capable of trusting God in important ways and then, the next, your actions are seemingly as independent and self-reliant as those of your neighbors who profess no belief at all. Surely, those who truly know God do not have these struggles and behave in these ways.

Then you look at Abraham and you say - "Then again, maybe they do." Even more significantly, you look at Abraham and you see that not only are God's true people capable of great vacillation, but also that God's faithfulness and mercy are only that much more apparent in the midst of these things. In addition, I really think that, in the providence of God, that is a big part of what is happening here.

You see, almost as if on cue, right when all the waiting is about to be over, right when the long-promised, long-awaited son is about to be given to Abraham and Sarah we have this last incident which shows Abraham, once again, in all his weakness and humanity.

It is like this billboard that says, "By the way, before Isaac is born and before the big celebration gets started there, do not forget that this great blessing of God that has come to Abraham and Sarah is not there because Abraham is such an amazing guy. This is the same guy that still struggles to trust God. This is a guy who, even after everything that has happened, is still capable of relying on himself, more than God.

Yet, this same man, with all his vacillating faithfulness, is still God's man. He is still the object of God's faithful affections because that is the way that God loves and that is the way God is. He is faithful, even when his people are faithless, for he cannot deny himself.

Yet, while God's sovereign love for Abraham is certainly on display here, his parental love and concern for Abraham are also on display, in a couple ways. For one thing, God does not step in to prevent Abraham from making this same mistake all over again. Abraham's being one of God's people does not function like some sort of "amulet" or "good luck charm" that prevents him from messing up in big ways. I hear Christians today sometimes talking as if they believe they are immune from huge mistakes - but it apparently was not true for Abraham. I mean, Abraham really blows it here.

Then, once he has made the same mistake all over again, God does not immediately step in to rectify the situation, even though Abraham has once again jeopardized the fulfillment of the covenant promises.

If you look back at chapter 12, after Pharaoh took Sarah from Abraham, it seems like God visited plagues upon Pharaoh and his house pretty much straight away - leaving you with the impression that Sarah was not in Pharaoh's house for long before they worked out that something was seriously wrong. However, when you look at chapter 20, and you put the various pieces together, you get the idea that this second time around Sarah and Abraham were separated for a much longer period of time. How long, we do not know exactly, but judging from the curse that had been placed upon the house of Abimelech - the inability to conceive and bear children - then it would seem that it would have to have been long enough for people to work out that there was something going on in the whole fertility department, otherwise God's "healing" them of that particular curse, in verse 17, would not have meant anything. It would have had to be long enough for someone to say, one day, "Hey, have you noticed that nobody around here is getting pregnant? What is up with that?"

Therefore,, it seems like this second time around God gave Abraham a good bit of time to think about the consequences of his actions. And I can imagine that there were many nights when he lay down and stared at the stars - the same stars that earlier had been used by God to confirm his promises - and he would have cried out to God, perhaps recalling his earlier failure in just this same area.

It seems to me that somewhere in the midst of reaping the consequences of what he had sown, somewhere in the midst of all his wondering and watching and waiting and praying, somewhere in the midst of all that, God was working upon and shaping the heart of his wayward friend - preparing him for the greatest test of his life, soon to come, in chapter 22.

So, it is that through Abraham's life we see both realities - that God can and will and does step in to insure that his purposes and promises are fulfilled in and through and among his people. At the same time, we see the undeniable fact that God's people are not protected from the consequences of their actions - even when they are hard, and even when they endure for a considerable amount of time.

Yet, we see that even these things, harsh though they may seem, have a place in the grand mural of God's providence. We can see that God is faithful and merciful to his people, time and time again, even when they are tripped up by the same sins that they have tripped upon before. Even further, we can see, as I hope to show more clearly in a couple weeks time, that God is working even when we might think he is not, even when we might wonder if we are learning anything. Even at those times, God is molding and shaping and preparing his people, and teaching them faithfulness through brokenness.

Moreover, as he is teaching us faithFULness through our brokenness, we are rescued from despair by the knowledge that He has redeemed our faithLESSness by his brokenness, the brokenness of his Son, Jesus Christ.



This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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