Abraham: Following God’s Promise 2 – Fear Versus Faith

This sermon was preached at St Thomas’ Church, Wednesfield, on Sunday 25 June 2017 as part of a series based on the study book ‘Abraham: Following God’s Promise’.


Genesis 12:10–20 (NRSV)

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. 17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” 20 And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.


Introduction

Last week we left Abram and Sarai in Canaan, the land God had promised them. But I said that the story wasn’t finished yet, and straight away we go on to them leaving the land God had promised to them.

Famine wasn’t unusual in the Middle East. Animals and crops depended on regular rain to stay alive, and in areas with few rivers and lakes so did people. And when famine came, Egypt was the place to go. Egypt already had a thriving civilisation by this time in history; the last of the Pyramids were being built around then. And that civilisation was based on the confidence that twice a year the Nile would flood to water the plains. Famines were rare there, and the land was rich. So Abram decided, probably with hundreds or thousands of others, to become a migrant.

A hard choice – and a wrong one

Now remember, Abram is a man who’s having to work out what it means to live faithfully as he goes along. There’s no Bible, no learned wisdom from older generations to tell him how to pray, what it means to rely on God or any of that. The people around him are still worshipping the gods of rivers and hills, and living in constant fear that the gods will forget about them if they don’t offer the right sacrifices – but not really expecting the gods to be involved in their daily lives. Abram doesn’t have the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit which we take for granted so much of the time.

So we don’t blame Abram for choosing to leave the dry, desert land that God had promised him to seek a safer place in Egypt. We probably shouldn’t blame him for not praying for rain, or for God’s guidance. But we can blame him for what happened next. It’s often the way that when we rely on our own judgement, we take a path that seems right at the time, but which leads to problems and worse decisions.

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

Sarai was obviously looking good for her age! I’m not going to get into the details of the consistency of the story, that’s not the point. The point is that Abram is willing to lie and to get Sarai to lie – because he’s afraid of the Egyptians. And he’s also willing to accept rich gifts from Pharoah as the supposed brother of one of the women of the harem.

We gave Abram the benefit of the doubt when we were talking about prayer and trust in God, but I don’t think you need much theology or Bible knowledge to realise that there’s something wrong with this picture – the great father of our faith living in luxury because Pharoah has fallen for his wife and thinks he’s looking after his new girlfriend’s brother. It would cause a scandal on Eastenders, let alone in church!

So God steps in.

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.” 20 And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

Often our fears are far worse than the reality

Often our fears, the fears that push us into making wrong decisions in life, are far worse than the reality will ever be. Pharoah is a better man than Abram expected. Abram was afraid that he would be killed because of Sarai’s beauty, so he deceived Pharoah and lived off that deception – we don’t know for how long. But for however long he lived there, how do you think he felt? What kind of dread must there have been that he would be found out? And Pharoah’s household suffered because of Abram’s lie. But even then, Pharoah didn’t have him killed. He didn’t even take back all he’d given him. He sent him back to Canaan richer than he’d been when he left.

How often have you found that the thing you feared turned out not to be nearly so bad as you expected? That someone you didn’t trust turned out to be a better person than you’d hoped? That someone of a different faith or of no faith showed more of the love and goodness we call ‘Christian’ than those who claim the name of Jesus for their own? I’m sure you can all recognise that at least once or twice in your life.

When we take a wrong road in life, to avoid something that we fear, more often than not we cause ourselves more problems and more fear than we would have had if we went the right way in the first place. That’s what Abram went through.

God’s faithfulness accompanies our efforts to be faithful

But God got Abram out of the mess he’d got himself into, and got him back on track. And he didn’t lose the promise God had made to him. God didn’t look at his sorry specimen of a disciple and decide to choose someone else through whom to save the world. He stuck with the man he’d chosen – and I’m sure hoped that he’d learned something through all of this. Abram goes back to Canaan richer than before – and relieved to be alive.

And there’s something else worth noting. This incident is never mentioned again in the Bible. Abram’s story comes back again and again as an example of faith, but once we’ve been told about it, his wrong turn into Egypt is never brought up again. God doesn’t hold our failures against us. So long as we come back to him, we may have to deal with the consequences of our mistakes, but we never have to carry their guilt and shame. God puts the past behind us when we set him in front of us.

So What?

So this week leaves Abram travelling back to Canaan. Where does it leave us? I’m going to suggest three things.

  • First, whenever you’re unsure which way to go in life, whether it’s a big decision or a smaller one, ask God to help you before you decide. Stop and pray, and then think, and be open to God guiding you in all sorts of ways. There’s no guarantee that you’ll hear him right, but you’ve got a lot more chance of receiving his guidance if, unlike Abram, you ask him for it.
  • Second, don’t let fear drown out faith when you’re deciding which way to go in life. If you’re avoiding doing the right thing because you can’t face someone yelling at you, or because it’ll cost you more up front, imagine Abram living in Egypt going to bed every night knowing that Sarai was in the harem, and terrified that the next day would bring the soldiers to arrest him instead of the postman with a new gift from Pharoah. I read somewhere the saying that ‘the coward dies a thousand times. The hero dies only once.’ For every lie you tell, you live in constant fear of the truth. Once the truth is spoken, you face the consequences free and then they’re done with. So do what’s right in the first place. You’ll save yourself a lot of pain in the long run.
  • And third, when you’ve messed up, and taken the wrong path, and even if your lies have caught up with you, don’t give up on yourself. God hasn’t given up on you. Remember that we’re told about Abram’s mistakes once, so we don’t need to be told about them again. He will still be the father of the faithful, the one in whose family all the nations of the earth will be blessed. We need to know he got it wrong, precisely so that we can see that when we get it wrong, God’s love and faithfulness don’t give up on us. If you’ve gone wrong, then ask God’s help to get back on track – and please talk to me or Rev’d Ness if we can help you trust in God’s love for you and get your life back on track.

It worked for Abram. It can work for you if you let God help. Amen.

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