Last week we met a man who lived about 4000 years ago in a part of the world we now call Iran. His name — Abram — actually means “Glorious Father”…which has turned out to be a painful irony, because Abram’s wife Sarai is unable to make him a father.
But all is not lost, because: Abram has a nephew named Lot that he has adopted as his own son. So Abram’s family line is secure.
And, in fact, Abram’s family line is more than just secure: it is super-secure. And this is because one particular god has singled Abram out and made him three incredible promises:
If Abram leaves his father’s household, this god will make Abram a father over his own household.
If Abram leaves his father’s nation, this god will make Abram the father over his own nation.
If Abram leaves his father’s land, this god will make Abram the father over his own land.
Well, as we saw last week, Abram accepted the challenge. He took the risk: he packed up his wife and his adopted son, and he left his father’s house, his father’s nation, his father’s land, and he traveled several hundred kilometers to the west and south. And when he arrived in the land of the Canaanites, this god stopped him and said, “This is the land I am going to give you!”
So far, so good: Abram has taken this incredible step of faith. He has walked away into the unknown, following the voice of this strange new god —
— and the reason I say that this god is a strange new god to Abram is because Abram does not know yet that this god is actually the universal Creator God, the God of Noah, the God of Adam. Over the thousands of years since the flood the knowledge of the true God has been lost.
At this point in history, each nation has its own collection of gods. And even though these gods are all very different, they all have at least two things in common:
First, they are all local gods, attached to particular lands and geographical features. For instance, there is a god in that mountain over there, a god in this tree over here, a god in this river or in that strange black rock. Each god has the power of life and death in its own territory — but their power is very very localized.
Second, these gods all rule their territories as tyrants. Their universal message is: “You give us sacred snacks, you sacrifice your animals to us — you sacrifice your children to us — and maybe we bless you.”
But this new god who has reached out to Abram is the exact opposite:
First, he does not appear to be a local god. Abram was living in Chaldean territory, where only the local Chaldean gods had the “right” to talk to him and demand his worship. But somehow this strange new god managed to skype Abram from some other territory, some other land, and say, “Hey, I want you to come and worship me in my land.” Very, very unusual.
Second, this god does not appear to be a tyrant. He has not demanded sacred snacks. Instead he has said, “Listen, come, join me in my land, and I will feed you! I will give you children! In fact, I’ll make you the father of your own nation and land!” Very, very unusual.
So to Abram, this god is a strange new kind of god: strangely powerful, and yet strangely kind and gracious.
No wonder he took this step of faith!
But now, here he is, in the land of Canaan. And it is not quite — perhaps — what he expected it to be. Because now there are a whole new collection of local gods, all worshiped by the local peoples. And ordinarily, in those days, when you moved to a new land, you had only two real options:
Option 1: you asked the local people how to make friends with their local gods, and then you did that. And you hoped and prayed that the local gods took a liking to you even though you are technically a foreigner who belongs to another god.
Option 2: you carried your gods with you from your homeland, you set them up in your new homeland, you fed them really really well — to help build up their strength — and then you hoped and prayed that your gods were strong enough to conquer the local gods.
So far, Abram has chosen Option 2. Last week we saw him camp next to the sacred tree at Shechem. But instead of worshiping the local god of that tree, he set up an altar to his new god. That was a declaration of war, spiritually speaking.
Then we saw him move on and campe between two cities: Bethel and Ai. Later on in Genesis we discover that there is also a sacred tree at Bethel; and both of these cities are on mountains. But instead of worshiping those local gods, Abram set up an altar to his new god: another declaration of war.
Then, the last we saw Abram, he was moving even further south, into the Negev desert. And in those days the desert was a place haunted by a variety of local gods and evil spirits. But does Abram worship them? No he does not.
Abram is trusting that this strange new god is powerful enough to conquer the local gods of Canaan.
But then, verse 10 happens: 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.
In those days, local gods used whatever local weapons they had to punish people who did not worship them properly. Mountain gods would use landslides. River gods would use floods. And the local gods of Canaan loved to use famine to punish their people.
Canaan — the modern land of Palestine — can be very fertile country…if it gets enough rain. But if the rains stop…starvation very quickly follows. And climatologists have discovered that over the last 10,000 years the land of Palestine has experienced several massive multi-century climate changes. Meaning that the land of Canaan would get plenty of rain for 500 or 600 years at a time, and be extremely fertile and rich — and then would suddenly experience several centuries of drought.
And archaeologists have confirmed that a massive 300-year-long drought cycle did begin approximately 4000 years ago — right around the time Abram arrived in Canaan. Which explains why drought and famine play such a large part of the rest of the story of Genesis. It also explains why, when Joshua led the people of Israel back into the land, they found it to be extremely rich and productive: because Canaan at that time — 600 years after Abram — was in the middle of one of its fertile cycles.
But climate change is how we would explain why the rain stopped falling.
For Abram — and for all the Canaanites — this was a sign that the local gods were angry. Maybe they weren’t getting enough snacks. Maybe they weren’t getting enough child sacrifice. Or, maybe, a foreigner from Chaldea has recently moved in and started setting up altars to a foreign god. That could make the local gods angry, don’t you think?
So for Abram to move even further south, into Egypt…this is actually very spiritually significant. For us, when we read this, we think, “Well, of course! It’s just common sense for Abram to move to where the food is.”
But for Abram, this is not just common sense…this is an act of unbelief. Disappointment. Defeat. He stepped out in faith. He set up altars. He declared war on the local gods, trusting his strange to new god to conquer the land like he promised — !
Instead, it seems, this new god is not as strong as advertised. He promised to bless Abram with a family, a nation, a land! — but here he isn’t even powerful enough to make it rain and bless Abram with food.
Abram’s great journey of faith is over. He crawls away south into Egypt, where at least the gods of the Nile River are powerful enough to fertilize the land properly every year. There is no famine in Egypt!
 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.”
Now, do you realize these are the first words that Abram speaks in the bible?
And it’s really rather sad! Because this man is destined to be the father of our faith. You’d think Moses would want to make his first recorded words some kind of stirring speech on trusting God or something! — not these pathetic self-preserving instructions to his wife.
But Moses, as always, is trying to direct our gaze toward God, not toward men. He wants to make sure we all understand that Abram does not become a great man of faith because he was a great man to begin with. He becomes a great man of faith by God’s grace alone.
And we can see from Abram’s words here that he has completely lost faith in his god’s protection. He has decided to manipulate the truth for his own protection — and, perhaps, even for his own advancement. In other words: Abram has returned to the habits of his previous life. He is beginning to build his own “city”, his own system centered around the preservation of himself. He needs to make friends with the local people, so he can make friends with the local gods, so he can survive.
And step one of his building project is to make the Egyptians think that he is Sarai’s brother.
Why? Western commentators have really struggled to explain this over the last few centuries, but I have found that my Arabic-speaking friends understand Abram’s plan at once: in many Middle Eastern cultures, even today, if you want to marry a girl, the best way to get her father’s approval is by making friends with her brother: giving him rich presents, taking him out for drinks, etc., etc. And if her father is dead, then you definitely need to get on her brother’s good side.
So Abram is thinking that if he shows up as Sarai’s husband, they’ll just kill him and steal her. But, if he shows up as Sarai’s brother, then this will give the local guys hope that they might be able to make friends with Abram and get his permission to marry her through legal means.
Now, to be clear: Abram is not going to say yes, of course! But by stringing these guys along — by letting them think, “maybe, maybe not, maybe next year, maybe if we give him a few more presents” — well then Abram might have a chance of being “treated well” for her sake! He might even make up some of the wealth he no doubt lost when he had to make his emergency escape from the famine.
It’s a good plan!
And it works! — at first:  When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman.
It is happening just as Abram predicted: his life is being spared.
But then someone makes him an offer he cannot refuse:  And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace.
And in the original language this last phrase means that Pharaoh is now sleeping with with Abram’s wife. Technically speaking, Sarai is now committing adultery.
But, actually, the truth is she had no choice. Her own husband forced her into adultery through his own scheming. And when we talk about women having no choice, women being forced a sexual relationship with a man, well…we have a technical term for that also: we call that rape.
Now, no doubt Sarai made the best of a bad situation. There is no indication that Pharaoh stole her: Abram gave her away. There is no indication that Pharaoh had to physically assault her: Sarai submitted to whatever had to happen. But still: this was a violation, a profound violation of Sarai’s personhood.
But hey! The rest of the plan is working out perfectly:  He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.
Abram is getting all the wealth he could possibly want, while his wife pays for it. Yay!
And up until this point in the story Abram’s strange new god has seemed strangely uninvolved.
But…then again: maybe not so strangely. Because, after all, since this god apparently failed to conquer the gods of Canaan and prevent the famine, it makes complete sense that he would have no power at all against the extremely powerful gods of Egypt.
 But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai.
So…apparently Abram’s strange new god is actually extremely powerful. He is able to do whatever he wants even in territory ruled by other gods! And that’s great! — but it also leads us to think some troubling thoughts.
For instance: this suggests that this god of Abram’s could have stopped the famine back in Canaan…but he did not.
It also suggests that he could have stopped Abram’s scheming; he could have stopped Sarai’s violation…but he did not.
And that is deeply troubling, isn’t it?
We are going to have to come back to those thoughts later…
But in the meantime, Pharaoh’s wise-men — his bomoh, his shamans — have figured out why these diseases are happening and which god is causing them.  So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!”  Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.
There is a painful irony at work here: Abram assumed the worst about the Egyptians and their culture. He assumed that they were murderers and rapists, that adultery would be no big deal to them.
It turns out that Pharaoh has a higher ethical standard that Abram does. At the very least he has a greater respect for the power of Abram’s god than Abram does!
It also turns out that Pharaoh is the first man in the story of Abram to preach the Word of God with his mouth. At the beginning of Abram’s story, while he was still living in Iran, God spoke to Abram and said, “Go! You don’t belong here! Go to the land I will show you.”
Now Pharaoh repeats God’s word to Abram: “Go!” And his soldiers basically escort Abram to the border and throw him out.
God is scolding Abram: “Son, what are you doing here in Egypt? Is this the land I showed you? Is this the land I promised to your offspring? I don’t think so! Now: go!”
 So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him.  Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.  From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier  and where he had first built an altar.
There Abram called on the name of the Lord.
Oh! What a traumatic journey! And just to end up back in the same place? — back in the valley between Bethel and Ai, beside that altar he had built in those first enthusiastic days of his faith…
It feels like a total waste. Why didn’t Abram just stay where he was? Why didn’t he just continue to trust God?
Even more importantly: why did Abram’s god allow him to leave in the first place? Think about how much agony could have been avoided if only Abram’s god had done his job and stopped Abram from arranging his own wife’s molestation. Why didn’t Abram’s god save Sarai?
Those are really hard questions to answer.
In one sense it is easy to point out that it wasn’t a total waste. Abram has returned to his land. He has returned to his faith that his god can and will conquer the gods of Canaan. Abram is now a different man. Sadder, but wiser. More mature in his faith. He has learned some important lessons!
But at what cost?
And who really paid for Abram to learn these lessons?
On a larger, literary level, the point of this story is to show that God meant it when he said, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse…” This would have been a great comfort for the people of Israel during their time in Egypt. In fact, this story is meant to be a preview of the exodus: God’s people are in trouble, God sends plagues, Pharaoh finally says, “Go,” his army “escorts” them to the border, and they come out carrying the wealth of Egypt with them…
And that is all very cool, of course, if you’re a literary nerd like me.
But if God’s point was just to turn Abram’s life into an object lesson for ancient Israel…that seems a little heartless, doesn’t it?
The good news here is that God’s point was not just to provide his future people with an object lesson. God does care for Abram personally, and for Sarai.
But that just leads us back to where we began: if God cared so much, why didn’t he just provide rain in the first place?
So let’s seriously wrestle with this: why did God allow this to happen? He has the power to completely protect Abram and Sarai from every possible danger all the time. Why does he not use it?
This is why: Abram is more seriously messed up than we give him credit for. He needs some serious work done on his heart. As we noticed last week, he is still mostly Chaldean, mostly Babylonian. He is still mostly an idol-worshiper. Which means that when trouble comes, his heart instinct is not to trust God, his heart instinct is to take control and fix the problem himself.
That is the behaviour we are seeing on display here, in this story.
And the thing is, in order for God to do that serious work on Abram’s heart, he needs to bring this sinful behaviour up to the surface so that Abram can see it, see the damage that it does, and repent of it.
God could have used his power to provide enough rain. Then Abram and Sarai would have lived happily ever after in that valley between Bethel and Ai, perfectly safe and well-fed beside the altar Abram had built. But let me tell you what would have happened: their faith would have remained an external faith, a ritualistic faith, a legalistic faith. And then Abram would have become a very arrogant and self-righteous person, because it is easy to “have faith” when everything is going well! He would have died and shown up before God on the day of judgement saying, “I am a good man! See how I worshiped you faithfully at that altar every day of my life?” And then God would have had to say to him, “You only worshiped me faithfully because I made it easy for you, and apparently all you’ve learned from that experience is how to praise yourself!”
God loves Abram. He loves Sarai. He does not just want to transform their external worship, he wants to transform their heart worship. He wants a deeper father/child relationship with them. So he withholds the rain. He brings famine. Not as a petulant punishment like the Canaanite gods, but as a test. A test designed to reveal to Abram just how much — and just how little — progress he has actually made in his faith. A test designed to let Abram wander away into the darkness and then bring him back changed and ready to worship at a deeper level.
Now: that is the truth of what happened here, and why God did it this way.
That’s still difficult to accept, though, isn’t it?
I mean, intellectually, we get that God works all things together for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. And, um: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Yes, of course! God is God, and we are very short-sighted, we get that.
But, emotionally, when we take an honest look at what happened to Sarai because of Abram’s faithlessness — the cost of these lessons just seems too high!
And honestly, friends, this is a matter for faith. We are not going to be able to reason our way to explaining why it was worthwhile for Sarai to be dishonored. And — very honestly now — it is better for us not to try to explain it. I can assure you that it is a very bad idea to tell a woman who has just been violated, “Well, I’m sure God has planned for something good to come out of your experience…” Don’t do that! It may be true! but that is the kind of truth only the Spirit of God can properly reveal to a person’s heart.
God alone determined that it was worthwhile for this to happen to Sarai. God alone counted the cost. We cannot. And so, ultimately, our faith cannot be in understanding why God does what he does, our faith must be in who God is.
That is really what Abram and Sarai are learning here. They are both very young in their new faith. They grew up with gods that are harsh and demanding, and so it is really hard for them to believe that their strange new god really is the God who keeps his promises to his people in every land, in every time, in every circumstance. It is really hard for them to believe that this God loves them as a gentle father loves his children. But they need to know this. They need to discover this.
Because if they do not discover that their God loves them as a gentle father, their faith will not survive. They will turn to either legalism or bitterness. They will turn to thinking that if they can be “good enough” then God will keep bad things from happening to them. Or they will reject this god and try to make friends with the local gods of Canaan instead.
The only way for their faith to survive the events God has planned for them…is for them to discover that God loves them. But in order for them to discover that God loves them…they have to pass through the events God has planned for them.
It is a bit of a mind-bender for us. But God is God. And we are very short-sighted.
But as short-sighted as we are, we still get to see further than Abram and Sarai did. We have the advantage of knowing the end of this story. And I am not going to say that this makes Sarai’s violation “worth it” — that is God’s business alone — but do you realize that Sarai is actually the hero of this episode? She is actually the messiah in this story.
Abram leaves his faith. Pharaoh sins. And because they are men with authority over others, the consequences of their failures roll downhill and damage the people who are supposed to be under their care.
Sarai alone keeps the faith. It is through Sarai’s submission that Abram’s life is saved. It is through Sarai’s submission that Abram is blessed and leaves Egypt an extremely wealthy man. She is the only one here who does not act in a Babylonian self-preserving fashion. She is the only one here who gives up her life for the sake of those she loves.
And scripture tells us that, because of her faithfulness, she received a full reward from the hands of her Heavenly Father: she becomes the mother of our faith, as just Abram is the father of our faith.
I know: we are not used to thinking about it like this! — because we tend to focus on Abram — but Sarai’s journey of faith is just as important as Abram’s. It is just as important for her obedience to be tested as for Abram’s.
And, as we have already noticed, she is the only one in this episode who passes the test.
And that makes her a type of Christ for us. More than 2000 years later, a boy is born in a small village about 15 kilometers away from Abram’s altar at Bethel. This boy is a distant descendant of Sarai’s, and he turns out to be the Messiah, the Son of God. And just like Sarai, he submits to degradation, violation, dehumanization. He gives up his life to save the lives the those he loves. And he receives a great reward from his Father: he is raised from the dead, given a body that cannot die, and then crowned king over all creation. And because he is a man with authority over others, the benefits of his obedience roll downhill and bless the people who are under his care.
So: what does this mean for us? What is our application?
Are we supposed to say, “Okay: Sarai was faithful, and she was rewarded. Therefore, I need to be faithful so I can be rewarded”?
Mmmmm…that is a tempting application.
But, technically that is Chaldean thinking. That is the voice of small, local gods, saying, “You feed us, you serve us, and maybe we bless you.”
The God of Abram — the God of Sarai — is different. He says, “I feed you first. I bless you first. I love you first! And then you love me.”
See, our role in history is very different from Sarai’s.
She was called to become the Mother of the Promise. So her faith in God had to be tested and tried and proven to be true. And because her faith was true, she received this reward of being the mother of the line that leads to Christ.
But we are called to be the children of the Promise. We are the line that leads from Christ. The New Testament says we are Sarai’s children. Which means that we are the ones who receive the reward she earned by her faithfulness. We receive the benefits of her obedience, which ultimately led to Christ.
In other words: Sarai was faithful, and so she was rewarded. But we are rewarded, and so we are faithful.
Okay: so we do not have to earn the blessing of being the children of God…
But if that is true, then why do we suffer? Why does God still test our faith with hardships?
Why doesn’t God use his power to keep us from sinning and hurting those who are closest to us?
Well, even though our role in history is very different from Abram’s and Sarai’s…still, as people, as human beings, we are all very much like Abram and Sarai. We are all more seriously messed up than we give ourselves credit for. When life is good, we find it easy to “trust God”. But when trouble comes, when we don’t get what we want, then the true idols of our heart are revealed. We try to take control back from our Father, and we quickly get into terrible trouble.
And as painful as that process is…it is the only process by which we can come to see how messed up we are, and how much we need our Father to save us from ourselves. It is the only process by which we can discover just how wide and long and high and deep is our Father’s love for us.
So, very practically now: what does this mean?
Well, today is a baptism Sunday for us. We are receiving new members into our covenant family. This is a great day! It’s like a wedding day: a day of new beginnings.
And that’s the point: this is just the beginning of a story that is going to go on for all eternity. And in the interests of full disclosure, scripture is showing us that the early days of a marriage, the early days of a relationship, can often be the hardest. And that is true of joining a new faith and joining a new church family as well.
There is always some kind of honeymoon period, where we are like Abram: setting up bold new altars, declarations of war against our sins, the determination to live differently. We often find that prayers are answered in unexpected ways; we often find ourselves growing and changing in unexpected ways; we often find ourselves enjoying this deep spiritual sense of our Father’s presence…
And then the hard times set in. The newness wears off, the real work of building relationships sets in, and to our shock we discover that we are not going to live happily ever after with God or our spouse or kids or church or whatever — at least, not for a while. And so it is a very common experience for us to enter into what feels like a long, dry time of famine where it seems as if God is nowhere to be found.
And that is when we usually look back at the beginnings of our faith and mourn what we have lost. We begin to wonder what we are doing wrong. We wonder if God is punishing us for something, or if maybe he is not actually strong enough to care for us like he promised. And that is when we discover that our faith is not as strong as we thought it was at first. And that is when the old habits — that have been sleeping inside us during the honeymoon period — wake up refreshed and stronger than ever! And that is when we wander off and get into trouble.
Friends, it is very important that we all understand: this is going to happen. It is unavoidable. Our faith is going to be tested, and we are going to fail the test. We are going to respond sinfully. And then we are going to come to our senses and look around at the damage and say, “Why didn’t God stop me? Why didn’t God rescue me before the damage was done instead of after?” Sometimes it is going to feel like the cost is just too high.
When these moments come, friends, let’s do this: let’s remember Sarai. She paid a terrible price for her husband’s sins. She was, in effect, sold into sexual slavery. God redeemed her, but as we’re going to see: her situation does not improve for a long time. She does not receive the reward for her faithfulness at once.
But it does come. Sarai’s God is faithful to keep his promises: she gives birth to a son, the son of her own husband Abram. And that son was the first in a long line of chosen sons that led to the Messiah, Jesus, who gave his life to redeem all mankind from slavery…including Sarai. And so, in the end, God paid Sarai back: he took her shame and her dishonor and he raised her up to be the honoured mother of our faith.
And what this means is that, ultimately, Sarai did not pay for Abram to learn these lessons. She bore the debt for a while, but then Christ himself lifted it from her and paid on her behalf.
He has done the same for us. We do experience real weight, real grief, scripture does not minimize that. But what we have learned from the mother of the Promise here is that, in Christ, everything we have lost, everything that has been taken away from us, will be returned — with so much more!
So, friends, as you are baptized into our faith, as you join our church family, what you are doing is building an altar here. You are setting up a signpost and a reminder that you belong here, you belong to God, we belong to one another. Remember this day, remember the reality of your baptism, because — like Abram and Sarai — you are going to have to return to this altar many times. You are going to have to refresh your memory and be reassured that, yes, you really are loved.
That can be frustrating. Many times we feel like, “Oh, I’m back here again? What a total waste! I’m not making any progress at all!” So let me close with this encouragement: that’s not true. We are making progress. And over the years to come we are going to find that, like Abram and Sarai, every time we circle back around to this altar our faith is just a little bit stronger, our love for God just a little bit deeper, and our worship just little bit more true.
So let’s do that now.