Inspired by Dude Perfect, a grandson asked if I believed he could bounce a ping pong ball across a row of kitchen stools and into the basket at the end. Did I believe he was able to do it, or did I believe it was simply possible? Turns out, both were true, though truth to tell, I only believed it was possible.
There’s this same sort of tension for me in believing God. I believe in his bringing about a happy ending for me in heaven, but do I believe that “all things work together for good” on earth when it looks like things are getting worse? I believe he hears my prayers and cares, but do I believe it when the good thing I ask him for doesn’t happen for most of my years?
Can a person believe God and fail to believe him, too?
Today’s passage in Genesis shows both Abraham’s great faith and great failure of faith. Sometimes I wonder why God doesn’t dress up the stories of the people in the Old Testament, like Abraham’s, to make them sound better, to give us a better example of faithfulness to follow.
And then I remember that the Bible isn’t a storybook about great people to try to be like. It’s a story of God’s great love, poured out on broken people who continually fall short and still, are forgiven and fathered by him. It’s the story of regular people who are caught up in the story God is telling of seeking and saving mankind for a love relationship with himself.
Take this story of Abraham and Sarah, for example. God gives this barren couple the promise of more descendants than they can count, more blessings than they can imagine, and miles and miles of verdant land for a brand new nation. He confirms his promise of this covenant with them more than once, even using the contract signing ceremony of that day to seal the deal because Abraham asks for reassurance, (for that story, see https://iwantmore.blog/01/06/21/a-tale-of-two-citizens/).
But because God takes his time bringing this covenant to literal life–the son God’s promised isn’t born for another 25 years–Abraham and Sarah figure out how they can make it happen using Hagar, Sarah’s servant, as a surrogate, Ge 16:1-15. It’s a dive into unbelief that brings heartache and grief, and even this failure, God redeems, Ge 21:17-18.
Then there’s Abraham’s lying about his beautiful wife to say she’s merely his sister in order to save his own neck at least twice, Ge 12:10-20; 20:1-18. Where’s his faith to trust that the God who has made such grand promises for his future can be trusted to keep him safe enough to see it?
Some say Abraham never doubted God’s promise, but I see doubt all over his life. It’s not because Abraham was such a great man of faith that he became the father of many nations. It was because God enabled an ordinary man to become who he had in mind for him to be–the father of everyone who struggles to believe that God’s goodness is for real, for me. (here’s one source that says Abraham, “never doubted God’s goodness or his word,” http://www.gotquestions.org/Abraham-Sarah-Isaac.html).
This is why Abraham snags my attention. Not because of his great faith, but because of his fluctuating faith–sometimes great, sometimes failing–that helps me to see that the one who is great in the story isn’t him. It’s God Almighty who forgives and loves. It’s he who teaches people who he is. It’s he who enables them to do what they cannot do apart from him. The Bible is the story of our great God stooping down to love great sinners like Abraham and Sarah. And you and me.
Abraham moves from where he’s been and lives in Gerar, a city in Canaan. Evidently he’s afraid for his safety again, because he tells the same lie here he told Pharoah in Egypt, that Sarah, his wife, is only his sister. So Abimelech, king of Gerar, “sent for Sarah and took her,” Ge 20:1-2.
While it’s true that Sarah is Abraham’s half sister, in order to protect himself, he deliberately leaves out the fact that she’s also his wife. This is what Abraham tells Abimelech when he’s confronted, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife…I said to her, “This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother,'”‘” Ge 20:11-13.
Ironically, he risks the key player of God’s covenant–his wife–who God’s specifically said will give birth to the child of his promise within the next year, Ge 18:10. How could risking the woman who will give him this long awaited child make sense to him? And yet he does. Genuine fear for one’s life is enough to make God’s words feel limp and weak.
But God’s been clear. Twice he’s appeared and said the same thing. Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 89 when God came to him and confirmed his covenant, changing his name from Abram and Sarah’s from Sarai, and saying Sarah would give birth within the next year, Ge 17:1. God comes again with angels soon afterwards, when “Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.” He says he’ll return to him the same time the next year and “Sarah, your wife will have a son,” Ge 18:10-11.
Abraham’s move to Gerar and this incident with Abimelech happened sometime after these two visits from God but before Sarah becomes pregnant, since it’s not until chapter 21 that God enables her to conceive and give birth, Ge 21:1.
There are plenty of things to feel amazed about here. Sarah’s evidently still got her looks at 89, because Abraham still thinks she’s beautiful enough that he’s afraid for his life. Maybe even more telling is that the king sends for her to be part of his court, if not his actual harem. The Bible doesn’t say what Abimelech has in mind, but it does say that he “had not gone near her,” so it’s easy to guess, Ge 20:4.
Regardless of the fear and intention of these men, God looks out for Sarah because she’s the one through whom his promised nation will come, a promise Abraham seems unable to believe when crunch time in a new place comes. God appears to the king in a dream one night and says, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman.” God directs him to return Sarah to Abraham or else “you may be sure that you and all yours will die,” Ge 20:3-7.
Abimelech does exactly what God’s said, and he throws in sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and a thousand shekels of silver along with her. If ever a king’s offering proved his desire to be freed from any guilt (and perhaps from a guilty conscience), this one does, Ge 20:14-16. (I looked up the value of 1000 shekels of silver today. Their weight is about 25 pounds, and their worth about $9,000.00).
Abraham prays and God heals Abimelech and his wife and slave girls so they can have children again, for God had “closed up every womb in Abimelech’s household because of Abraham’s wife Sarah,” Ge 20:17-18. Is it just a coincidence that the way they’re afflicted because of Sarah has to do with fertility? Abraham’s unbelief impacted Sarah’s safety, his own marriage, and his reputation with this king. But it also impacted the intimate lives of those in the king’s household.
Despite these effects of his sin, “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him,” Ge 21:1-2. They still get the promised son, even after they pull this simply-my-sister shenanigan?
Yes, because God’s promises don’t depend on people earning them. God’s promises depend upon the God who makes them and keeps his word. Twice in the first verse, the Bible says that God brought about this miraculous pregnancy, “…the Lord was gracious,” and “the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.”
In case we missed it the first time, he repeats himself to make sure we get the point: this is God’s doing. This is not something they did or deserved. God gives them Isaac despite what they deserve. I love this about God.
I also love it that God likes to stack the deck against himself when he fulfills his word. Promising Isaac when Abraham was 75 and Sarah was 65 was astonishing enough, but waiting 25 more years before fulfilling it is even more so.
God seems to delight in bringing life where humanity is dried up. Sarah’s only one of several women in the Bible whose barrenness gives way to the births of key men in God’s narrative. Rebekah gives birth to Jacob; Rachel gives birth to Joseph; Manoah’s wife gives birth to Samson; Hannah gives birth to Samuel, Elisabeth gives birth to John the Baptist. These were all men who had important parts in God’s saving story who were born through barren mothers whose wombs proclaimed God’s glory.
God’s the one who makes covenants and then brings them about. And in case there’s any doubt that he’s the one behind the scenes, directing events, he uses barrenness to point his glory out. He also brings life to barren hearts, like the apostle Paul’s, who once killed Jesus’ followers and then became Jesus’ follower himself, planting churches and writing letters of encouragement to them all over the Middle East. He uses the barrenness of unbelieving hearts, too, like Pharoah and Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus of Persia and Pontius Pilate, to be instruments to move his story forward.
God’s point? He makes use of all men and women, sin and suffering, faith and good works, babbling praises of babies and brooks, words from a donkey and curse words from its master, actions of good and bad kings and their good and bad servants, words that bless and words meant to hurt, and he weaves it all into his story of breaking into time-and-space to bring all people the glory words of the angels in the sky, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests,” Lk 2:14.
God brings peace between himself and those on earth. This is God’s saving word to us. This is what Jesus’ birth and life and death and rising gives us–peace with God, Ro 5:1.
Despite Abraham and Sarah’s occasional faith-fails, God still brings the son he’s promised them, “at the very time he’s promised.” Sarah gives birth when she’s 90, the very next year after the Abimelech affair, when Abraham is 100, Ge 21:1-5.
And then the Bible says that some time later, maybe 10 or more years, God tested Abraham right where he’s most vulnerable, with Isaac, his miracle son come-to-life. God tells him to take Isaac, his “only son whom you love” to Moriah to “sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about,” Ge 22:2.
Abraham wastes no time. “Early the next morning,” he saddles his donkey and with two servants and Isaac, cuts wood for the sacrifice, and then they set out, Ge 22:3. My heart sinks as it always does when I get to this story, because I imagine how devastated Abraham would be. God wants this long awaited son, this miracle child, sacrificed alive as a burnt offering? How can it be?
But today I find something that changes everything about the story, “On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you,'” Ge 22:4-5. Abraham didn’t know how it would happen, but he expected them both to come back.
Before today, I’ve thought that Abraham trudged ahead with an absolutely desolate heart, wondering what God was about. But today, I’m getting a glimmer of his faith and hope. The writer of Hebrews helps. He writes, “Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death,” He 11:19.
This wasn’t a faithless walk of hopelessness to the mountain to sacrifice his one and only son. This was the faithful walk of an old man and his beloved son, trusting that the God who had given him life out of barrenness could raise him back to life out of death, because God had promised.
And Abraham believed his promise: through this son, God would bring a whole nation. Through this son, God would bless the world. Through this son, God would give relationship with himself to everyone who wants it. Abraham knew God well enough by this point to trust his words, even the ones that set him out on this impossible journey.
Abraham puts the wood for the burnt offering on his son and Abraham carries the fire and the knife. As they’re walking, Isaac says, “‘The fire and wood are here…but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,'” Ge 21:6-8.
With the eyes of faith, Abraham trusts God’s goodness: God will provide the lamb. He doesn’t know the particulars of how it will happen, but he knows that God has a plan and that it’s a good one. He can trust him to keep his word.
Abraham’s faith has grown with the birth of Isaac. He’s experienced firsthand what God can do, and he can trust him despite everything he sees that might tempt him to doubt–the wood, the fire, the knife, the son. These adding up to death and loss would be one way of seeing them, but in God’s hands, they add up to life and redemption.
When his hand is raised to slay his son, God calls out from heaven and says not to lay a hand on Isaac. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” Abraham finds a ram nearby caught in a thicket by its horns and sacrifices it instead, Ge 22:12-13.
God’s pleased with Abraham’s faith and repeats his covenant to him all over again, adding that his descendants will rise above their enemies on top of all the other blessings of the original covenant, which he spells out: God will bless him and make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as sand on the seashore, and through his offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, “because you have obeyed me,” Ge 22:14-18.
I’m guessing this is the greatest blessing God has to give: Abraham would be “the guy” for a whole new nation, a nation of prestige and power that would conquer its enemies and bless every other nation on earth. It’s a promise big enough to satisfy the heart of a man who’s always wandered the earth, never having his own piece of land or even a son, until God intervenes for him.
Abraham names that place The Lord Will Provide and “to this day it is said, ‘on the mountain of the Lord it will be provided,'” Ge 22:14.
Little did Abraham know he was acting out the bigger story that would come, when God would load up Jesus with the wood of the cross, take him to the mountain of Calvary, set him up and light the fire that he doesn’t call out to stop, nor does he substitute a nearby ram for his perfect Lamb as he did for Isaac and Abraham. Jesus was God’s perfect substitute provision, taking our place in death for our sin.
These words had to catch in Abraham’s ears, like music, like relief, “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” but they would resonate for God with what would become his greatest grief.
Because God would allow many hands to take hold of Jesus his Son to crucify him, and he wouldn’t intervene. God as Son and God as Father would take the double hit to make all men his, so that none of us suffers eternal rejection for sins, so that we’re all brought in and blessed, so that everyone who believes has a relationship with him.
God chooses the grief of a Father who loses his beloved Son for love of us to give us the relief of being sons who can never lose the Father’s love.
It’s a reality that will never make sense, but its magic makes adoring sons and daughters from beggars and thieves who believe and yet, still struggle to believe.
But no matter.
God’s done all the heavy lifting at the cross so that we can be his. Our relationship doesn’t depend on us but on him.
And he is able.
“Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God though him, because he always lives to intercede for them,” He 7:25.
Jesus teaches his followers about false prophets, fakers who pretend to be sheep but inwardly are ‘ferocious wolves.’ He says to watch out for them, and he gives us three ways to recognize them:
–by their fruit: a good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit. “Thus by their fruit you will recognize them,” v 16-20. You can’t fake fruit.
–by doing good things for their own glory: doing good deeds to be known isn’t the same thing as doing good deeds to make God known. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” v 21-23. You can’t fake humility.
–by failing to do what Jesus says: the foolish man hears Jesus’ words but doesn’t do them. He’s like a man who builds his house on sand, and when troubles come, his house falls flat, v 24-27. The wise listen and put Jesus’ words into practice. Their lives stand. You can’t fake wisdom.
“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed,
a stronghold in times of trouble.
Those who know your name will trust in you,
for you, Lord, have never forsaken
those who seek you,” v 9-10.
These words are fortifying regardless of a person’s situation, but when a situation becomes dire, they are like massive bunkers in a fortress high and impregnable.
How does the psalmist find God to be a refuge and stronghold for the oppressed?
–He judges our enemies and upholds our cause, v 4.
–He rebukes and destroys the wicked, v 5.
–He brings ruin and uprooting to such an extent that they’re not remembered, 6.
–He avenges the blood of the innocent, v 12.
–He doesn’t ignore the cry of the afflicted, v 12.
–He lets the wicked fall into the pits they dig and get caught by the nets they’ve hidden, v 15.
–He eventually brings them death, v 17.
These are desperate situations indeed.
There are many ways that God enfolds his people with help in less dire circumstances, too. Sometimes it’s to cut off the source of the conflict with boundaries (an oppressed person can turn away from an enemy to find safety elsewhere). Sometimes it’s to let others in who can help. Sometimes it’s to enable the one who’s afflicted to bear it, purifying their hearts and minds with his love.
Leslie Vernick has good, free resources for practical help with all of the above: http://leslievernick.com.
My take away today is the relief I feel when I read about Abraham’s failures to believe, when I see how God continues to father him and give him the good things he promised anyway.
God’s kindness and constancy is comforting because I see my own failures to believe and still, I want to be God’s child.
There’s relief in knowing Jesus sees the fakers and teaches us how to see them, too. But there’s also relief in knowing he has the power to turn fakers into true followers. I know because I’ve been one.
And Psalm 9 wraps it up. There’s relief reading that “you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.” You don’t require perfect seeking or even regular seeking. Just seeking, period.
Thank you for being the God who brought peace to earth in a baby son who grew up to be the Savior who seeks me first.
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost,” Lk 19:10.