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You learned great stories about Abraham from your earliest days in Sunday School. You met him as ABRAM - the name would be changed to Abraham later. You heard about God calling him from his ancestral home:
"Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." So Abram left, as the LORD had told him...(1)Abram pulls up stakes and begins a journey which takes him from one end of the known world to the other, and for no other reason than his God told him to do it. Fabulous faith.
You learned that Abram was a generous fellow - when there was a land dispute between his family and the family of his nephew Lot, Abe gave Lot first choice and was content to take the leftovers. You learned that Abram was a compassionate fellow: when he learned that God planned to destroy Lot's new hometown, Sodom, Abe interceded on the city's behalf - he actually argued with God in an attempt to save Lot's neighbors, sinful though they might be.
But God was not done with our boy. No doubt, you learned that his son Isaac came along miraculously late in Abraham's and Sarah's life - Abraham 100, Sarah 90. That was in fulfillment of God's promise that Abraham's offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the sand by the sea.
You probably even learned that strange story in which God calls on Abraham to take the teenage Isaac to a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. Now, I know that some fathers of teenagers might welcome such a request, but there is no indication that Abraham did - after all, it was through Isaac that all these grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren were supposed to come. But faithful Abraham did as he was told, took Isaac, prepared to sacrifice him, had the knife poised and ready to strike, when suddenly God stopped him. Abraham had passed this strange test. The boy was spared, a ram which had been caught in a nearby thicket was sacrificed instead. And all lived happily ever after.
Really? No, not really. Nor had things been all that peachy-keen before. You see, there are other stories about Abraham in our Bible that probably were not covered in Sunday School.
For example, not long into this family journey, a famine arose in Canaan. But Abram, despite all his vaunted faith, was not so sure now, and in danger of starvation, he-and-his headed for Egypt and hoped-for relief. As they came near the border, Abe said to Sarai (which was her name before it too was changed), "Listen, you are one good-looking lady. If these Egyptians figure we are husband and wife, after seeing you, and wanting you, they will kill me to get to you." As Genesis has it, "Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you."(2) So that is what they did: word comes to Pharaoh about this foxy newcomer, he buys her from her so-called brother for his harem, Abe not only is spared but makes a huge profit - as the scripture says, "sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels." BUT, Pharaoh and his household suddenly began to experience one disaster after another. He traced their onset back to the arrival of Sarai, investigated, found out the deception, and confronted "Brother" 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!"
So Abram and Sarai and company made their exit, not only with their lives, but with all that booty as well, including one slave girl whom we hear a good deal about later. Genesis now calls him "very wealthy."(3) But God was not done with Abram yet.
The next story you probably did not hear in Sunday School was of Abram the conquering warrior(4) - not because there is anything wrong with being a conquering warrior, but this is just not a big deal in the midst of all the other material about this famous family. It seems that some of the local kings put together a military alliance to subdue their neighbors (probably over mineral rights); in the process of the skirmish, Abe's nephew Lot was captured. Word came to Abram about the situation, he hastily put together a mini-army, dashed off to do battle, and quickly routed the enemy and rescued Lot and everyone else. Desert Storm #1, I guess. But God was not done with Abram yet.
After things settle down again, our hero's heavy-duty faith begins to waver a bit, and he commences wondering about this great guarantee of beaucoodles of descendants considering the fact that, at this point, he has not even ONE. God speaks to him in a vision, the promise is reaffirmed...strangely.(5) God says, ""Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon." Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half." Then buzzards tried to get at the fresh meat, but Abram shooed them off. Finally, our hero falls asleep and, as he does, God speaks to him promising that his descendants would be given this land. As a guarantee, we have the account of an ancient ritual which would be an equivalent of "cross my heart and hope to die" - a flaming pot and a lighted torch (God is often depicted as fire) make their way between these dead animals which have been laid out and lined up. The symbolism apparently is, "May I be cut in two like all this if I fail to keep my promise!" Kind of a bloody, gory story, which may explain why Mrs. Biggerstaff did not dwell on it much when you were in Sunday School as a seven-year-old. Anyway, God is not done with Abram yet.
From here, the story may be a bit more familiar but it is still pretty sticky. As you may recall, Abram's childless wife, Sarai, in an effort to fulfill her conjugal responsibility to provide offspring, does the next best thing - she offers her husband the recreational and procreational services of her aforementioned Egyptian maid, Hagar (which might make US blanch, but was a perfectly acceptable practice in that culture). You see, children were the Social Security system of the day - when you got old and were no longer able to manage for yourself, they would take care of you; it was their solemn duty. Not having any children was more than an embarrassment, it was socially and economically dangerous. So the deed is done. Hagar gets pregnant.
Now things get even stickier. Hagar thumbs her nose at Sarai and her barrenness, Sarai hates that, comes to Abram, complains that this is all HIS fault anyway, and insists that Abe run Hagar off. But Abe wimps out and tells Sarai to handle it herself, which she does by treating Hagar so terribly that the young maid splits. As the story unfolds, the Angel of the Lord sees Hagar's predicament, comes to her in her distress in the wilderness, tells her to return to Abram and Sarai, have the baby, and know that God will bless him. She does, and brings forth Ishmael. But God is not done with Abram yet.
You probably remember the rest. Even though Abram has a son and an heir now, there is still a lot of tension in the family because the baby came from a slave girl instead of his wife. God comes to our hero again:
This is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram [which means Exalted Father]; your name will be Abraham ["Father of many nations"], for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you.OK. Ishmael is here. Then God drops a bomb:
"As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. [Both names come from a root meaning Princess. Sarah would have been understood as "great princess" or "princess of many."(6)] I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her."New names. By giving new names to these two folks, God is affirming a certain relationship with them. Something similar occurs in marriage when wife or husband or both take a new family name. We name our children, our pets, other things that are precious to us. In giving names, we are accepting a special responsibility for nurture and care. God was saying one more time that "I am not done with either Abraham or Sarah yet."
But another baby? Really? Abraham - Mr. Rock-Solid, Unwavering Faith - does not simply chuckle at the thought; he falls on his face laughing at such a prospect. After all, he is 99 years old; Sarah is 89. But we know what happens. Isaac was born. Sadly, Abe allows Ishmael and his mom to get run off by the jealous Sarah once more. As the Genesis story has it, Sarah finally dies at the age of 127; Abraham marries again (at around 140 years of age) and has another half-dozen kids. An ACTIVE senior citizen, eh? (Better than Strom Thurmond.) Amazing. He finally dies at the age of 175, "old and full of years."
I love the story of Abraham because I learn some incredibly important truths from it. First, I learn that God chooses and uses real people, imperfect people. Sell your wife to the Pharaoh? Please! But God was not done with him yet.
Second, I see the unconditional nature of God's covenant. The promise of land, descendants and a blessed heritage never changed from Day One back in Haran - it was FIRM, no matter what. There is no "If you do this, I will do that." No quid pro quo. There is no moral to the story. There was a lot of growth and development that would occur, because God was not done with Abraham yet. But the covenant is as secure today as the day it was uttered. That is the nature of our God.
Third, I see that people of faith go through their ups and downs. Centuries later Paul would write to the Romans concerning this man, "he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised."(7) Perhaps. But Abe had his moments. How many other times do we read of someone falling on the ground and derisively laughing at what God has to say? But, of course, God was not done with him yet.
And that is the big lesson I get from this wonderful saga. No matter where Abraham was in his life, God was not done with him. God is STILL not done with him - just the fact that we are reading the story, learning from it, being inspired and guided by it proves that. Abraham and Sarah may have thought they were done...others may have thought so too...but not God.(8)
I for one am GLAD to know that. There are times when life spins wildly out of control. There are other times when life is so routine that even your rut is in a rut. And there are times when life is everything in between. Well, my friend, no matter what your life is like, the good news I have for you this morning is that just as surely as God was not done with Abraham and Sarah, God is not done with you and me either. God can still bring things to "birth," to new life, through us.
We have seen it right here, haven't we? We have experienced some exhilarating times in recent years at First Presbyterian Church, Warren, and I believe we have even more to come.
1. Genesis 12:1-4a
2. The story is found in Gen. 12:13-20.
3. Gen. 13:2
4. Gen. 14:1-24
5. Gen. 15:7-21
6. Tom Henderson via Ecunet, "Old Testament Notes for Next Sunday," #180, 2/20/97
7. Romans 4:20-21
8. Bass Mitchell, Hot Springs, VA, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop 1997 02 23," #14, 2/17/97 which inspired the thinking which produced this sermon. Thanks, Bass.