The Answer is a Person (Gen 15)

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“I have faith that God will show you the answer. But you have to understand that sometimes it takes a while to be able to recognize what God wants you to do. That’s how it often is. God’s voice is usually nothing more than a whisper, and you have to listen very carefully to hear it. But other times, in those rarest of moments, the answer is obvious and rings as loud as a church bell.” ― Nicholas Sparks

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” ― C.S. Lewis

God has an answer –a comeback– for every situation that evokes fear in us. It is not a recipe for instant self-esteem; it’s not a quick-fit philosophy, or an unbeatable argument.

It is simply himself. The answer is a person.

When God said to Abraham “Fear not. I am your shield,  he was offering himself as Abraham’s ever-present protection. The “I AM” is always with you.

I remember my first term at school. It was a large, tough primary school in an area of Sheffield known as Crookes. It never occurred to me to worry about the situation because my brother also attended, and his three-year seniority meant that I had an ever-present help in time of trouble. Fear not. I am with you. Family is on your side.

The name I AM is fascinating, isn’t it? Primarily, it refers to his eternal existence, but there is also a world of encouragement for us here.

For example, it can also mean “I WAS WHOM I WAS.” That means that I can trust him with my past. He was there, on my side, and even if I am tempted to be overwhelmed with guilt over the foolish mistakes I’ve made, those actions are no surprise to the great I WAS.

He is also I WILL BE WHOM I WILL BE. When I am fearful of the future, and anxious of the things that life might throw at me, I am assured that the I WILL BE will be there.

I AM all you need. Strength, courage, help, hope, provision.

Tell me what you need. I am your shield.

Because, you see, fear draws on the past, and focuses on the future; faith focuses on the present, where you are now, walking with God.  And that means, as Paul put it, learning to “Keep in step with the Holy Spirit.”

Did you ever get suckered in to one those three-legged races? Strapping your leg to someone else’s and learning to walk together? Oh, those Dad-Son sporting events. They rank pretty high on my Embarrassment-Inducing list.

Which is by way of saying, it takes a bit of practice to learn to walk together. This is what Abraham was learning. Almost the whole life-lesson was learning to keep in step. Faith means keeping in step. It means trusting in God’s timing–not your own. So the key issue is this: Is God in control, or is he not in control?

If God is in control, he is never early; he is never late. He is always right on time. And as I learn to keep in step, I learn the dance, I grow in confidence that he knows what he’s doing.

One step at a time.

Genesis 15 is about God doing it all. God does not meet us halfway. God doesn’t even meet us most of the way. God does it all. We do nothing. I hear a lot today, and in recent years, about making commitments to God. In men’s groups, we hear a lot about being promise keepers, and promise makers. In evangelistic programs, we are instructed to tell people to commit their lives to Jesus, to give themselves to Him. In discipleship programs, we hear about making commitments and covenants with God.

But this passage reveals something else entirely. We aren’t the promise keepers. God is. He makes the promises to us, and He keeps them all by Himself. We don’t give ourselves to God. He has already given Himself fully and completely to us. We don’t make covenants with Him. He makes covenants with us, and there is only one name to sign on the bottom – His.

Jesus says in Matthew 11, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” There is no labour, no hard work, no effort involved. Paul writes similarly in Philippians 1 that He who began the good work will carry it on to completion. Philippians 2 says that it is God who works in you both to will and to do His good pleasure. God does it all in us and through us.

Are you still trying to keep the enemy at bay? Just wait upon the Lord. Listen to the Lord. Trust in the Lord. Trust in His unconditional promises to you. Anything else will just wear you out and bring darkness and horror. Don’t try to meet God halfway.

Let Him do it all in you and through you for His good pleasure.

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God keeps His Promises (Gen 15: 1-21)

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“After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward….”

Sheila Walsh said: “The Father is truly the only Promise Maker who is in earnest a Promise Keeper. A promise from God is a promise kept.” God keeps His promises!

There’s a phase in fathering which I know only too well. It’s that phase when your kids are almost independent (or think they should be) but still need your support for quick cross country car trips, late night pick-ups from cinemas, rent hand-outs, food supplies….that sort of thing. (In fact I’m struggling to put a full stop in this sentence, but you get the idea).

I always tried to never promise more than I could deliver.  My own dad was pretty good at promises. Mind you, he’d leave it till the last minute, or sigh rather a lot. Or even look solemnly at me and ask if I had the faintest idea what I was doing with my life. But he kept his word when he gave it, and never gave it lightly. That creates tremendous personal assurance –doesn’t it?– knowing that someone will bail you out. It’s like that old song “Winter, spring, summer or fall….all you’ve got to do is call, and I’ll be there…”

The story of Abraham, which runs through the middle part of Genesis (12-25) is a story of that kind of developing trust, that God would do what he promised. It’s very much like a child learning to trust his dad and then living his life on the basis of that gathering confidence. And the climax of that journey into confident trust is expressed in Chapter 15.

Here it is:

Abram believed in the Lord and it was credited to him for righteousness”.

This is such a huge statement. No wonder that it is repeated so many times in the New Testament. Paul reflected on it in one or two letters, and his reflection birthed something astonishing in Martin Luther almost fifteen hundred years on, and –through him– in John Wesley twenty decades after that. And these men changed the world and raised the bar on what walking with God looks like.

That it is simply knowing him as a father, believing in his promises, and trusting him to carry the heavy suitcases when the journey gets difficult. It wasn’t a straightforward journey. No sooner had Abraham accepted God’s call on his life (in Chapter 12), than he fell apart at the first crisis, making a whole series of foolish decisions.

(Strangely, I feel inexplicably comforted by this.)

And yet this statement – “Abram believed” – shows that he had arrived at a certain level of trust.

But the chapter begins with a call to him to “Fear not.” Why? Because the promises made to him had not yet been made good. “Dad” was keeping him waiting. He had promised Abraham a son and a land and neither had materialised. So the father reassures him. Don’t worry about this. I’ve got it in hand.  Fear not.

And then God underlines the promise. He said he’d be a shield to Abraham. Apparently this word denoted a “pavise”, one of those massive shield-coverings that protected the whole man. Maybe the thought is: “I’m going to cover you totally, physically and spiritually, from the danger that comes against you (physically) and the doubt that comes against you (spiritually). Nothing will happen to you that I don’t permit.”

Do you remember that old line that, “A Christian is immortal until his work is done”?

And look at the stars, Abraham. Gen 15:5:

Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be.”

No one knows how many stars there are. And that’s God’s point. Abraham will have so many descendants that he will ever be able to count them all. The promise is going to be fulfilled beyond his wildest dreams. It’s quite a statement to make to an old man with an old wife with no kids and no prospects.  And yet “Abram believed in the Lord and it was credited to him for righteousness”.

The Hebrew word for “Believe” is related to the word “amen.” That is to say, to believe God is to say “Amen” to his promises. “Credited” means “put into your account.” So your amen to his promises is a credit on your account, and accounted as righteousness.

The statement is explained in the strange narrative of the covenant and sacrifice with which Chapter 15 is chiefly concerned. God tells Abraham to gather animals for a sacrifice (8-11); he spells out the details of that covenant he is about to make (12-16) and then “cuts” the covenant (17-21).

This is how it worked. The two who came to make a contract would bring animals for sacrifice. After the animals were sacrificed and laid in two parallel rows, the two people would join hands and walk between the rows to signify joint agreement to the terms of the contract and a vow that if the terms were violated by either party, the violator would be killed  (i.e. suffer the same fate as the animals).

But something different happens in Chapter 15: God (symbolized by the smoking oven and the flaming torch) passes between the dead animals while Abraham sleeps. It simply means that God is taking upon himself the full responsibility for keeping the covenant.

It’s as if God is saying:

“All you have to do is say Amen to my promises and I will make it so. I require your trust and confidence, not your performance.” The question to me, today, is simply this: Can I trust God? Can I trust him with my today?

Hudson Taylor, the pioneer missionary to China, is now reckoned as something of a celebrity Christian. But during one very difficult phase of his ministry he got caught up in the most desperate danger (physical) and doubt (spiritual). By his own account, he reached rock bottom, but he –unexpectedly- found something solid on which to stand. He said: “I can’t read. I can’t think. I can’t pray. But I can trust.”

Fear not.  I have not forgotten my promise. “His faithful promises are my armour and protection.” (Psalm 27)

Father, I pray for those

Who are disappointed by life;

For those who feel that they never really arrived

At the place where they felt you were calling them to; And where things didn’t quite work out.

 

Father, we are all of us prone

To such feelings from time to time.

Will you reignite the pilot light for me?

Please reaffirm the promise that

“None shall separate me from your love”

For ultimately, that’s all that matters.

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The Battle goes on! (Gen 14:17-24)

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What do you make of that bit at the end of Romans 7 that describes ― it would seem― a ceaseless inner conflict? Some would say that in Christ the victory is totally achieved. “Yes! I am a conqueror in Christ! It is finished. Look at the beginning of the eighth chapter.” The trouble is that if you claim that position, you sound a tad too triumphalist and ―speaking for myself here― remain painfully conscious of inner faltering, mixed motives, shoddy morals. My big claims seem at odds with my secret self.

But the opposite position of constant inner wrangling is really just as bad. It seems to do no justice to what God has done for me or in me in Christ.

With any of these either/or arguments, I tend to see truth in both. Yes, the victory is won, but yes, the battle goes on.

And if you have indeed won through, then it’s time to check the “shield-wall” of those linked in with you. Individual victory in a certain area only creates a little space where others can be helped.

The second half of Genesis 14 describes this ongoing battle.  The first half described Lot’s choice and Abraham’s response to it.  The second half draws a comparison between the King of Sodom and  Melchizedek  the king of Salem (17-24). One battle is over but another one is about to begin.

17 After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him …and Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19 and he blessed Abram, saying,

‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
20 And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.’

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

21 The king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.’

22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, “I made Abram rich.” 24 I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me…”

Sodom represents the ultimate end of mankind as it turns away from God.

And Salem? Melchizedek in Hebrew means “king of righteousness. He is called a “priest of God Most High.” So here is a gentile king who somehow has come to know the one true God. The particular name for God used here is El Elyon, the Most High God. It refers to the “god above all others”.

Look at that greeting to Abraham: Vs 19-20, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed by God Most High, Who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

 Melchizedek  brings two amazing truths to the table: the blessing of Abraham by El Elyon, and a reminder of the true source of Abraham’s victory.

But then the king of Sodom speaks with what seems to be a very reasonable offer: “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.” He is tempting Abraham to keep the spoils of victory.  Take your due! And Abraham just says no.  He turned down the king of Sodom without losing a beat.

No hesitation.

Listen to that answer to the king of Sodom in vv 22-23:

‘With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 23 that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, “I made Abram rich.” 

Because Abraham knew about Sodom, knew the score, knew who lived there and how they lived.

And he wanted none of it.

He had sworn an oath to God, and it gave him the guts to say NO—even when others might have said Yes. Why didn’t Abraham  want any of the goodies? Because it was tainted stuff and created a kind of alliance between him and Sodom. He knew that God was enough and he wanted God to get all the glory.

This section suggests three principles of the faith-walk: The first is humility, seen in the fact that Abraham voluntarily offered a tithe to Melchizedek (v20). It’s very helpful to you to recognise the importance of other mentors and leaders in your life. The opposite approach, merrily singing “I did it my way” whilst receiving honorary degrees, is an unpleasant prospect.

The second principle is generosity, seen in the fact that while Abraham would take nothing for himself, he offered part of the spoils to the men who were with him (v24).

The third principle is single-minded purity, seen in the fact that Abraham would not compromise his values because he knew that the king of Sodom, in offering the spoils, was essentially trying to buy influence with dirty money.

Do you see how each of those aspects are directed outwards, towards others, rather than inwards, towards the man himself?

When you stand back and look at Genesis 14 in perspective, you realize that there are really two battles going on: one is physical, and the other spiritual. One simply mirrors the other.  There are some important principles here for life on the front line:

First, there will be an ongoing battle in the Christian Life. No one ever “arrives.” If you think you’ve arrived, think again ….and quickly! There is always further to go, and more land to possess. And to the day you die, the battle is on.

Second, great temptation often comes after victory. That’s what happened to Abraham. The king of Sodom came to him after his great victory, not before. The same thing will happen to us. No basking in the after-glow of a spiritual mountain-top experience. Keep your guard up.

Peter said, “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8).

Stay alert!

Third, as we grow, we will be continually tested regarding our choices in life. Abraham had to decide whether God was enough or if he also needed the treasures of Sodom.

This is far more subtle than it sounds!

And fourth, and importantly, only when you glimpse the greatness of God will you have the strength to withstand temptation. That’s what happened to Abraham. It was only because he had lifted his hand to “God Most High” that he had the inner strength to resist the king of Sodom.

Perhaps we spend too much time worrying about temptation and our own weakness, when we ought to spend that time considering God’s power and place in our lives. With raised hand, I have sworn an oath

Because when God is seen for who he truly is, all temptations seem pretty small.

 

Help me to recognise you, Lord, When you come to me with an unfamiliar name.

Help me to recognise evil when it masquerades as something reasonable.

 For when I truly see you, and when I truly see evil for what it is,

My choices will not be so difficult.

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Living on the Frontline (Gen 14:1-12)

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At the time when Amraphel was king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer king of Elam and Tidal king of Goyim, these kings went to war against Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboyim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). All these latter kings joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Dead Sea Valley). For twelve years they had been subject to Kedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled.In the fourteenth year, Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him went out and defeated the Rephaites in Ashteroth Karnaim, the Zuzites in Ham, the Emites in Shaveh Kiriathaim and the Horites in the hill country of Seir, as far as El Paran near the desert. Then they turned back and went to En Mishpat (that is, Kadesh), and they conquered the whole territory of the Amalekites, as well as the Amorites who were living in Hazezon Tamar.

Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboyim and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) marched out and drew up their battle lines in the Valley of Siddim against Kedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goyim, Amraphel king of Shinar and Arioch king of Ellasar – four kings against five. 10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of tar pits, and when the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some of the men fell into them and the rest fled to the hills. 11 The four kings seized all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food; then they went away. 12 They also carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom.

We live in a world at war. Do you have any doubt about that?

A swirl of violence and conflict surges across every continent like a weather map charting wind pressure. And deeper than the physical signs of armies and bloodshed is the spiritual undertow… a restless wash of the currents of good and evil. It’s foolish to forget that we live on the front line of this conflict, but somehow we manage it. It’s as if we dress for a picnic at the beach, while Hurricane Mildred gathers momentum in the slate grey sky above.

Sometimes there is a breakthrough in our awareness. The allied soldiers enter Auschwitz and the world has to confront the real shape of a monstrous evil. We read the newspaper report of a serial killer and struggle to comprehend his motivation.  A teenager commits suicide. Open any newspaper and you will see a world at war.

So what do you do about it? How do you conduct yourself on the front line? And how do you win through?  Genesis 14 tells the story of the first recorded war in the Bible. It is fascinating, therefore, that the war is not described in terms of strategies and power but in terms of choices, relationships and calling. This forms the biggest crisis in Abraham’s life so far, but he would seem -at first- to fall victim not to his own choices, but to the choices made by his nephew Lot.

The first half of the chapter is about Abraham and Lot against the backcloth of this major conflict between warring kings seeking power and control. So why is Abraham involved? And how involved should the people of God be in wars for power, territory and material gain? Is patriotism Biblical? Is war ever a “holy war”? As the placard says, “Who would Jesus bomb?”

But then Lot gets caught up in the conflict and taken prisoner. Abraham might well have considered that a) It wasn’t his fight; and b) Lot had brought this on himself.  In the last chapter, as they divided the land between them, Lot had selfishly claimed the “well-watered plains” for himself, leaving his uncle high and dry. But the choice brought him into the vicinity of Sodom and he had by now become identified with the people of that land, and captured with them. This is what moral compromise looks like. Sometimes we make rules for other people and forget to keep them ourselves. We play in the sewer and wonder at the dirt on our clothes.

Abraham responds (13-16) with a lightning ferocity, leading a commando raid, routing the attackers and recovering huge piles of plunder along with the captives.

“A man who had escaped came and reported this to Abram the Hebrew. Now Abram was living near the great trees of Mamre the Amorite, a brother of Eshkol and Aner, all of whom were allied with Abram. 

14 When Abram heard that his relative had been taken captive, he called out the 318 trained men born in his household and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 During the night Abram divided his men to attack them and he routed them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 He recovered all the goods and brought back his relative Lot and his possessions, together with the women and the other people.”

Listen: if I take the concept of living on the frontline seriously, then I need to keep my defences in good order. I need watchmen who stay alert.  If Lot hadn’t been in Sodom in the first place, Abraham would never have had to rescue him. Nothing good comes from compromising moral values.

Second, if moral defences are important, so too are the bonds of love that hold family together.  In the previous chapter, the division of the land occurred because Abraham refused to be drawn into an intra-family conflict. The arguing between the herdsmen must stop, he said “because we are family.” And now we see the outworking of that principle. You mess with my family, you mess with me. Sometimes love will cause us to do things that seem odd to outsiders. Love cares enough to get involved even at the risk of being hurt.

And look how ready he was. Three hundred and eighteen trained fighters, ready at a moment’s notice.  Along with good defences, alert watchmen, there is a trained response unit. “When the day of evil comes…stand your ground.” (Ephesians 6).

If we live on the front line, we better make sure we’re ready.

 

Father, there are many things in the world

That fill me with anxiety.

If you would have me fight,

Then please, will you make me strong?

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Learning how to Choose (Gen 13: 1-18)

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In his book, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace wrote this:  “Someone sometime let you forget how to choose, and what to choose. Someone let your peoples forget it was the only thing of importance, choosing. . . How do you make any but a child’s greedy choices if there is no love-filled father to guide, inform, and teach the person how to choose? How is there freedom to choose if one does not learn how to choose?” 

The principle is: You create the pattern of your life through your choices, even the small ones, even right now, today. So choose wisely. But how do I learn how to choose?

I guess we all learn from the mistakes that we’ve gone through, though no one in their right mind would want to have gone through it.  Our real choice is to learn from it or to lose from it.

Maybe –just maybe– that’s what’s going on in Genesis 13. Abraham seems to have learned from a series of wrong choices to finally learn how to choose and how to listen to God in the choosing.

Abraham’s pattern of choices has been pretty sordid in Genesis 12. After deciding to walk with God, he messes up at the first point of difficulty (“A famine arose”) and takes the decisions upon himself, making a spectacular mess of it (lying, compromising, deceiving, endangering his wife…).

And here he is, much richer now as a result of all this conniving, but it’s the wealth itself which initiates the next test.

The fact was, back here in Canaan, the land could not now support both Abraham and his nephew Lot in the same area (Gen 13:1-7). It would have been no problem when they were both small-scale herdsmen, but now that they have moved up the social ladder, so to speak, they both need more space.

Jesus told a story about a “rich fool” who had a problem: he had too much stuff. The man concluded it was time to move out of the poky little place where he lived and build something more suitable, something grand and pretentious. Jesus called him a “fool” because he paid so much attention to physical realities that he forgot about spiritual ones (“This night your soul is required of you…”).

But the problem Abraham faced had developed into squabbling and infighting between the herdsmen of the two bosses. Sound familiar?

Sometimes you simply can’t live together in peace with others. Obviously, we ought to do everything possible to sort out the issues, but sometimes our best just isn’t good enough. In that case, it is better to separate than to go on infighting; and that’s what happened to Abraham and Lot.

So Gen 13: 8 and 9 show the decision to separate…but who’s going to make the first move? Who’s going to move where? Now, even though Abraham would seem to have the senior’s privilege to choose first, he gives up that right in order to settle the conflict.

So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarrelling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.” (v. 8).

He makes his appeal based on family bonds.

Think about the issues that have separated people in the Church! Think about how conflict arises through gossip, slander, misinformation, bad manners, angry words. Most problems would be solved if we would just take those four last words seriously. “For we are brothers.”

Listen to the way Abraham handled a potential difficulty:

Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right. If you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

I remember an issue that often seemed to arise when I was small. A last piece of cake would have to be divided between my older brother Steve and myself. Steve always said the same thing: “I’ll cut, you choose.”  It prevented many a fistfight.

There’s no need to quarrel because there’s plenty for both.  But why did Abraham let Lot choose?  He wanted to solve the problem peacefully, and maybe lose today in order to keep the peace tomorrow. Family is important!

And perhaps he believed that God would take care of him no matter what happened.

So:

Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the Lord.” (v. 10).

Spot the motivation! On being invited to choose, Lot chose the biggest piece of cake.

So Lot makes his choice based on the availability of water. As they separate, Lot moves toward Sodom while Abraham moved toward Hebron. East/ West.

But who made the better deal? It certainly looked like Lot won. After all, he got the best land and Abraham had to take what was left. But the Bible says that Lot “pitched his tents near Sodom.” He made three vital errors: He chose himself over others. He chose his occupation over his family.  He chose the immediate over the future. By choosing to live near Sodom, Lot was exposing himself and his family to gross moral evil.

Moral compromise often begins with a tiny step in the wrong direction.  James 1:14-15 graphically pictures the steps to spiritual death:

But each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

See the steps:

Temptation… Desire…Sin… Death.

And then –after Lot has left – God speaks. Note that God does not speak until Lot has left. God has nothing to say to a compromising believer. You can have Sodom or you can have the Lord, but you can’t have them both.

And what does God say?

Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.” (vv. 14-17).

Abraham must have been gobsmacked. All the land! All the family he could wish for! God honours those who yield their rights because they believe in God’s promises. Because Abraham didn’t demand his own way, God gave him back everything he lost and then some more.

Why?

Because God gives his best to those who learn to choose with Him.

 

I hear conflicting voices here, Lord.

You want me to take responsibility for my choices

And yet leave the choice to you?

 

You bid me turn away from worldly things

 And yet you seem to promise them to me anyway?

 

You command blessing and desire obedience,

But I think I see that my blessing is for your benefit

And my obedience is for my benefit.

I begin to see that the way you bless me

brings glory to you

And the way I follow is of enormous significance.

 

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Reflecting on Mistakes (Genesis 12)

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Whilst it comforts me to know that even Abraham made mistakes, it challenges me to reflect on the scale of the consequences of those mistakes.

Do you really mean to say, Father, that there may be consequences in my life  –in my world– from the disobedience that I occasionally dip into, as I follow you?

And the other thing is: Do I really learn from those mistakes? Peter Cook said: “I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly.”

That was certainly the case for Abraham, who did just that. But, think about those consequences. First, his brush with deception made him rich and the very scale of his new wealth made it necessary to part company with Lot, setting in train a new course of events that led to Lot being embroiled in the life of Sodom.

It’s like one of those stories about disaster following a lottery win.

Second, it is extremely probably that one of the new slaves that he acquired as part of his ill-gotten gains was a pretty young thing named Hagar, who was herself to become the hapless victim of Abram and Sarai’s conniving…. Now all this is in the future, but it represents the consequences of a wrong moral choice. It is not too much to say that the world world tilted on the fulcrum of that choice.

And, as we just said, Abraham didn’t even learn the lesson.  Aldous Huxley once said: “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”

So what does make us learn? I’ve come to realize that the deepest spiritual lessons are not learned by God letting us have our way in the end, but by His making us wait, bearing with us in love and patience until we are able honestly to pray what He taught His disciples to pray: “Thy will be done.” (Elisabeth Elliot)

So where does that leave us? And where did it leave Abraham?  I was reading a piece by Vince Lombardi recently. He spoke eloquently about the heart motivation of his chosen discipline: “Football is like life – it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.”

That’s an interesting list, isn’t it? So why should our approach to life be any different?  And certainly, the Bible speaks of God as a father disciplining his children. It’s not meant to beat us down but to raise us up. Discipline is intended to save us from our own foolishness.

I would not think that Abraham often reminisced about dear old Egypt. We have a selective memory that allows us to Photoshop our failures out and highlight our victories. But the truth is that wrong choices often teach us more than our right ones.

So maybe Abraham learned a few small pointers for future choices?  Maybe he learned how dangerous it was to compromise the truth. Maybe he learnt just how one small “white lie” can lead to a tangled web of deceit with no way out. We sow, and then we reap what we sow.

Maybe he learned too, that God contrives circumstances and speaks and acts according to His own will. The famine, the plague, the discovery of deceit, the humiliation, the return to Canaan… God would seem to have his hand in the tiniest detail.

And yet, wonderfully, though God teaches and disciplines through our mistakes, he is not foiled by them! He is never deflected from his own purposes. Not for a moment. And that’s Abraham’s experience here: the grace of God brought him back to Square One.

The land that was promised.

When the crisis comes, watch those knee-jerk reactions. God has not abandoned you. No, in fact he’s teaching you to trust him more.

John F. MacArthur Jr. brings a good conclusion here:

“Why is discipline important? Discipline teaches us to operate by principle rather than desire. Saying no to our impulses (even the ones that are not inherently sinful), puts us in control of our appetites rather than vice versa. It deposes our lust and permits truth, virtue, and integrity to rule our minds instead.”

Learnt the lesson? Perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication…tricky words, Lord.

Let’s finish with a tough section from 2 Timothy. Paul is giving his young protege a final encouragement. It might have been the last conversation they had before Paul’s execution. It was certainly the expected outcome of Paul’s present situation, and so it proved. And Paul speaks warmly, calmly and without fear, but with courageous resolution that Timothy should be a good soldier of Christ Jesus:”

Timothy, my dear son, be strong through the grace that God gives you in Christ Jesus. You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.

Endure suffering along with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.Soldiers don’t get tied up in the affairs of civilian life, for then they cannot please the officer who enlisted them. And athletes cannot win the prize unless they follow the rules. And hardworking farmers should be the first to enjoy the fruit of their labor. Think about what I am saying. The Lord will help you understand all these things.”

This is where we live. We all make mistakes and we learn from them, we accept them as discipline. We toughen up under their pressure. We blame no one else. We just get on with the job.

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Even clever people do stupid things (Gen 12:10-20)

10 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. 11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife.” Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.’

14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.

17 But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. ‘What have you done to me?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 19 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!’ 20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.

“When you make a choice, you change the future.”
― Deepak Chopra

“Look to your heart and soul first, rather than looking to your head first, when choosing. Rather than what you think, consider instead how you feel. Look to the nature of things. Feel your choices and decisions. It just might change everything.”
― Jeffrey R. AndersonThe Nature of Things – Navigating Everyday Life with Grace

 

Every day we have about ten thousand separate thoughts.

Apparently. (I’ve not counted).

And these are predominantly choices. The choices come in various sizes: “What colour socks shall I wear?” is a size 1, say, and “Shall I marry her?” is a size 100.

And the bigger the size the greater the consequence. The trouble is that choices sneak up on me, and I often respond with a knee-jerk reaction. No time to think it through.

It’s like cruising down a motorway, half-missing the sign, deciding it’s your junction and then taking the turn, realising it’s the wrong one but you’ve no time to correct your mistake.

Before you know it you’re lost and the consequences stretch out before you…It’s going to be a long night.

Abraham had responded to God. Heard the call. Made the choice. Started his new life in Canaan. The motorway had excellent visibility.

And then a junction loomed.

Famine hits and Abraham reacts. Faced with a crisis, he makes a series of bad choices that jeopardize everything he has gained to this point. Acting out of fear, he places his wife Sarah in a morally compromised situation. In the end, God rescues him but not before he is thoroughly humiliated in the eyes of the pagans. (Gen 12:10-20).

Here’s the junction: “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.”

Every choice has consequences. Life is seldom plain sailing. Something crops up every now and then (in my experience on a twenty minute cycle) and you just have to deal with it. What are you going to do?

You either learn from it or lose from it…

But…don’t forget!… (and this is really reassuring) God is at work even in our foolish decisions.

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 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.’”

Remember all this is true! Her beauty, the potential danger, plus the family connection.  Also,  Abraham was certainly correct in assuming that he would be treated well and that his life would be spared.

It was just a little lie.

But the real point is that he left God out of the picture. God did not feature in his decision-making process.

Abraham makes the journey, dreams up a scheme, and gets rich quick all on his own.

And how did Sarah feel?

But surely, God would understand, wouldn’t he?

Imagine if you handed in a tenner at the check-out and you were given change for a twenty. Think about the moment –the second– when you ponder the mistake and are tempted to say nothing and keep the money. The Bible is clear about moments like that:  “Be sure your sin will find you out.” “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”

In the event though, things seem to have worked out just as he planned! Listen:

When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.”

Everything is peachy! Sarah is looked after, Abraham has a bunch of stuff. Even camels! What’s the problem?

But then…

But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. 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 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.”

And God steps in.

He’s been out of the picture so far, so this is a bit of a rude awakening. The verse says that Pharaoh somehow connected the disease with Sarah and figured out the whole deception.

And he’s not happy. What have you done? Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you say…?

No answer.

What could he have said? He lied for his own convenience. He lied because he was afraid to trust God when things got difficult. He took the Twenty.

And all that he gained cost him dear. The new wealth and livestock forced a split between Abraham and Lot. And in that family-split, a whole series of future problems was initiated when Lot chose Sodom. And since part of the package of Abraham’s new-found wealth included slavery, it’s probably the case that one of the slave-girls was called Hagar.

The consequences of that later encounter only emerge later in Abraham’s life, but (a spoiler alert here) they resound to this very day.

There are just no advantages to disobedience.

None.

 

Whilst it comforts me to know that

Even Abraham made mistakes,

It challenges me to reflect on the scale

Of the consequences of those mistakes.

 

Do you really mean to say, Father,

That there may be consequences in my life

 –in my world

From the disobedience that I occasionally dip into,

As I follow you?

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