Part three of a mini series by Nigel Beynon: God’s plan for his world and our lives.
This week: But the Lord. How God can intervene to keep his plans on track
Years ago I went on an ordination retreat. There were about 30 of us – 4 of us were friends. It was a silent retreat – not allowed to talk. Bloke leading the retreat seemed he was very concerned that none of his personality should come across in his talks. He did very well making sure that didn’t happen – no expression at all.
It was meant to be a special time away – but it turned out to be rubbish – and to be honest we reacted rather badly – we got together to pray breaking the silence rule – we made up games during his talks. One bloke drew moustaches on the photos of nuns.
I want us to think about how we react when things are difficult. Now my example is trivial – it wasn’t very difficult. But we face much harder situations – pressures at work, demands of children, the disappointment of no children, illness or bereavement, struggles in our relationships. When things are hard – things don’t turn out as planned – if we believe in Jesus – how do we react?
I can say from my own experience – it’s easy to react badly. For your faith to fail in some way. On reflection I’ve realised the weakness was always there – but the situation – the pressure – brings it out and reveals it.
Then the question comes - when we fail – how do we react to that failure? Do we say – that wasn’t my fault - it was just the situation. Do we say – I always do this – I’m hopeless – I should give up. Do we say – failure doesn’t really matter – who cares?
That is what we’re going to think about from this passage – how we react to pressure and failure.
We’re going to walk through the story for a while. And then I’m going to try and draw out some lessons for us.
We heard last week how Abram had been promised blessing - 12:2 – go to the land I will show you, I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. Abraham believed God – and went to the land.
And so v10 comes as a surprise. ‘Now there was a famine in the land.’
God says – leave your home, safety, comfort – travel to this strange new place – and I will bless you. Abraham gets there – miles from home – lots of dependents to look after and – famine. That’s not blessing is it – that’s not how it’s meant to be.
Be easy for Abram to think – I should never have trusted God. Those friends who laughed, said I was mad when I left – turns out they were right.
It becomes clear that is where Abram was – this famine meant his faith was starting to fail.
Now we’re not told if going to Egypt was a wrong move. Later in Genesis God positively commands his people to go to Egypt because of a famine – so it’s not intrinsically wrong. God has made us to make pro active decisions, choose what seems wise and best. So Abram could be doing that.
But – we hear nothing of Abram praying, asking God about it – so might worry. And that’s confirmed when he gets there. V11-13 READ.
As a speech to your wife he starts well doesn’t he? – I know what a beautiful woman you are – but then it really goes down hill. He thinks he’ll be killed so someone can marry her. So he comes up with a plan – say you’re my sister – and we’ll be alright.
Actually that was half true – Sarai was his half sister – but it’s still a lie, hiding the fact they were married.
Now we just said - God has promised Abram – a land, a blessing, descendants.
But on the other hand we’ve got Egyptians who want to marry Sarai – and might be prepared to kill Abram.
So for Abram it’s God’s promise versus scary Egyptians.
And in that moment - the Egyptians win. Fear wins over faith. Maybe he was already doubting God’s promises because of the famine. So rather than trusting God and his promises - he comes up with his own plan – to save himself.
It’s easy enough to relate to though. Maybe one morning we’re reading the Bible – God’s promise of love and care feel very real to us. Later at work – we hear some people have to be made redundant – and we’re suddenly scared we’ll lose our job, we’ve got a mortgage to pay, family to look after. Then we find ourselves exaggerating what we’ve done to our boss, and doing others down. Faith fails.
Might be the fear of what others think of us – that makes us stay quiet about Jesus. Pressure of loneliness that leads us to drink too much. Or pain of illness or bereavement that leads to escape in fantasies.
All too often – we react to pressure badly – our faith fails in some way. That is Abram – there is famine and fears and his faith fails.
And then – things really go pear shaped for him. It’s likely Abram’s plan was to say Sarai was his sister – then when someone wanted to marry her – Abram as the brother would do negotiations which would take time – but before she’s actually married they leave. So he’s just buying some time.
But then v14-16 READ.
Pharaoh doesn’t need to negotiate and do due process in getting a wife – he just takes Sarai straight away into his harem in the palace.
Now if Abram’s plan has gone wrong, God’s plan isn’t looking too good either. Remember we said last week – this is God’s plan to rescue the world – put everything right. It’s the promise of blessing - it starts with the promise of land and nation – but Abram has left the land and gone to Egypt instead. And now he’s lost his wife – so he can’t have any descendants and be a great nation.
So Abram’s failure means God’s plan to rescue his world – is now at risk.
And then we read V17 READ.
Those first three words sum up this sermon – but the Lord.
In the middle of the mess Abram has made – God intervenes - he steps in and acts.
He sends some sort of plague on Pharaoh and his household. It becomes obvious Sarai is the issue – maybe she was the only one who didn’t get the plagues. Maybe she confesses. Anyway Pharaoh finds out the truth – she is Abram’s wife. And they are being punished by Abram’s God.
And so v18-20 READ.
The pagan king gives the man of faith a talking to. Abram – what were you playing at?! Why did you lie to me? How could you do this to me?
That last sentence, here’s your wife, take her and go - literally are four words – here wife take go. You can feel the anger and outrage – how dare you behave like this.
And Abram says – well I tell you what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say – but there was a famine – and we were really hungry – we had to come here. He doesn’t say – but the Egyptians are so scary so I had to lie or they’d kill me. It’s very tempting to blame your circumstances – very easy - maybe up until now Abram explained it to himself like that.
But now – confronted - he says - nothing – because there’s nothing to say – his silence says – you’re right. I was wrong. I should have trusted God. But I didn’t – under pressure - I got it very wrong.
Back on that retreat where we were misbehaving. Half way through the w/e the leader/speaker came and found us. Found us watching Wimbledon on TV actually – chatting – which we weren’t meant to be doing.
He said – I know you’ve been mucking around in the talks. I know you’ve drawn on the photos. And now I find you doing this.
And we didn’t have anything to say. In our little world, it wasn’t too bad, given the circumstances – it was understandable. But suddenly it was clear – the situation was no excuse – there was no excuse – it was down to us and we’d behaved terribly.
Even more so Abram – he has no excuses – the truth was his faith failed.
But – v20 READ.
So - he left Egypt. And he left with his wife. He left with this cattle and servants. And they go back to the promised land together. And God’s promise – God’s plan – is back on track.
So – there’s the story – I want us to step back from it for a moment and think about what God is teaching us – about faith and famine and failure.
I think there are two ways you could read this. You could say Abram failed – so the lesson is - don’t be like Abraham. Don’t fear and lie - instead have faith in God and obey him.
There’s something in that. Abram becomes the great example of faith in the Bible – and this was part of him learning to trust God. He would have walked home thinking – I should have trusted God – should have prayed, not lied, I should have kept God bigger than the Egyptians. And we learn that too.
If we’re aware of how we’re failing in faith – making compromises – not trusting God – then don’t be like Abram – learn the lesson - you can trust God.
However I think there is another way to read this which I want to focus on. Abram fails. But God intervenes – he steps in to get his plan back on track. So the lesson is - our failure – doesn’t stop God’s plan.
This was first read by God’s people under Moses. Now it depends how good your Bible history is – but can you imagine that later generation reading this.
They read Abram went to Egypt because of a famine. Well they’d have thought - that’s us – because years after Abraham – Jacob and his family go to Egypt because of a famine.
They read Sarai is taken by Pharaoh. Well that’s us - as a nation we were taken captive by Pharaoh – became slaves.
They read God sends plagues on Egyptians so Sarah is released. That’s what God did with us – sent 10 plagues so we were freed.
They read that Abram leaves Egypt taking all the animals and servants he’d been given. And they think – that’s what we did - when we left Egypt we plundered the Egyptians too.
They couldn’t fail to hear the echoes – this is what God did with Abram. This is what God did with us. This is what God does – he is a God who steps in to terrible situations – a God who intervenes to keep his plan on track – he is if you like – a ‘but the Lord’ sort of God. That’s the big lesson from this.
However there is a question how we apply this to us. First of all there is the big picture fulfillment – in Jesus.
In the NT we read,
“No one will be declared righteous…. But now, a righteousness from God has been make known.”
“you were dead in your transgressions and sins … But, because of his great love for us God…”
“This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son…”
We’ve all made a mess of life like Abram – we ended up imprisoned – not by Pharaoh but by sin and death. But God intervenes – as he sends Jesus who takes his judgment – so we can be forgiven.
That is the big picture fulfillment of this – God steps in to fulfill his plan to put the world right. But the Lord.
And as I’ve been talking we might be aware how we’ve failed in faith. Times we’ve been under pressure – and done the wrong thing. Well we should be comforted from this story – we have a - but the Lord - sort of God – we can look at Jesus and see how God has intervened to win our forgiveness and bring about his plan.
But there is also little picture fulfillment – secondary fulfillment - in our individual lives. But here it’s a bit less clear – or a bit less black and white.
But God intervenes with us - to bring us into his plan and keep us in his plan.
I expect most of us can look back and see how God acted – intervened - so that we put our faith in him. For me it was a friend at school who took me to his church where I heard about Jesus. God arranged that – the initial connection – the conversations – the invitation. He enabled me to realise my need of him – he intervened so I put my faith in him.
And he continues to intervene in our lives – to keep us in his plan. Now I don’t mean that whatever mistakes we make – God will step in and make everything alright. Often we have to face the consequences of our actions. But he does act to keep us in his plan, keep his plan on track in our lives.
Years ago I was with a couple of friends who weren’t Christians – something about Jesus came up and I didn’t say anything. But later one friend said something like – I’m surprised you didn’t say something about what you believe. I’d have thought you’d have a spiel to give.
That made me say – well I do actually – and did a little gospel summary.
I failed to speak – then God acted to help me do the right thing.
I expect you can think of your own examples. We start to bend the rules at work – but our boss see what’s happening and says – we’re not doing that - overrules us. We feel rightly told off - but we’re back on track. We feel too tired or embarrassed to read the Bible and pray as a family – but one day our 4 year old innocently asks - ask why we don’t we talk to God – we are ashamed – and pushed into it.
Now this does raise questions - why God doesn’t intervene more – why didn’t God intervene in that situation – why doesn’t he intervene in that person’s life? And we don’t know – there is some mystery here.
But he promises to save his people – promises to intervene to bring us to believe – and keep us believing. So the people we meet, conversations we have, books, sermons, circumstances, emotions – they are God nudging us – shoving us sometimes – not to make every always fine and lovely – but to keep his plan on track in our lives.
The other day – I found myself wondering what would be written on a plaque when I die. Probably just be name and dates. But what could it say. Well it should say something like – Nigel Beynon – he went his own way – even as a Christian he feared and failed. That would summarise a lot of my life. And then the plaque would say – ‘But the Lord’.
But the Lord – sent Jesus to die for me. But the Lord – sent me a friend to tell me the gospel. But the Lord – sent this friend into my life – and I had that conversation – and he gave me that opportunity – and that situation went wrong which taught me this lesson - and and and– God acted to keep me believing and repenting.
That is a good caption for our lives – but the Lord.
So let’s not be like Abram here – let’s trust God, obey him – but even if we fail – we take comfort - he’s a - but the Lord - sort of God.