|Along Crab Creek, North of Desert Aire/Mattawa WA|
Monday, September 19, 2016
Journey of Faith - Facing the Fear Factor
Preached on Sunday, September 18, 2016
Scripture reading: Genesis 12:10-20
The old-time comedian, Henny Youngman was famous for the kind of short joke called the one-liner. Lots of these one-liners were about his wife, or his mother-in-law. For instance, one went like this: “I just got back from a pleasure trip; I took my mother-in-law to the airport.” His most famous joke was this: “Take my wife, please!”
This seems to have been Abraham’s favorite joke, only it wasn’t funny the way he used it. His excuse was fear. Abraham was afraid that beautiful Sarah would get him killed. He was afraid that, when they passed through, or stayed in, some new city or kingdom, that some powerful man, seeing beautiful Sarah, might have him killed to take her for his own. So Abraham had an ongoing strategy of claiming that Sarah was his sister.
All of this raises some questions.
Sarah was about sixty-five years old at this time. Given that she was a beautiful sixty-five-year-old; would a king still want to add her to his harem? Would a king kill in order to get his hands on a beautiful sixty-five-year-old? Please forgive me for bringing this up!
Sarah eventually lived to be one-hundred-and-twenty-seven years old, and Abraham lived to be one-hundred-and-seventy-five years old. But, through it all, they showed every sign of living with a tremendous amount of energy in everything that they did.
If the average ancient person reached the end of an average life-span (for an ancient person) around the age of forty-five, it might have taken Sarah one hundred-twenty-seven years to reach the same old age of an ancient forty-five-year-old. Sarah, at sixty-five going on one-hundred-and-twenty-seven, may have looked like a twenty-year-old. Not only was their life span spread out, but their youthfulness may have been equally spread out. That’s the understanding that has been passed down for centuries.
Then there is the oddity about Sarah being Abraham’s sister. Apparently Sarah and Abraham had the same father, but different mothers, in those old polygamous times before the Ten Commandments. Those were the days before God began to break through the barriers that Adam and Eve had raised against him.
On top of that, listen to what Abraham said, when he tried to pull off the same stunt in Genesis, chapter twenty. (Genesis 20:11-13) When Abraham and Sarah left their family in order to follow the Lord to the promised land, this is what Abraham said to Sarah: “This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, “He is my brother.”
We often speak as though Abraham showed an amazing faith when he and his wife (or his half-sister) crossed over into the desert in order to follow the Lord to whatever land that the Lord would show them. But they started their journey of faith with this terrible understanding, this conspiracy, between them. And they carried it out at least twice (that we know of). Imagine being the wife of a husband who asked her to live such a lie.
Their faith was a very imperfect faith from the beginning. Their real story is about God’s willingness to love and bless people who have a very horribly imperfect faith. Abraham and Sarah needed God, in his infinite faithfulness and grace, to continually come to their aid, and rescue them from themselves over and over again.
That was their secret of faith, or their secret of success. It was not about their success at being faithful. It was their depending on God’s success at being faithful to them, in their need, and in their shame.
The Lord was faithful to them in spite of their fear; or, at least, in spite of Abraham’s fear. Abraham’s general fear of the danger of Sarah’s beauty caused him to create a policy of lies that got both him and her in trouble, more than once.
The sin wasn’t their journey to Egypt, as some believe. After all, the Lord allowed the chosen family to take refuge in Egypt later on, when a famine hit the promised land in the time of Jacob and Joseph. Their sin was the lie, and Abraham failed at this point more than once. Even a pagan like Pharaoh could see this.
And the lie came from fear.
Fear is a strange thing.
It isn’t always a bad thing. There is the mysterious fear called “the fear of the Lord.” Scripture tells us that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:19)
Fear is the beginning of wisdom but, perhaps, not the completion of wisdom. John wrote: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him…There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:16-19)
Fear is a strange thing. It isn’t always a sin. Some years ago I found a rattlesnake on my driveway. I jumped when I saw it, because I had almost stepped on it. The fact is that I always almost step on rattlers before I see them. Jumping when you almost step on a rattler is a good thing. Well, after I jumped, I walked away. I got a shovel, and came back, and killed it. Did I kill that snake because I was afraid of it? You better believe it!
There is a healthy fear. You need a healthy fear when you’re running a chain saw, when you’re driving on the freeway, when you’re preaching a sermon, when you’re in love. There’s a healthy fear.
Even Abraham’s fear of the beauty of Sarah had something reasonable about it. But a healthy fear makes things better. A healthy fear protects and blesses others. Abraham’s fear didn’t protect anyone, and it didn’t bless anyone. Abraham’s fear endangered Sarah, and Pharaoh, and the whole nation of Egypt. And Abraham’s blessing was supposed to bless nations. (Genesis 12:3)
It isn’t hard to see how many great blessings in life depend on the kind of healthy fear that builds a healthy courage. Marriage requires the kind of courage that is built on a healthy fear. I saw a joke the other day that said: “You can’t scare me: I have a daughter.” Parenthood is a bold step that carries a special set of healthy fears. Starting a career, or starting a business, or being a farmer require a healthy fear that builds a healthy courage.
Sharing your faith with a friend, or with anyone you do things with, requires a healthy fear. This is because sharing your faith is important. All important issues and goals can be scary. We can’t let fear be our reason for not dealing with those issues or facing those goals. We can’t let our fear twist us into betraying our own faith, and our own values, and those who are counting on us to be faithful.
Being a church, in this place and this time, may be scary, but it’s important. This community is full of people with needs that only a family of faith can serve and heal, with God’s help. What we may be called to do, and to risk, in order to make Jesus real around us, outside our walls, may make us feel uncomfortable and seem like something we would rather leave to others; and so we may choose to sit it out.
We can listen to our discomfort and not be the blessing that we are called to be. We can listen to our fears like Abraham did, so many times. And we will very well seem to be blessed anyway, just as he was. Abraham was sent on his way with Sarah unharmed, and Pharaoh allowed him to keep everything that he had gained from his act of fear.
In a way, the pagan Pharaoh was more of a “man of God” than Abraham was. Pharaoh put things right, and he also protected Abraham and Sarah from harm.
The story in Genesis doesn’t tell us much detail. It doesn’t explain anything. How could Abraham get away with what he did, and why was he able to benefit from his lie? Did God bless him through all of this?
Of course Abraham was blessed. God was faithful. God is faithful still. I believe Abraham knew that he had failed Sarah, and Pharaoh, and God, and that Abraham’s real blessing was the blessing of living with his shame, knowing that God is faithful still.
If you read the life of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, you might notice that sometimes the pagans are smarter than God’s people. They sometimes know what’s right when we don’t. At the time, Pharaoh could plainly see that Abraham was not a blessing to the nations, but a trouble-maker. The people of the world can often see exactly what is wrong with us when we fail to be faithful. And they’ll gladly tell us what’s wrong with us, whether we want them to or not. We should consider what they say, and ask God to help us to live what we learn from them by faith.
God has so designed and organized the universe so that everything that really matters requires us to live out a healthy fear by sacrificing our fears and moving forward with a healthy courage. That is faith. Faith means trusting God.
God wants to build a new world of blessing and he will never give up on his plan. This is the secret to the core of his plan in becoming a human being in Christ.
When our fears become sins God himself feels them and dies for them on the cross, in order to set us free. Faith means trusting what God is up to and trusting what God requires of us, if we are going to follow him. And God is still faithful.
We may not pass the test, but God passes the test every time. The story of Abraham and Sarah teaches us this. God was using the story of Abraham and Sarah to teach them this, in their own lives.
The God who passes the test and who is faithful when we are fearful and faithless is the God who sent his Son to die for our sins on the cross. Abraham and Sarah didn’t know this part of the story yet. Their lives were only the first step toward the God of the cross, but they didn’t know that yet.
God is faithful because God is love. In Jesus, we see our fear of the Lord become something else. In Jesus, our fear of everything can become something else: a faith that that has the courage to build upon love.
Fear not. Have faith for the journey. Love the Lord. Love everyone whom God calls you to bless, and don’t be afraid.