I love the story in Genesis 24 Abraham sending his servant to find a wife for Isaac in the old country. Eliezer had to travel more than 500 miles with ten camels and supplies and “choice” gifts, to find a woman he did not know, convince her that she should leave her family and home and travel with a stranger for 500 miles, where she would meet his master’s son, a stranger, and become his wife!
Eliezer stopped at the well outside the city of Nahor and prayed for guidance, that God would show him the right woman for Isaac. He didn’t ask God to help him see something arbitrary or spectacular. He wanted to see a woman who was set apart by her generosity and her willingness to work. A woman who was both kind and industrious, as one commentator put it. By this I will know, Eliezer said to God, that you have shown “hesed,” steadfast love to my master.
How do we know Rebekah was generous and kind? She did not hesitate to offer Eliezer a drink of water when he asked. And she did not hesitate to offer to draw water for his camels as well! How do we know she was industrious and hard working? Because he had TEN camels, and a thirsty camel after a long journey can drink up to 25 gallons. That means she offered to draw 250 gallons of water from the well for this stranger and his camels which would have taken 2 hours or more. The text says Eliezer “gazed at her in silence to learn whether the Lord had prospered his journey or not.”
God did, and Rebekah took Eliezer and his entourage to her house to meet the family and stay the night. The evening and the next morning in Rebekah’s house is another example of the faithfulness of Eliezer. And of his determination to complete what his master had sent him to do. Allen Ross wrote, “Believers must give priority to completing God’s work.” Eliezer did that by coming into Laban’s house at his bidding, but then insisting that before he ate anything he would need to tell them the story of his coming to their house. What did he tell Laban? He emphasized the blessing of the Lord upon Abraham, and that the inheritance of all he had would go to his son Isaac, and the promise he made to his master not to take a wife for Isaac from Canaan but from his father’s house and from his clan. He told him that his master promised an angel would come with Eliezer and prosper his way. He told him of the conditions by which he prayed the Lord would show him the right one for Isaac and how Rebekah appeared even before he finished praying and did all that he had just asked the Lord to show him. He ended his story with this appeal to Rebekah’s family: “If you are going to show hesed, steadfast love and faithfulness to my master, tell me.” They agreed!
But…what happened the next morning is a good reminder that though God’s provision is certain, it is not always easy. Rebekah’s brother and mother, and I suspect this is mostly Laban, as we know how he will treat Jacob later on, tell Eliezer to let her stay at home for another ten days and then she could go. Eliezer had two choices. He could acquiesce and bide his time for ten days, with no guarantee that 10 would not stretch into 30 and a decision not to let Rebekah go at all. Or he could push back. The saying is, “Don’t doubt in the darkness what you have heard in the light.” He had heard in the light that this was the woman God had led him to. So, he pushed back: “Do not delay me, since the Lord has prospered my way.” They responded with, “OK, let’s see what Rebekah wants to do.”
I love this, and I believe God sovereignly worked it out precisely this way. Because though on the one hand this was an arranged marriage, and the two who will marry in a few days will have never seen each other, neither was forced into it. Especially not Rebekah! She said to her brother and mother, “I will go.” J.I. Packer wrote, “Believers are never in the grip of blind forces (fortune, chance, luck, fate); all that happens to them is divinely planned, and each event comes as a new summons to trust, obey, and rejoice.”
The story ends with the two seeing each other for the first time, and “she became his wife, and he loved her.” We modern folks like to flip that around and say, “I loved her, and then she became my wife.” And that’s good. But isn’t it the desire of every married couple that we will grow in love for our wife or husband in ways we could never even imagine when we first married?
Sarah lived 127 years, Moses writes here, and she died in Hebron, in the promised land of Canaan, that had not yet been given to the people of God. Sarah was not perfect, as we have seen, and neither was her husband. But she had been Abraham’s faithful companion and wife for at least 100 years, ever since they were married in Ur of the Chaldeans and her name was Sarai. She had been with Abraham in all of the great moments of their lives, and in all of the failures. And she was the miracle mother at 91 of the child of promise, Isaac, who was now around 37 years old. Centuries later, Isaiah the prophet would write this to the people of God: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you;” (Isaiah 51:1-2)
Now Sarah, the matriarch from which Israel came, was dead. And Abraham does what any husband would do when his wife dies. He mourns for her. He weeps over the loss of his faithful companion, the wife of his youth and his old age, the mother of his son Isaac. Death is the enemy that will one day be finally and forever defeated, but not yet. Paul wrote that it will be after this mortality puts on immortality on that day when we are all changed in the twinkling of an eye that the saying shall come to pass that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” But death still stings today, doesn’t it? Every marriage, every family, every loving friendship will ultimately suffer loss. It is simply the reality of life before the second coming of Christ. But as Paul says, we who believe, “do not mourn as those who have no hope.”
After Abraham mourned, he rose up and went presumably to the gate of Hebron where he found the people who lived there, the Hittites. With the 62-year old promise of God perhaps ringing in his ears, “to this offspring I will give this land,” Abraham speaks to the men in the gate. Notice he does not tell them that the land they are occupying is really his and his descendants and they might as well go ahead and give it to him. No. Abraham simply asks them for a place to bury his dead wife. They may have been surprised that this man from far away was not taking his wife back to her ancestral home to bury her. They didn’t know what Abraham knew, that this land was his home and the home of his descendants, though they held not one deed to one square inch of it. Not yet.
That’s when the bargaining begins. I have bought souvenirs from street vendors and street marketplaces in several countries, and one tactic is universal. If you offer $5 for a carved wooden elephant, you may only be able to get that price, after several minutes of bargaining, if you also buy a carved wooden giraffe and lion and maybe a rhino and pay $5 each for them as well. In other words, “upselling” was not invented by Americans. It happens everywhere and has been going on for a long time. At least as far back as Hebron, circa 1914 B.C. Because Ephron does it with Abraham when he is asked about the purchase of a cave to bury his wife. First the game. Ephron says to Abraham, “No, my Lord, I give you the field and I give you the cave that is in it.” Ephron has no intention of giving this foreigner anything, but notice what he did? He added the field into the deal. Abraham didn’t ask for the field, just the cave. He is not looking to build a cemetery or a park, just bury his wife. But he doesn’t argue. He simply bows again and asks permission to be heard once more. He then asks for the price of the field. Ephron, he says, name your price and I will give you that price, and I will bury my dead.
With the upsell of a field as well as the cave accepted, Ephron asks for what most believe to be a highly inflated price tag. He says maybe with a heavy sigh for effect, Oh, that field is only worth 400 shekels of silver, and what’s that between you and me? The man in Kenya with the carved elephant, when I offered him $5 for it would put his hand on his chest and say, “Oh, my friend, you hurt my heart! This elephant, and I love this one, I have spent hours and hours carving it. Not $5, but $50. My friend.” And so it would go. Well, back in Hebron, Ephron has Abraham on the hook and starts reeling him in. The price of 400 shekels, or 6 ½ pounds of silver in that day would be an enormous, even outrageous sum. But notice that Abraham did not argue. He knew God as Jehovah Jireh, the Lord who provides, didn’t he? He accepted the price graciously, and the price was weighed out in the hearing of the Hittites.
Allen Ross writes, “The only portion of the Promised Land that Abraham ever received, he bought—and that was a grave.” What is important about this transaction beyond a place to bury his beloved bride? This purchase forever tied the descendants to the land. Sarah will be joined by Abraham in the same burial cave, and then Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah.
The writer of Hebrews said, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”
It is one of the most familiar stories in the Bible and would stand alone as a literary masterpiece. It is a simple story on one level of a test given, accepted, and passed. On another level, it is an astounding study of obedience and faith. And God’s provision.
“After these things God tested Abraham.”
Up until this point in Genesis 22, we have seen Abraham fail, and we have seen him grow in faith. All of it was preparation for this moment. We can know for certain that God tests his people, each one of us, and he knows perfectly how to prepare us for those tests, each one that he gives. Every father and mother know that their three-year-old son or daughter is not ready to mow and weed-eat the yard. But they also know that they can’t wait until that child is 10 before they ask them to do anything that even resembles work. Even a three-year old can pick up sticks and clean up the toys in the yard before it is mowed. Obedience, the linchpin of discipleship, starts very early. Abraham has learned to listen to God and follow his commands. This test, though, is the greatest one of his life.
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him as a burnt offering.”
Don’t get this twisted. Don’t listen to modern criticism of Genesis. This story is not about an abusive and sadistic heavenly father, and it is not about child sacrifice. It is a story about God testing the faithfulness of his people. When God does that in Scripture, as he does here with Abraham, and as he will do with Moses in the wilderness more than once, he often calls them to obey him in ways they cannot understand. We are not offered the option of obeying God only when we completely understand his ways and his future plans for us. If that were true, none of us would ever obey. God said in Isaiah 55, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Choosing when you will obey God and when you will disobey God is refusing to believe that his ways and his thoughts are perfect.
God tests his people and that is for our good and for God’s glory. Faith is revealed and strengthened. And note this! When God tests our faith, he often asks us to give up something that we love. Really love. Notice the offering plates are not passed on Sundays so you can put something in you don’t care about. “Here’s my old coonskin hat I used to wear when I pretended to be Daniel Boone; I just don’t love it anymore.” No! We are tested every Sunday to see whether we trust God to be our provider.
Sometimes God asks us to give something up completely. A career that we loved but has become an idol. A talent that we love but has stolen our affection for God. A habit that we love but has consumed us to the point that we cannot imagine life without it. Any sacrifice of obedience is difficult, but the rewards cannot be fully measured without seeing heaven and what awaits us there.
God tested Abraham’s faithfulness and showed him just how much he could trust the Lord to provide in any and every circumstance. It is true for you and me, as well.
Wait, what? In his 90’s? You have to read Genesis 20 and 21 to see this transformation take place. There are two encounters between Abraham and Abimilech. In the first one, Abraham lied and put his wife and future son of promise in jeopardy, while Abimilech, the pagan king, displayed a stronger sense of right and wrong. I think a life verse for Abraham at this point, if it had been written yet, would be Psalm 119:71. “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” Abraham had learned from his afflictions and his own self-made suffering, and the second encounter with Abimilech is totally different from the first one. Abraham was just 99 in the first one, and he matured a lot when he hit the century mark. My wife is praying it doesn’t take me quite that long.
The second encounter starts with Abimilech acknowledging that he sees the handprints of God all over Abraham’s life. He says to him, “God is with you in all that you do.” May we each grow in humility to the point that we can say that to others in Christ, and may we grow in humility to the point that others see the handprints of God in our own lives as well!
Abimilech then asks Abraham to make a deal with him. He says, “As I have dealt kindly with you, so you will deal with me.” Abraham agrees. This is a business transaction that takes place between two men who have enterprises for which they are responsible. A basic business agreement must be built on trust. That trust allows each party to do what they are supposed to do, and it also allows for discussion when there is a breach of the agreement. And that breach happens pretty fast, as Abraham talked to Abimilech about a well. It was a deep problem, that well. You know, two men were digging one once upside down and one of them fell out. Ok, sorry. But the business ran into a snag because Abimilech’s men seized one of Abraham’s wells.
Notice how Abraham dealt with it. He went and talked to Abimilech. He didn’t try to hurt the men who took the well. He didn’t pack up his things and move away. He didn’t sit in his tent and pout. He didn’t go on social media and tell his followers how much he had been wronged. He went straight to Abimilech, so they could work it out. Abraham reproved him, which can be translated “correct” or “convince.”
Trust between two parties cuts both ways, so we have to take notice of how Abimilech received the reproof. He did not argue. He did not turn the accusation into an accusation of his own. He did not run away. He simply acknowledged that he did not know who did it, and he did not know it had happened until that very moment. No attempt to deny, just asking for grace and time to resolve a matter he had just heard about. Then Abraham does an amazing thing. He gives sheep and oxen to Abimilech, and the two make a covenant together. Since covenants were normally sealed by blood, the idea may be that those animals were sacrificed, and then Abraham gave seven ewe lambs to Abimilech, a living reminder of the covenant that they had made. Whenever you see these lambs I gave you, remember that well was dug by me. Abimilech went back to his land and Abraham worshiped God.
God was working on Abraham, had been for a long time, and adversity polished his character and his faith. It is the same for you and me. Frederick Buechner wrote this: “We believe in God,… we have faith—because certain things happened to us once and go on happening. We work and goof off, we love and dream, we have wonderful times and awful times, are cruelly hurt and hurt others cruelly, get mad and bored and scared stiff and ache with desire, do all such human things as these, and if our faith is not mainly just window dressing or a rabbit’s foot or fire insurance, it is because it grows out of precisely this kind of rich human compost. The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments, if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us and around us and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God too.”
Good news. Whether we are 9 or 99, God is working, meeting us right where we are, calling us forward to where he knows we will be.
As the song used to go, “Second verse, same as the first.” Abraham and Sarah lied to the people of Egypt in Genesis 12, and Pharoah took her into his house. The same thing happens again in Genesis 20, this time in Gerar, and Abimilech takes her into his house, presumably to make her a part of his harem. *Sigh* You read this and you have to say, “Again, Abraham? What will it take for you to stop with the lying to protect your own skin?”
Have you ever had someone say that to you? “When will you finally get sick enough of that (insert trap sin here) and how it hurts you and others, that you will finally nail it to the cross?” Maybe you have heard that. Maybe you have said it to yourself! That takes me back to my junior year in high school…
“Hey, Fox! What are you readin’?”
I knew that voice. It was coming from two seats behind me in History Class. It belonged to a kid in our high school that everyone avoided because he was considered an oddball. I slowly turned, my mind spinning with anticipation of what I was about to do. My eyes fixed on my opponent. Actually, he wasn’t trying to pick a fight; Rick was just asking an innocent question, but in that nerdish way of his that provoked so many in the school to tease him.
“Why don’t you see for yourself?” I said, as I hurled the paperback I was reading. The missile found its desired target: Rick’s pimply face. The same face that was red with acne now turned beet red with rage.
Rick stood up beside his desk, his over-large Adam’s apple moving up and down like a yo-yo, in sync with his breaths. He was angry and embarrassed by my attack. In all of the wisdom that I could muster as a tender young scholar of 17, I leaped to my feet and began to shadow box in front of Rick.
“You want a piece of me, Rick?” I taunted. “You want some of this?” I punched at him playfully, my fists pulling up just inches short of his face.
Rick was tall and as skinny as a toothpick, but his reach was at least a foot longer than mine. While I was floating like a butterfly, he decided to sting like a bee. Rick sent one true jab right to the center of my face. It was a direct hit to the mouth, exactly where I deserved it, and the fight was over just that quick. I was stunned as I reached up to my two front teeth and found they were not hanging out in their usual location.
You see, I had just gotten my braces off about a week earlier. Rick had undone in one second what my orthodontist (and my Dad’s wallet, bless his soul) had taken 2 and ½ years to accomplish.
Not only that, but I was immediately sent to the principal’s office, paddled, and sent home for three days’ suspension for fighting in class. Talk about adding insult to injury!
Two root canals, two crowns, and thousands of dollars later, I was talking to my grandmother about the incident. I will never forget her counsel that day.
“Mark, you don’t know anything about that boy. For all you know, his father beats him every day when he gets home from work. For all you know, that boy cries himself to sleep every night because of the suffering that you know nothing about. That boy needs a friend, and you just piled on to his misery. You got what you deserved.”
My grandmother loved me enough to tell me the truth. She was a true friend in every sense of that word. The Bible says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” Even though Nana’s words hurt just about as much as Rick’s punch to the kisser, her counsel that day turned my anger to repentance, and my thoughts of revenge to remorse.
I need all the friends like that I can find.
Lot and his daughters left Sodom before the fire fell from heaven and moved into Zoar, instead of going where the angels told them to go, to the hills. Lot was afraid he could not make it to the hills. Next thing you know, Lot took his daughters to the hills and moved into a cave, because he was afraid to live in Zoar. Fear took him to Zoar, and fear pushed him out. Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote, “When a man is out of the will of God, he is haunted by the bogeys of his imagination.” And… you just have to wonder, why didn’t Lot see that his life had been on steady decline since he separated from Abraham? He moved away because of land and water issues, but room for livestock is not a problem now…he is living in a cave with his daughters! What kept Lot from running, not walking, as fast as he could go, to the oaks of Mamre? Was it pride? Or shame? Or was his mind so dulled by fear and depression that he could not think clearly anymore? It is a sad story.
The metaphorical descent into the darkness and isolation of a cave is sad enough. But there’s more.
Just when we think life could not get any worse for Lot, it gets horribly worse, as his two daughters get him drunk and seduce him, one after the other, so they can each have a child. Make no mistake: Lot is not a victim in this story. His daughters are not without blame, and what they did was unthinkable. But they were their father’s daughters. Children learn what they live with, and Lot’s own corruption paved the way for his daughters to make the choices they made. His worldliness as the leader in his home in Sodom set the course for his wife and daughters, even though each was responsible for her choices. Lot did not make his wife look back at Sodom and lose her life in the process. Lot did not make his daughters hatch the plot that they did in the cave. But his decisions, his lifestyle, his character, his lack of true leadership in Sodom and in his own home, made it easier for them to go to a very dark place.
In Genesis 19, “The firstborn said to the younger, ‘Our father is old and there is not a man on earth (for you and me.)’” There are so many things wrong here. First, we see that the fear Lot had that made him flee to the hills and live in a cave has taken up residence in his daughters, at least the older one. Her fear is that they are so isolated that there is no possibility of marriage and motherhood for them. The truth is what God said to Abraham and Sarah: “Is anything too hard, or too wonderful, for the Lord?” To the young ladies or young men who entertain the thought that there is no possibility you could ever find a godly husband or wife in the ‘little ol’ burg where I live,’ I would say… your God is too small. Replace that fear with faith.
The second wrong we see here is the deadly influence the older daughter has on the younger. She encourages her to join her in getting their father drunk so that, she says, “we may preserve offspring from our father.” If I asked for a show of hands here this morning of the people who had an older brother or sister who at one point or another led you into sin, I think the response would be shocking. It happens often. Older brothers and sisters have a tremendous opportunity and a godly opportunity to do just the opposite, to be an encouragement and an example of faith for their younger siblings. But, younger siblings, you don’t have to follow your older siblings into sin! This is where the younger sister could have said, “What are you talking about?! You and I both know that what you are suggesting is sinful and wrong. Even the pagans around us know that is wrong.” But she was also a daughter of Lot, and her moral compass, like her older sister’s and like her father’s, had been corrupted. Sodom was in their souls. They used wine to get their father drunk, but alcohol also cannot be blamed for Lot’s sinful actions that followed. As Kent Hughes writes, “Alcohol was no excuse. Lot’s drunkenness simply facilitated the working out of the dark side of his own heart…sin was alive and well in ‘righteous’ Lot’s family. And he was the father of it all!” As we have mentioned before, “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.” It certainly did so with Lot.
God agreed not to destroy the city of Sodom if there were only 10 righteous. Just 10! But there was only one, Abraham’s nephew Lot, even though we may not be a big fan of his character. One sentence in Genesis 19 tells us how much influence Lot had in the city, even with his own family: “But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.” He went to them in the middle of the night, the two men who had promised to marry his daughters, told them the story of the men and the mob and the miracle of blindness, and that the men in his house were from heaven and were going to destroy the city the next morning. They laughed at him. “Hey, that’s a good one, future pops! Now listen, you just go on back and see if you can get some sleep and leave us to ours. Angels destroying the city. Ha! That’s rich!”
The next morning the angels urged Lot to take his wife and two daughters and leave, and verse 16 tells us, “But he lingered.” You see how Sodom had entered his soul; he did not want to leave it. We know we are in bondage to sin or to a particular lifestyle that is comfortable but soul-tormenting when we know we should run from it… but we don’t want to. By an act of God’s grace and mercy, the two angels seized Lot and his wife and daughters and brought them outside the city. On the way out of town they were told to escape to the hills, because the whole valley, not just the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, would be destroyed.
This is another indication of how much Lot had assimilated, because he begged the angels to let them go to Zoar, a nearby town. He wanted to settle in Zoar, which was a mini-Sodom in itself. His wife was not able to make it that far; she looked back after being told not to do so and died with the rest of the wicked. But Lot? Derek Kidner writes, “The grip of ‘this present evil world,’ even on those who love it with a bad conscience, is powerfully shown in this last-minute struggle. The warning (from Jesus) to ‘remember Lot’s wife’ gives us reason to see ourselves potentially in the lingering, quibbling Lot himself, wheedling a last concession as he is dragged to safety. Not even brimstone will make a pilgrim of him: he must have his little Sodom again if life is to be supportable.”
Judgment came to Sodom quickly and without mercy, and Jesus said of that city, “they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all.” Lot escaped, but with what? Allen Ross writes, “…his heart had become a part of this world. His wife was just too attached to the city to follow the call of grace, and his daughters were not uncomfortable with immorality with their father…Ultimately, he could not have both (his faith and Sodom). Sodom would destroy him if the Lord did not destroy Sodom.”
We do not need a visitation from heaven to warn us of future judgment, do we? We have the Bible that tells us God has appointed a day upon which the whole world will be judged (Acts 17:31). It is on his calendar. We also do not need another visitation from heaven to tell us the good news of great joy, that a Savior was born, and that he lived that he might die in our place, so that the day of judgment will be a day of rejoicing for us, not a day of great torment and sorrow and regret.
Harry Ironside wrote this years ago: “One of the first gospel illustrations that ever made a real impression upon my young heart was a simple story when I was less than nine years old. Pioneers were making their way across one of the central states to a distant place that had been opened up for homesteading. They traveled in covered wagons drawn by oxen, and progress was necessarily slow. One day they were horrified to note a long line of smoke in the west, stretching for miles across the prairie, and soon it was evident that the dried grass was burning fiercely and coming toward them rapidly. They had crossed a river the day before, but it would be impossible to go back to that before the flames would be upon them. Only one man seemed to understand what had to be done. He gave the command to set fire to the grass behind them. Then when a space was burned over, the whole company moved back upon it. As the flames roared on toward them from the west, a little girl cried out in terror, ‘Are you sure we will not all be burned up?’ The leader replied, ‘My child, the flames cannot reach us here, for we are standing where the fire has been.” What a picture of the believer, who is safe in Christ. The fires of God’s judgment burned themselves out on Him, and all who are in Christ are safe forever, for they are now standing where the fire has been.’”
The epilogue of this story of destruction finds Abraham looking down at the smoldering dumpster fire of destruction in the valley, the smoke rising to the skies in one huge column, and the Bible says, “God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst.” We could say today and every day, those of us who are in Christ, “But God remembered Jesus, His Son, and all that are in Him…today, tomorrow, and for all eternity.”
Remember when three heavenly visitors came to see Abraham and Sarah, and one of them was the Lord himself? They enjoyed a big meal with Abraham that he and Sarah had prepared for them. Then they asked the question. “Where is Sarah your wife?” This was not a location question, though that is how Abraham interpreted it. They knew she was standing right there, just inside the door of the tent, and could hear everything they said. The real question they were asking was, “What is Sarah believing?” This was another “Adam, where are you?” question. I see you Adam, hiding behind the tree and under those silly fig leaves, but I want you to acknowledge where you really are right now. “Sarah,” they were saying through the tent, “we know you can hear us, and we want you to listen carefully to hear again the promise of the Lord.”
The LORD speaks next and tells Abraham (and Sarah who is eavesdropping) exactly what he had told Abraham in the previous chapter. He repeats the promise that “about this time next year,” she would bear Abraham a son. This was on the schedule, and this was not a Delta flight. It was going to happen, on time. When Sarah heard that, she “laughed to herself.” She laughed because, well, she and her husband were advanced in years, and because “the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah.” In other words, because she was no longer having a monthly cycle, it was physically impossible for her to have a baby. And that was true, and that was the physical reason behind her laughter. But the spiritual reason was at the heart of the issue. She laughed because she did not believe God the way Abraham believed God. And this, I think, was the first important reason for this visit. Before God would allow Abraham to stretch his faith with remarkable intercessory prayer, he would gently confront Sarah about her unbelief. It was important for her to fully embrace God’s plan and purpose. That was needed for her relationship with God. That was needed for her relationship with her husband. That would be needed for her relationship with Isaac.
I believe this is as true today as it was then. It is hard enough when a believer marries an unbeliever, contrary to what Scripture teaches. But even for two believers, God’s desire is that husband and wife are each pursuing the Lord with all their hearts. If it is a passion for one and only a preference for the other, God will not let that go. He will visit with us to draw each toward a passion and a pursuit of him. Bonus? A growing passion for the Lord strengthens your marriage.
Notice in this text, it is God who confronts Sarah about her unbelief, not Abraham. She laughed at the word of the Lord, who then asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” Then he speaks the essential message of this passage: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Or also translated, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” That was the question God wanted Sarah to answer for herself. There is nothing too wonderful for the Lord, including and especially the things that we see as simply impossible. It was physically impossible for Sarah to have a baby. Not for the Lord. It was physically impossible for Mary to have a baby, and even more so, as she was a virgin. Not for the Lord. It was impossible for the people of God to escape Pharaoh’s army as they were backed up against the Red Sea. Not for the Lord. It was impossible for Daniel to survive a night with ravenous lions, or the three Hebrew boys to walk out of the fiery furnace. Not for the Lord. It was impossible for Jesus to conquer sin, death, and the grave. Not for the Lord.
You say, “You don’t know my husband,” or, “You don’t know my wife. He/she will never change. It is impossible.” Not for the Lord. You may say of yourself, “I can never be free from this sin that has me in its grip. It is impossible.” Not. For. The. Lord. But I will tell you what you must overcome, and God will help you do this. You have to come to the place where you have no more excuses and no more self-justification. When the Lord asked Abraham why Sarah laughed, Sarah finally spoke out loud and said, “I did not laugh.” She was lying to herself and to God. She was justifying herself before almighty God. She was making an excuse for her unbelief before God.
God hears all of our excuses and knows all of our justifications for sin, and he comes to us anyway. He brings a mountain of grace to exchange for our pitiful pocketful of favorite sins. He tells us the truth: “No, but you did laugh.” And he waits for us to believe him. That there is nothing too hard, nothing too wonderful for the Lord to do. Even in the hearts and minds of people like you and me.
If there is anyone in the universe who enjoys laughter, it is God. How do we know God enjoys laughter? Because we enjoy laughter. And we were created in the image of God. Honestly, the person who cannot laugh needs to be prayed for and delivered into holy hilarity. The Bible says laughter is organic and healthy: “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” It is ok even to laugh during a sermon, if there’s something funny. Charles Spurgeon was a great preacher but also quite a character. Some of his fellow clergymen railed against his habit of introducing humor into his sermons. With a twinkle in his eye, he once replied: “If only you knew how much I hold back, you would commend me…This preacher thinks it less a crime to cause a momentary laughter than a half-hour of profound slumber.”
Sometimes we laugh because something totally unexpected happens, and one place we see that kind of laughter in the Bible surrounds the birth of Isaac. This famous baby was born to a 100 year-old father and his 90 year-old wife. What? That’s miraculously funny right there. When Isaac was born, his mother said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” If you read the rest of Sarah’s story, you must admit that before this baby came along, she had a tough row to hoe. I’m not so sure that 90-year-old Sarah had much to guffaw over before then, especially for the 13 years since Ishmael came along. You can read about that in the 16th chapter of Genesis. Sarah did not even titter in that chapter.
But God changed her mindset, her sense of humor, and her name. Sarai became Sarah. Both names mean princess, and ladies and girls, you cannot be a princess without a king! God, her king, says twice in Genesis 17, “I will bless her.” He also tells Abraham and Sarah three times that they will have a son. Together. Abraham laughs at that and suggests God is confused, thinking about Ishmael. God says “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.” It’s like he is saying, “Abraham and Sarah, you like to laugh? Great, that’s your son’s name. In one year, you will really be laughing as you hold him in your arms.” No name book needed. No gender reveal party necessary. Isaac, the promised son, is on the way. The name Isaac, by the way, means “laughter.”
Someone reading this may believe in a sourpuss God who sits in heaven just waiting for someone to enjoy life for a second and, God forbid, even laugh out loud. That’s when he punishes them with a lightning bolt or even worse, a re-run of “Bill Nye Saves the World.” Nope. That’s not who God is. Iain Duguid said that many people approach God as if they were interviewing him for a job position for ‘personal deity of my life.’ If the man in the sky fits the job description, being nonjudgmental and accepting, and allows us to determine what is right or wrong—he’s got the job.” Nope. Wrong again.
God laughs at that idea.
What if I told you to go home, take 5 animals you own, maybe your dog, cat, parakeet, gerbil, and goldfish, and cut them in half and lay the pieces side by side, each half across from the other? You would call the SPCA and report me, right? But that’s what God told Abraham to do with a cow, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon, and Abraham didn’t bat an eye. It was normal in those days, including in Mesopotamia where Abraham had come from, that two parties would make a covenant in just this way. They would both walk between the bloody pieces, a gruesome path of promise. They were saying to one another by doing so, “May it be done to me what was done to these animals if I do not keep this covenant.”
This day in Abraham’s life reminds us that since the fall, when God covered Adam and Eve with animal skins, requiring the life of those animals, that the covenant we have with God is a blood covenant. As the Bible says, “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” This is how a covenant was made. Something had to die, and eventually, praise be to God, that something became a Someone. The only One. The Son of God as our perfect high priest would enter the holy place, but not like a priest who entered “with blood not his own.” Jesus went to the cross as the priest and the sacrifice. God’s covenant with Abraham pointed to that.
As the sun went down, Abraham fell into a deep sleep, and a “dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.” The last time the Bible mentioned a deep sleep was when God caused Adam to go to the third level of anesthesia so he could remove a rib and make Eve. But here, the sleep comes as the covenant sacrifice is made, attended by deep darkness and great dread. Again it points us to the cross, where from noon until 3pm, the last three hours of Jesus’ crucifixion, there was darkness over the whole land as the new covenant was being cut. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The darkness and the weight of that moment we will never understand. We can only imagine such horror and be amazed at such sacrifice.
The most beautiful part of the story of God’s covenant with Abraham may not seem like much as you just read through it. When there was no daylight left, the sun was gone and it was totally dark, Abraham saw a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the pieces. What is going on? This was God appearing to Abraham as he would hundreds of years later to the children of Israel in the wilderness, a pillar of fire by night.
Even more amazing and important to our faith, this is a unilateral covenant. When a man and woman get married and they make a covenant with one another at the altar, and he kisses the bride and they are pronounced husband and wife, BOTH walk down the aisle together to ratify the covenant they just made. But here, God walks down the aisle, if you will, right between the bloody halves of the five animals. He makes the covenant by himself. Because there is no one greater to swear by, God swears by himself to Abram, and all of Abram’s descendants, including you and me who are in Christ, that he will keep his promise. “And if you are Christ’s,” Paul wrote, “then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” What are five of many promises we who follow Jesus Christ have from God?
He will make us a people. He will take us through trials and tribulations. He will give us grace for each moment and strength equal to the calling on our lives. He will hold our hands as we pass from this realm to the next, in peace. He will give us a home.
What a great God who loves us so!