Genesis 19

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Genesis 19

1 The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed himself with his face to the earth and said, “My lords, please turn aside to your servant’s house and spend the night and wash your feet. Then you may rise up early and go on your way.” They said, “No; we will spend the night in the town square.” But he pressed them strongly; so they turned aside to him and entered his house. And he made them a feast and baked unleavened bread, and they ate. But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down. 10 But the men reached out their hands and brought Lot into the house with them and shut the door. 11 And they struck with blindness the men who were at the entrance of the house, both small and great, so that they wore themselves out groping for the door. 12 Then the men said to Lot, “Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. 13 For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” 14 So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up! Get out of this place, for the Lord is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting. 15 As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.” 16 But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city. 17 And as they brought them out, one said, “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away.” 18 And Lot said to them, “Oh, no, my lords. 19 Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life. But I cannot escape to the hills, lest the disaster overtake me and I die.20 Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!” 21 He said to him, “Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. 22 Escape there quickly, for I can do nothing till you arrive there.” Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar. 23 The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar. 24 Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven. 25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. 26 But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt. 27 And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. 28 And he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace. 29 So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived. 30 Now Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters, for he was afraid to live in Zoar. So he lived in a cave with his two daughters. 31 And the firstborn said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is not a man on earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth. 32 Come, let us make our father drink wine, and we will lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 33 So they made their father drink wine that night. And the firstborn went in and lay with her father. He did not know when she lay down or when she arose. 34 The next day, the firstborn said to the younger, “Behold, I lay last night with my father. Let us make him drink wine tonight also. Then you go in and lie with him, that we may preserve offspring from our father.” 35 So they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. 36 Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. 37 The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. 38 The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi. He is the father of the Ammonites to this day.

In 1973, Karl Menninger published his best-selling book, Whatever Became of Sin? He began the book in this way:

On a sunny day in September, 1972, a stern-faced, plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner in the busy Chicago Loop. As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’

Then, without any change of expression, he would resume his still stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture. Then, again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY!’

The effect of this strange accusatory pantomime on the passing strangers was extraordinary, almost eerie. They would stare at him, hesitate, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.

One man, turning to another who was my informant, exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?’[1]

That is a fascinating and humorous story…but not too humorous. Truth be told, it gives us pause. In fact, if one has been alive for any period of time, one realizes that there are few surer bets out there today than that if you stood on a street corner and indiscriminately pointed your finger at strangers shouting “Guilty!” a fair number of them will think, “How did he know?” After all, Paul wrote, “Fall all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That makes it a sure bet indeed!

Even so, as Menninger’s book title suggests, the modern world—inexplicably, I would argue, and against all evidence to the contrary—seems increasingly not to believe that sin exists. Menninger, as summarized by theologian James Leo Garrett’s consideration of the book, “noted that wrongdoing has been identified as ‘crime,’ as ‘symptom’ of illness, and as ‘collective irresponsibility.” Menninger then went on to call “on pastors, teachers, physicians, lawyers and judges, the police, the media, and statesmen to work for the recovery of sin as moral guilt.”[2]

I agree that the idea needs to be recovered. To do so, we need to regain a theology of sin. In theology, this study or consideration is called hamartiology, which comes from the Greek words ἁμαρτία, hamartia, meaning “missing the mark, error” and λογια, logia, meaning “study.” I would like to argue this morning that there are few more insightful chapters than Genesis 19 and the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in helping us construct our hamartiology, our theology of sin. So let us consider this chapter and what it tells us about sin, about the nature and character of God, and about ourselves.

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Genesis 18:16-33

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Genesis 18

16 Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom. And Abraham went with them to set them on their way. 17 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.” 20 Then the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” 22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.” 27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

In either 1947 or 1948 (there is some debate about exactly when), one of the most provocative acts of racial reconciliation occurred on the baseball diamond. Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play major league baseball, had broken the color barrier in the major leagues when he was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. While many defended him as a man and as a player, he faced innumerable challenges. On one occasion, opposing fans in either Boston or Cincinnati (depending on the date of the event) were angered at the presence of Robinson on the field and were shouting numerous inappropriate and racial things at the Dodgers. Robinson was standing in the infield hearing and receiving all of these hateful words. He felt dejected and discouraged. He then experienced something he did not expect. One of his teammates, Pee Wee Reese, came and stood by him in front of the crowd. In the most famous version of the story, Pee Wee puts his arm around Jackie and stands there. As Reese stood there with Jackie Robinson the largely white crowd silenced itself.

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It was a powerful act. It was, to be sure, an act of racial reconciliation. It was also an act of challenge and rebuke to those in the stands. But what most interests me is that it was an act of intercession. In a general sense, intercession simply means the act of interceding, of one person going between two other persons or parties in a mediatorial role. And Reese certainly did that. When he stood there with his arm around Jackie Robinson he was interceding between Robinson and the angry crowd. He was standing between them, so to speak, and effectively saying something to the crowd about Jackie, namely, that he, Reese, saw Jackie as a human being, a man, a teammate, and a person of worth and dignity who was undeserving of their behavior. It was an act of intercession. 

The word also has a distinctly Christian connotation and it is, in fact, a very important theological concept in scripture. The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality says of the word intercession:

Intercession is from the Latin intercedere, to ‘go between,’ ‘to intervene on behalf of another,’ or in relationships simply to ‘exist between.’ In intercessory prayer we stand on behalf of another, ‘between’ another and God, calling God’s attention to another and, no doubt, calling another’s attention to God.

Well before this famous act of intercession on the baseball diamond, Abraham interceded for Sodom. The record of this is in the latter half of Genesis 18. Abraham stands between wicked Sodom and a just God and pleads for mercy. In so doing, and in God’s response to Abraham’s intercession, we learn something about the character of God. What is more, we see the stage set for the greatest act of intercession the world has ever seen.

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Genesis 17:15-21, 18:1-15

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Genesis 17

15 And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19 God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. 20 As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. 21 But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.”

Genesis 18

1 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10 The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him.11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.” 

Laughter is infectious. There is something about hearing somebody laugh that makes us want to laugh. A prime example of this would be Tom Hanks’ great laughing scene in the 1986 movie The Money Pit. If you have seen the movie, you will remember the scene. In the film, the characters played by Tom Hanks and Shelley Long are a couple who buy a big beautiful house at a very low price, believing they have found the deal of a lifetime. Instead, what they had found was a nightmare. Everything—and I mean everything—is wrong with this house and as the reality of what they had bought settles in their sanity and their bank account are emptied out and crippled. In the scene in question, the couple stand on the second floor and Tom Hanks and Shelley Long—dirty, exhausted, nerves shot—pour two buckets of water into a large bathtub. As they do so, the floor beneath the tub gives way and the entire tub falls into the floor below, shattering into a million pieces. The camera then looks up from below where we see the couple staring down into the hole where the tub once stood. Then it happens: Tom Hanks, holding the bucket, staring down in disbelief, laughs and laughs and laughs. It is an amazing picture of absolute exasperation and mental anguish. The laugh is beyond hysterical, though what lies behind it is less so. Even so, as the weird cacophony of sounds pour out, the viewer cannot help but laugh as well.

Laughter is infectious. Laughter is powerful.

In June 2019 Giovanni Sabato for Scientific American entitled “What’s So Funny? The Science of Why We Laugh.” In this piece, he outlined three of the major theories concerning human laughter:

Perhaps the oldest theory of humor, which dates back to Plato and other ancient Greek philosophers, posits that people find humor in, and laugh at, earlier versions of themselves and the misfortunes of others because of feeling superior.

The 18th century gave rise to the theory of release. The best-known version, formulated later by Sigmund Freud, held that laughter allows people to let off steam or release pent-up “nervous energy.”…

A third long-standing explanation of humor is the theory of incongruity. People laugh at the juxtaposition of incompatible concepts and at defiance of their expectations—that is, at the incongruity between expectations and reality.[1]

It is this last theory, the theory of incongruity that is most intriguing to me for it seems to explain perfectly what is happening with two instances of laughter in Genesis 17 and 18. I am speaking of Abraham’s and Sarah’s laughter at God’s announcement that Sarah will have a child in her old age. Such an announcement did indeed present a “juxtaposition of incompatible concepts” and “the incongruity between expectations and reality.” The incongruity is between (a) God’s announcement of a child to be born and (b) Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age and infertility.

So Abraham and Sarah laugh at the promise, yet the promise stood…and it was fulfilled! Let us consider these amazing promises of God.

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Genesis 17

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Genesis 17

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

23 Then Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house or bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very day, as God had said to him. 24 Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 That very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised. 27 And all the men of his house, those born in the house and those bought with money from a foreigner, were circumcised with him.

James Earl Massey has passed on a charming story from Harry Emerson Fosdick’s youth:

Harry Emerson Fosdick told the story of his father’s leaving the house one morning on his way to work, and he told his wife to have a young Harry mow the lawn if he felt like doing so. Fosdick’s father paused on the walk when he saw just how tall the grass had grown. He called back loudly and said, “Tell Harry he’d better feel like it!”[1]

It is a charming story but it raises an intriguing question: Is it possible to bring one’s desires in line with the commands put upon one? Or, put another way: Might we actually want to do what we ought to do?

William Temple once wrote, “The most agreeable experiences in life are those which are marked by a coincidence of duty and pleasure.”[2] This is so, but I wonder if such seemingly rare occurrences must remain merely coincidental? Might they become natural?

In Genesis 17, we find God calling for Abraham’s life to reflect the covenant promises he has received, for his behavior to match the promises. What is interesting about this is that this call for consistency between character and covenant does not hinge upon a raw assertion of divine power. The Lord rather speaks of Abraham having a changed character and being a new person, and he does so by giving Abraham a new name and a physical mark of belonging.

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Genesis 16

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Genesis 16

1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her. The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. 12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.” 13 So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered. 15 And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.

How would you like to see the oldest prenup in the world?

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A few years ago this ancient tablet was discovered in Kanesh, which is the modern day province of Kayseri in central Turkey. This tablet with cuneiform inscriptions is four-thousand years old and is believed to constitute the oldest marriage contract in the world. It is a contract between a man named Laqipum and a woman named Hatala. Interestingly, the contract gives detailed instructions for what should happen if Hatala is unable to bear Laqipum a child.

Laqipum has married Hatala, daughter of Enishru. In the country [Central Anatolia], Laqipum may not marry another [woman], [but] in the city [of Ashur] he may marry a hierodule. If, within two years, she [Hatala] does not provide him with offspring, she herself will purchase a slave woman, and later, after she will have produced a child by him, he may then dispose of her by sale where-so-ever he pleases.

Should Laqipum choose to divorce her, he must pay [her] five minas of silver – and should Hatala choose to divorce him, she must pay (him) five minas of silver. Witnesses: Masa, Ashurishtikal, Talia, Shupianika.[1]

Fascinating! So if Hatala is barren, she is to purchase a slave girl to give to her husband so that an heir can be produced through her. The child will then become part of the family and the mother, the slave girl, will be sold off by Laqipum wherever he wants. This is, of course, jarring to modern sensibilities, though it does reflect the mindset and practice of at least some pagan people in the ancient world.

Interestingly, the same concept emerges in Abraham’s story. Sarai (Sarah) is barren. God has promised Abraham and Sarah a lineage, children and grandchildren etc., more than any human being could count. But Sarah is barren and, despite God’s dramatic assurances to Abraham in Genesis 15 that Abraham will have his own children, the couple still struggles to believe. Thus, Sarah takes matters into her own hands and gives a slave girl named Hagar to Abraham to try to make the situation come about in their own way. The results, as you might imagine, are disastrous.

John Walton has observed that, in the ancient world, marriage contracts sometimes specified different options for couples in the case of barrenness: “serial monogamy (divorcing the barren wife to take another, presumably fertile one)…polygyny (taking a second wife of equal status)…polycoity (the addition of handmaids or concubines for the purpose of producing an heir)…adoption.”[2] Walton argues that adoption is what is in view in Genesis 16: that Sarai would adopt the baby Hagar bore. In attempting this, Sarah and Abraham both were showing a lack of faith and a lack of trust in God’s promise to them. Even so, there is much we might learn from this sad chapter.

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Genesis 15

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Genesis 15

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own sonshall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

I remember a lot of preacher stories from when I was a kid in church. I am referring to stories that were (I would later discover) repeated in churches all around the Bible belt because of their special evocative force and illustrative power. One of the great disillusionments of growing up in the Bible belt, by the way, is discovering how many of these stories you heard were not actually true! Even so, one of my favorites turned out to be true after all.

I probably heard a dozen times growing up the story of the tightrope walker who walked over Niagara Falls. He walked back and forth a number of times and did a number of tricks along the way. The people cheered wildly. Then he pushed a wheelbarrow back and forth across Niagara Falls. The people, again, cheered wildly! Then he asked, “Who here thinks that I could push a person in this wheelbarrow across the falls?” The crowd jubilantly expressed its faith in such an idea through loud cheering. But then he asked, “Wonderful! Now who would like to volunteer to ride in the wheelbarrow?” Then…dead silence. Complete silence!

The point of this wonderful story was clear: it is one thing to have faith and another to truly trust. Many believe in an idea but they stop short of staking their lives on that idea.

Again, it turns out this story was true! The man was Charles Blondin and his feats in walking over Niagara are simply amazing. Smithsonian.com reports that:

He crossed at night, a locomotive headlight affixed to either [end] of the cable. He crossed with his body in shackles. He crossed carrying a table and chair, stopping in the middle to try to sit down and prop up his legs. The chair tumbled into the water. Blondin nearly followed but regained his composure. He sat down on the cable and ate a piece of cake, washed down with champagne. In his most famous exploit, he carried a stove and utensils on his back, walked to the center of the cable, started a fire and cooked an omelet. When it was ready, he lowered the breakfast to passengers on deck of the Maid of the Mist…By the time he gave his final performance, in 1896, it was estimated that Blondin had crossed Niagara Falls 300 times and walked more than 10,000 miles on his rope. He died of complications from diabetes the following year. In nearly 73 years on this earth, he never had life insurance. No one, he’d always joked, would take the risk.[1]

And there you have it! “No one would take the risk!”

Let us talk about faith and trust, about “taking the risk” in what you profess to believe.

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Genesis 14

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Genesis 14

1 In the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim, these kings made war with Bera king of Sodom, Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar). And all these joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is, the Salt Sea). Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled. In the fourteenth year Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him came and defeated the Rephaim in Ashteroth-karnaim, the Zuzim in Ham, the Emim in Shaveh-kiriathaim, and the Horites in their hill country of Seir as far as El-paran on the border of the wilderness. Then they turned back and came to En-mishpat (that is, Kadesh) and defeated all the country of the Amalekites, and also the Amorites who were dwelling in Hazazon-tamar. Then the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out, and they joined battle in the Valley of Siddim with Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of Goiim, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar, four kings against five. 10 Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits, and as the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the hill country. 11 So the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah, and all their provisions, and went their way. 12 They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions, and went their way. 13 Then one who had escaped came and told Abram the Hebrew, who was living by the oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and of Aner. These were allies of Abram. 14 When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. 15 And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. 16 Then he brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions, and the women and the people. 17 After his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). 18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) 19 And he blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. 21 And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.” 22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lifted my hand to the Lord, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, 23 that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ 24 I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me. Let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share.”

I am a sucker for epic battle and warrior stories. I think lots of people are! Whether it is Braveheart yelling “Freedom!” or the speech of Theodin King before the walls of Minas Tirith, I get fired up at those moments. When I was in high school I memorized the epic opening monologue for the movie Conan the Barbarian and used to play the soundtrack from time to time. I can still say it. Now, to say this rightly, you have to say it in a deep and grave voice. Then you must envision war drums kicking in the moment the narrator concludes. Here you go:

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. And onto this, Conan, destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow. It is I, his chronicler, who alone can tell thee of his saga. Let me tell you of the days of high adventure!

Ah! Epic heroes and battles are just so thrilling to get immersed in. Genesis 14 provides us with another such scene of days of high adventure. There is bravery, heroism, and awe-inspiring courage in this chapter. But there is also more. There is deep theological movement and maneuvering happening here as well, and things of the soul happening that are even more important than the political realities playing out on the surface.

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Genesis 13

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Genesis 13

1 So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the Lord. And Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them dwelling together; for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together, and there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites were dwelling in the land. Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” 10 And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) 11 So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. 12 Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. 13 Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord. 14 The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, 15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17 Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord.

If somebody were to make an “Extreme Makeover: Genesis Edition” television show, Genesis 12 and 13 would be where they would turn. Genesis 12 would be the “Before” and then Genesis 13 would be the big “After” unveiling! In Genesis 12, Abraham does not have a good look. He is scared, he is weak, he is concerned with himself, he puts his wife in harm’s way, and he does not think about the consequences of his actions on others. But in Genesis 13, Abraham is faithful, he is secure, he does think about others, he is thoughtful, and his priorities all seem to be in the right order.

My question is, “What happened?” How does Abraham go from a bad look in Genesis 12 to a really good look in Genesis 13? The answer is found right in the beginning of our chapter.

1 So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the Lord.

What stands between the ugliness of Abraham’s behavior in Genesis 12:10-20 and the beauty of Abraham’s faith and actions in Genesis 13 is simply this: an altar. When Abraham and Sarah came out of Egypt, Abraham returned to the vicinity of his first sojourn into Canaan, and, specifically, to the place where he had first built an altar in Genesis 12:

Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

In the land of promise, Abraham had built an altar. But, as Victor Hamilton has pointed out, “Not once while he was in Egypt did Abram either erect monuments to or invoke his deity.”[1]This altar, then, means, for Abraham, faith, trust in God, a relationship with God, and obedience to God’s call on his life. Coming back to this altar after his failure in Egypt therefore means returning to the Lord.Derek Kidner sums it up nicely when he writes:

The fact that Abram rose to the occasion in faith is traceable to verses 1-4, which present his journey to Bethel as a pilgrimage…: a renewal of his lapsed obedience, not an attempt to recapture the luxury of a vision…[2]

“Extreme Makeover: Genesis Edition” hinges therefore on returning to the altar, on returning to worship, on returning to God. And it is so with us today as well. Let me ask you, is there an altar at the center of your life? At the center of your life are things right with you and the God who made you? If they are, you will notice some of the characteristics that thankfully marked Abraham’s life in Genesis 13.

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Genesis 10:12-20

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Genesis 12

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” 14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels. 17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

“Beauty is a curse here.”

On one of my first trips to Honduras I was visiting with a family in a village. There was a little girl in this family who was particularly pretty. I had the translator tell the little girl’s mother for me, “Your little girl sure is very pretty!” The mother spoke to the translator and he interpreted for me. “She says thank you. She also says that beauty is a curse here and that life can be dangerous for very pretty girls.” He went on to tell me that, as a result of this, many mothers take intentional steps to make their daughters look plain and less striking.

It was a jarring thing to hear. Life can be very hard, very dangerous for girls and women. Perhaps beauty, in a sense, can indeed be a curse. It certainly played its part in the sad story we will read about today, the story of Abraham and Sarah’s sojourn into Egypt.

In reality, Sarah’s beauty was not, at root, the main issue. The main issue was Abraham’s fear and the unfortunate choices that Abraham’s fear led him to consider and then make. The 3rd/4thcentury Christian Lactantius said, “Where fear is present, wisdom cannot be.” This is so. Perhaps more specifically apropos is this amazing statement from Jawaharlar Nehru said, “As fear is close companion to falsehood, so truth follows fearlessness.”

Yes, fear is a close companion to falsehood. We will see this today. To fear is to panic, to panic is to scheme, to scheme is to lie. Let us turn our attention to Genesis 12.

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Genesis 11:10-12:9

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Genesis 11

10 These are the generations of Shem. When Shem was 100 years old, he fathered Arpachshad two years after the flood. 11 And Shem lived after he fathered Arpachshad 500 years and had other sons and daughters. 12 When Arpachshad had lived 35 years, he fathered Shelah. 13 And Arpachshad lived after he fathered Shelah 403 years and had other sons and daughters. 14 When Shelah had lived 30 years, he fathered Eber. 15 And Shelah lived after he fathered Eber 403 years and had other sons and daughters. 16 When Eber had lived 34 years, he fathered Peleg. 17 And Eber lived after he fathered Peleg 430 years and had other sons and daughters. 18 When Peleg had lived 30 years, he fathered Reu. 19 And Peleg lived after he fathered Reu 209 years and had other sons and daughters. 20 When Reu had lived 32 years, he fathered Serug. 21 And Reu lived after he fathered Serug 207 years and had other sons and daughters. 22 When Serug had lived 30 years, he fathered Nahor. 23 And Serug lived after he fathered Nahor 200 years and had other sons and daughters. 24 When Nahor had lived 29 years, he fathered Terah. 25 And Nahor lived after he fathered Terah 119 years and had other sons and daughters. 26 When Terah had lived 70 years, he fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran. 27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. 28 Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sarai was barren; she had no child. 31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran.

Genesis 12

1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.

The old line on Baptists is that Baptists think dancing is a sin. Now I personally do not think dancing is a sin, though I do think it is a sin when Idance…because I am such a terrible dancer! But, anyway, true or not, that is the old line: Baptists think dancing is a sin. There is one exception though, one time in which Baptists give a pass to dancing. I am speaking of the song, “Father Abraham.” Do you remember that song? Remember the motions that go with it? “Father Abraham” is one of those songs that gets in your head and stays there, like the “It’s A Small World” song at Disney World. If you have ever sung it, you remember it, and, to make it stick even more, somebody back in the day added little dance moves. Remember?

Father Abraham had many sons
Many sons had Father Abraham
I am one of them and so are you
So let’s just praise the Lord.
Right arm!

Father Abraham had many sons
Many sons had Father Abraham
I am one of them and so are you
So let’s just praise the Lord.
Right arm, left arm!

Father Abraham had many sons
Many sons had Father Abraham
I am one of them and so are you
So let’s just praise the Lord.
Right arm, left arm, right foot!

Father Abraham had many sons
Many sons had Father Abraham
I am one of them and so are you
So let’s just praise the Lord.
Right arm, left arm, right foot, left foot!

Father Abraham had many sons
Many sons had Father Abraham
I am one of them and so are you
So let’s just praise the Lord.
Right arm, left arm, right foot, left foot,
Right arm, left arm, right foot, left foot, turn around!

On and on and on…and onit goes, until, by the end, we all look like Elaine off of that episode of Seinfeld (whose dancing George Costanza memorably referred to as “a full body dry heave”).

So there you have it: the one permissible Baptist dance, “Father Abraham.” I suppose it makes sense, though. The story of Abraham’s call should make us want to dance, for behind the genealogy and the names and strange locations there is good goodnews!

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