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Michelle Bauer ~ The Famine and the Lie

Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to reside there as an alien, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” When Abram entered Egypt the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.

But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 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? 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 be gone.” And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had. – Genesis 12: 10-20

This morning we are going to spend some time talking about faith and fear.  As we look at Abraham’s life, we see him respond with great faith when God called him to leave his home.  Hebrews 11 says that Abraham, “obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.”  That would be a hard one to swallow wouldn’t it, “Pack the U-haul and then I’ll tell you where your first stop is.” But Abraham accepts God’s invitation and sets off towards Canaan.

Following God doesn’t keep us from hard times.  It’s one thing to be obedient when life is great and the adventure is fun. But how do we do when things get hard and uncertain? As we study Abraham’s life, we see him make some good decisions and some really bad decisions. But before we judge too harshly let’s remember that Abraham is pretty new at this following God thing. He is learning what it means to follow God in all circumstances.  Just like we are.

When summer was underway at my house I became our children’s cruise director. Our seven year old son began most days by asking, “What’s the plan mom?”  What he really means is, “What are you going to do today to make sure I have fun?”

That’s how we ended up at the library watching a demonstration hosted by a group of people who train therapy dogs. The kids had fun seeing the dogs and watching them do tricks like jump over things and go through tunnels. I expected just to sit in the back, zone out and be grateful that someone else was entertaining my children for a few minutes. But then the presenter started to talk about how they train the dogs and something she said caught my attention.

She explained that the first step in training a dog to do unusual things is to get them to trust you.  This is the example she gave: If you want to train a hunting dog to go through a hollow log in search of prey, you don’t start out by commanding the dog to go through the log. You start in a familiar place and coach them through a fabric tunnel. This builds trust in the dog towards its trainer.  Then one day the dog will respond obediently to the command to go into the log – knowing that the owner can be trusted to be looking out for their welfare.

This provides a great picture of the journey God is leading Abraham on. If you are familiar with Abraham’s story you know that God is going to ask Abraham to do a BIG thing in a few chapters. A thing that will require amazing amounts of obedience that only comes through trust. But God doesn’t start there. He begins by leading Abraham through a series of exercises or situations intended to build Abraham’s trust in Him as a God who is looking out for the welfare of his child.

Abraham has responded to God’s call and left his homeland, all that was familiar, all that meant stability and moved his family to Canaan or what will someday be referred to as the Promised Land.  We get the impression that he hadn’t been there very long when an opportunity to exercise his new faith comes along.

Fear and Faith

At this point in the story, don’t you want to shake your head and say, something like “Bless your heart…” to poor Abraham.  How can he show such faith and then just 10 verses later be scrambling in fear?!  But let’s remember that we have the benefit of seeing Abraham’s life in its entirety – summarized down into a few chapters. We aren’t walking with him through famine and years of waiting and disappointment.  It’s a lot harder to live a life than to read about one.

We are all a mixture of fear and faith. We all have great moments of obedience when we sense that we are in the middle of God’s will and are sure what the next thing is.  And we all have moments of extreme doubt when we are sure God has abandoned us and we default to, “every man for themselves”.

We love and serve a mysterious God who refuses to be predictable or obvious. That is why we must allow him to build our trust. And trust is built as we walk with him through the stuff of life. It is not built in a class or by reading a book. Our faith is strengthened the same way our muscles are – by using them.

faith-and-fearI would encourage you to pay attention to the moments where you are quick to show faith and the places where fear tends to creep in. Present me with a situation where my children are sick or hurting and I really have to fight back fear. I think for a lot of us, faith and fear come in patterns.  When fear shows up it is a sign that God has work to do in that place.  Celebrate where you are being faithful but don’t hide or minimize the places where fear is still leading.

The Promised Land is Dependent on God’s Presence and Provision

With great faith, Abraham has walked with God into the Promised Land but that faith is about to be tested because the Promised Land is fragile. It depends on God’s presence and provision in a way that is unique from the nations that surround it. The Promised Land or Canaan relies on two rainy seasons each year to provide enough water to maintain crops. If just one of those rainy seasons failed to come they were in immediate danger of famine.

Compare that to Egypt which was located on the Nile River. The Egyptians had a whole river as a constant water supply.  That set-up provided better protection from famine. The river may go up or down but it takes a lot to make a whole river dry up.

Isn’t it interesting that it is God’s plan to settle his people in a place that is dependent on fresh, continuous supplies of water? It reminds me of God’s provision of manna in the dessert. He could have parked them next to a Bi-Lo. But instead he builds their faith by putting them in a situation where they have to rely on Him. The Israelites had to trust God to provide food daily.

In the same way, God has promised to provide us with all the things we need for life and godliness but God doesn’t back the truck up and deliver a whole life-time supply at once. We have to trust that he will provide and keep on providing as we face each day’s challenges. It’s a risky way to live.  We live in a Costco world where we can buy 30 rolls of toilet paper at a time. But He whispers, “Stay close and I will provide what you need, when you need it.”

Sure enough, just as Abraham is getting settled a famine hits – and it was severe. It must be pretty scary to not be able to grow or buy food. Abraham has people depending on him to provide for them.  Faith or fear?  Abraham’s first response shows signs of a developing faith. He doesn’t turn around and go home.  He could have packed up his family, rolled up the tents and headed back to Haran – back to what had to have seemed like security and safety in a crisis moment.  Instead, Abraham heads to Egypt “to live there for a while” to wait for the famine to pass.

Egypt plays such an interesting role in the Bible. It is the place where God’s people go and keep returning to for safety:

  • Abraham is headed there for refuge from a famine
  • Joseph ends up there after his brother’s try to kill him
  • His whole family immigrates there during another famine
  • While in Egypt they grow from being a large family to being a nation
  • Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt when Herod is on the hunt to kill Jesus

Now I know what you are thinking…. But wasn’t it the Egyptians that made slaves out of the Israelites and kept them hostage?  How could Egypt be a safe place and enslave people?

Here’s what I wonder. Did the Israelites come to Egypt to avoid a famine and then get too comfortable? Did they stay long past when they should have returned to the land they knew God had given to them? Abraham’s plan is to live in Egypt “for a while” and then go back to the place where God had led him when the danger has passed.

When I was in Guatemala last summer, we met a pastor named “Shorty”. He’s a former gang member who has returned to his old neighborhood to tell people still trapped in gangs about Jesus.  At one point a few years ago, he made a gang leader mad and his church got word that his life was in danger. So, he agreed to move out of the neighborhood temporarily and stay in a secure apartment in a safer part of town.  Shorty shared with us that he began to really enjoy his new living situation. It was nicer than where he’d been living, in a new apartment building in a better part of town, and it was comfortable to feel safe all the time.  So, when the threat on his life passed he continued to live in the apartment. And his church encouraged him to live there indefinitely.  But he began to sense that being away from his people was not good.  He felt like it was time to leave safety and return to where God had called him to live and minister.

There is a time for seeking refuge and a time to return to where God has called us. Following Jesus will be a little bit scary. He takes us to the point where we are uncomfortable. Because that is where we start to rely on him. And as we rely on him we begin to trust him more and more.

The “I’s” Have It

Abraham’s plan is to stay until the famine passed and then head back to Canaan. For a guy who’s not planning to stay long-term in Egypt, he didn’t make a very good exit plan, though did he?

Here’s where we start to see the fear at work.

Abraham is nervous because he has a pretty wife and the Pharaoh has a reputation for noticing pretty women and insisting on marrying them.  Abraham also knew that the Egyptians felt more strongly about not committing adultery than they did about not committing murder. So, while the Pharaoh would not take Sarah to be his wife while she was married to Abraham, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill Abraham and then take her to be his wife.

At this point in their journey, Sarah was 65 years old, which for her was sort of middle-age because she lived to be 127. She apparently was a great beauty.   One commentator remarked that “She had had no children or other hardships to bring on premature decay.”  As anyone with children is able to attest, raising kids does take years off your life – not the bad ones at the end but the good ones in the middle – as my brother once said.

Abraham is afraid for his life and he begins to make some really bad decisions.

Did you notice all the “I’s” “me’s” and “my’s”?

I know what a beautiful woman you are…”

“I’m afraid they will kill me…”

“Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well…”

He has forgotten hasn’t he? He has forgotten what God said when he called him. Someone wrote that, “He acts as though God’s promise had not taken place.”

Remember the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12: 2-3:

I will make you into a great nation

And I will bless you;

I will make your name great,

And you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

And whoever curses you I will curse;

And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Do you see the pattern? God does the action and Abraham reaps the benefits.  God will make him into a great nation, God will make his name great, God will do the blessing and cursing as protection.

I’m not saying that Abraham was to sit by and passively watch the action. He was supposed to be obeying and following.  But God is the one who was controlling the circumstances and outcomes not him.

God is fine with us making a plan when we find ourselves in a crisis. What he is not fine with is when we begin to scramble. We’ve all done it right?! We’ve all had moments when we forget the promises and who is in control and we begin to think things and do things that attempt to put us in control.  We begin to manipulate situations and people and sometimes even the truth because fear is whispering in our ear that we are the only ones looking out for us.

Abraham has forgotten the promise and all of a sudden we begin to hear a lot of “I” talk. It’s exactly what happens when I forget and begin to scramble.

I start thinking things like:

“I have to figure this out…”

“I have to decide what’s next”

“I need to get on top of this situation. What I need is a really good list.”

“I better stay up all night Googling for answers.”

It was God’s responsibility to keep Abraham safe so that he could become a great nation, not Abraham’s. And what happens when Abraham takes over God’s job? It’s not pretty.

Abraham hatches a plan. “I’ll tell Pharaoh that Sarah is my sister – which by the way is half true. Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister. They shared a father.  But whole lie or half lie doesn’t matter here. What matters is that Abraham was not able to trust God’s promise to protect him.

So, Abraham marches into Egypt, turns his wife over to the Pharaoh and waits to see what will happen.  Wouldn’t you have liked to see Sarah’s face when he unveils his big plan?! I’m sure she especially loved the part about how her being “loaned” to Pharaoh would keep Abraham safe.  He should have been more afraid of Sarah than Pharaoh at that point!

Poor Abraham had given his life to follow a God who he didn’t think was even capable of protecting him.  In the grand scheme of history, protecting Sarah from the Pharaoh would have been one of the easier things God had done.  But Abraham doesn’t know that yet. He hasn’t had the experience with God to know that he was capable of acting and would act to keep the promise he had made.  Abraham was still in training.

In the end Abraham sees that God is quite capable of protecting him and his family.  All of a sudden Pharaoh’s whole household is sick. It’s bad when someone in your house is sick but isn’t it worse when your whole family is sick at once? Well, Pharaoh had lots of wives and lots of kids and lots of servants – all sick at once – so it got his attention fast.

Somehow he links the sickness to Abraham and he says “Go get him!”

Abraham appears in front of him and Pharaoh asks him,

“What have you done to me?”

Now no one is happy with Abraham. He has let fear rule and he has made a mess. He has endangered people’s lives, caused lots of people to become sick, almost lost his wife and made an enemy of a neighboring country.

Here’s my favorite part of the story though. God has been at work the whole time. While Abraham is scrambling and scheming, God is quietly working his plan.

  • God is prompting the Pharaoh to hand over his riches to Abraham in the form of sheep, cattle, donkeys, servants and camels
  • God is orchestrating an escape plan for Sarah
  • And God is clearing the way for them to return to the Promised Land

Why don’t we let God do what he says he will do?  Why do we try to be our own bodyguards?

  • Are you letting fear lead? Are you scrambling for control?
  • Have you remembered God’s promises? The ones that tell us that God is always working on our behalf? Or his promise that he is always with us?
  • Are you acting and making choices as if his promises are true?

I invite you to talk with God about the situations in your life. Where are you choosing faithfulness and where are you letting fear lead? Ask God to show you. Confess those places where fear has been allowed to call the shots and ask him to strengthen your faith.