Genesis 16 & 18
Which of these chairs would you be willing to sit on? Why? This one looks pretty flimsy. The evidence of what your eyes tell you is that there is a pretty good chance that you would end up on the ground if you tried to sit on it. This one, on the other hand, is solid. If you would examine it, you would see that the joints are strong, the legs and seat are well made and you could sit on it with confidence that it would hold you.
We talk about faith in different things - chairs, people and so on - and when we do, it is not a blind faith that makes us trust something or someone. There is reason to trust this chair and there is reason not to trust this chair. The same can happen to people. Would you trust a car salesman named Fast Eddy? On the other hand, a friend who has proven faithful for many years is easy to trust.
Last week we talked about faith in God. We saw how Abraham didn’t always act like a man of faith, but that at the core of his being he believed God. When he did put his trust in God, why could he? Why is God trustworthy? What do we know about God that should encourage us to be confident and bold to trust Him in anything? This morning, we will look at three stories from Genesis which give us reasons why we can put our hope in God.
Last week we looked at the story of how Sarai suggested to Abram that he take her maid Hagar and have a child with her. Abram agreed to this plan and Hagar became pregnant. When she did, she let Sarai know that she was better because she could have a child and Sarai couldn’t. As a result, Sarai became jealous and acted on her jealousy by abusing Hagar. When Hagar had had enough abuse, she ran away. She decided that she couldn’t stand it any more and, being an Egyptian, she headed towards home.
Hagar became an outcast, in a way that is somewhat unjust. Although it was wrong of her to despise Sarai, it was also wrong of Sarai to act out her jealousy and abuse her and cause her to run away.
Not only was she an outcast, but there are many reasons why no one would really care about her. If we look at the story of Hagar in the whole Bible, it is an interesting story which could lead us to care very little about her.
First of all, she was a slave. At that time, slaves were simply property and so why would she be valued beyond what she could contribute to the one who owned her.
She had despised her owner and for a slave to mistreat her owner was not acceptable. She didn’t know her place and stepped outside of the bounds of what was proper.
The child she would bear did not have a very good prophecy about him. The text indicates that he would be a wild donkey of a man and that he would live in hostility toward all his brothers. Ishmael is the ancestor of all the Arab people. Someone said to me recently that the mistake of Sarai in letting Abram have a child with Hagar has ended up being a costly mistake because of all the trouble the Arab people are making in the Middle East and even for the whole world through terrorism. I would be very careful about such a perspective, but it does explain reason why we would not look favourably on Hagar.
Later, God himself permitted Hagar and Ishmael to be sent away from the family of promise. We have this story in Genesis 21 and it is referred to in Galatians 4:30 where Paul quotes, “Get rid of the slave woman and her child.”
So when we see the whole story of Hagar, we see that she can be looked at as not being worth very much, as one who is rejected.
However, in Genesis 16:7 we discover a different perspective. This outcast runaway is approached by the angel of the Lord. God did not despise her or let her go or treat her as an outcast. He came to her. Although it puzzles us why God would send her back to submit to the abuse of Sarai, we are encouraged by the fact that He came to her. We are further encouraged by the promises He gave her. He promised that she would have a son and that this son would have many descendants, in fact the promise is the same as that made to Abram that he would have descendants “too numerous to count.” The name of the child to be born would be Ishmael. This name means “God has heard.”
Hagar was astonished at the encounter with the angel of God. She responded by giving a name to God which arose out of her experience. She called God “You are the God who sees me.” She even named the well where she met the angel, giving it the name “well of the living one who sees me.” What a wonderful thought to name the well as a reminder of her encounter with God. After that whenever she saw or thought of this place, she would remember how God had helped her. We need to mark places where God has helped us. She had discovered that when God sees, He cares. She discovered God looking after her. He demonstrated that He is the one who knows when even a sparrow falls.
That he should see and care for this despised, downcast runaway speaks powerfully to us about what kind of a God He is. It is for this reason that we can put our trust in God. This story teaches us the nature of God. He is a God who cares. He does not only care for the perfect, the “in” crowd. He also cares for the outcasts and those who are downcast. When we look at the rest of the Bible, we see many similar reasons to have confidence in God. Think about the New Testament words of Jesus who invites us to “consider the lilies” and realize God’s care for them. Think about the thief on the cross who found forgiveness with Jesus just before he died. Consider that God demonstrated His love towards us in this that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
We can put our hope and confidence in God because He has demonstrated repeatedly that He cares.
Last week when we looked at the story of Abraham, we saw that he became known as a man of faith because Genesis 15:6 says “Abraham believed God…” In spite of this faith, Abraham was willing to take matters into his own hands and in the very next chapter, we have the story of how Ishmael was conceived. Nevertheless, it was Abraham’s understanding that this was the fulfillment of the promises made to him about descendants. He believed that he would have many descendants through his son, Ishmael. For 13 years, nothing happened to change this perspective. Abraham got used to the idea that Ishmael was the promised descendant. Then when Abraham was 99 years, which even by the standard of those days was old, God came to Abraham again. Although Abram had his son, Ishmael, Sarai’s childlessness was still a pain to her and also to him. But after all these years and in their old age, they had gotten used to the idea.
When God approached Abram He repeated the promises and changed his name to Abraham. The name change was related to the promise of descendants and God let him know once again that he would be the father of many nations. The promise to Abraham is powerful. Whereas Adam was told to be fruitful, Abraham was promised that God would make him fruitful. Then after establishing the covenant of circumcision, God told Abraham that he would have a child with Sarah. When Abraham heard the promise in vs. 16, he didn’t exactly believe it. He asked in amazement in verse 17, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”
A little while later, God once again came to Abraham. This time, there were two angels with him. Abraham was a good host and quickly went about preparing a meal for these three messengers, at first not sure who they were. It is interesting that after they had been well hosted, they asked about Sarah, suggesting that they wanted her to hear the conversation. Abraham said that she was in the tent, implying that she could hear. Once again they said in 18:10, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
When Sarah heard this, she also laughed. Her laughter also has a measure of unbelief to it, but perhaps even more a measure of disappointment. After 90 years of wishing strongly for a child and always being disappointed, in spite of knowing that the wish was supported by a promise of God, she had very little hope left in her. When she expressed in 17:12 “will I now have this pleasure?” it indicates that she still very much would have wanted to have a child, but knew that it was not possible. Her unbelief was also supported by reality because she could not have children any more since she was past the age of childbearing.
As both Abraham and Sarah contemplated this deeply hoped for possibility at this stage in their life, they had given up hope. They knew that in a human way of speaking it was not possible. The promise of a child was an impossibility.
But was it impossible?
When God first came to Abraham in Genesis 17:1 an unusual name for God is used. He introduces himself as “God Almighty” or “El Shaddai.” All of what is to happen in the two chapters that follow is founded upon this name. An impossibility is introduced, but it is introduced by the one who is “God All mighty.”
Near the end of this story when it is discovered by divine knowledge that Sarah laughed, the messenger asks in verse 14, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” The answer is assumed - “of course not!”
Once again we encounter a reason to put our faith in God. Impossible is not in God’s dictionary. The next year, as we read in Genesis 21, Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah. This story is just the beginning of many in the Bible which demonstrate that God is able. He is able to bring a slave nation to freedom. He is able to save Israel from an approaching enemy by bringing them through the Red Sea. He is able to come to earth as a little child and He is able to rise from the dead and gain an incredible victory over sin.
What are the things in your life that seem impossible? Where do you need God to act because you know that you can’t do it? When we look at the hardness of the human heart and when we know how difficult it is for people to change, we say “it is impossible.” But when we know that we have a God for whom nothing is too hard, we can put our trust in Him, even if it seems impossible to us. If it is according to the will of God, it is not impossible because for God, all things are possible. God is able! Therefore we have good reason to trust Him.
The third story which teaches why we can put our faith in God comes from the series of stories that talk about Lot. Lot was Abraham’s nephew and accompanied him when he left his home in Haran. The story about Lot is woven into the story of Abraham, but form interesting story in itself.
In Genesis 12:4, we notice that Lot went with Abraham when he left his home land. Then after they had gone down to Egypt, we read in Genesis 13 that they had become very wealthy and had acquired many flocks and herds. They had so much that it was no longer possible for them to stay together. God had so blessed them that they had a problem. How would they solve the problem and not quarrel. As at other places in the Bible, if peaceful community is not possible, separation may be necessary as happened in Acts 15 when Paul and Barnabas separated. So Abraham, acting like a man of faith, offered Lot the first choice of the land. Lot saw the land to the south east and saw that it was well watered and made for a good pasture and chose to go in that direction. “Powerful springs in the Jordan valley and beside the Dead Sea create very fertile areas.” But things are not necessarily as good as they look. Unfortunately, he chose an area that was particularly bad morally. In 13:13, it is stated that the people of Sodom were “wicked and sinning greatly against the Lord.” God had promised Abraham the land of Canaan and Lot was included in that promise. When given a choice, Lot turned his back on the promise and moved east to the edge of the promised land and beyond it.
Another story about Lot appears in the next chapter when a group of kings captured the kings and the people of the area in which Lot lived. They were all taken prisoners and all their property was taken. When Abraham found out about this, he went after Lot to rescue him and was successful in doing so. He was able to restore all the people and property of Lot and his neighbours and Lot returned to live in Sodom after the rescue by Abraham. This story shows Abraham’s care for his nephew.
The wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah is noticed by God. He is not unaware of what is happening on the earth.
God determined to talk to Abraham about what He was intending to do in Sodom and Gomorrah. It is interesting when God asks himself, “shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” I don’t know why he asks this, but it introduces the issue and raises in Abraham the courage to approach the Lord about this. I believe that from God’s point of view, He wanted Abraham to know specifically so that he could pray about the issue. And Abraham does pray. He begins by asking God not to destroy Sodom if there are 50 righteous people in the town. He asks six times, each time lowering the number at which God will not destroy Sodom until he gets to 10 righteous people.
As an aside, it is worthy of note that God desires and requires the prayers of his people. That is at least part of what is going on here and what we can learn from this passage. One writer says, “It is God himself who wants intercession made, and Abraham must be the intercessor.”
The motive for Abraham to pray this prayer is of course Lot. We have seen already how Abraham cared for Lot and went out of his way to rescue him. The same motivation is in Abraham’s heart when he begins to pray about the destruction of Sodom. The issue at the heart of the requests of Abraham is the justice of God. Abraham believes that, if God is just, he will destroy the wicked and preserve the righteous. This is a common point of view and a critical issue in our own decision about whether or not we will believe in God. If God is fair, if he treats those who are righteous well and blesses them and judges those who are wicked and evil, we can live with that, we can put our faith in such a God. Remember when we examined Genesis 1 and we talked about the pagan view of their gods? They believed their gods had power, but they also were quite sure that they could not be trusted to do what was right. They were perceived as capricious, doing as they pleased with no rhyme or reason. What kind of a God does Abraham serve? What kind of a God do we put our trust in? Is He just or not? “If God should not distinguish between good and bad behaviour, that would be a grave affront to morality and piety.”
Abraham puts the question directly to God in Genesis 18:25 when he prays, “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
It is stated as a question, but in Abraham’s voice we hear trust. He says in effect, “God, I believe that you are not like the pagan gods. I believe that I can count on you to do what is right and just.”
The rest of the story demonstrates that indeed God is righteous. As the angels who are going to investigate the goings on in Sodom come into the city, the wickedness of the people there is demonstrated. They violate every sense of decency in our society and even theirs. They turn out to be inhospitable, engaging in acts of homosexuality and not only acts of homosexuality, but homosexual rape. The reason for the visit of the angels is not for God to see how things are, because He knows. Rather, it is to show all of us, after Abraham’s statement, “will not the Judge of all do right?” that He is doing right.
It turns out that there were not even 10 righteous people in Sodom, but for the sake of Abraham, Lot who was the most righteous was spared. He is shown as righteous when he refused to let the men of the city have their way with the angels. Yet even he has a rather tenuous righteousness. When told to head for the hills and be saved, he asks if he can rather go to another city. The taint of sin is seen in his wife whose heart is in Sodom and even his daughters who later get him drunk and sleep with him. For their great wickedness, God destroyed the city of Sodom and the surrounding area.
Once again, we see reason to put our trust in God. He is a righteousness God. This passage is mentioned in II Peter 2:4-9 where it says, “For if God…condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men …9 if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.”
A tourist came too close to the edge of the Grand Canyon, lost his footing and plunged over the side, clawing and scratching to save himself. After he went out of sight and just before he fell into space, he encountered a scrubby bush which he desperately grabbed with both hands. Filled with terror, he called out toward heaven, "Is there anyone up there?" A calm, powerful voice came out of the sky, "Yes, there is." The tourist pleaded, "Can you help me? Can you help me?" The calm voice replied, "Yes, I probably can. What is your problem?" "I fell over the cliff and am dangling in space holding to a bush that is about to let go. Please help me." "The voice from above said, "I'll try. Do you believe?" "Yes, yes, I believe."' "Do you have faith?" "Yes, yes. I have strong faith." The calm voice said, "Well, in that case, simply let loose of the bush and everything will turn out fine." There was a tense pause, then the tourist yelled, "Is there anyone else up there?"
Sometimes we feel like that tourist and we aren’t quite sure we can put our trust in God.
In 1983, the U.S.A. issued a postage stamp commemorating the building of the first steel bridge in America. It was built across the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Many said it could not be built. They said it would never support its own weight. So James Eads, the builder, ordered fourteen locomotives to stop on the bridge at once. Then people trusted the bridge.
The stories we have looked at today teach us that we can trust God. He is the God who sees with caring eyes, even the outcast. He is the God who is able to do what seems impossible to us and He is the God who is just. The evidence is strong. We can trust Him.
Nita Landis writes, “When my daughter Katie was small, she worried about falling off the changing table. Twisting her head so that the end of the table was right in front of her eyes, she would cry, "I fallin,' Mama! I fallin'!" When my reassurances would fail, I'd say, "Don't look at the edge. Look at Mama." As her focus shifted to my face, she would become peaceful.
She goes on: “I, too, know the temptation to "look at the edge" when unpredictable or difficult times arise. Again and again, God must remind me, "Look at Me, daughter. Don't look at the edge."
God gives good reason to trust Him. Will we?