Saturday, September 22, 2007

Abraham, Pt. 1: "Where He Leads, I Will Follow" (Gen 12)

Traveling is a hazard, and I had my share of bloopers and misadventures. One was a landing in Connecticut that never was due to snow. The plane did the next best thing and landed at a small local airport nearest possible to the city, then a bus drove the passengers to their planned destination. The consolation prize was a snow-dotted scenic route through the woods, which was quite a sight to behold for this city boy.

I had no one but myself to blame for the next incident. When I was a continuing student at Chicago’s Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I missed my night flight home to Los Angeles. The airlines clerk told me I could leave on the next flight in the morning. Calling my friend to return for me did not make sense, so I opted to sleep inside the airport, waking up a few times in the night to check my things, only to find plenty of company sleeping next to me!

The last incident was unforgettable – August 14, 2003. My wife and I were going through Customs in Toronto when a power blackout hit the northeast cities of North America, including Toronto and New York. Outside phones were unable to reach Air Canada operators, so we had to join the snaking crowd at the airport to reschedule our next day flight to Los Angeles. Since my cellular phone had no reception at the same time, too, I had to wait an hour for the public phone to notify others of our delay.

Early next morning, the departure schedule at the airport announced that the flight was canceled again, and when we got through to the operator to reschedule our flight after an hour’s wait, she said the flight was on again and told us to go to the ticketing counter. After an hour’s wait at the counter, we were told by the receptionist that the flight was off again; so we returned to the phone operator after another hour of waiting and managed to reschedule a successful flight home the next day.

About 1,800 years before the birth of Jesus Christ - after the chaos at Babel but before there were Jews - a seventy-five year old man by the former name of Abram received a call from God to settle in a new land, to build a great nation and to be a personal blessing to all the families of the earth. The promise to the Father of Nations is clear: the settlement into the Promised Land, the beginnings of the Jewish people and the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Abram’s father, Terah, had initiated the long 1,000-mile trek from Ur of the Chaldeans, located near the Euphrates River about 190 miles southeast of present-day Baghdad, to Canaan (Gen 11:31), but died in Haran, 400 miles away from the destination. (Los Angeles Times 4/16/03 “Ancient Ur Still Standing as Another Regime Topples”)

After Terah died, the Lord said to Abram: “Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. 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.” (Gen 12:1-3)

So, the raw Abram, along with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, made the journey to Canaan. Upon arrival in Canaan, when a famine severely tested him, Abram followed his own instincts into Egypt and almost paid a heavy price if not for God’s intervention.

What does God require of those who follow Him? How can we avoid the dangers of falling behind, losing track or turning aside?

Trust in the Lord and Stride out Confidently
12:1 The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. 2 “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. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 4 So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. 5 He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there. 6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (Gen 12:1-6)

The week heading into the celebration of our wedding anniversary in the new millenium was a hectic, stressful and miserable one for my wife and me. We had put our Monterey Park house for sale a month before that and were excited that a buyer had made us an offer the second day of our open house, with the closing escrow a week after our anniversary. At the same time, we had made an offer for a house, offering the seller the full price he wanted, and he duly accepted the next day. Our plan was to complete the sale of our house first, live in an apartment no longer than a month - to be on the safe side, and roll over the money we received from selling our old house into the new one to close escrow.

On the day of our wedding anniversary, our agent called us, telling us that the new house seller had reneged on the deal. My agent had discovered that the man was unable to sell the house because he had debts totaling $390,000 from two loans and had five bank liens on his house. Suing him would make no sense since his creditors had not recovered a penny from him for a long time and it would just tie us up in court. Further, winning would make us another name on his long list of unpaid creditors.

We ended up with packed boxes in the garage of our rented apartment for the next five months with no house to move into and no end to the waiting, until we found a newer home in a better location and a coveted neighborhood.

God’s call to Abram was a call to trust and obey Him. Abram followed one step at a time, one day at a time, one place at a time, doing one thing and completing one task at a time. Note that Abram did not know in what direction they were heading, at what location they were stopping and for how long they were staying until he got there. The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.” (v 1) In fact, he did not know what was lurking ahead, how far was the distance and how long was the trip; he only knew “who” was leading, “who” he was following and why -- that was enough for him.

Hebrews 11:8-10 says, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

Abram forsook everything, demonstrating his trust in God and leaving the old setting for the new. He left Haran, a wealthy, busy and established community for an unknown way of life, parting with close relatives, familiar surroundings and accustomed ways. His trust in God was sorely tested in Canaan. The Canaanites were a loose company of tribes who occupied and terrorized the land, including the cities of Gaza and Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 10:15). Their hostility towards Shem’s descendants, of which Abram was one, was understandable. Noah had cursed his son Ham, the ancestor of the Canaanites, to be a slave to his brother Shem (Gen 9:25-26).

Abram’s travels, therefore, in enemy territory were never easy, enjoyable or effortless. He was in a state of outright fear, constant vigilance, but quiet trust. As D. L. Moody says, “Trust in yourself and you are doomed to disappointment; trust in your friends, and they will die and leave you; but trust in God, and you will never be confounded in time or eternity.”

Testify to Other and Secure Your Markers
7 The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. (Gen 12:7-8)

One of the lost treasures of the Christian church is the home thanksgiving meeting, a gathering I eagerly awaited when I was a young believer. A home thanksgiving meeting was an occasional home fellowship whereby the hosts invited their friends, relatives and church members to share in the blessings of a special event, usually over the birth of a child, the purchase of a new home or the celebration of a wedding anniversary. The host family would borrow 30-40 chairs from their neighbors, friends or church for the happy occasion.

A designated song-leader would begin the meeting by leading everyone present in joyous singing, followed by the host’s testimony about how God had blessed the family and a short message by the pastor or a church elder on the importance of thanksgiving in a believer’s life. The best part of the gathering was the last part of the program, where lots of food and refreshments were served!

Testifying to others is to tell others who we were before accepting Christ, what Christ has done for us and how our character and challenges are different from before.

Like my church, churches today should set aside a few Sundays in the year for members to share their salvation and thanksgiving testimony. I do for my church, to rippling effect, for occasions such as Mother’s day, Father’s Day, Graduation Day and Thanksgiving Sunday. The atmosphere, I have discovered, is usually electric, the effect upon the speaker and congregation is powerful and the benefit to the church is immeasurable.

The watershed of Abram’s sojourn in Canaan was his consistent testimony to others by erecting altars wherever he went.

Abram built an altar in Shechem (12:7), another between Bethel and Ai (12:8), and other places such as Hebron (Gen 13:18) and Mount Moriah (Gen 22:9). Noah (Gen 8:20) and Isaac (Gen 26:25) both built an altar in their lifetime and Jacob two (Gen 33:20, 35:7), but Abram erected as many altars as all three of them did together.

Altars were meaningful, important and sensible to Abram because they were personal worship markers, public witness markers and practical whereabouts markers.

Worship was a big part of Abram’s life -- in his first travel and up to the last major account of his life (Gen 22:9). Abram called on the name of the Lord (Gen 12:8; 13:4).

The altars were also public witness markers, which were an eyesore to the inhabitants of the land. Abram ascribed an altar to the name of the Lord (12:7) and called on His name without pretense, hesitation or fear (12:7). The inscriptions, words and the location were loud, unmistakable and pointed to the Canaanites.

Finally, the altars were practical whereabouts indicators for the next generation. Abram’s grandson Jacob would return from Haran and build an altar at Shechem (Gen 33:18-20), the same place where Abram had built the first altar (12:6-7). Jacob even settled there for a while after his anxious reunion with his brother Esau until he had to move.

Tell the Truth and Set an Example
10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. 11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife.' Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” 14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh's officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels. 17 But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn't you tell me she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” 20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had. (Gen 12:10-20)

Bella D. Paulo, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, studied 147 people between 18-71 - 77 undergraduates and 70 community members - to track the course of lying, who people lie to and how often they do. The subjects were asked to keep a diary of all falsehood told over a week.

Paulo found that 10% of lies were exaggerations and 60% were outright deception. The lies were mostly subtle, often of lies of omission. Most people lie once or twice a day and also in 20% of social exchanges lasting 10 or more minutes. In one week alone, 30% of speakers deceive in one-on-one interaction. Married couples lie to each other in 10% of their exchanges, dating couples 33% and college students lie twice a day, which is twice that of an average person, and in one of two conversations with their mothers!
(Psychology Today 5-6/97).

Lying is addictive. In another report, Paulo explained that while 1 in 7 instances of lying was discovered, more than 70% of liars surveyed said they would tell their lies again. (Psychology Today 9-10/96)

Abram’s sister act – “she is my sister”- occurred twice in his lifetime (Gen 12:13, 20:2). Technically, Sarai was Abram’s wife and sister, but from a different mother (Gen 20:12). Sarai was Abram’s wife by marriage and his sister only in name. He was legally inaccurate and morally wrong. As an old proverb notes, “Half a fact is a whole falsehood.”

Abram, the father of faith, succumbed to deception because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time with a wrong motive. Abram chose the easy way out (12:10) when his first big test came. When a famine struck, he panicked, fled Canaan and took shelter in Egypt.

How do we know Abram was in the wrong place? When all was said and done, after a harrowing near disastrous experience, Abram ended up where he began and returned to the original place of worship (Gen 13:1-4). Later, Abram had many problems as a result of taking an Egyptian concubine, Hagar, who was probably one of the servants Pharaoh gave to Abram (12:16).

Were Abram’s actions motivated by love for his wife? Did Abram love his wife? Probably yes, but not as much as he loved his own neck (12:13). The words of Abram to his wife revealed his motive: “Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you (12:13).

Abram also had a wrong perception of the natives of the land. He thought they were savages, barbarians and animals, but was he right? The truth is that the godless Pharaoh acted more honorably than the God-fearing Abram! Even the killer Egyptians were not all that bad. They loved their king (12:15) and kept their word, while Abram quietly kept all the gifts (12:16).

In the end Abram was made speechless when he was bombarded by three separate questions, a what-question, a why-didn’t-you question and a why-did-you question: “What have you done to me?” “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?” and “Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife?” (12:18-19)

Conclusion: God saves us, leads us and blesses us so that we may bless others by what we do, what we say and how we live for Him. Often life’s hardships, our imaginary fears and needless worries hinder us from reaching our potential; however, we fail the test not because God is unable or willing to help us, but because we help ourselves too much and hinder ourselves too naively. Is your self-centeredness, self-complacency and self-contradiction preventing Him from blessing you and making you a blessing to others? Have you passed the true test of our sincerity, virtue and faith and demonstrated willingness to trust and obey Him even when troubles come, people threaten and circumstances change?


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