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October 12, 2008

Our Family Tree:  Abraham and Sarah

Genesis 12-22


            Continuing our series of sermons entitled Our Family Tree, we come today to the story of Abraham and Sarah.  The Scripture for this segment is found in Genesis 12-22.  I would like for you to have your Bibles open to those passages.  We will read a few verses as we go through the chapters. 

            I was talking with one of our members about this series.  He commented on how important it is to remember that the people we revere so much, like Abraham and Sarah, are not only heroes in some ways but they also people have their own flaws.  Most families have a historian who is interested in genealogy.  He mentioned his own family’s interest in their family tree, saying, “One day at a family reunion, members of my family were talking about our Uncle Ofer.  One person remembered that Uncle Ofer was a major in the Calvary for the Confederate army and that he had been under the command of General Wade Hampton.  No sooner had this person remembered this admirable position than another family member added, ‘Uncle Ofer was the guy who got blown up by the liquor still.’”  I suppose that for most people we have any admiration for, something about them is flawed.  Certainly we find mixed reviews of the people we have considered so far in our series.  We will find that to be true as we continue this morning.

            Ur of the Chaldees was a walled city that had prospered through most of its history.  In fact, a number of the more desirable homes in the city were two stories.  Ur certainly had its downturns, but it usually bounced right back.  One ancient writing calls Ur the purest place on earth or in heaven.  In Ur, people worshipped the goddess Nana at the ziggurat, a large stone pyramid, according to the religion of the Zoroastrians. 

You can imagine the surprise of people in Ur when they saw a “For Sale” sign in front of the home of Abram and Sarah.  Surely, they must have wondered, Why would Abram want to leave this prosperous city?  Why would he want to move his family at his age?  Abram was at least in his early seventies.  Sarah was about ten years younger, in her sixties.  People marveled at the fact that old Abram had married such an attractive woman.  Now they were going to move. 

I have been through the transition of moving with a number of older people, some recently.  People about this age know that it is time to move into a residential facility, perhaps a retirement community.  Moving out of the home they have lived in so long into a place that is smaller is hard.  Discarding some of their furniture is difficult even though they know the move is best for them.  The parents and their adult children often have arguments over this issue. 

For Abram and Sarah, it was not a matter of moving into a retirement community.  They were not buying a motor home, one of those monstrosities that travel the highways with a sticker on the back bumper that reads, “I am spending my kids’ inheritance.”  People had seen Abram gathering livestock:  cattle, sheep, goats, and camels.  They also knew of his bargaining for tents.  If asked, “Where are you going?” Abram would have confessed, “I don’t have a clue.”  In fact, the book of Hebrews said that he left Ur and went out “into a land that he knew not of.”  The neighbors thought, That crazy old Abram is becoming a gypsy!  If questioned, “Why are you doing this?” Abram would have answered, “I am not really sure except that God told me to do it.”  Some might have decided that Abram was having a mid-life crisis, but it was much too late for that.  The Canaanites believed that their goddess Nana would never have required this journey of Abram and his family.  They considered Nana as being more sensible than the God known as Yahweh.  God had given Abram a strange command, and He had chosen a strange man to carry out that command. 

Abram and Sarah had no children, but they did have an adult nephew who had been orphaned, Lot.  Abram, Sarah, Lot and his family, and Abram’s aging father, Terah, set out from Ur on a long journey.  They travel the only route they can really go, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, 600 miles to the north.  When they reach the town of Haran, they stop.  Out of respect for Terah, who did not want to go any further, Abram and Lot set up camp for a while there.  During their stay in Haran, the contingent grows larger, accumulating more livestock and acquiring more servants. 

After a time, when Abram was seventy-five years old according to Scripture, they knew they must continue their journey.  Now they turned to the south, traveling through what became known as the Fertile Crescent, the complete arc that extended from Babylon to the land of Egypt.  They eventually reach their goal, the land of the Canaanites, but find that they can not stay there because the land is experiencing a famine.  They continue their travels, going further south. 

When the contingent reaches Egypt, Pharaoh, who seemed attracted to older women, takes a liking to Sarah.  He wants to take her as his wife.  She was an attractive woman, even for her years.  Feeling threatened, Abram knows he cannot tell Pharaoh, “You cannot have her.  She is my wife.”  If Abram does so, Pharaoh might well kill him in order to take his wife, a common practice in that day and time. 

Abram prompts Sarah, “Tell him that you are my sister.”  It was one of those moments in the life of this great man of faith when we see his faith wavering, when we see a flaw in his integrity.  His lie is a failure of faith; however, it was not just a bald-faced lie.  Sarah was actually his half-sister.  When she tells Pharaoh that she is Abram’s sister, Pharaoh decides to have her as his own wife.  The plan never develops, though, because a great illness comes over the land of Egypt and affects the household of Pharaoh.  Suspecting that Abram had told him a lie, Pharaoh confronts Abram.  This is one of those instances in which a non-believer confronts a believer whose sin is so pronounced that it is clear to everyone.  Abram confesses the truth.  Believing that Abram had brought this illness to Egypt, Pharaoh simply wants the group to leave.  He had already lavished gifts on Abram, such as animals and servants.  Now he presents even more of these same gifts.

            Abram and his family move back into the land of Canaan.  Because the grazing area was still sparse, Abram and Lot decide to divide the land.  Abram gives his nephew first choice of where he would like to live.  Lot looks north, south, east and west.  Being a young man with a lot of ambition, he chooses what he thinks will be the best land – the Jordan Valley – with its lush grass, magnificent date palms, abundantly flowing water, and prosperous cities.  Lot knows the reputation of those cities, especially Sodom and Gomorrah; yet he chooses this place to take his family.  Abram remains in the land of Canaan. 

I want to call your attention to Genesis 13, Verses 14-17: 


The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west.  All the land that you see I will give you and your offspring forever.  I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted.  Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”


            Abram has no doubt that he is in the right place.  Not quite sure where exactly he should settle, he moves from one location to another, staying for a while in cities like Bethel and Shechem, which later would become great worship centers.  Finally at the place called Hebron, he pitches his tent on a more- or less- permanent basis, there among some oak trees.

            Chapter 15 tells us that God brings Abram to a place at night and asks him to look at the starry sky, a sky unaffected by ground light.  He promises Abram a second time that he is going to be the father of a great nation: “Count the stars if you can.  This is how many will be your offspring, as many as the stars.”  It is almost more than Abram, who is now eighty-five years old, can believe.  God and Abram, sovereign and subject, make this covenant. With stars still in his eyes, Abram goes and speaks to Sarah.

            I included a joke here in the first service; but Jackie Satterfield asked me not to tell it in this service, so I will not.  If you want to know the joke, ask Jackie.  She will be glad to tell you.  She might even sing “Viva Viagra” for you.  Let me just say that Abram and Strom Thurmond had a lot in common. 

Abram, an old man of eighty-five, tells Sarah, “God has promised us a child.”  Tired of waiting, she suggests her own plan, “Listen, you know that slave girl, Hagar, the one we picked up down in Egypt?  Why don’t we let her be a surrogate mother?”  The Canaanites were already practicing polygamy and using surrogate mothers on a routine basis.  In a moment of weakness, Abram agrees to her proposal.  They had many reasons, I suppose, why they did not wait and trust God; but their impatience results in much conflict, a story we will discuss next week.  Abram and Sarah’s decision to take matters into their own hands results in the most tragic mistake the two make.  I understand that in the Chinese language, the symbol for trouble is two women under one roof.  Hagar’s role as surrogate mother and the birth of a son, Ishmael, create all kinds of strife and hatred within the family. 

God had told Abram that he was going to have a child and that he would be the father of a great nation.  Abram’s impatience causes him to violate the covenant symbolized with the stars. The human side always breaks the covenant.  God never breaks covenant with His people. 

God then makes a new covenant with Abram, a covenant of circumcision.  Some people would rather that I not even talk about that topic.  Circumcision was a common practice among the Canaanites.  For Abram, however, this command must have been startling.  I can only imagine his responding, “Listen, Lord, you gave Noah a rainbow.  Last time, you gave me stars.  This time you are demanding this kind of surgery?  Is this really what you want me to do?” 

God wants Abram to know that He takes the covenant seriously.  This is not just a matter of having stars in his eyes.  Now, this covenant gives to Abram an indelible mark, one he will never forget.  From that day to this, this has been the sign of God’s covenant for the Jewish people.  The covenant is renewed between the two, and God changes  Abram’s name to Abraham with this renewal. 

            One day, Abraham, who is now ninety-nine years old, is sitting at the entrance of his tent while Sarah bakes bread in the kitchen.  Three strangers come to his tent and converse with him, revealing that Sarah, who is in her nineties, is pregnant.  Sarah has not laughed in a long time; but after hearing this news, she laughs and laughs and laughs.  Just imagine.  Abraham is 100, and Sarah is past ninety when they have a child.  Think of Social Security and Medicare.  Think of your own sense of horror if you found out that you were pregnant beyond ninety.  They name their child Isaac, the Hebrew word for “laughter.”  Isaac, the child they had desired for so long, becomes the apple of their eye.  As Isaac grows, they realize that God has fulfilled His promise.  God has done exactly what He had promised to do. 


Song:  “They Called Him Laughter”


            A turn in the story, one that is almost unimaginable, occurs in Genesis 22.  God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice.  The Canaanites were offering their oldest child as a sacrifice.  In some disturbing way, this sacrifice was an expansion of the idea of the tithe.  Tithing required a person to give the first fruits of the harvest or the firstborn of the flock to the Lord.  Maybe the Canaanites thought that giving their firstborn child was a kind of tithe.  God is saying through this story, “No, you are not to regard your children that way.” 

Scripture says that Abram and Isaac get up early one morning to make the three-day journey.  I do not know whether Abraham wanted to complete God’s request quickly or whether he wanted to get out of the tent before Sarah woke up and realized what he was doing.  Genesis 22:3 makes a very interesting comment.  Abraham saddles his donkey with enough wood for the burnt offering and sets out with Isaac for the place God had directed. 

On the third day, Abraham sees their destination in the distance, a mountain topped with a big, flat rock.  He instructs his two servants who had accompanied the pair, “Stay here with the donkey while the boy and I go over there.  We will worship and then come back to you.”  Abraham clearly says that both he and the boy will return.  Is this an act of faith that he should say that?  Did he believe that he would try to do what God had asked him to do and that somehow there would be divine intervention?  Was this just wishful thinking?  The Scripture includes that information for you to ponder. 

Father and son climb the mountain together, with Abraham carrying his knife and a torch and with Isaac carrying the firewood.  About halfway up the mountain, Isaac poses the question, “Father, we have the wood and the fire, but where is the sacrifice?” 

I can imagine Abraham swallowing the huge lump in his throat.  He answers with the very profound response, “The Lord will provide.”  Is this answer an act of faith?  I think so.

When they reach the top of the mountain, they lay the wood for the sacrifice on that flat rock.  Abraham bounds his child and places him on the wood.  Then he raises the knife to sacrifice Isaac. 

Two paintings in the British Museum of Art illustrate this scene.  The artists portray Abraham with a raised knife.  His left hand covers Isaac’s eyes so that his son cannot see what is about to happen.  There in the shadows of the painting is a ram, caught in a thorn bush.  God stays Abraham’s hand, and that ram becomes the substitute sacrifice.  Isaac and his father worship and then both come down the mountain.  Not every parent is so fortunate. 

Mount Moriah is at the center of the old city of Jerusalem.  Now, a structure called the Dome of the Rock resides over that rock.  Scripture says that since the day Abraham obeyed God, offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice and using the ram as the substitute, that mountain has called the “Mount on which God provides.”


Song:  “God Will Provide a Lamb”


Did God want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?  I do not know.  I do know God wanted Abraham to be willing to sacrifice Isaac.  We learn from this story that our children do not belong to us.  Our children belong to God.  When Abraham came down the mountain with Isaac, he knew that boy did not belong to him.  Parents bring their babies, and we dedicate them here.  Some years later, those young people make a decision to accept Christ, the most important decision of their lives.  They are baptized, in another act of dedication. 

Any parent knows that we privately dedicate our children repeatedly.  I would say Clare and I do that almost daily.  We take each other by the hand and pray for our children and grandchildren, dedicating them to the Lord.  I like the way the poem puts it:  “Your children are not your children.  They are like arrows in the hand of the Great Archer.  You are the bow.  You are bent and drawn taut to release them in the direction the Archer would have them go.” 

We also learn from our ancestor Abraham that faith and obedience have no substitute.  We sing the song:  “Trust and obey for there is no other way.”  There really is no other way.  Abraham and Sarah wavered at times when they tried to do things their own way instead of trusting and obeying God.  We waver, too.  “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” 

Within sight of Mount Moriah is another mountain called Calvary.  At the place called Golgotha, our great eternal Father, God, sacrificed “His only begotten Son, that whosoever would believe in him would not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).  Do you believe that?  Do you trust that?  Do you trust that God has given that gift to you?  If you have never accepted Christ, could we invite you to make that decision?


Kirk H. Neely

© October 2008

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