Faithful to the promise {The Sarah Series 5}

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Abram had been renamed Abraham. Sarai had been renamed Sarah, but there was still no child in the tent when the Lord visited his chosen couple by the oaks of Mamre. As Abraham entertained the guests, as was proper in those days, one of the mysterious guests asked about Sarah. She wasn’t far away. Curiosity drew her to the entrance of the tent, where she overheard the unexpected guest’s bold announcement: He would return in a year and Sarah would have her long-awaited son.

Sarah did what any nonagenarian would do when confront with the prediction of a pregnancy. She laughed. It is not a surprise that Sarah laughed at the idea of having a child. Genesis 18:11 makes it clear that Sarah had aged beyond child-bearing years when the Lord made his visit. When her laughter (which I always imagined as a wry chuckle) subsided, she muttered, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”

Imagine her shock and embarrassment at the Lord’s next words.

Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” (Genesis 18:13-14 NIV)

In response, Sarah did what anyone of any age would do. She denied laughing.

But it doesn’t work to make such a denial to the Lord. Sarah and the Lord presumably never lock eyes during the encounter, but the Lord is fully aware of Sarah’s laughter and he calls her out on it.

He called her out on her sin. In laughing at the Lord’s words, Sarah wordlessly called her Lord a liar – just like we do when we talk ourselves out of the dreams God puts into our hearts. Silently, the barrage of excuses overwhelm us when we know his calling.

“Go serve in the nursery.”
“I can’t. I’m terrible with little kids.”

“Sing in the choir.”
“No way. Other people sing better than me.”

“Give that homeless man your takeout.”
“I could barely afford it myself. I can’t give it away.”

“Quit your job and serve me.”
“What about the bills?”

Through our laughter, through our questions, through our doubt, and through our rebellion God remains faithful to his promises – just as he remained faithful to his promise to Sarah. Her unbelief did not negate the blessing of Genesis 18:10, which echoes the blessing given to Abraham, “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her.” Within a year, God’s promise of a child would finally come to pass. Despite her doubt, God provided.

The LORD came to Sarah, as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised. (Genesis 21:1)

May he do for you what he has promised …

Sarah and GodThis post is part of an ongoing series, The God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. All of the posts in the series can be accessed here.

Ahead of time {The Sarah Series 4}

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“Abram got two things down in the land of Egypt which really cause him trouble: one was wealth, and the other was this little Egyptian maid.”

This is how the late Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee introduced Hagar into the story of Abram and Sarai. In time, she became a key – but divisive – figure in the family, as did her son.

Years had passed since the initial promise and Sarai was still barren. God had even expanded on the promise when he made his covenant with Abram, declaring his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. Month after disappointing month, Sarai waited. Her patience waned along with her hope until she struck upon a culturally-acceptable solution that defied the will of God.

In Abram’s time, maidservants were not only considered property, but also legal extensions of their mistresses, even in the most intimate of ways. Children born to them, then, would be considered legal heirs to the father’s estate. This, Sarai reasoned, would give Abram his long-awaited heir, and fulfill the promise made by the Lord.

But – as happens so often when we presume to act in the place of the Lord – the plan did not work out as Sarai had hoped. Abram agreed, and Hagar became pregnant. Hagar’s contempt for her mistress grew along with the child in her womb until Sarai could bear it no longer. Too late she confessed her plan had been conceived in error, and took out her anger and frustration on Hagar. The situation became so volatile that Hagar fled into the desert, expecting to die. Sarai’s plan brought unintended consequences throughout her lifetime as conflict remained between her and Hagar and her son, Ishmael.

Sarai’s scheming coupled with Abram’s willingness to acquiesce to a dubious plan reveals a lapse of faith. Sarai had enough faith to follow her husband as they left Haran without direction, but her faith was not strong enough to believe that God would deliver the child he said he would. To be specific, God wasn’t acting on Sarai’s timetable to have a child. Who can blame her? Sarai was a senior citizen, to put it kindly. The tick-tock of the biological clock was barely audible if it was happening at all. To her reasoning, the only way a child could possibly come into their lives was through her own intervention and her own planning – and it ended in disaster.

Too often, I find myself rushing ahead of God’s plan. There are times I do more planning than praying, more scheming than submitting. More often than not, the plans and schemes do not work out as I had hoped, and then I turn to prayer and submission in hopes of salvaging the mess I had made.

Though we tend to think about God’s timetable as it related to major life choices, we also must understand that God operates on his timetable every single day. Please understand I have no intention of over-spiritualizing the little annoyances of everyday life. Our God cares enough and is big enough to preside over the details of our lives and still have an abundant capacity to take care of the larger issues facing the planet – more often than not through our willing hands and spirit. Is he behind the delay at the office that caused you to miss the pile-up on the highway? I don’t know. Maybe. Or, it could just be that co-worker that waits until the last minute to spring a project on you.

What I do know is that God has prescribed rhythms for our lives to draw us closer to him. This, too, is God’s timing. In his timing, we rest for the Sabbath each week. We not only pray over someone’s needs; we also do what we can to help. We spend precious time in his word daily, seeking to know him better. Even our vacations – when we take them – can be a way of drawing closer to the Lord. Entering into the rhythm of God’s timing in the mundane prepares us to trust his timing in the extraordinary. Sarai learned this in time, as do we all.

Read the beginning of Hagar’s story in Genesis 16.

Sarah and GodThis post is part of an ongoing series, The God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. All of the posts in the series can be accessed here.

A not-so-beautiful ruse (The Sarah Series 3)

Sarah and God

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. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister,so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”

When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.

But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 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!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.

Genesis 12:10-20

 

Obeying the call of God, Abram and his entourage began walking. They walked the length and breadth of Canaan, where Abram once more heard the promise of God as the Lord told him, ““To your offspring I will give this land.”

But a famine struck. The situation became so dire that Abram led the family into Egypt. In making this bold move, Abram had but one concern. It had nothing to do with the armies of Pharaoh or the hostility they could face as outsiders in a land not their own. It had everything to do with Sarai, whom Abram believed to be so exceedingly beautiful that she would attract the attention of Pharaoh. Not only did Abram think Sarai would attract the Egyptian ruler’s attention, but also that he himself would be murdered as Pharaoh’s desire for Sarai overtook him. So Abram devised – and Sarai agreed to – a plan in which they would present themselves as brother and sister rather than husband and wife. They believed the subterfuge would protect Abram from Pharaoh. Maybe the scheme would even lead Pharaoh to treat Abram well.

It is natural to question why such a plan would be necessary. Sarai was between the ages of 65-70 by this time. Could she still be so beautiful as to attract the attention of the ruler of Egypt?  A portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls seem to suggest that she was indeed still that physically attractive. Other scholars suggest Sarai’s dignity, bearing, and style contributed to giving her a striking impression. However we may describe her beauty, it was indeed enough to capture the attention of Pharaoh, and the story unfolded just as Abram had predicted – almost. Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s house, and Abram was given livestock and servants.

God, however, had a plan to bring his chosen couple’s ruse to light. Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly how Pharaoh determined that his relationship with Sarai was the root of all the ills of his household, but he rightly traced the problem to Abram. After a good reprimand, Pharaoh sent the couple away, along with all that had been acquired during their stay.

The plagues sent on Pharaoh and his household show the first instance of God intervening in the lives of Abram and Sarai to protect the promise. There would be other instances – some of them strikingly similar to this one. We would think that Abram and Sarai would have learned from that first mistake, especially after God had so clearly intervened on their behalf.  Yet, they – like us – continued to devise their own strategies rather than trust fully in the promise that God has made. We make small decisions every day that rest on our own strength rather than trusting God. We make massive decisions throughout our lives that rise from our own thinking and planning rather than from the plans of the One who made us.

And, like Sarai and Abram, we sometimes find that God corrects our path. As much as we may want it, we don’t see plagues rain down on our adversaries, but we do see obstacles crop up as we move along our own trajectory until we finally surrender in prayer and give up our plans for the greater plans of the Lord.

To be honest, I need to fully surrender each day to the Lord to assure that the visions I have for my future come from him and not from my own misdirected ego. I’m not good at surrender. I fail as often as I succeed in doing so. In the end, though, I know that surrendering my small dreams opens the door to God’s greater dreams.

Read the whole story in Genesis 12:10-20.

Out of Ur {The Sarah Series 2}

Sarah and GodThe story of Abram – as it is often told – begins with a great call from God to leave everyone and everything that he knew to go to a land he did not know as he was led by a God he did not understand. This, too, is often where Sarai’s story begins, mentioned alongside Abram’s nephew, Lot, and all of Abram’s people and possessions as the journey from Haran into the unknown begins.

But Haran was not their home, and obedience to the call of God was not the beginning of Abram and Sarai’s story.

Their story begins in Ur of the Chaldeans. Scholars debate over the site of the ancient city, but generally agree it is in the Middle East in or around what is modern-day Iraq. There we meet Terah, a descendent of Noah’s son Shem, and his sons Abram, Nahor and Haran. For reasons not expressed in the text, Terah decided to move. That he packed up his family to go on a journey is less interesting than their intended destination. Genesis 11:31 tells us:

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (Haran’s son), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.

We barely know Sarai’s name before a stark truth is revealed — Sarai was barren and had no child. This declaration provides a vital context to the promise that would be made to Abram when God called him. The command to go included the seemingly impossible promise that Abram would the father of a great nation.

But, look ahead a few centuries and see the impossibility brought to life. Imagine yourself sitting around a campfire in ancient Egypt. You are part of a family and a people that have been slaves for generations. These moments – surrounded by your people and listening to the stories of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – fuel you through the drudgery of the work given each day by your Egyptian task masters. Tonight, the old woman is talking about Sarai. Her gray hair is pulled back under a worn headscarf. Her skin, tanned and wrinkled from the desert sun, adds to her air of wisdom. Her, gnarled by decades of slave labor, move expressively as she tells the story.

“And Sarai was barren,” she said dramatically. “She had no children.”

Everyone around the campfire laughs instinctively. You look to your mother and lock eyes. She smiles. You smile back. You both understand you are two daughters of Sarah sitting among dozens of daughters of Sarah in a nation of thousands of daughters of Sarah.

Barrenness appeared to pronounce a death sentence on the divine plan. But, in the course of time, it offered a background for God’s power to be displayed as obstacles and hurdles were overcome. What God had done for Sarah is still being done in the lives of women today. Obstacles, hurts, illnesses, disappointments, and loss create walls we feel unable or inadequate to climb on the path to what we know God has called us to do. We question the call. We question the process. We may even question God. We can never question his capacity to do abundantly more than we could ever imagine, and all we have to do is look back to the life of Sarah for confirmation.

Many years stood between the promise and its fulfillment, and there were multiple incidents brought on by Abram and Sarai themselves that threatened to derail the promise. We’ll explore one of those in next week’s post.

The God of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah

Sarah and God

“The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.”

“… the God of your ancestors …”

Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel …”

“… the God of Jacob …”

“… the God of Abraham …”

These names for God were on the lips of the nation of Israel from the moment Moses heard the Voice speaking from the flames of the burning bush. They were repeated in song and in solemn assemblies as the nation remembered its identity as the chosen people of God.

Hearing these names conjures images of the patriarchs wandering the length and breadth of the land the Lord swore would be theirs, waiting for the promises to be fulfilled, and listening for the voice of God to offer direction. It speaks of the eternal nature of the Lord, and of his faithfulness to the men who would give rise to the nation that he would call his own.

But these men were not alone.

Alongside Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. These were the women through whom the promised children would come. These are the women who came to know the eternal nature of God, his faithfulness and the truth of his promises though – like their husbands – they did not follow the Lord perfectly. They wavered with unbelief. They were impatient. They failed to trust in God’s timing.

Or, you could say, they were a lot like us.

A closer look at the lives of these women, though, reveals an overall life of faith in God and in experiences that point to the one who would provide the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant promises, Jesus.

What does it take for us today to cultivate a life of visible faith in which our humble walk with the Lord daily points to the promises we find in the resurrected Christ?

Let’s strap on our sandals, and find out by walking alongside Sarah in her journey with Abraham. It all begins in Haran, in ancient Mesopotamia.