This week we were privileged to hear from a guest teacher, Jenny Garrity. Jenny and her husband, Kim, are supported workers from Hinson serving in Germany. She loves the Word, and we loved hearing from her today.
South By Stages
Abram’s youth was spent in Ur of the Chaldeans – a pretty sophisticated place, one of the most important city states in Mesopotamia, situated on the Euphrates River. From atop its giant ziggurat, or temple to the moon god Nanna, priests watched the stars and planets and mapped their movements. The Sumerians who lived there developed the earliest form of written language, using wedge-shaped symbols, what we now call cuneiform, and they had an efficient irrigation system that made farming productive, insuring enough to eat for everyone.
Just an aside: Among Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating from as early as 3000-2500 BC, archeologists have found the following story of a scribe father talking with his teenage (or young adult) son:
Scribe: Where did you go?
Son: I did not go anywhere.
Scribe: If you did not go anywhere, why do you idle about? Go to school, stand before your professor, recite your assignment, open your schoolbag, write on your tablet…do not wander about in the street. Now, repeat to me what I just said to you.
The son grudgingly repeats everything his father said…
Scribe: Come now, be a man. Don’t stand about in the public square or wander about the boulevard…
Though Abram lived in around 1800 BC, the above shows us that relationships between teenagers and their parents have not changed in thousands of years; might Abram have been just a typical youth in ancient Sumer, tempted to skip school now and then, hanging out on the boulevard with his buddies? Whatever the case, we know he was a human being, just like us, prone to the same human failings.
In Genesis 12, we find Abram obeying God’s command to keep moving, to finish the journey begun by his father Terah. Leaving civilization and setting out for a mysterious place that God would show him. Considering how civilized and cosmopolitan Ur was, it must have felt something like leaving New York City or San Francisco for the wheat fields of Kansas. We read in Chapter 12 verse 9 that Abraham traveled “south by stages”, and that’s what I want to call this message: “South by Stages.”
Because doesn’t that describe our Christian journey? We travel through life as followers of Christ, moving by stages, growing in fits and starts, taking detours and sometimes circling back to retrace our steps. But just as God faithfully led Abram, so he faithfully leads us. And like Abram, we can stumble upon some serious roadblocks in our journey.
Chapter 12 tells us that Abram encountered a pretty severe roadblock in the form of famine, so he detoured to Egypt:
Verses 10-12: “At that time there was a severe famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to wait it out. As he was approaching the borders of Egypt, Abram said to Sarai, You are a very beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, This is his wife. Let’s kill him; then we can have her!”
We don’t know for sure (the Bible doesn’t tell us), but it almost seems as if he followed his own logic and survival instincts when he made this detour to Egypt in order to avoid famine. We do know for SURE that he followed his own instincts, without asking for guidance from the Lord, when he reasoned that Sarai’s beauty would make him a target in Egypt.
Verse 13: “But if you say you are my sister, then the Egyptians will treat me well because of their interest in you, and they will spare my life.”
And his instincts were correct! We know what happened next – Pharaoh took Sarai into his harem and gave Abraham all kinds of gifts in return – sheep, cattle, donkeys, servants and camels. Abram is not only waiting out the famine in a comfortable place, but he’s growing even richer while doing so!
This reliance on self, this worldly logic Abram is following – it seems to be paying off and treating him well. The fact that he’s saved his skin and getting rich in the process only adds to the illusion that his needs are being met apart from God. Yet God won’t let him be comfortable in that place of self-reliance, in that place of looking elsewhere for satisfaction. He sends a plague and exposes Abram’s lie. Pharaoh is angry. Wrong is wrong, and even Pharaoh, a polytheist who worships the sun and the moon and a whole pantheon of gods and goddesses, knows that it’s wrong to take another man’s wife, and doesn’t hesitate to scold Abram for lying and putting him in the position of wrongdoer.
We, who know God and should know better, have the capacity to think falsely and act wrongly, and why? Often for the same reason as Abram – to feel more comfortable, to make life easier rather than wait and trust God to provide – to get something we feel we are missing. To get more. Especially in this world that is becoming more and more opposed to holy and godly living, we can just ease our journey through this world by relaxing our standards, by stretching the truth to better fit in so things don’t get too uncomfortable.
But our main focus, according to the author’s introduction to this Bible study, is on who GOD is in this story. God used the pagan Pharaoh to call out Abraham on his wrongdoing.
Verses 18-20: “So Pharaoh called for Abram and accused him sharply. What is this you have done to me? He demanded. Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why were you willing to let me marry her, saying she was your sister? Here is your wife! Take her and be gone! Pharaoh then sent them out of the country under armed escort – Abram and his wife, with all their household and belongings.”
Pharaoh scolded Abram. Pharaoh: a polytheist, a follower of the same kind of religion Abram and his father Terah had been called out of. Abram has by this time grown in his knowledge of the one true God and now his sin puts him in a place where a man who worships the likes of the sun, cats, stars, frogs, and so on, is lecturing him on proper behavior – on righteous living. Can you imagine how humiliating that must have been? Yet how effective! God knew this verbal spanking by a king steeped in the pagan religion of Abram’s past would teach Abram a much-needed lesson. It shows us that God works specifically in ways that reveal his intimate knowledge of who we are and where we’ve been.
Let’s think for a moment about our own lives. Where are our detours? What is our Egypt? In what areas are we refusing to look to God to provide, and trying to plan and arrange and protect and feed ourselves, whether physically or emotionally? Inevitably, if we keep doing so, the unbelievers around us in our world will notice that we aren’t living true to the standards we claim to follow. They may even call us out on our hypocrisy.
It is God’s desire to lead us OUT of where we’ve been. And he is faithful in doing so, regardless of our failure to obey, our lack of faith, our constant mess-ups. He called Abram to a new land and he calls us to a new life and he will lead us forward without giving up on us, even as he met Abram in his detour to Egypt, scolded him through Pharaoh, then led him onward toward the Promised Land.
After this fiasco, Abram left Egypt and continued “traveling by stages” to Bethel. Humbled, chastened, Abram builds an altar and does what? He worships the Lord at the place he had camped before.
Gen. 13: 3-4 “Then they continued traveling by stages toward Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where they had camped before. This was the place where Abram had built the altar, and there he AGAIN worshiped the Lord.”
Did you notice that? He worshiped the Lord AGAIN in the very same place he’d worshiped Him before. His trip to Egypt was a sojourn that got him off track, but now he’s back where he started and grateful to be there. He could have been farther along by now had he not detoured. We could all be farther along in our Christian walk if we didn’t sin, but I don’t believe God is in a hurry when it comes to leading his children and shaping their lives. What matters to him is that we repent when we’ve strayed.
Psalm 51:17 – A broken and contrite spirit, oh Lord, you will not despise.
Abram encountered a roadblock. He detoured, wasted time, sinned, came full circle, ended up back where he started, but he kept moving.
Do you, like me, sometimes feel crippled, almost paralyzed by your sins and failures, your lack of faith, your inability to see God at work? Sometimes we feel like we’ve messed up so much that there’s no point in trying to move forward. But isn’t that a bit ridiculous, to think that our sin is SO big and SO bad that it ties God’s hands and prevents him from working in our lives? To think our sin is so shocking and horrendous that it stops our journey completely?
Imagine your sin as a comic book villain in a black mask, running in and grabbing God – Superman – by the throat and pinning him against the wall. In the comic book world, Superman, by his very nature, is so much stronger than that skinny little villain who thinks he’s so powerful. With one punch, Superman knocks him flat. Yet sometimes we re-write the story, and keep imagining our pathetic little sin natures overpowering God, making him weak, too weak to help us grow, too weak to accomplish his will in our lives, to change us to become more like himself. Yet the story has already been written, and God is the victor. To elevate our failures to the place of paralyzing us and God is to forget that the One who calls us on this journey of Christlikeness is faithful and all powerful, and he keeps his promises. Promises like:
1 John 1:9: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
We should be encouraged as we read Genesis, where we see God leading Abram patiently and mercifully, IN STAGES, toward the Promised Land. He doesn’t say “Forget it! I’m done with you.” He chastises Abram, leads him to repent, accepts his worship, and leads on.
But no sooner has Abram worshiped than another roadblock arises: CONFLICT. Arguments break out between Lot’s and Abram’s herdsmen – seemingly unresolvable. However, these conflicts have to be resolved. Abram’s journey grinds to a halt until a resolution can be found.
I’ll read it here:
Gen. 13: 5-13 “Now Lot, who was traveling with Abram, was also very wealthy with sheep, cattle and many tents. But the land could not support both Abram and Lot with all their flocks and herds living so close together. There were too many animals for the available pastureland. So an argument broke out between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot. At that time, Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land. Then Abram talked it over with Lot. “This arguing bertween our herdsmen has got to stop, he said. After all, we are close relatives. I’ll tell you what we’ll do. Take your choice of any section of the land you want and we will separate. If you want that area over there, then I’ll stay here. If you want to stay in this area, then I’ll move on to another place. Lot took a long look at the fertile plains of the Jordan Valley in the direction of Zoar. The whole area was well watered everywhere, like the garden of the Lord or the beautiful land of Egypt. Lot chose that land for himself, the Jordan Valley to the east of them. He went there with his flocks and servants and parted company with his uncle Abram. So while Abram stayed in the land of Canaan, Lot moved his tents to a place near Sodom, among the cities of the plain. The people of this area were unusually wicked and sinned greatly against the Lord.”
And there’s more conflict ahead that I won’t read about here, because you have done the lesson: Abram gets caught right in the middle of out and out war between King Kedorlaomer and the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, and other cities. Abram didn’t create these conflicts, but they ensnare him and block his progress just the same.
Has conflict ever ground your progress, and by progress I mean spiritual growth and maturing – to a halt? I’m embarrassed to admit that there are times when conflict has crossed my path and I didn’t respond rightly to it – instead I responded in an immature way that stunted my growth, failed to honor God, and probably even deterred unbelievers in my life from wanting to know Him.
Conflict can block us from moving forward, but if we learn to handle it like Abram handled Lot, wisely and diplomatically, not pushing ourselves and our own needs to the forefront – we will move around that conflict roadblock to continue our journey and find blessing along the way.
Lot chose the most attractive place – the place he saw as capable of meeting all his needs, the beautiful, garden-like, well-watered land. We see in Chapter 14 that this insistence on having the good life didn’t work out so well for him. Abram, however, has learned a lesson by this time about looking to GOD to meet his needs. He takes the less desirable land, knowing it’s the Lord who provides, not this world. And indeed, after Lot leaves, God re-affirms his promise to Abram, saying, “I will give all this land to you, and I will multiply your descendants.”
So in STAGES, sometimes failing, sometimes obeying and succeeding, Abram keeps moving onward, camping now at Mamre and building another altar and doing what? Worshiping. Thanking God for what he’s done; the chastising, the convicting, the humiliating lessons learned, the forgiving, the healing, the faithful leading.
A journey like the one God has called Abraham on can seem HUGE and IMPOSSIBLE when looked at in its entirety, from beginning to end. But Abram was journeying one day at a time, one leg of the journey at a time and so it is with our journey. It’s made up of daily choices: will we make that phone call to that person we suspect is hurting, even though we’re busy? Will we refrain from lashing out sarcastically when the person who irritates us gets on our nerves yet again? Will we choke back that bit of gossipy information when it’s so tempting to pass it on? And I don’t want to imply by these examples that women only struggle with milder, relational sins. We live in a fleshly, in-your-face, sinful world and we as women are every bit as affected by it as men – and sometimes it’s the BIG SINS that trip us up as well – bitterness and hatred, sexual sin, outright rebellion against God, violent or addictive behaviors.
But God is not shocked by our rebellious tendencies or even our blatant sins– just reading through Genesis is enough to convince us that he’s seen it all before. Nothing throws him for a loop; no villain beats him up or ties his hands, not even our worst sins.
There is no sin so large and so devastating that we can’t make that circular journey, back to where we started and keep going forward. Like Abram, we travel forward as God leads us – in stages. When we sin we repent, thank God for convicting us, and move on. When we make right choices, we don’t become self-righteous. When Abram won victory in his war against Kedorlaomer, he refused to take glory for himself, instead making sure God was glorified as his ultimate provider:
Verse 21-23: The King of Sodom told him, …you may keep for yourself all the goods you have recovered. Abram replied, I have solemnly promised the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will not take so much as a single thread or sandal thong from you. Otherwise you might say ‘I am the one who made Abram rich.”
Abram failed – he worshiped.
Abram succeeded – he worshiped, and made sure God got the glory.
We travel toward Christ-likeness and our eternal home in heaven in STAGES, even as Abram traveled toward the Promised Land in stages. We fail and we succeed all along the way.
God who calls us on this journey is faithful and merciful. Knowing this gives us the courage to keep moving forward.
Abram knew it wasn’t about him; it was about the mighty God who had called him. In the same way, it’s not about us; it’s about the God who has called us and who leads us, bit by bit, in stages, to become like his Son, holy and righteous in character. So together let’s embrace each stage of our journey, not being afraid to move forward, even if we’ve lost a bit of ground. The point is to keep moving, to keep following the one who so faithfully leads us.