Change: Abraham

Change: Abraham
A Message on Genesis 15:1-6
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
June 20, 2021
By Doug Wintermute

Genesis 15:1-6 (NRSV)

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

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Today, on Father’s Day, we will be continuing our sermon series on “Change” by exploring a man who became the father to many, many people and who experienced some massive changes in his life: Abraham.

Now in the scripture we just read you’ll notice that the person is referred to as “Abram,” not “Abraham.” Well, don’t worry, they are both the same person. The name change, just one of many changes that Abraham experienced, happens in Chapter 17 where God makes a covenant with Abram and tells him his name is no longer Abram (which means “exalted ancestor”) but Abraham (which means “ancestor of a multitude”).

So, Abram and Abraham are the same person. Abraham’s wife got a name change as well, from Sarai to Sarah. Both of those names mean “princess,” by the way.

Now the story of Abraham and Sarah is a very interesting one. In the scripture we read today we find that God promises Abraham that he will have more descendents than the stars in the sky. Now that’s a really good metaphor, and if you’ve ever gone out into a dark night out in the country and looked up into the sky and saw how many stars there are it is enough to drive you to your knees.

Pam’s dad lives out in rural Eastland County, about a mile from the nearest paved road. On cold, moonless nights you can easily see the Milky Way, the galaxy that our solar system is a tiny part of.

This photo was taken by a friend of mine, Robert Miller. He is into night sky photography and took this image down at the Big Bend that clearly shows the milky way. What a great photo. Just look at all those stars!

Just for grins I looked up on the Interwebs how many stars in the sky. Scientists don’t know an exact number (I guess they are still counting them…), but the seemingly agreed upon guesstimate is about 10 to the 12th power. That means a 1 with 12 zeros behind it. I have no idea what a number that big is called, but it’s a lot.

So God promises Abraham he will have that many descendents. Now that is pretty cool, you must admit. But there’s only one problem: Abraham and Sarah didn’t have any kids. Like, none.

Not only that, they were getting on up there in age. And as we as humans age, our chances of having children diminish as the years pass by.

Sarah is frustrated that she hasn’t had any children, so she does something that we find very bizarre today but that was somewhat common at the time: she gives her handmaid to Abraham as a wife so that he can have children through her.

As we talked about last week, children were so important in the Old Testament world. There were no social agencies to take care of the aged. Children were important because that’s who took care of you when you got old. No kids meant a very dire situation for someone as they aged.

So Sarah, frustrated that she can’t conceive children with Abraham, approaches him with the idea of giving him her handmaiden, Hagar, as a wife. But there’s a problem here: Hagar is Egyptian.

One of the big things for the Hebrew people in the Old Testament is that the Israelites are God’s chosen people, selected out of all the people on earth to have a special–and exclusive–relationship with God.

All throughout the Old Testament writings you will see warning after warning about the Hebrew people marrying people who weren’t Hebrews. It was a really big deal. The warnings pointed out that doing so would lead to the Hebrew people worshipping the false Gods of these other people, and sure enough, these warnings proved to be true when they were ignored.

So Hagar, even though she is Egyptian and not one of God’s promised people, is given to Abraham as a wife. As sure enough, soon after she becomes pregnant. There’s a lot of drama that then happens between Sarah and Hagar that you can read about in Genesis 16, but the bottom line is that Hagar does give Abraham a son named Ishmael, which means “God hears.”

As we have talked about in the past, having male children was super important at the time. The family name and almost all of the property passed from the father to the first born son, a right known as “primogeniture.” It’s sexist (hey, what about the daughters!), and not fair, but that’s unfortunately the way it was back then.

So Hagar has Ishmael, giving Abraham a male heir. Problem solved, right? Uh, no. While Ismael is a male, he doesn’t count because his mother is an Egyptian. Abraham’s true heir will have to be Hebrew.

Abraham was 86 when Hagar had Ishmael, so you can tell he’s getting on up there in age.

And yet God promises Abraham will have more descendents than the stars in the sky. How?

Readers Digest version: Sarah does conceive, and she gives birth to a boy that they name Isaac. The name means “he will laugh,” and he was named that because Abraham and Sarah both laughed when God told them they would have a child. I love it when God does that!

Having a child will change your life. It changed Abraham’s and Sarah’s, no doubt about that. And having two wives that don’t like each other is a big change as well. But there are other changes that Abraham faced that challenged him.

One of those changes happens in Chapter 22 of Genesis. In that chapter God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac, go to Mount Moriah, and then to sacrifice him as an offering to God.

Now it’s important to remember that child sacrifice to gods was a pretty common pagan practice at the time, especially for the false god Molech. Remember, Isaac is the son that Abraham and Sarah prayed so long for and which they were so happy to have. And now God was calling Abraham to purposefully kill that son?

Abraham is torn. He wants to remain faithful and loyal to God, but Isaac is the son that he and Sarah finally had after years of waiting. I’m pretty sure he didn’t get much sleep the night before the journey. But he is loyal and does what God asks, only to be stopped at the last second by an angel from God.

So, here are the changes in Abraham’s life: got married to Sarah, but couldn’t have kids. Married his wife’s handmaiden, Hagar, and had a son, but this caused mondo trouble between Sarah and Hagar. Finally has a son with Sarah named Isaac, but then is asked by God to sacrifice that son. Is going to be loyal and do so but is stopped at the last minute by an angel. Whew, that’s a lot of changes!

But wait, there’s more! What we haven’t looked at yet is geography. Not only does all this happen to Abraham, but it does so while he is traveling around.

Abraham grew up in Ur, an ancient city located in what is now the southern part of Iraq. When Abraham is a young adult God calls to him and tells him to go to the land of Canaan. God tells him that the land of Canaan will belong to his relatives and that God will give it to them. So Abraham and some other relatives, being faithful to God, pack everything up and head to Canaan, which we know now as the Holy Land.

Their first stop on the trip was the city of Haran, located in what is today the country of Turkey. They stay there a while and then God tells Abraham to go to Canaan, so they do and settle in a town called Shechem. They stay there for a while, but then comes a famine in Canaan and they head to Egypt to find food.

They get to Egypt and through some conniving and semi-deceit (more on that later) Abraham becomes pretty prosperous. But then they get kicked out of Egypt (again, more on that later) and head back and settle at the Negev, but Abraham’s and his cousin Lot’s herds were too numerous to be supported at the same spot. So Lot went toward Sodom and Abraham went the other way.

But then there is a war and Lot gets captured and taken as a prisoner, but Abraham puts some men together and they go and rescue Lot and the others that had been taken.

Then Abraham settled down near Hebron, located on the plain of Mamre. And that’s when all the drama with Sarah and Hagar happens.

While Abraham is lifted up as one of the great leaders not only of our faith, but also that of Jews and Muslims (The Muslims come from the line of Ischmael, by the way.). But he wasn’t a perfect person. No.

When they are going to Egypt to find food, he becomes worried that because his wife Sarah is so beautiful that the leaders in Egypt will kill him and take Sarah as their wife. So he comes up with a plan. He will tell the leaders that Sarah is his sister, not his wife, and then he will be safe. He convinces Sarah to go along with the ruse and that’s what they do.

Pharaoh’s people do take notice of Sarah, and thinking she is Abraham’s sister, take her to Pharaoh. But then a plague breaks out with Pharaoh’s people and they figure out that Sarah is Abraham’s wife, so they basically give a lot of livestock to Abraham to make him go away. So he takes the sheep and goes.

So even with his relationship with Sarah Abraham goes through some pretty stressful changes!

So what can we learn about change from Abraham?

I think the first is to always believe in God, even when things don’t make sense.

Abraham believed God that he would have more descendents than stars in the sky. Even though he was getting old and didn’t have any children at all, he believed God. In verse 6 of the scripture we read today, we read, “And he [Abraham] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Notice that first Abraham believed God, and it was in doing so that he received righteousness.

Now the term righteous gets a bad rap in our world. One of the reasons it does is because so many times it is used with another word: self righteous. Self righteousness is a bad thing, where you believe yourself to be superior or better than others. But righteousness just means being right or correct. Synonyms include: goodness, virtue, moral, justice, and honest. Those are all good things!

So we can learn from Abraham that even in the midst of change, even massive changes in our lives, our belief in God will result in our righteousness. Not “self righteousness,” and we need to be on guard against that evil, but we should seek to be righteous. Humble righteousness is a good thing.

Another thing I think we can learn from Abraham about change is that relationships change over time. Look at Sarah and Hagar. Talk about change! But even in the midst of all our relationships God is still faithful. God will get us through. Even if we try to convince a pharaoh that our wife is really our sister (and please, please don’t try that), God can cause good things to come out of difficult situations.

The third thing I think we can learn about change from Abraham is that God’s timing is different from our timing. Abraham and Sarah didn’t think they would ever have children, but in their old age God granted them their wish of a child. And that one child then leads to more children, and more children, until now, thousands and thousands of years later, we teach our kids to sing, “Father Abraham, had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you. So let’s all praise the Lord.” (Which is a great song to sing for Father’s day, if you ask me.)

God didn’tanswer Abraham’s and Sarah’s prayers then they wanted him to, when they were younger, but it happened when God needed it to happen.

As humans we are often so impatient with God. We expect God to answer our prayers with two-day delivery, just like the stuff we order from Amazon. We are an impatient people, seeking instant gratification in so many areas of our lives.

That’s why I like gardening. Gardening teaches you patience. You can’t just plant a tomato plant and expect to receive red, ripe tomatoes in a couple of days. You have to be patient, but the result in doing so is so delicious that it is worth the wait.

God hears our prayers, and God answers our prayers. But God, the creator of time, gets to choose the time to answer our prayers. We don’t get to pick the delivery date. God does.

So my challenge to you this father’s day is to believe in God. Be righteous (but not self-righteous). Trust that God has a plan, that it’s a good plan, and that his plan will come about in his time, now ours.

After all, God’s plan for Jesus Christ was perfect. It didn’t happen the way humans thought it should have happened, and it didn’t happen at the time people thought it would happen, but it did happen and was good. Jesus ended up defeating death, and giving us victory over death as well, by himself dying and then rising from the grave three days later. What a great way to save the world!

Trust in God in the midst of change. God knows what he’s doing. Just ask Abraham.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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