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Last held on the 25th of July 2004 at Hattem

Abraham and Abimelech about Sara

Once bitten, twice shy. And yet, we are not too good to fall back into the same mistake. Not even Abraham. Because in Genesis 12, we find a similar story as here in chapter 20. There Abraham is going to Egypte, where he's pretending Sarah is his sister, avoiding her to end up in Pharaoh’s harem. And here, he takes the same trick with Abimelech, king of Gerar, a philistine prince.

How lifelike! Because we humans are often incorrigible. Unteachable. One keeps making the same mistake, falling back into the same bad habit, falling into the same trap. It happens to us all. Ah, how much God has to do with us. How true it’s that someone wrote in a dutch poem: 'You will have to fight with me many more times before you will possess all of me.' What must be his patience with us great in Jesus Christ, his forgiveness of our sins immense, and his power to repentance strong! All the more so, since we also pass the bad example on to our children. Not only by our education but even by our genes. The wonderful fact is that years later, Isaac and Rebekah will do the same with another Abimelech in Gerar. Genesis 26 is about that. While in our story, Isaac still has to be born.

This is too much in the mind of critical interpreters. It’s the one and same folk legend, they say, which used to be told on cosy evenings around the open fire and to which different names are attached. Even if that’s the case, then the end writer of Genesis consciously turned it into several stories. With a different message. Because what's our story, in which the conversations are much more important than the event itself, primarily about? It’s about the questions of guilt and justice. The writer uses the story to address those profound ethical questions.

And then the first conversation is one between God and Abimelech. "But God came to Abimelech by night in a dream and said to him: Behold, you are a child of death because you've taken the wife." She's married. When it comes to questions about good en evil, the Lord, the God of Israel and Father of Jesus Christ, is the God of all people. His order given with the creation and life's purpose is for everyone always. And He's appealing to everyone. He's discussing this with all people in their heart, their conscience.

He often uses the dream for it. That’s not surprising. In our dreams, we are processing all our actions in our subconscious mind. So also the Lord came to Laban and Balaam, always to keep them from further wrongdoing. Paul writes: everyone knows God’s rules of law and righteousness. There’s a general morality, a sense of right and wrong, the Lord has put in the hearts of all people. We’ve received tremendous gifts from our Creator that elevate us far above the animals. And besides understanding, knowledge, science, it’s also conscience: the awareness of justice and injustice. That conscience can fail, can be too narrow or too broad due to certain circumstances, for example, because of the upbringing we received, can even be sick or hardly functioning. Just think of serious criminals and war criminals. But that does not alter the fact that it's a precious asset in our mind stimulating us to do the right thing and frightening us to do the wrong. And the Lord uses this as a receiving station to pass on his message to us. Appreciate that voice of conscience. Please don’t argue with it too often because it will make her weaker. Think of it as one of God’s good tools to work for the good of us, an instrument that everyone gets, even to the farthest heathen, but that becomes more and more precise the more you follow the Lord Jesus.

An instrument for the benefit? It doesn’t seem like that. For what does God say to Abimelech? “Behold, you are a child of death.” That sounds harsh. In many countries, the death penalty has been abolished, and if it’s still carried out, it’s only for the most serious criminals. Is God so cruel? We have difficulty with that. And yet, in His righteousness, He really cannot do otherwise. Because if we don’t do the right things with the life, He gave us, we are not worth living. To do good is the reason why He has given us life. Or do you wish God had created us with less high ideals? Not with the great intention to love Him and our neighbour, to seek peace, justice, freedom, happiness for everyone and thus become happy ourselves? Isn’t that very deep within us, the desire of all of us? Isn’t that the sense we want to give to our life? Then we shouldn’t be surprised either, that as soon as we ignore those wonderful intentions, we will be told: you have not made yourself worth living. You are a child of death.

But what a miracle of grace it is that God has given us one human being who lived as He intended and on whom He yet carries out the death penalty. His son. The Lord Jesus. In our place, He lived as we had to live and became the child of death to keep us alive and that even forever. Isn’t that rich? Believe in Him!

Why is Abimelech a child of death? Because He took another’s wife. So there are certain commandments God asks of everyone, regardless of their faith or unbelief. Not all cultures have the same idea of what life is, property, or marriage. In one culture, the life of the tribe, the community, is much more important than that of the individual. In another, an individual is a unique person whose life one not easily sacrifices. In one culture, livestock is jointly owned; in another, it’s not. In one culture, a man can marry only one woman; in another, more. But don’t be mistaken. There is no arbitrariness. There are strict rules everywhere. Especially among the most primitive tribes in Africa or South America. Rules derived from the commandments: You shall not kill, you shall not steal, you shall not commit adultery. They may be orders of God distorted by superstition, but they exist. And thus, the Lord in His wisdom and love makes human coexistence possible on this earth. Because without such worldwide commandments and obedience to them, it will be chaos. Because of that, it isn’t good when Christians are playing fast and loose with these fundamental commandments. And it also isn’t good in a Western European civilization, which has been under the influence of the Christian faith for centuries, that these commandments are keeping so bad. I’m thinking of the murders, you regularly read about in the newspaper: liquidations in the underworld, but also because of relationship problems, jealousy and hatred. I’m thinking of the countless forms of theft taking place. I’m thinking of erotic escapades and adultery, having one woman after another or at the same time. In short, take the Ten Commandments very seriously, also the second table of it. These are things that the Lord imposes on the entire human family. Christians cannot avoid that at all.

But what is Abimelech’s answer? Lord, will you kill a righteous nation? A nation? Wasn’t it about him himself? Certainly, but God not only created us as individuals but also placed us in communities. When we’re doing something wrong, it has consequences in our environment. When a king is failing, his people are the victim. Just think of Saddam Hussein. When a father, mother, child fails, the family is the victim. When a Christian fails, his congregation is the victim. If only for the talk: such a bandit visits the services on Sundays! With every mistake, we incur an extra debt because it has repercussions on others around us. Abimelech understands that. He knows: what I do as a king, even if it’s private, concerns all of my people. And in that, he is wise, sometimes wiser as we are. We soon say: I can do what I want with my life, can’t I? Doesn’t anyone else have anything to do with that? Fortunately, this close bond between the individual and the community also works for the better. Al that one did, Jesus Christ, concerns his whole people. God will not kill a righteous people for that, but give life to a sinful people. How great!

And then Abimelech clears himself. “I did it in my innocence. They said they were brother and sister.” Anything contrary to God’s intention is guilt. Apart from the purposes with which one did it. In the Old Testament, this goes so far that someone who accidentally kills another has to flee to a city of refuge. For example, his axe flies off the handle while chopping and hits another. Only by running he will be protected from revenge. Yet the Lord, the knower of our hearts, considers whether we did something on purpose or not. Abimelech has all the space to talk to the Lord about guilt and innocence, and the Lord listens to Him. And so weren’t the idols then and there. They were blind impersonal powers. They gave prosperity or adversity, fertility or sterility. But you could not go to them for right and wrong questions, personal responsibility and guilt. For that, you can go to the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ. You can talk to Him about what’s going wrong in your life. And about whether it involved ignorance or not, whether you meant it that way or not. People can quickly condemn us or lightheartedly justify what we did, but before the face of the Lord, the truth comes to light about our innocence and purity or the lack of that. He is our supreme Judge, who will one day judge all of our lives. Strictly fair and taking all circumstances into account. Fortunately, He is also the Father of the Lord Jesus, whom He gave to atone the sins and guilt for everyone who has come to believe in Him.

We also hear that the Lord in His goodness often keeps us from evil, while we are not aware of it. Given what the end of our chapter says, Abimelech, for some reason, had not yet slept with Sarah. Probably due to illness. “I”, God says, “ have therefore kept you from sinning against Me. That is why I have not allowed you to touch her." Sometimes there’s a hitch in our plans. Due to some setback. Unfortunately. But, who knows, it may be God’s gracious guidance that prevents us from sinning so. Who knows, what we don’t experience as a blessing from God is nevertheless a blessing, because otherwise, we would have done the wrong thing, and God now closed those roads to evil. We may ignorantly have been saved for a lot of guilt because God sent us in ways we didn’t want or prevented us from going on ways we did want.

Early the next morning, Abimelech calls his servants together and tells them everything. Wise. Because you should never grapple with such guilt questions on your own. You should not only share it with God but also with others who are connected to you. That’s not easy, but it’s beneficial. Liberating. The confession isn’t such a bad thing. Confess your sins to one another, James wrote. Blessed is the congregation, whose members have such a close bond that they can pour out their hearts to each other, also when they have deep guilt questions. It should be possible among the Lord Jesus’s followers, who bore all our debts and atoned for them.

And the men got afraid. Shameful. Pagans often have a greater fear of evil and the disaster it causes than Jews and Christians, who know the God of Israel and the Father of the Lord Jesus. Muslims often take their faith and the precepts of Allah far more seriously than we take our faith and the commandments of the Lord. God’s hidden and idolatrous appeal to Gentiles often has more effect than his direct and open appeal to us Christians. That makes our transgressions all the more serious. We sometimes look down on people of a different religion. Aren’t they a bit primitive? Be careful. Because when it comes to the relationship between doctrine and life, those with bad doctrine could live well and those with good doctrine badly.

That’s why Abimelech sues Abraham. That gets a heavy accent. “What have you done to us? What have I done against you that you brought me and my kingdom to such a great sin? You did things to me that were not allowed.” These are serious reproaches, still from someone who had not been called out of Ur by the true God to be a blessing to the earth. For Abraham, who has been, to wish the ground swallow him up. Likewise, as Christians, we have a high calling; to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world; to make visible God’s glorious purposes for us; to live the true, new life before others in imitation of the Lord Jesus. It’s debt when nothing comes of it, and we only give cause for justified accusations. And we let it get that far occasionally. It’s no advertisement for the Lord and his cause. Fortunately, there is one of Abraham’s lineage who could rightly say: “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” The Lord Jesus Christ! No charge stands against Him. Therefore, we can hide behind Him with our mistakes.

Abimelech also says to Abraham: “What purpose did you mean to do this?” So Abimelech pushes on to Abraham’s heart. What made you do it? What did you mean by it? Whoever against whom we’ve done wrong has the right to ask. And we also have the moral duty to keep asking ourselves. What mentality was behind it? Because good intentions sometimes go wrong. And behind the most pious deeds can hide wrong motives. Is our heart a pure or cloudy source? All our words and actions come from our hearts. Guard your heart because that is the source of life, is a saying, freely translated. Anyone who wants to live a righteous life and does not like to blame himself especially wants to receive a new, clean heart. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit can give it to us through faith in the Lord Jesus.

Abraham’s heart, frankly, did not have such tremendous motives. “I thought, perhaps there is no fear of God in this place. They will kill me for my wife.” They probably don’t take the Lord and His commandments into account here. You shall not commit adultery or kill. To distrust people; to expect of them rather the wrong than the good; likewise, to underestimate God’s work in the consciences of others. And to be afraid of them. These are not such beautiful motives. And often, the following applies: It takes a low mind to think low. For if Abraham himself had known the fear of God then, he wouldn’t have lied, hadn’t given false testimony, and had trusted God would help him. Now he's only driven by fear of his own skin. It’s good to consult ourselves as well. What's moving me in my daily activities? Am I afraid of people? Do I always expect the negative from them? Don’t I dare to stick my neck out? Don’t I dare to take God into account? With his care and blessing for those who keep his commandments, even sometimes through adversity? You know, I'm thinking of Him, who without fear of the reactions of men and his life was completely obedient to God’s commandments and who relied on God right through all need and death. In our place. Jesus Christ! How beautiful it would be if faith made us more and more like Him and less and less like Abraham here in his weak moments.

And weak he is! His further excuse also sounds very lame. Sara anyway is my sister, even though she's my half-sister and has become my wife. And I had agreed with her long ago when we left Ur of the Chaldees that she would pretend to be my sister. Excuses, on which he elaborates. We know that: a lot of words to disguise something, get out of something, find an angle on it; proclaiming half-truths, which are complete lies; claiming to have fulfilled very old agreements. It doesn’t sound credible. That‘s something to think about when it comes to the moral questions of good and evil. Our story wants to recharge the battery, so to speak, that in our conscience turns the warning red light on when we’re doing the same as Abraham.

And what is Abimelech’s response? He's essentially not guilty, but he does feel it that way. And does its utmost to repair the damage, yes actually makes sacrifices of atonement. Abraham not only gets Sarah back but also receives sheep and oxen, slaves and female servants. He gets all the hospitality. “Behold, my country is open to you. Settle where you think it’s right.” And he gets a thousand pieces of silver as the saving from Sarah’s honour. How deeply Abimelech knows full well that one must settle every debt and make up for every damage made. What a high price he pays to have a free conscience. What a deep sense of justice he has. We sometimes fall short of that. We sometimes easily get over what went wrong, intentionally or unintentionally, our guilt. Abimelech is closer to the truth, considering how seriously the Lord Himself has dealt with it. He gave his own Son for reparation and satisfaction as a sacrifice of atonement. What a high price! But there was no other way. His justice demanded that. But in this way, the debt has been paid for us. Thus there is for us sinners acquittal and redemption. What a blessing.

Now you could deduce from the fact that God’s children are sometimes disappointing and the world is sometimes not too bad, that it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you take your faith seriously. But that’s too simple. God graciously chose Abraham to enter into a covenant of love and faithfulness with him, blessed him and made him a blessing. And that’s what He holds despite Abraham’s unfaithfulness. God also says to Abimelech: Abraham is a prophet. In other words, despite everything, he will remain throughout his life the interpreter of my saving message to the world, just like the people who will come forth from him. He remains the mediator and intercessor.

Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and maids. What a miracle of grace! Still be used by God for the fulfilment of his beautiful promises, even though you are no longer worth it at all and so often get in the way of that fulfilment with your stupid actions. Is it not the same with us Christians? What a miracle to follow Jesus towards God’s future of salvation and peace, to make the signs of that future visible on earth, to be allowed to be God’s light in this world, while you've long since made yourself unworthy of it by your mistakes. What a great God, in Jesus Christ! ”If we are faithless, He remains faithful--for he cannot deny himself ( 2 Tim. 2:13). Amen.

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