Sermon: The Rescue of Sarai

At the Reformed Church of Stout, we believe every word in the Bible is a gift from God to us in order to reveal himself, his will, and his mighty acts of salvation. For this reason, one of our common practices is to preach straight through large sections of scripture without skipping a verse. If every word is a gift, that means not only the clear and easy passages, but the more challenging as well. In living out our trust in God’s Word in this way, we occasionally encounter difficult parts of the Bible. Yet we have always found that, like Jacob at the River Jabbok, if we wrestle with these parts of God’s word, we may come away with a limp, but we will also come away blessed.

This morning’s scripture passage is, perhaps, one of those challenging texts. We are in Genesis 12, journeying with our Father Abraham. Last week, we listened to God’s gracious and amazing promises to Abram – great nation, great name, blessing to all nations through him, land as an inheritance for his family. We saw Abram’s faith as he entered the land God had given him and built altars proclaiming that it all belonged to God. But as we pick up in verse 10 of Genesis 12, circumstances will have shifted and God’s grand plan of redemption through Abram will already appear to be in jeopardy. It’s Genesis 12, beginning in verse 10. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of 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.

This is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God. (You may be seated)

In our time together this morning, we will be looking at this story of Abram in Egypt from three different angles, all of which point us to the same deep truth: God protects and rescues where no one else will. God’s plan of salvation moves forward, not always because of his people, but often in spite of their failings. We will call the first angle the “What actually happened here?” reading. The second we will call the “Doesn’t this sound familiar?” reading. And the last we will call the “Where is Jesus?” reading.

What actually happened here?” Reading

So first, what actually happened here? At the beginning of this chapter, Abram left the land of Harran and entered the land of Canaan. At Shechem, God appeared and promised this land to Abram and his descendants. So Abram built an altar. He travelled farther south to the hills east of Bethel and built another altar. Then he travelled further south toward the dry lands of the Negev.

Yet, by verse 10, the land of promise has become a land of emptiness. This place of blessing, where God had planted Abram, was experiencing a famine. This must have been a difficult early test for Abram. God had promised him a good land, but it wasn’t good now. The promises were followed not by immediate prosperity, but hardship.

Because Egypt depended less on rainfall and more on irrigation, they were less prone to  famine, so Abram goes down there to live for a while. The word used for ‘live’ means ‘to live as a stranger.’ Abram is not moving to Egypt or taking up permanent residence there. Instead, he is a stranger, an alien, a sojourner.

But as he approaches Egypt, he recognizes a problem and has some interesting words for his wife, Sarai. Randy Konken, you are our resident expert in trying to prevent many of us men from saying stupid things and getting in trouble with our wives. I do not know if you have gained this wisdom from personal experience, but when you hear one of us about to say something we might regret, you do your best to help us out. Now, I am going to recite again Abram’s word to Sarai and I wonder if you can help Abram out here.

I know what a beautiful woman you are. (So far so good?)

When the Egyptians see you, then 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. (Not good at all).

I wonder if Abram’s statement about her beautiful would have already sounded suspicious to Sarai, but the Bible doesn’t say. It also doesn’t say what Abram’s motives were for this interesting plan. All we know is what is there in front of us. Sarai’s beauty is likely to cause the powerful men of Egypt to want her for themselves and if Abram is known to be her husband, he may be killed to get him out of the way. Abram’s plan is to pass Sarai off as his sister so that people will treat him well because of her and they won’t kill him.

Randy, last question before you are off the hook: Do you think Jill would go along with this plan? “Not on your life,” right. What was Abram thinking? Commentators and theologians for centuries have been trying to get Abram off the hook for this plan. I don’t think any of them ever gets his foot completely out of his mouth, but some do a better job than others. It is possible, according to John Calvin, that Abram’s plan was an attempt to trust in the promise that God would give the land of Canaan to Abram’s offspring. The promise was given to Abram and its fulfillment would go through him, so he had to live. Therefore, while the plan was a bad idea in many ways, the intention was good. Calvin uses this to say that godly intentions don’t excuse us from using ungodly means to achieve them. So Abram could be trying to protect his life, not for selfish reasons, but in order to protect God’s promise. But it is also possible that Abram just wants to save his own skin. If we go down to Egypt and they see your beautiful face, they will kill me. Pretend you are my sister so that I will be treated well and won’t die.

The problem is, whether his motives were selflessly protecting the promise or selfishly protecting his own life, Abram sinned by putting Sarai and her virtue in jeopardy. He did not turn to the LORD with his problem, but tried to solve it himself. Sarai pretending to be Abram’s sister may protect Abram, but it puts her in a vulnerable position. The worst almost comes to pass for Sarai. Pharaoh hears of her beauty and she is taken into his palace.

Everything happens almost exactly as Abram had predicted. Sarai’s beauty becomes public knowledge and she gains the attention of the Pharaoh. Pharaoh is a man who takes whatever he wants, so he takes Sarai into his palace. Abram is treated well. He gains lots of livestock and servants, so that he ends up leaving Egypt richer than when he arrived. But Sarai has been taken by Pharaoh and, we learn later, Pharaoh intends to take her as his wife. Abram does nothing. Again, we are not told why. He could be selfish, he could be indifferent, or he could desperately want to rescue her, but felt powerless to do so. For whatever reason, Abram does nothing.

Yet, God is not idle. But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife, Sarai. God sends plagues upon Pharaoh and his family in the form of disease. I think the passage implies that part of the purpose of these diseases was to prevent Pharaoh from consummating his marriage to Sarai. God brings judgment on Pharaoh and rescues Sarai. The diseases are so severe that when Pharaoh discovers what is going on, he does everything in his power to get Abram and Sarai to leave the country. Then he gave orders about Abram to his men and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.

While Abram does nothing and, in fact, places Sarai in this dangerous and vulnerable situation, God acts. God protects and rescues Sarai where no one else will. God’s plan of salvation moves forward, not always because of his people, but often in spite of their failings. Abram places at risk someone he should protect. He tries to take care of the problem himself and only causes more trouble. The promise could have ended right there. Then God showed up.

The stunning part of this story is not Abram’s failure or even the surprising success of his plan, but the intervention of God. Apart from the work of God, Abram watches as his wife is married to another man. Apart form the work of God, Sarai becomes the victim of the twisted mixture of another man’s power and lust. Apart from the work of God, there is nothing but brokenness, sorrow, and pain for this family. But God does act, he rescues Abram’s bride from the clutches of Pharaoh and, by grace, they leave Egypt fuller than when they started.

So this is the “What actually happened?” reading. Abram is forced to go to Egypt by a famine. He, either selfishly or not, pretends that Sarai is his sister instead of his wife. Sarai’s beauty attracts the attention of Pharaoh, who seeks to marry her. However, God intervenes with judgment upon Pharaoh and rescues Sarai and the couple leave Egypt with more than they began with. It reveals to us that God protects and rescues Sarai where no one else will. God’s plan of salvation moves forward, not always because of his people, but often in spite of their failings.

“Doesn’t This Sound Familiar?” Reading: Mini-Exodus

Yet, doesn’t this sound a bit familiar? There is a famine, so a family leaves the land of Canaan to head for Egypt. The life of the male is in danger in this land, the bride is taken by Pharaoh. Because Pharaoh refuses to let her go, the LORD sends plagues upon Pharaoh and his household. Pharaoh blames others for making trouble, while he is truly to blame. Eventually, Pharaoh releases the bride with the words, “take her and go” (12:19). As they leave, they take all the possessions they had gained in Egypt and arrive back in Canaan richer than when they had left it.

Does this sound a bit familiar? This is also the story of the people of Israel in their exodus from Egypt. Abram and Sarai experience a mini-exodus that echoes that future greater exodus. In the exodus from Egypt, it is Israel who is the bride threatened. Pharaoh will not let her go and so the LORD inflicts plagues upon Pharaoh and his household until he says ‘take her and go.’ Again, there is danger, there is rescue, there is judgment, there is freedom, and the family comes away more full than when they arrived.

The story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt points ahead to the deliverance of God’s people from the hand of Pharaoh in the time of Moses. God protects and rescues Israel, his bride, where no one else will. God’s plan of salvation moves forward, not always because of his people, but often in spite of their failings. Israel could not save themselves and, at times, they grumbled about God’s plan and wondered if life was not better in Egypt. But God stepped in, forcing Pharaoh to let her go, so that his bride would be safe and secure in his presence.

This is the “Doesn’t This Sound Familiar” reading. Israel, like Abram and Sarai, entered Egypt in need, found themselves in grave peril, but was rescued by the powerful intervention of God. It reveals to us that God protects and rescues Israel, his bride, where no one else will. God’s plan of salvation moves forward, not always because of his people, but often in spite of their failings.

“Where is Jesus?” Reading: Christ rescues his bride

Lastly, where is Jesus? Not only does the story of Abram and Sarai point ahead to the exodus, but it foreshadows the greatest exodus – the deliverance won through Jesus Christ, our Lord. This, too, is the story of a beautiful bride who is under threat of violence and defilement. This, too, is a story where we are unable to do anything to save ourselves. This, too, is a story where the beautiful bride is rescued by God and comes away more full than she began. This is the story of Christ’s redemption of the church. She is the bride who has gone down into Egypt, only to be rescued by the dramatic work of God. For her rescue, the powers of Satan are undone and he is forced to give up his claim. Yet in the work of Christ, there is a surprising contrast with the story of Abram and Sarai. Abram offers up Sarai in order to protect his own life, but Jesus Christ offers up his own life in order to rescue and redeem the life of his bride.

We are in the same story. Again and again, we see the character of God: Christ protects and rescues his bride, the church, where no one else will. God’s plan of salvation moves forward, not always because of his people, but often in spite of their failings. Abram did not save his bride, Sarai, from marriage to Pharaoh. Israel could not save itself from bondage to Pharaoh. We cannot save ourselves from our bondage to sin. It is only by the intervention of God that the bride – Sarai, Israel, the church – is saved.

The story of Abram and Sarai is a story of failure and folly. A famine forces them to leave the land. Whatever his motives, Abram puts Sarai in danger. It is a healthy reminder of how not to live out our trust in God. As Calvin said, we cannot have godly motives and use ungodly means to get there. However, at its heart, Abram and Sarai in Egypt is a story of deliverance. It is the story of God rescuing Sarai from the clutches of Pharaoh and almost certain disgrace. And it echoes the story of God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and, ultimately, of the human race from the bondage of sin and death.

God rescues his bride where no one else will. God’s plan of salvation moves forward, not always because of his people, but often in spite of their failings. Thanks be to God.

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

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