Sermon: Grace Upon Grace

In the Bible, names are significant. When a child is given a name, they are called to live into the name they are given. When the LORD promises many children to Abram, he renames him Abraham, meaning ‘Father of many nations.’ Abraham is called to live into his new name. After Jacob wrestles with the LORD, he is given the name Israel, meaning ‘He who wrestles with God’ and Israel (both the man and the people) live into that name.

In our family, we have taken this practice into our home. As you may have heard, our newest daughter is named Joanna Grace. Joanna is a feminine form of the name Jonathan, meaning “the LORD is gracious.” Joanna Grace is thus “The LORD is gracious Grace,” which comes from John 1:16, “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”

There is a point to this story other than that I love my daughter. We are continuing the story of Abraham this morning. In Genesis 20, Abraham, Sarah, and a man named Abimelech all find themselves needing grace, and each finds that they receive from the LORD, grace upon grace – grace on top of grace, grace in addition to grace, ‘grace upon grace.’

It is Genesis 20, 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 Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shuur. For a while he stayed in Gerar and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelech the king of Gerar send for Sarah and took her.

But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said, “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken. She is a married woman.”

Now Abimelech had not gone near her, so he said, “Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister,’ and didn’t she also say, ‘He is my brother.’ I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands.”

Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Return the man’s wife to him, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may know for sure that you and all who belong to you will die.”

Early the next morning, Abimelech summoned all his officials and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid. Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said to him, “What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should never be done.” And Abimelech asked Abraham, “What was your reason for doing this?”

Abraham replied, “I said to myself, ‘There is surely no fear of God in this place and they will kill me because of my wife.’ Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father, though not of my mother, and she became my wife. When God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, “This is how you can show your love to me. Everywhere we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’””

And Abimelech brought sheep and cattle and male and female servants and gave them to Abraham and he returned his wife Sarah to him. And Abimelech said, “My whole land is before you; live wherever you like.”

To Sarah he said, “I have given your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.”

Then Abraham prayed to God and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female slaves so that they could have children again, for the LORD had kept all the women in Abimelech’s household from conceiving because of Abraham’s wife, Sarah.

This is the Word of the LORD.

Thanks be to God.

Say these words after me: From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.

One more time: From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.

Grace upon grace.

Three different people in our story this morning find themselves dealing with God. It’s a messy story. It is not a story of Abraham, Abimelech and Sarah at their best. It is not the kind of story you want to write about on the college entrance essay or put on a resume. But it is a story that, if we wade through the particularities of time and space, feels very familiar. It feels like life as we often experience it. Three people dealing with God, three people in need of grace, but in very different ways.

From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.

This morning, I want us to listen to the story of each of these three characters in turn – Abimelech, Sarah, and Abraham – to hear of their need and how they have received from the fullness of Christ grace upon grace. Do you think we can do that?

Abimelech stumbles into error, but God keeps him from falling into sin. Abimelech is king of the region known as Gerar. One day a new family moves into the area. A man named Abraham and his entire household – sheep, cattle, servants, armed men. With this princely man, Abraham, is a woman Sarah. Abraham tells him that Sarah is his sister. Sarah, we know from other places in Genesis, is a beautiful woman. We don’t know if it was her physical beauty that attracted Abimelech to her or whether it was something about the virtue of her character, but Abimelech sends for her and takes her as his wife.

As far as Abimelech knows, he is doing something perfectly fine. But what he doesn’t know is that Sarah is already married to Abraham. Abimelech goes to bed one night and the LORD speaks to him in a dream. “You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken. She is a married woman.” God does not take adultery lightly, but forbids a man to touch his neighbor’s wife.

Abimelech is stunned. This is news to him. He thought he was doing the right thing, he thought he was doing the honorable thing. Abraham had deceived him, Abimelech’s conscience was clear and his hands were clean.

Abimelech simply stumbles into his error. He is likely an unbeliever, but, by all accounts, an upstanding man. He stumbles due to ignorance. He didn’t know. He stumbles, but God does not let him fall.

From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.

Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Return the man’s wife to him, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may know for sure that you and all who belong to you will die.”

Abimelech stumbled into error, but he did not fall into sin because God kept him from falling. God held him back. Grace upon grace. It was wrong to marry to Sarah, but it would have been much worse to have consummated that adulterous marriage. It was a sin of ignorance to try and marry her, but it would have been a violation of her person and her marriage to sleep with her. Even though Abimelech stumbles into error, God graciously keeps him from falling headlong into sin.

God, in his grace, held Abimelech back. Abimelech made a decision and thought he knew where it would lead, but God graciously held him back so that he did not fall into ruin. 

Have you ever been there? Have you ever started walking down a path in your life, only for God to shut the door in your face? Later, you were grateful, because, had you been able to do what you were planning, it might have led to ruin.

Have you ever been pulled back from a place, a decision, a direction from your life that, at the time, seemed painful, but later turned out to be grace?

From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.

Maybe you were in a relationship that you really wanted, but God held you back from going as far as you might have liked. Maybe you wanted that promotion, that contract, that new piece of land on the market, but God held you back. You wanted to post that meme on Facebook, you wanted to say those words in anger to your friend, wanted to come down hard on your kids for disappointing you, wanted to cut that corner at work, but by the grace of God, you were held back. You may have stumbled into error, but God did not let you fall completely.

I think of Abimelech’s story like one from my childhood that I have told a few times. I was staying the night at a friend’s house. The next morning, dew still fresh on the grass, we went out to play in the park. Soon all our tennis balls had been hit over the fence into the public pool, which was closed for the day. Not wanting our fun to end, we decided to hop the 15 foot fence and grab them. Shoes wet with dew from running through the grass, we reached the cement pad in front of the fence and began climbing. As I reached the top, I slipped. I started to fall through the air, felt a sharp pain in my arm, then suddenly stopped. My shirt had caught on the top of the fence. I had stumbled, but the LORD had graciously not let me fall. I was a fool in wet shoes hanging from the top of a fifteen foot fence, but God had not let me fall all the way down to the pavement.

Abimelech stumbled, but the LORD did not let him fall. Have you been there? Have you felt the LORD reach out his hand to keep you from falling? From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The theologians of the church have dubbed this ‘common grace.’ Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience and so I kept you from sinning against me.  Common grace is God keeping us from running into all the foolish sins we might otherwise want to do. Like a horse with a bridle, we are reigned in so that we do not end up hurting ourselves and others as much as we might. We call this ‘common grace,’ because God gives this kind of grace even to unbelievers like Abimelech. God even works this kind of grace in the lives of those who do not know Christ. Common grace is not saving grace, but it is grace. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.

By restraining Abimelech, God protects Sarah. Sarah is vulnerable and at the mercy of foolish men. But even when Abraham will not, God protects his bride. Though the nations rage, though storms surround and buffet the church, God protects his bide. By his restraining, common grace, God does not let the church come to ruin. Though she suffers, though she stumbles, she will never finally be overtaken. Just as the LORD restrained Abimelech out of grace to him, he also did it in grace for Sarah.

From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.

When it comes to Abraham, we have been here before. Some of you have already found this story strangely familiar. This is not the first time Abraham pretended Sarah was his sister. In Genesis 12, just after the LORD had called Abram out of Ur and promised to bless him and bless the nations through him, Abram headed to Egypt. There, he pretended that Sarah was his wife and Pharaoh took her into his household to be his wife. There, the LORD protected Sarah while Abram did not, sending a plague upon the house of Pharaoh, just as he now closed the wombs of the house of Abimelech.

Abraham has done this before. He’s already had one king try to marry his wife only for the LORD to intervene. Yet, he does it again. Why? Didn’t he learn from his mistake the first time?

Maybe we think Abraham should have known better. After all, pretending your wife is your sister and letting her get married again is pretty obviously a bad thing to do. And after this happened the first time, shouldn’t Abraham really have known better not to do it again.

But are we much different? How many of our sins we would obvious to others who saw them, even if we cannot see it? How many of our sins or our parents sins are obvious now, but were difficult to see when they happened? More significantly, how many of us have believed we have committed that sin – whatever it may be for you – for the last time, only to find ourselves at it again?

Honestly, we are not that creative in our sinning. We are far more imaginative in covering them up than we are in committing them. For many of us, we tend to run in patterns – over and over again with the same sins, same mistakes, same addictions. We might know better, which only increases our shame afterwards when we realize we have done it again. I clicked that link again. I snarled at my spouse again. I leaned in as so-and-so shared that juice piece of gossip again. I drove by the poor with judgment in my heart again. Whatever that most stubborn leaning of your heart might be, it probably shows up over and over again.

Like Abraham, we forget the danger and strike our feet against the same stone over and over again, stumbling in just the same spot. Doubly difficult for those discipled in the church is that we know better. Knowing we know better doesn’t always seem to help, but only increases our shame when we stumble another time.

Because what each of us needs is not more information, but grace. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The great reformer Martin Luther was, at one time, a monk. He had been taught that if he did his best, God would not deny his grace. So Luther tried desperately do his best, but the more he tried, the more anxious he became. He was tormented by the fact that he fell again and again into sin, he was beset constantly by temptation and felt powerless to overcome it. He went to confession daily to try and acknowledge all of his sins in order root them out of his life. But that only led him deeper into despair.

He, like Abraham, knew better, but kept striking his foot again and again on the same stone. Then, as he studied the Scriptures, he awoke to the truth that he could not work himself into wholeness. He was like a dead man in need of resurrection. Only the grace of God in the cross and resurrection of Christ could do that.

Abraham stumbled into the same sin here that we saw way back in chapter 12. He knew better, but stumbled anyway. Yet, the LORD is gracious. Again, God lifts him up. Again, God protects his bride. Again, God restrains the world. Again, the LORD is gracious.

The LORD does not appear to Abraham and say, “I gave you a second chance, you blew it this time. I’m done with you.” Instead, Lord, how many times shall I forgive the one who sins against me? Up to seven times?

I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Not only does the LORD forgive Abraham again but, wonder of wonders, he gives him a ministry. He calls Abraham to pray. Abraham prays and Abimelech is healed along with his entire household. 

From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.

If you are like Abimelech this morning, stumbling, there is grace for you. Grace upon grace. If you are like Abraham, falling again and again into the same sins, feeling powerless to overcome it, there is grace for you. Grace upon grace.

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

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