Lessons from Abraham and decisions he made in times of weakness

  • This is a talk by Jon the freelance theologian, given at Glenwood Church, Cardiff on 2 August 2015

    Coupland quote

    Over the past couple of years I have read several novels by Douglas Coupland, the Canadian author and artist. His most famous book is called Generation X, which was published in 1991.

    I’m not sure what Douglas Coupland believes. But his novels are very powerful explorations of culture, identity, loneliness and what drives people to live the lives they live. Recently I read a collection of story-pieces that he wrote, not a novel, called Life After God. There were a number of ideas in there that really stood out to me, including this quote:

    “…sometimes I think the people to feel saddest for are people who once knew what profoundness was, but who lost or became numb to the sensation of wonder – people who closed the doors that lead us into the secret world – or who had the doors closed for them by time and neglect and decisions made in times of weakness.”

    There were loads of really thought-provoking bits in Life After God – but that really stopped me in my reading. I had to put the book down to think about it for a while. And I think it arrested me because it is true; because we can be robbed of our connection with the profound because of the decisions we make in times of weakness.

    In Genesis chapter 12 Abraham hears God telling him to head west to the land where God will make him into a great nation. And Abraham goes, but then there’s a famine and he travels onwards to Egypt.

    When he goes to Egypt he is afraid that Pharoah will have him killed so that Pharoah can then take his wife Sarah, so he lies and tells Pharoah that Sarah is his sister. Pharoah takes her into his harem and is then afflicted by disease because God curses him, so Pharoah tells Abraham off and sends him away.

    Abraham and his nephew Lot who has been travelling with him go their separate ways. There are lots of feuding chieftains in the area and Abraham hears that Lot has been taken captive by some of them so has to set out with the men from his household – his hired men and so on – and they go off and fight and rescue Lot.

    Then God makes a covenant with Abraham and promises that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars in the night sky.

    But Abraham has no children and so Sarah thinks he has a good idea and suggests he sleeps with her slave girl, Hagar. Which he does and then Hagar has a son called Ishmael. But God says, ‘This isn’t the plan.’ And then he makes a condition of the covenant that Abraham and every male in his household needs to be circumcised.

    Then Abraham is visited by three angels and they tell him that Sarah will bear him a son. When Sarah hears this she laughs at how ludicrous this is because she is so old. And the angels rebuke her.

    Two of the angels go on to visit Sodom and things go horribly wrong and the city is destroyed by God. Lot, Abraham’s nephew who had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, had to flee for his life because he was living in Sodom at the time.

    And then that leads us to the passage I want to look at today – Genesis chapter 20: Abraham and Abimelek

    >>>Read the chapter on Bible Gateway

    It feels like we have come full circle. After all that Abraham has been through – the promises and the visits from angels and the covenants and the circumcisions (yikes!) we are back where we started. Abraham does exactly what he did with Pharoah.

    And this is where the Douglas Coupland quote comes in, because Abraham makes this decision in a time of weakness.

    Look at his reasons (verses 11 and 12)

    “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.”

    His reasons are:

    • The people here don’t believe in God.
    • They will kill me so they can take my wife.
    • I’m not really lying. I’m just not telling the whole truth.

    In a moment of weakness, Abraham makes a decision that seems to him to be smart and sensible, but is rooted in fear of what other people might do to him. It’s as if he still doesn’t really believe God’s promises to him.

    This has three key effects:

    1. The fear of other people over-rides his calling and God’s promises to him.
    2. His action puts other people in jeopardy – poor old Abimalek did nothing wrong and yet is cursed because of the situation Abraham put him in.
    3. And Abraham doesn’t just threaten to derail the promises made to him – he almost prevents God’s promises to someone else from happening. The promises God had made about descendants weren’t just made to Abraham – they were made to Sarah too. She was the one chosen by God to have Abraham’s child, the child through whom the nation would come to be.

    So Abraham’s decision made in a time of weakness almost closed the door on the promises that God made to him AND to Sarah, and at the same time put another innocent party under a curse.

    We can all think of decisions we have made in a time of weakness.

    The times we opted to stay silent because it was hard to tell the truth.

    The times when we decided not to tell the whole truth, because half the truth will do, and that will cause a lot less trouble for us.

    Those times we chose to hold onto our anger, instead of taking the harder path of forgiveness.

    Those times we chose to hate because it was easier to hate than it was to love.

    I take comfort from the weakness that Abraham showed. Not because it excuses my weakness and my bad decisions – and I have made many and will in all probability make many more – but because despite Abraham’s decisions, God’s grace was mightier.

    We sometimes talk about Abraham’s faith, but in the story of Abraham, it is God who is faithful. God delivers on his promises. God delivered, not because of Abraham’s faith, but in spite of the decisions he made in times of weakness. God’s grace is mightier. And his promises are not prevented by the bad decisions that we make.

    So when I look back on my decisions and know that I could have done better, I take heart from the message of Abraham’s story. I am encouraged that God’s grace prevails.

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