One of the Best Lines in the Bible: But the Lord

Sometimes the hardships, struggles, and pain in life reveal faith gaps in our lives and all sorts of yuck pours out of our hearts. But the Lord remains faithful, intervenes, and even uses times when we are faithless to draw us back into a right relationship with Jesus. Join us as we look into the life of Abraham and Sarah.

I went to a small university in Upper East Tennessee: Carson-Newman – which in my day was CN College but today it is CN University. CN – like this region is nestled into one of the most beautiful areas of the country. On one side – you have the Great Smokey Mountains. Every other side is bordered by farms.

Now, I went to CN to play football and wrestle – two things that I truly loved – but – as providence and a concussion or two would have it – neither of those things lasted very long. But – I wanted to stay at CN – but to do so, I had to find a job or two in order to have the money to go to school and to support myself.

I was fortunate – blessed – really – that among the jobs I held while a student was a stint as a farm hand. Yes – that’s right – I said farm hand. It was one of the best jobs I ever had – largely because of Mr. Gray – the 70 plus year old man who owned the farm – and had worked the land his entire life.

Mr. Gray taught me a great deal about work and life and Jesus. We worked very hard and our hard work was rewarded. Honestly, I can’t say enough good things about my time working for Mr. Gray. Besides a massive garden, Mr. Gray raised beef cattle and corn and tobacco – lots and lots of tobacco. I don’t know how you feel about tobacco – but I can tell you this about tobacco plants – they are gross, and heavy, and sticky and they require a lot of attention and back in those days – they brought in a great deal of money that helped to keep the farm going.

Mr. Gray was in a bind. The tobacco crop was due to be harvested and he only had a short window in which to get it cut, staked, and in the barn to dry – before taking it to sale. Did I mention there was a lot of it? Mr. Gray explained to me that the folks he used to regularly help bring in the tobacco were not available, and he was short-handed, and he asked if I knew a few good, hard-working guys that could come help.

I spoke to a few my roommates. I told them it was really hard work – and not to bother if they didn’t really want to work – but I also told them Mr. Gray pays well and he feeds you.  Only one of them was still willing to go to work with me.  

The next day, one of the guys –- who lived in my house followed me out to the farm – that should have been my first clue. We will call him Al because that is his name. It is important to note that Al drove a vintage VW Bug – and if you’ve ever been around a vintage VW Bug – you’ll know that they have a very distinct sound – and that plays an important part in this story. I introduced Al to Mr. Gray – and I noticed that Mr. Gray looked at Al – then looked at me with a not so sure look – but – we needed more folks to help. And so – Mr. Gray pointed to our tools for the day – and Al, and I – along with several other farm-hands – headed for the tobacco field.

I don’t know if you’ve ever cut and staked tobacco before – but if you have – you’ll know – Lord have mercy. It was early in the morning – but already – hot and humid. When you cut tobacco you have to get right down to the stalk – lean way over – pull back some of the lower leaves – oh – and bugs like tobacco – anyway – and you grab hold of the stalk with one hand and you take a long blade, or manchette and you chop the plant down. Believe me – you don’t usually do it in one swipe. All of that sticky, oozy stuff runs all over your hand – soaks into the glove a bit – then you take the stalk of that plant and you have a sharpened stick, which you drive into the stalk. Once you have a few plants on a stick – you lean them on one another – because later you will load them on a tractor – take them into the barn – so they can start to dry and cure.

You get the picture. It isn’t easy. Did I mention – it’s hot and humid. Well – Al – and I start to work. He was on one row of tobacco and I was on another. We started along – and after a few minutes – I started to hear Al – whine a little bit. A little bit longer, and I realized he was struggling – quite a bit. At one point, he I heard him talking. At first, I thought he was talking to me. Then I realized he was not talking to me; he was talking to God.

I thought he was joking – but – he was not. I heard him pray, “Lord – if you’ll just get me out of this field, I promise I’ll be better man. I’ll go to church. I’ll even read the Bible. I’ll do anything.” To be honest, I felt a little bit bad for him – but I do have to say – that I warned him – it wasn’t going to be easy.

That went on of a while and Al worked slower and slower. Finally, it lunch time – and Mr. Gray called us all to wash up and head into the house for lunch. We sat down around the table and just as we were about to eat – Al said – he had to grab something from his car. As we started to pass the bowls and plates of food around the table – we heard the distinct sound of a vintage VW Bugg as Al fired up the car. Friends, he took off outta that farm faster than anything I’d ever seen. Dust billowed up out of that driveway as he tore off down the road.

No one said a word. Mr. Gray slowly turned his attention to me. He wasn’t angry at Al but he was very disappointed in me. He said, Mark – you need to be more careful about the sort of person that you associate with. You brought that young man to our farm and vouched for him. But – he lied to us and as result – he has thrown things into jeopardy. We were already behind and a man down – and now – he’s put you in a bind – not only because you’re going to have to make up for what he failed to do – but because I’m real disappointed that you’d associate with a guy like that.

All I could say was sorry. To this day, it still bugs me that I disappointed Mr. Gray but that day – after the work was done – Mr. Gray and I had a longer talk.

He taught me something valuable.

He talked to me about the fact that it is when things get hard – when tough times show up announced – when we have to work through pain and hardship

  • it is during those times that we find out what we are made of and what others are made of.
  • We find out how deep our faith and the faith of others really runs
  • and the sort of person we truly are or someone else is.
  • In tough and challenging times, well – that’s when our mettle is tested – often God uses those times to show us the gaps in our faith, in our lives, in order to draw us into a deeper walk with Him and really show us our need for Jesus.

I thought of that the other day when I read Genesis 12:10-20 & 13:1-4.

Last week we began a new series – looking into the lives of Abraham and Sarah – and their relationship with God amid transition. Remember, God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their family – their comfort zones. We have a lot to learn from Abraham and Sarah; indeed, they have a lot to teach us as we go through our own transitions – and learn – what it means to be people of faith during change and transition. But they also have a lot to teach us about what it means to walk with God to trust in Jesus when there are clear troubles and challenges in our lives.

When things got tough for Abraham and Sarah – well – he wasn’t much on faith and rather than trust that God would do something – even though God had just given them a whole pallet of promises – Abraham – out of fear, out of selfishness, out of self-preservation – took matters into his own hands, which revealed a lot about his mettle – and it also put everything – even the people he was supposed to protect – at risk. In fact, he put everything at risk.

But the truth is – this story really isn’t so much about Abraham; Abraham is actually a small player in this whole debacle because out of this text we learn something powerful about God and His commitment to His promises to bless the world through Abraham and Sarah – a promise that we are still being blessed by – even to this very moment – and we learn that no matter what – God is always faithful – especially when it comes to restoring people to Himself through His Son.

So –let’s turn to our text for a moment. “[10] Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.”

Now let’s hold up in that verse for just a moment. Let’s take a step back in time and remember that right before the announcement of a famine – things had been looking up for Abram and Sarai. They are coming off this grand moment when everything is going so great for them. They’ve had this wonderful encounter with God. God had called he and Sarah out of Haran and made three promises to them. He promised to give them descendants. He promised to give them land – in fact – He took them on a tour. He promised to make them a blessing to the nations – to the world – and in the process he promised to bless those who blessed them – and so forth.

And then – trouble set in – a famine hits. And that’s a serious thing. We can’t discount that the threat – the problem is very real and grave. It is life or death. Truly – I imagine it was a time – as Thomas Paine said, “that try men’s souls,” a time of crisis that can cause people to shrink back from what they believed, or said, or hoped, or held their faith in. The famine is severe. It is a true and real crisis. It was a moment of decision – a moment when one’s trust in the Lord comes into play.

Abraham and Sarah went from this profound – glorious moment when they were meeting with God – hearing the promises – moving their lives around – to a time of severe famine – when lives were literally at stake. It is a serious time – and their faith in God – their faith in His promises are being tested – and it is right out of the gate.

You know that’s not uncommon in the Bible. There are instances throughout the Bible where after a person has put their faith in the Lord – it seems that they are “singled out for trouble” (Baldwin 37).

It happened in the life of Christ – at least to some extent. Right after His baptism – after this wonderful moment when the Dove of Heaven descends and the voice of God proclaims, “this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased,” Jesus goes out into the wilderness where he fasts and is tempted by Satan.

I imagine the disciples were on a pretty high note with Jesus after the triumphal entry. They probably basked in the shouts of the people, too. But a few days later they witness Jesus’ trial, his suffering, and his death and the reality of what it means to follow Jesus in a broken world crashes in.

The Psalms are filled to the brim with those instances where a person of faith – a person who has put their trust in the Lord – believed and trusted – and then wham – troubles and challenges and suffering sets in.

I don’t know why – but for some reason we (and I include myself here) are often caught off guard by the fact that those who trust in the Lord endure challenges and hardships and pains – especially when the Bible tells that story over and over again.

The thing is, putting our trust in the Lord does not provide immunity from troubles and challenges and problems – instead it gives us something solid to hold onto when troubles come. People who don’t put their trust in the Lord – don’t have that. They really don’t have anything solid to hold onto – but now people of faith – well that’s a different thing all together. When troubles and challenges come into our lives – well – then – we have the promises of God; when troubles come our way – it is more about our mettle being tested and it is in those moments that the gaps in our faith become most visible and all sorts of yuck comes out.

Unfortunately, sometimes the troubles are so big and the gaps that show up are so large – that we might waffle a bit. The gaps can obscure our trust and faith in the Lord.

That must have been what happened with Abraham and Sarah. I mean – God had given them three big promises. He even showed them the land they would receive. But right after they get the promises – right after putting their faith in God – and making an altar – and calling on the name of the Lord – a famine hits and guess what? The gaps in Abraham’s faith and trust in the Lord show up and he takes matters into his own hands – and in the process puts everyone at risk.

In vs 10 it says, “So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there.”

What’s interesting is what’s missing in this text. It doesn’t say that God told him to go down to Egypt. You know – back in Genesis 12:1, it was clear. God said, “Go.” But we have nothing that says that God said go here.

Later God told others to go down to Egypt – but – it isn’t mentioned here. I wonder if God wanted Abraham and Sarah to sit tight and wait on Him. It sure seems like God would have wanted to show Abraham how awesome He was – and how He was going to keep his promises. It is amazing what God can do through terrible moments.

You know what else?

This book – Genesis – was written – we believe – by Moses – and do you know who his first audience was?

It was people who had been enslaved in Egypt. Can you imagine how they must have reacted when they heard the Abraham’s great plan was to go to Egypt – it was probably like that moment in a horror movie when you know the monster is behind the door and one of the characters is about to enter the room and you want to yell – “No  – don’t do it – don’t go to Egypt – especially if God’s not telling you to go. The grass may look greener there but it’s not!

And I wonder when they heard this story – as maybe perhaps Moses read it over to them – I wonder if they were munching on some manna and drinking some water from a rock…because they were wondering around – being sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah – headed to the land that God had promised them – and – well – God was giving them the food and water that they needed to survive because they were in a wilderness – and yet they are hearing a story about Abraham and Sarah who ditched the promise land because of a famine. There is a lesson in that – I think.

Nevertheless – Abraham and Sarah – these two folks who had recently been given this new land from God – and these wonderful promises – must have taken it upon themselves to figure out their issue and so they take the first step in terribly wrong direction. They head to Egypt and away from the promises of God. And what happens?

Well – look at the next few verses –

In the beginning of their story – Abraham– steps out in faith. But – at the first sign of serious trouble the gaps of his faith show up and everything shifts to fear and deception and self-preservation – and a willingness to throw everyone else under the bus. Look at verse 11-13.

[11] When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, [12] and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. [13] Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”

Abraham is fearful but not so much that Pharaoh will take his wife but more about himself – really. He doesn’t want Pharaoh to kill him. He thinks that Pharaoh is more powerful than God. He thinks the famine is more powerful than God. He thinks that the troubles he’s facing are more powerful than God – and those things will somehow supplant God’s plans and purposes for his life. God had just told him that he would bless him – and make him a great nation – and through him the world would be blessed. All of that would require Abraham – and Sarah – to be still among the living.

Isn’t it something that when Abraham takes his eyes off God that what comes out first is deception? Sure seems like that has its anchor in the earlier chapters of Genesis. As soon as Abraham made the move to leave the place where God had him – as soon as he took his eyes – his mind – off of what God would want for him – he turns to deception and a willingness to put Sarah in jeopardy. 

Well – it isn’t really a lie. Sarai is Abram’s half-sister. They had the same father (Gen 20). I know – yuck – right? You don’t marry your half-sister but – back in those days – in Haran – they did. In fact, it was a big deal to marry your half-sister – but that’s not really the point. The point is that Abram’s great idea to handle the issue is to tell a half-truth in order to protect himself – and – maybe make a few bucks.

Granted, we do know that it was the law in Egypt that Pharaoh could take the wife – daughter – etc. – of any sojourner that entered Egypt and we also know that Pharaohs were interested in adding women from Syria to their harems. There is some legitimacy to Abraham’s fear – but – he wouldn’t have had that fear if he had trusted that God was going to keep His promises. So instead of sticking it out – from out of the gaps in Abraham’s faith – he turned to deception out of fear – for himself – which lead him to throw everything and everyone else under the bus.  

It is despicable. Any chances for Abraham to be the husband of the year just went out the window – forever. This is sheer and complete cowardice of the worst sort. But – as things would have it – Abraham isn’t far off. As he predicted – because of Sarah’s beauty – Pharaoh is alerted to her presence – and she is taken into his harem – and Abraham is rewarded – at first it seems like things are going to be okay – or sort of.

But there is a larger problem.

Do you remember to whom the promises were made? It wasn’t just through Abraham – it was through Sarah as well. God’s plan and promise was to do something that only God can do – which is what we will see later in this story. Remember – Abraham and Sarah are up in years. Sarah is probably in her 60s and she is considered beautiful – and God has made a promise that includes her. The covenant promise – the descendants – the great nation that he speaks of – the blessing for the whole world – will come – not just through Abraham but through Sarah as well.

A huge gap in Abraham’s faith has now lead him to be willing to sacrifice Sarah – his spouse of all those years He put the covenant promise in jeopardy, because Sarah was every bit a part of that promise as Abraham was.

And that promise – wasn’t just for Abraham – nor was it just for his descendants. It was for the nations.

The nations – friends, that’s us. The blessing that God was talking about that would come through Abraham and Sarah – was none other than Jesus. The gap in Abraham’s faith – that showed up because of troubles put God’s plan for redemption into jeopardy.

Abraham – this great man of faith – is actually a fearful, cowardly man who is willing to “pimp out” his wife to protect and enrich himself – and in the process he puts the covenant promise in jeopardy.

Even though God had given Abraham these promises directly, when things got tough – the gaps in Abraham’s faith showed up and out of that came deception, fear and selfishness and it threw all of us under the bus.

Oh – it is easy to make Abraham out as the villain and the bad guy in this story – because he is. But – he is only human. And – truth be told – it is clear that he had some stuff in his life and in his heart that weren’t good. And when the heat got turned up – when tough things started to come his way – all that yuck came out of his heart and his life and his actions and his faith went out the door. The famine revealed deep gaps in Abraham’s faith – and those gaps threatened the work that God was going to do in and through this fallen, broken, man.

The reality is – as much as we don’t like to admit it – we are just as capable in doing the same thing as Abraham did.

Sometimes, when we find ourselves in tough situations or when we suffer a bit – or when we don’t know which way to go – or when change or transition comes our way – the gaps in our faith can show up, too. All sorts of things come pouring out of those gaps. In those moments our mettle is being tested and rather than trust God more deeply and lean on Jesus more heavily,  we set off for Egypt. If we are honest with ourselves about ourselves, we know that to be true.

The troubles and tough times are meant to show us the gaps – not so we can fix them – but so we can grow deeper into our dependence on the Lord to help us. There will never be a time when we outgrow our need to rely and trust on the Lord – which, I believe is what happens in our text and it shows up at the beginning of Genesis 12:17.

I hope you can see it. I hope you can see this tremendous turning point in the story. It is in a simple phrase that holds the key to this entire account. It is the phrase But the Lord.

But the Lord – there may not be a better phrase in all the Bible.

I remember growing up and watching westerns. And just when the bad guys were about to win – you’d hear the bugle sound and you’d know help was on the way. That’s what I think of when I read – but the Lord – because that’s what happens here and that’s what can happen in all of our lives.

Look at verse 17-20: 17] But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. [18] So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? [19] Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” [20] And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had. (ESV)

What we are to take from this moment – when we read – But the Lord – is the understanding that God intervened. He didn’t write Abraham off just because he lost his way. He didn’t cast him aside because he had gaps in his faith. Instead, God intervened. He didn’t leave him there – and instead drew him deeper into Himself.

Somehow – someway – Pharaoh surmised that the problems they were dealing with – the plagues – they were because of Abraham and Sarah – and he was correct.

God intervened – God stepped in. It was the Lord who protected Sarah – the mother of the covenant promise – because the father of the covenant promise had lost faith in the God of the covenant promises because there were big troubles big problems and the gaps in his faith showed up and clouded out what God was actually doing in the world and in his life.

It happens – but God intervenes and draws Abraham back from it – so that the gaps could be closed a bit. And – to help make that clear, take a look at who got to thump Abraham. It was Pharaoh.

Isn’t that something to take note of?

Once again – remember – Moses is the one who wrote the Pentateuch. He’s the one who is relying this story – and remember – his first audience – the first people to read this book are people who came out of Egypt. They knew first-hand what sort of person the Pharaoh was.

And yet – God used a pagan, to speak into the life of Abram and get his attention. God intervened in a way that no one would really expect, and I find great comfort in that. Because it tells me something about God’s ultimate commitment to His promises – not just to Abraham and Sarah – but to you and to me.

Nothing is going to keep God from doing the work in the life of his people – not even the gaps in our faith that show up at critical moments.

Remember that promise that God made to Abraham and Sarah wasn’t just about making their name great. It wasn’t just about land. It wasn’t just about kids. It was all part of God’s plan to redeem the world to Himself – and that includes all of those who have put their trust in Jesus.

I find comfort in this because I know who I am as a person. I know that I am prone to wonder – like the hymns says. I am prone to blow it because I am human. And – when things happen. When suffering enters my life – when change and challenge and transition come calling – I like Abraham can take my eyes off of what God is doing – and the gaps in my own faith show up and all sorts of things can come tumbling out – but God remains faithful to His promises and He intervenes – even if He has to use a pagan to get my attention. God remains faithful – even when I’ve got huge gaps in my own faith.

I think of something the Apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament. He wrote a letter to a young minister – Timothy – a man he had trained. And he told him about the fact that we can expect to suffer hardship as part of what it means to serve the Lord and to advance the cause of Christ. And then he said, [13] if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:8–13ESV).

And that’s the thing – isn’t it? That’s the story that runs through the Bible from start to finish. There are no heroes in the Bible. Certainly, Abraham is no hero. There are just people who come to faith – and trust in God – and on some days they get it right and other times they don’t – but God is faithful.

I think of Peter – a man thru whom the church was to be built – a man who boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ and that he’d die before he denied Jesus – but when things got tough – when troubles showed up – the gaps of his own faith showed up as well – and – deception showed up with it. He lied and said he didn’t know Jesus. He denied knowing Jesus – but you know what happened

It was an instance of “but the Lord.” The Lord intervened in Peter’s life and he restored him because God is going to be faithful to his promises – even when the gaps show up and the gunk comes out of our hearts.

Jesus restored Peter.

And guess what – God restored Abraham as well. Look at Gen 13:1-4.

[1] So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. [2] Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. [3] And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, [4] to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the LORD.

Abram returned to where he’d been. He returned restored to the Lord and His promises. He worshipped.

Look – Abraham’s story is far from over. He’ll blow it again later in the story. But the point here is to note that God intervened out of his faithfulness to His promises – that He was going to bless the world through Jesus. And God is committed to that promise – and even when the gaps show up in our lives – well – God is going to show up, too.

But sometimes we need ways to close the gaps – regain our focus. Today, I want to remind you of a few things. First, I want to re-invite you to join us in praying together three times a day: 8:30, 12, and 5. At 8:30 we pray for kids, teachers, parents, and schools at 8:30 each morning. The other times – pray for what’s on your heart. These are just moment prayers where we turn our attention to God – and redirect our focus. I think that will help close the gap that may show up in times of trouble or transition.

I also want to invite you to read the sermon text each week – prior to worship. I think it’ll be helpful to keep God’s word in front of us, which will remind us of God’s faithfulness.

It is also important that we turn our attention to knowing Jesus and making Him known. And one of the ways that I have found to be helpful to me is to reaffirm my faith – which is why the Apostles’ Creed is so important to me – and why – as a response to the sermon – I often incorporate it.

A few years ago, I had some health issues with my neck that required an MRI and some CAT scans. I found myself at the hospital and going through some tests. It wasn’t fun and at times – the gaps of my faith showed up. A friend encouraged me – not only to recite scripture and pray – but to reflect on what exactly it was that I believed. So, I found myself quietly reflection – not only the Psalms but on the Apostles’ Creed as well – and I watched as the gaps of my faith closed up a bit – and the yuck of my heart had a tougher time rolling out.

If you are unfamiliar with it – just listen to it and give some thought to it. Parents you may want to use the creed to talk with your children about what each part of this creed has to say. If you unfamiliar with Christianity – you may want to use this creed to learn a little bit about who we are and what we believe.

With that in mind – Christian – what is it that you believe?

Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Let me pray.

Benediction: Friends remember that God loves you. He’s made His love known to you through His Son, His Spirit, His word, and through His people. He sends us out into the world with this blessing: [24] The LORD bless you and keep you; [25] the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; [26] the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you shalom (Numbers 6:24–26 ESV). Go now in the shalom of Christ.

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