Fear & Grace

Scripture: Genesis 20

Title: Fear & Grace


  • Introduction
  • Fear
  • Grace
  • Conclusion


In the 1980’s the NZ band Split Enz released a song called History Never Repeats

–         The chorus says: “History never repeats, tell myself before I go to sleep”

–         I’m not sure what the band had in mind when they wrote the song but it has always carried a sense of irony for me: History often repeats, despite what we might tell ourselves

This morning we pick up our series on the life of Abraham, from Genesis chapter 20 – page 22 near the front of your pew Bibles

–         Abraham’s journey of faith could be described as two steps forward, one step back – with a few sideways steps thrown in for good measure

–         Genesis 20 seems to be describing a backward step for Abraham

–         This is one of those occasions when history repeats itself

–         In Genesis 12 Abraham led Pharaoh to believe that he wasn’t married to Sarah, so that Pharaoh would treat him kindly

–         Now in Genesis 20 Abraham does the same thing by misleading king Abimelech. From Genesis 20, verse 1 we read…

 Abraham moved from Mamre to the southern part of Canaan and lived between Kadesh and Shur. Later, while he was living in Gerar, he said that his wife Sarah was his sister. So King Abimelech of Gerar had Sarah brought to him. One night God appeared to him in a dream and said, “You are going to die, because you have taken this woman; she is already married.”

But Abimelech had not come near her, and he said, “Lord, I am innocent! Would you destroy me and my people? Abraham himself said that she was his sister, and she said the same thing. I did this with a clear conscience, and I have done no wrong.”

God replied in the dream, “Yes, I know that you did it with a clear conscience; so I kept you from sinning against me and did not let you touch her. But now, give the woman back to her husband. He is a prophet, and he will pray for you, so that you will not die. But if you do not give her back, I warn you that you are going to die, you and all your people.”

Early the next morning Abimelech called all his officials and told them what had happened, and they were terrified. Then Abimelech called Abraham and asked, “What have you done to us? What wrong have I done to you to make you bring this disaster on me and my kingdom? No one should ever do what you have done to me. 10 Why did you do it?”

11 Abraham answered, “I thought that there would be no one here who has reverence for God and that they would kill me to get my wife. 12 She really is my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not of my mother, and I married her. 13 So when God sent me from my father’s house into foreign lands, I said to her, ‘You can show how loyal you are to me by telling everyone that I am your brother.’”

14 Then Abimelech gave Sarah back to Abraham, and at the same time he gave him sheep, cattle, and slaves. 15 He said to Abraham, “Here is my whole land; live anywhere you like.” 16 He said to Sarah, “I am giving your brother a thousand pieces of silver as proof to all who are with you that you are innocent; everyone will know that you have done no wrong.”

17-18 Because of what had happened to Sarah, Abraham’s wife, the Lord had made it impossible for any woman in Abimelech’s palace to have children. So Abraham prayed for Abimelech, and God healed him. He also healed his wife and his slave women, so that they could have children.


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this reading for us


We notice two themes in Genesis 20, fear & grace. First let’s consider fear


Basically, fear is a feeling of distress caused by impending danger

–         In some ways fear is sort of the opposite of hope

–         Hope is a feeling of joy caused by impending satisfaction


Fear (like hope) comes from what we think or imagine might happen

–         When what we think or imagine is accurate & true, then fear protects us

–         For example, I imagine (quite accurately) that if I try to monkey climb the steel ‘I’ beams in this auditorium I will probably fall and hurt myself

–         This thought creates a feeling of distress which prevents me from attempting to climb the blue beams


By the same token, when what we think or imagine is inaccurate & untrue, then fear becomes something which puts us at risk

–         For example, if I were to imagine (quite wrongly) that the floor was covered in snakes then the feeling of distress caused by that thought might cause me to climb the walls, which would inevitably lead to me falling and hurting myself


With these two examples we see that fear can act as both a brake and an accelerator

–         Sometimes fear stops us doing things

–         Other times fear moves us to do things, at speed


The really disconcerting thing is that we are subject to what we fear – which means we are not usually in the driver’s seat

–         When we are afraid we are not the ones with our foot on the brake or the accelerator – we are the passenger


Fear is taxing – it sucks the life out of us, kind of like an anti-energy

–         For example, we may be afraid of failure and that fear motivates us to work extra hard to succeed, but at the same time it also stresses us out and exhausts us


The other thing fear does is it makes us forget, at least temporarily

–         Fear has this way of locking out every other thought

–         In Genesis 20 Abraham appears to forget God’s promise to make him a father of nations

–         He also seems to forget what happened with Pharaoh in Egypt

–         Abraham’s fear of being killed overwhelms him and he manages the feeling of distress by deceiving Abimelech

–         In verse 11 Abraham says, “I thought that there would be no one here who fears God and that they would kill me to get my wife.”

–         Given that the people of Sodom & Gomorrah had no fear of God we can understand why Abraham might think Abimelech was similar

–         But in this situation at least, Abraham’s fear is based on a false assumption and when our fear is based on a lie it inevitably leads us to put ourselves or others at risk


When you hear the word ‘Philistine’, what do you think of? [Wait]

–         The Philistine’s were an ancient race of people who we read about in the Bible – traditionally thought of as enemies of Israel

–         David killed the Philistine giant, Goliath

–         These days though the word ‘Philistine’ has come to mean someone who is hostile toward culture and the arts – sort of like a bogan

–         Someone who is uncouth or ignorant, perhaps even dangerous


This may be quite an unfair prejudice

–         King Abimelech was a Philistine and yet (in Genesis 20) he behaved better than Abraham

–         I’m not saying Abimelech was perfect – after all, he already had a wife and some concubines and then decided he would have Sarah as well, like an all you can eat smorgasbord

–         (I’m not sure that women had a lot of choice in the matter in those days)


Despite his rapacious appetite king Abimelech still had a moral code

–         Contrary to Abraham’s prejudice Abimelech did fear God

–         He was probably what we might call a good pagan


A pagan (by definition) lives in fear of the gods

–         A pagan lives with the feeling of constant distress, that if they put a foot wrong the gods will punish them

–         While we are not pagan, it’s not difficult for us to understand the utter exhaustion of living with constant fear

–         Anxiety is very much a part of the fabric of our society – it is epidemic today


To people in the ancient world (whatever their religion) adultery was a heinous crime – it was one of the worst sins you could think of

–         If you committed adultery in the ancient world you could expect a severe punishment, if not from the community then from the gods


Abimelech’s fear that God might kill him if he did commit adultery was accurate and true

–         When God told him in a dream that Sarah was married to Abraham, Abimelech was quick to point out that he didn’t know and he hadn’t touched her yet – he wasted no time in repentance

–         Abimelech returned Sarah to Abraham with livestock and silver, not because he was feeling guilty, but out of fear & respect for God Almighty


You see fear is a form of respect – we are subject to what we fear

–         When we react in fear of something we are saying (often unconsciously) that the thing we fear has power over us

–         To fear God then is to say (in a very deep way) God is more powerful than I am and therefore I am subject to him

–         Abimelech’s fear of God caused him to bend his knee in submission and obedience to God


Fear of God is quite close to faith in God

–         Proverbs talks about the fear of God being the beginning of wisdom

–         Or to use a metaphor – if faith in God is the butterfly, then fear of God is the caterpillar. Before we can fly we must first crawl

–         Before we can learn to trust God we must first fear him

–         That is, we must first submit to God in the realisation that he is more powerful than anyone or anything else

–         I wonder if the pandemic of anxiety in our society today is partly due to the fact we have lost our fear of God

–         We have made ourselves subject to so many things (that aren’t God) and consequently we are afraid of many things


What we notice in Genesis 20 is that Abraham believed (temporarily – in that moment) that God was not the most powerful one in the neighbourhood and as a result he put Sarah’s virtue and God’s promise at risk

–         This is all upside down and back to front – here we have Abraham, a hero of the faith, showing more fear of man than of God

–         While king Abimelech, the Philistine – the one we least expect, fears God more than Abraham does

The lesson is: both fear of God and faith in God can be found anywhere – sometimes those outside the church have a greater fear of God than we do

–         I think of the Roman Centurion who said to Jesus:

–         “Lord do not trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof… But say the word and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go’, and he goes and that one, ‘Come’, and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this’, and he does it.”

–         When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him and… said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” [1]


There is something of God’s image (something noble) in everyone, even those we may write off as Philistines – but we have to be humble to see it

–         Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.



Okay, so far we have talked about Abraham’s fear of man and Abimelech’s fear of God

The other main theme running through these verses is grace – in particular God’s grace for Sarah & Abraham, as well as the Lord’s grace for Abimelech and his household

–         Grace is a gift, something we haven’t earned – it is undeserved favour

–         Grace is different from fear

–         Fear is the stick – grace is the carrot

–         Fear is about punishment – grace is about freedom

–         Fear makes us a passenger – grace puts us in the driver’s seat

–         Fear is a feeling of distress – grace is a feeling of humility


Once there was a boy, who we’ll call Hunter

–         Hunter came from a dysfunctional family

–         Dad wasn’t around anymore & Mum was preoccupied

–         Hunter was left to fend for himself most of the time

On benefit day (which was a Tuesday) there was usually something in the pantry, some instant noodles or budget bread

–         But by Thursday there wasn’t much food left in the house so Hunter went to school without lunch three days a week

–         Although he was really hungry he didn’t steal from the other kids because he didn’t want to get in trouble

–         He had been taken away from his mum and put into foster care once before and he didn’t want to do anything to risk that happening again

–         Foster care is a bit of a lottery – Fear kept him in check

Hunter’s teacher saw what was going on and quietly snuck sandwiches, biscuits & fruit into Hunter’s bag on Thursdays, Fridays and Mondays

–         At first Hunter didn’t realise how the food got there, but it didn’t take him long to figure it out

–         That teacher had always looked out for him – like a guardian angel

–         It made him feel strangely warm and humble inside

One day the winter show came to town

–         We don’t have winter shows in Wellington – it’s more of a regional town thing, with Ferris wheels, hot dogs, side shows and candy floss

–         Hunter couldn’t afford the ticket price but that didn’t stop him, there was always a hole in the fence somewhere he could squeeze through for free

–         He didn’t have money to go on any of the rides or buy any food – he just enjoyed being there, the sights, the sounds and the smells

As he walked along he noticed a purse on the ground – small enough to fit in your pocket. It had $40 inside and a lipstick

–         He could really use the money

–         Finders keepers, he thought to himself – whoever she was she wouldn’t miss it anyway

As he stood in line waiting to buy some hot chips he noticed his teacher, in the distance on the merry go round, with her family

–         She saw him and smiled – he looked away, suddenly conscience stricken

–         How could he steal this money when she had been so good to him?

–         Realising he couldn’t enjoy the chips now, he handed the purse in to lost property (with the money intact) and slipped out the gate feeling hungry

On Monday at school the teacher called the roll and, as usual, went round the room giving the kids a chance to talk about what they did in their weekend

–         Lots of people talked about going to the winter show and, as usual, Hunter said nothing

When everyone had finished the teacher shared her own news, saying that she had gone to the show with her 11 year daughter who had lost her purse

–         Her daughter was upset because there was $40 in the purse which she had earned from doing various odd jobs

–         Fortunately someone handed the purse in and all was well

Realising he had done something good Hunter smiled to himself as he looked at the ground, feeling strangely warm and humble inside.


God’s grace is manifold – it’s not one dimensional

–         It’s layered, like a trifle or filo pastry

We see God’s grace in the way the Lord appears to Abimelech in a dream, warning him of the danger he is in

–         In Genesis 12 God communicated with Pharaoh through sickness and disease but in Genesis 20 the Lord has a conversation with Abimelech

–         Probably because Abimelech is more willing to listen than Pharaoh was


One thing we notice is that God’s grace comes to Abimelech in the form of truth – Abraham had lied to Abimelech but God speaks the truth

–         Grace & truth go together with God

–         The Spirit of Jesus is a Spirit of grace & truth

–         Being told that he is at risk of committing adultery with Sarah is not an easy truth for Abimelech to face but there is grace in the timing of it

–         In fact, verse 6 tells us that God has kept Abimelech from sinning by not letting him touch Sarah

–         God has a wonderful way of saving us from temptation and delivering us from evil – diverting us in the nick of time, sort of like Hunter was diverted by a smile from his teacher


God’s grace in preventing Abimelech from sleeping with Sarah is at the same time an act of grace for Sarah & Abraham

–         Despite Abraham’s faithless action on this occasion the Lord still intervenes to protect Sarah and save Abraham’s life


I’m impressed with the way Abimelech restores the relationship with Abraham

–         After learning from God that Sarah is actually Abraham’s wife Abimelech calls Abraham in and asks for an explanation

–         While this was probably an awkward moment for Abraham it actually enables the two men to clear the air and makes it possible for Abraham to remain in the land

–         Pharaoh gave Abraham no such hearing – he simply sent Abraham & Sarah packing


In spite of the way Abraham insults Abimelech (saying, I thought there would be no one here who fears God) the Philistine king gives Abraham livestock, servants, the pick of pastureland & 1000 pieces of silver to vindicate Sarah

–         This silver in some way undoes any shame or slur on Sarah’s reputation

–         It is an incredible amount of money – more than most people would earn in their life time at that point in history

–         As mentioned before Abimelech’s generosity is more out of respect for God, than anything else


Finally we see God’s grace in the way the Lord answers Abraham’s prayer to heal Abimelech and his household so they could have children

–         God had promised that Abraham would be a blessing to the nations and this prayer of intercession is one example of that blessing

–         God’s gift of children for the Philistine royal family surely sounds a note of hope for Sarah & Abraham

–         If God is willing to do that for Abimelech, who has been promised nothing, then the Lord will surely make good on his word to Abraham & Sarah



Fear & grace are part of our experience too

–         Although fear & grace are different they both have the power to humble us before God, as Abraham & Abimelech were humbled




Questions for discussion & reflection

1.)    What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?

2.)    What is fear?

–         How does (or has) fear affected your life?

3.)    How might we manage the thoughts which govern our fear (in a healthy way)?

4.)    What is the relationship between fear of God and faith in God?

–         How are they similar? How are they different?

–         How might fear of God make us less anxious?

5.)    What is grace?

–         How is grace different from fear?

6.)    In what ways can you see God’s grace in Genesis 20?

7.)    Can you think of times when God has diverted you from making a mistake in the nick of time? (e.g. as he prevented Abimelech from committing adultery with Sarah)

–         What other ways have you experienced God’s grace in your life?

8.)    Take some time this week to thank God for the noble Philistines you’ve known



[1] Luke 7:6-9