With God

Scripture: Genesis 21:22-34

Title: With God

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • God is with Abraham
  • Dispute resolution – grace & truth
  • The everlasting God
  • Conclusion

Introduction:

When I was a boy my Dad was digging in our vegetable garden at home and he unearthed a Maori adze – a greenstone axe head

–         It was a very special find – quite unexpected

–         After that, I went digging too for hidden treasure, but alas I found nothing

–         It’s funny isn’t it – we could easily go to a museum, to look at an adze, but that is never as cool as finding one yourself in your own back yard

Today we pick up our sermon series on the life & faith of Abraham

–         This has been a rather interrupted series for various reasons but that’s okay – we are getting there

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

–         Both this week’s story and next week’s represent forward steps

–         Today’s instalment focuses on Genesis 21, verses 22-34, where Abimelech, the king of the Philistines, makes a treaty with Abraham

–         At first glance this story seems a bit vanilla, a bit ordinary, just a backyard vegetable garden, nothing interesting here

–         I don’t want to talk it up too much but as I dug beneath the surface of this passage I found a couple of hidden treasures. From the NIV we read…

22 At that time Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces said to Abraham, “God is with you in everything you do. 23 Now swear to me here before God that you will not deal falsely with me or my children or my descendants. Show to me and the country where you now reside as a foreigner the same kindness I have shown to you.” 24 Abraham said, “I swear it.”

25 Then Abraham complained to Abimelek about a well of water that Abimelek’s servants had seized.  But Abimelek said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.”

So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelek, and the two men made a treaty. Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock, and Abimelek asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?”

He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.” So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there.

After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.

 May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us

Three things happen in this little vignette:

  • – Abimelech approaches Abraham to make a treaty with him
  • – Abraham accepts this treaty and in the process settles a dispute
  • – And thirdly, Abraham worships the Lord, the Everlasting God.

 

God is with Abraham:

It is easier to chop wood with the grain

  • – Toast tastes better with butter
  • – We see things with the lights on
  • – Conversation goes smoother with food
  • – Perspective returns with rest
  • – Love grows with trust
  • – Grief fades with time
  • – Memory forms with repetition
  • – Truth finds a way in with grace
  • – Paint sticks with sanding
  • – Peace is sustained with justice
  • – Life finds meaning with God

With – it’s a versatile word and its one of those hidden treasures I was alluding to earlier

 

In verse 22 Abimelech and his general, Phicol, come to Abraham to make a peace treaty with him

  • – If you think about it, this is quite remarkable really
  • – Normally, with peace treaties, the party in the weaker position approaches the one in the stronger position
  • – Outwardly Abimelech appears to be in a stronger position than Abraham
  • – Abraham is a wandering shepherd – he doesn’t have a fortress or an army like Abimelech does and so we wouldn’t ordinarily expect Abimelech to approach Abraham, cap in hand, yet that’s what happens.
  • – Why then does Abimelech feel the need to do this?

Well, Abimelech gives his reason in verse 22 when he says to Abraham…

  • “God is with you in everything you do”
  • – What does it mean that God is with Abraham

To be with someone is to be alongside them

  • – Not above them, forcing them to do things against their will
  • – And not below them, to be used like a human tool
  • – But beside them, freely acting in their interests and for their well being
  • – God is with Abraham, as a friend, standing in solidarity with him,

I’ve come up with a little acronym which outlines some of the characteristics we would expect to find when we are in a relationship with someone

  • W is for wellbeing, I is for intimacy, T is for trust and H is for help

You know someone is with you when they are committed to your wellbeing

  • – When they share themselves intimately with you
  • – When they trust you
  • – And when they provide you with help
  • – Likewise you know you are truly with someone when you are committed to their wellbeing, even if there is nothing in it for you
  • – When you are able to be emotionally intimate with them,
  • – When you trust them deeply
  • – And when you are ready to help them should they need it

God’s ideal for marriage is that husband & wife be truly with one another

  • – Marriage is a commitment to mutual wellbeing, intimacy, trust and help

 

God was with Abraham and he wants to be with us

  • – One of the names of Jesus is Immanuel – which means ‘God with us’
  • – Jesus is, God with us
  • – In John 14 Jesus says to his disciples: I will ask the Father and he will send you another Counsellor to be with you forever
  • – The Counsellor Jesus is talking about here is the Holy Spirit or the Paraclete – that is, one who comes alongside to be with us

 

Returning to Genesis, how does Abimelech know that God is with Abraham?           

Some people might argue that Abraham’s wealth is evidence that God is with him – but I don’t think that’s it

  • – Yes, some people like Abraham do become wealthy because God blesses them, in that way, but wealth in itself is no indicator that God is with you
  • – People can become rich for a whole lot of reasons including being ruthless or working hard and making sacrifices or simply being in the right place at the right time
  • – By the same token, poverty or loss is no indicator of God’s absence
  • – The Scriptures tell us that God is near to the poor, the widow, the orphan, the refugee, and the broken hearted – they hold a special place in his heart

So the question remains: how then did Abimelech know that God was with Abraham?

  • – You may remember, in Genesis 20, how Abraham deceived Abimelech by saying that Sarah was his sister, all the while leaving out the part about her being his wife
  • – Abimelech unwittingly took Sarah into his harem but before he slept with her the Lord confronted Abimelech in a dream and told him to return Sarah to her husband, Abraham
  • – When he had done this Abraham prayed for Abimelech and the Lord healed Abimelech, his wife and the women in his household, so they could have children
  • – So that was one obvious sign, to Abimelech, that God was with Abraham

After this, Sarah became pregnant to Abraham and gave birth to Isaac

  • – Sarah was 90 years old when that happened
  • – Given that Sarah had gone past the age of menopause this was a miracle comparable to that of resurrection
  • – Sarah’s pregnancy at 90 and Isaac’s birth were another clear sign, to Abimelech, that God was with Abraham in a life-giving way

Consequently Abimelech makes a treaty with Abraham in order to align himself with Abraham’s God who holds the power of life & death

  • – Abimelech is looking for some insurance – a hedge against spiritual risk
  • – He doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of Abraham or his God
  • – Abimelech wants Abraham to deal honestly with him and to treat him with kindness

The Hebrew word translated as kindness here is hesed

–         We don’t really have one single word in English for hesed

–         It is a Jewish term which is sometimes translated as kindness, sometimes as mercy and other times as steadfast love or loyal (covenant) love

–         Hesed isn’t just an abstract concept though – it is an action, something tangible that one does for someone else’s well-being

Katherine Sakenfeld, who did her PhD on this subject, outlines the three main criteria of hesed[1]

–         Firstly, the action is essential to the survival or the basic wellbeing of the recipient – so it’s not something you do to entertain a whim or a fancy

–         Secondly, the needed action is one that only the person doing the hesed is in a position to provide – given the circumstances no one else can do it

–         And thirdly, hesed takes place in the context of an existing relationship

 

Abimelech wants Abraham to make a solemn commitment to always treat him and his descendants with hesed – and Abraham quickly agrees

–         It appears Abimelech’s treaty provided Abraham with the opportunity to sort out a problem – a dispute over watering rights

–         And Abraham’s creative solution to this dispute un-earths another hidden treasure

 

Dispute resolution – grace & truth

Abraham had dug a well of water and Abimelech’s servants had seized it

–         Water wells were vitally important in that part of the world

–         Rain fall was seasonal – it wasn’t all year round – so wells were essential to the survival of people and animals alike

 

Abimelech wanted peace with Abraham but without justice there can be no peace – peace is sustained with justice

–         Therefore Abraham sought justice over the well

–         What’s interesting here is the way Abraham resolves this dispute – with truth and grace

–         Abraham doesn’t sweep the issue under the carpet – he doesn’t fudge the truth or pretend there is no problem

–         Rather he addresses the issue by speaking the truth

 

I imagine this was an awkward moment, especially for Abimelech

–         The Philistine king has just given a speech about how he has treated Abraham with ‘kindness’ or hesed and now he is learning that in actual fact his servants have done nothing of the sort

–         The servants have embarrassed Abimelech and the king is quick to plead ignorance, as he had done when God confronted him about Sarah

 

What happens next is quite unexpected – like finding a hidden treasure in a vegetable garden

–         Normally the one who has been wronged – in this case Abraham – would be owed some compensation

–         When Abimelech returned Sarah to Abraham he gave Abraham 1000 pieces of silver by way of vindicating Sarah and compensating her

–         But in this situation Abraham doesn’t seek compensation for himself

–         He does the opposite – he compensates Abimelech by giving him 7 sheep

–         Abimelech is confused by this act of grace – he asks what does this mean

–         And Abraham explains that by accepting these sheep you are acknowledging the well is mine

Truth and grace you see

–         By taking Abraham’s well Abimelech’s servants had done an injustice to Abraham and brought shame on their master

–         To save face Abimelech might feel it necessary to punish his servants

–         But Abraham comes to the rescue of the men who seized his well by providing compensation on their behalf

–         In this way Abraham has preserved Abimelech’s honour and shielded the servants from punishment

–         Touched by Abraham’s act of grace, Abimelech and his servants will now stay away from Abraham’s well

Abraham’s act of grace toward his enemies is at the same time an act of hesed

 

Let me tell you a story…

–         Once there was a police officer who worked in a small town

–         This police officer had a son called Ned

–         Ned tended to get picked on at school because it was a small town and everyone knew who his Dad was

–         Ned responded to the treatment he got by becoming a bit of a rebel – he felt a strong urge to prove to everyone that he wasn’t like his dad

One day, to show how tough he was and how little he cared for the rules Ned stole an orange Mark 2, Ford Escort – and took it for a joy ride. He was 16 and still on his restricted.

The Escort was in mint condition – it was owned by a retired guy called Jim

–         Jim had plenty of time on his hands and had lovingly restored the car, partly because he liked that sort of thing but also because the car used to belong to his late wife and so he felt a sentimental attachment to it

–         It didn’t take much for Jim to figure out who had stolen his car – a neighbour saw Ned driving away in it

–         Jim didn’t react in the heat of the moment – he gave it a few days and thought about what he would do

–         On the one hand he didn’t want to ruin the boy’s life with a criminal record or a bad reputation but on the other hand there still needed to be some kind of consequence

–         Without justice there is no peace, for the victim or the perpetrator

In the end Jim called the policeman and asked him to come over to his house

–         Jim explained the situation, how Ned had been seen stealing his car four days ago

–         What Jim wanted was restoration – both for himself and Ned

–         If Ned was willing to admit what he had done and return the car, Jim would drop the matter

–         He just wanted his car back and for Ned to unburden his conscience

The policeman went home and confronted his son about it

–         Sure enough Ned knew where the Escort was, abandoned not far out of town in an old quarry

–         The car had a few more k’s on the clock and it needed a clean but apart from that it was okay

When Ned and his father returned the Escort to Jim they found him working on an old Cortina in his garage

–         Shame faced and embarrassed Ned made his apology and asked if there was anything he could do to make it up to Jim

–         Jim listened and said, ‘Yes, since you seem to like driving so much I bought this old Cortina for you. You can help me restore it.’

Ned was deeply touched by Jim’s act of grace and for the next six months they worked on the car together, after school and in the weekends

–         Ned stayed out of trouble and learned some skills at the same time

–         With a project to keep his mind occupied he didn’t worry so much about what others thought of him

–         In more than one way Jim put Ned on a life-giving path

 

It’s amazing what an act of hesed can do – the power of grace & truth, you see

 

Okay, so far we’ve heard how God was with Abraham

–         We’ve also heard how Abraham resolved a dispute in a creative way – with an act of hesed and in a spirit of truth & grace

–         Our passage this morning concludes with Abraham worshipping the Everlasting God

 

The Everlasting God:

At our church forum last November we had a time of prayer

  • – Just prior to that meeting one of our church members shared a vision they had seen of a giant cactus growing in this auditorium
  • – We are not entirely sure what the meaning of the vision is but we discussed it at the meeting and one of the things that came out was the resilience of the cactus plant
  • – Cacti have a number of good qualities including the ability to survive in very arid and desolate environments

 

In Genesis 21, verse 33, we read that Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and there he called upon the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God

Tamarisk trees have a deep-ranging root system which searches out water and enables the tree to survive in very dry conditions

  • – The fruit is a capsule with numerous seeds
  • – There are many varieties of tamarisk – some can grow as tall as 18 metres
  • – Tamarisks are valued for their ability to withstand drought and salty soil [2]
  • – They are a hardy tree often planted for shelter or feed
  • – The tamarisk is similar to a cactus plant in that it is resilient in harsh environments but it is perhaps even more versatile in that it provides a good wind break in the desert and its leaves can be eaten by livestock

 

Elsewhere in Genesis Abraham is noted as building an altar and calling on the name of the Lord – here he plants a tree and calls on the name of the Lord

  • – In this context planting a tree is like building an altar – it serves as a living memorial to the Everlasting God
  • – It’s a way saying: God is in this place, even a desolate dry place like Beersheba

Abraham probably chose to plant a tamarisk because it suited the environment but I can’t help noticing how Abraham is a bit like the tamarisk tree

  • – Through years of waiting in barrenness God has grown Abraham & Sarah’s faith strong & deep, like the root system of a tamarisk tree
  • – Abraham, who is now over a 100 years old, has moved from place to place in obedience to God’s call and he has shown resilience, prospering in even the harshest of environments
  • – Perhaps too the tamarisk tree is a parable for the nation of Israel
  • – Through Abraham, God was making a nation that would be resilient and life-giving – a source of shelter and sustenance to those who find themselves in the wilderness

 

Conclusion:

Sometimes our journey of faith can take us to barren, desolate, dry places

  • – Abraham’s story is similar to our story – it reminds us that God can still be found in the places we least expect

 

Let us pray…

  • – Everlasting God, resilient God, life-giving, hesed making God. God of grace & truth, justice & peace – be with us we ask
  • – May we be aware of your loving commitment to our well-being, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in
  • – Help us to discover you in unexpected places
  • – Fill us with your Spirit of grace & truth that we may settle our disputes and reconcile our differences in ways that are creative & life-giving
  • – May we be open to receive the help you provide, and ready to pass on your help where there is a need
  • – May we grow in our intimacy & trust with you and each other
  • – Through Jesus we pray, Amen.

 

Questions for discussion or reflection:

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

2.)    What does it mean that God was with Abraham?

–         How might we know that God is with us?

–         How is Jesus present with us today?

3.)    What is hesed? (E.g. what sorts of words begin to describe hesed, what three conditions need to be met for an act of hesed?)

–         Can you think of a time in your own life when you have been the recipient of hesed? What happened?

–         Is there someone you can do hesed for?

4.)    How did Abraham handle the dispute over the well?

–         What was unusual / creative about Abraham’s approach?

5.)    What is the significance of Abraham planting a tamarisk tree?

6.)    Discuss / reflect on the acronym W.I.T.H. (Well-being, Intimacy, Trust, Help)

–         Who do you need to be with this week, this month, this year?

 

https://soundcloud.com/tawabaptist/10-june-2018-with-god

[1] Katherine Doob-Sakenfeld, Ruth, page 24

[2] https://www.britannica.com/plant/tamarisk

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