Resolutions are such a weird phenomena… The idea that when the New Year inevitably rolls around people end up with this natural compulsion to make ourselves promises that we’ll be better next year is really bizarre! It’s been said, “An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in, and a pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”
Historically speaking, this phenomena of making resolutions at the turn of the year has existed for several millennia… The ancient Babylonians would begin each new year by making promises to their gods that they would return borrowed objects and pay their debts.
The Romans would make similar resolutions to Janus who, being reflected as a two faced god looking backwards and forwards at the same time, was known as the god of transitions. You should note it was Janus for whom the month of January is named.
In Medieval times, at the very end of the Christmas season, the knights engaged in what was known as the “Peacock Vow” when they’d re-affirm their commitment to chivalry and nobility.
As early as 1740 the founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley, created what he called the “Watchnight Service” or what others have more commonly referred to as a “Covenant Renewal Service.” What was billed as a Godly alternative to a typical night of drunken revelry, these services provided Christians the opportunity to review the year that had passed and prepare for the next by praying, confessing sins, and resolving to do better.
Sadly, if you’ve ever made a New Years resolution, you understand this practice is often fruitless and eventually frustrating. In 2007 a study involving 3,000 people who’d made resolutions was conducted by British psychologist Richard Wiseman.
The study revealed that an astounding 88% of those who make a New Year Resolution ultimately fail, despite the fact that 52% of the study's participants were confident of success when making the resolution. Ironically, most failed to live up to their resolution within just 30 days. Some have correctly opined that, “A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other.” If you feel this way, don’t worry you’re not alone.
While there are many reasons New Year resolutions are not successful, more often than not resolutions fail for one basic reason: They never effectively address the core problem behind the previous years failure. If you resolve you’re going to loose weight, start exercising, stop smoking, drink less, have better time management, or reduce debt this coming year, and you’re determined to do this on your own…
You’re never going to be successful, because you haven’t addressed the main reason why in this past year you’ve gotten fat, grown unhealthy, chain smoked, drank to much, are always broke, or are drowning in debt. Since YOU were the cause of the previous years failures, thinking YOU can somehow be the solution on your own is complete lunacy.
This is why the only successful resolutions are the ones that diagnose the problem correctly (you’re the problem) before then seeking outside help to deal with that particular issue. You see whatever weakness your flesh had last year doesn’t magically transform into the power to do or be different just because you decided it would. A successful resolution is instead one that seeks a solution outside of yourself - the source of your previous failure.
This is also the way it works when it comes to spiritual failures. Sadly, many churches this morning are doing a disservice to their congregants by peddling a legalistic, anti-Gospel to deal with real problems they can never resolve. Right now pew sitters are being encouraged to identify their failures so that they can rectify them this coming year - which, while sounding nice, only leads to greater failure because they don’t address your core issue.
On a morning like today you’ll hear pastors say, “If you feel disconnected to the church community or feel lonely, you need to make Sunday attendance or plugging into a ‘life group’ a top priority. If you’ve been struggling with a nagging sin, you need to determine to overcome that compulsion by following these 12 steps. Are you struggling to read your Bible or have a devotion with God, well commit to this ‘Read the Bible in a Year’ plan!”
And yet, while on the surface this seems like good, constructive advice, if you couldn’t attend church regularly last year who are you to honestly think you can do better this year? If you couldn’t overcome that nagging sin last week, isn’t it silly to think you now have the power to overcome it today? Your commitment to read through the Bible last year probably got you to the genealogy of Genesis 5, so how can you seriously think that this year the results - even with a new plan - are going to turn out any differently?
It was famed German physicist Albert Einstein who famously defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The truth is that if you never admit YOU are the source of your problems - thereby acknowledging YOU can never be the solution, then you’ll never be able to find resolution. It’s why so many Christians come into the New Year with an increased zeal to do better only to, by February, settle back into a state of defeat because they once again failed!
This morning, by looking at yet another one of Abraham’s failures and more specifically the way in which God handles him, I hope to point you to a real resolution to overcome whatever crap you happen to be carrying with you into this New Year.
Genesis 20:1, “And Abraham journeyed from there to the South, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur, and stayed in Gerar.”
As we just read, Genesis chapter twenty opens with “Abraham journeying from there to the South.” For context it’s important you keep in mind the last time we saw Abraham was in Genesis 19:27-28 directly following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
In these verses we read that “Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the LORD (which would have been in Mamre). Then he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain; and he saw, and behold, the smoke of the land which went up like the smoke of a furnace.”
While Abraham had interceded for the people in these cities, even gaining assurances from the Lord that if ten righteous were found He’d spare them, the billowing smoke made it obvious ten weren’t found and a great tragedy had befallen these people.
Though the text doesn’t tell us why Abraham made this decision to leave Mamre, I think the context allows us to assume the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah had something to do with it. I think it’s also entirely likely Abraham believes his nephew Lot and his family have also perished. You can understand why a move away from this area was now warranted.
Verse one also informed us that as Abraham traveled “South” he ultimately settles in an area known as “Gerar” - between “Kadesh and Shur.” This places Abraham in the southernmost section of what is today Israel. Note: Gerar would later become a preeminent Philistine town.
Genesis 20:2, “Now Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’ And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah.”
If this sounds familiar, it should! This is the exact same thing Abraham had done when he went to Egypt back in Genesis 12. And as we noted then, fearing someone might kill him in order to take Sarah, this claim that “she is my sister” was designed to keep Abraham safe.
The core problem in both instances (first with Pharaoh and now again with Abimelech) is that while this particular strategy insured Abraham’s life remained intact, it did nothing at all to protect the integrity and safety of poor Sarah! Abraham is being a terrible husband!
We’re told “Abimelech,” which was a title for the “king of Gerar, sent and took Sarah.” The implications of this word “took” is that Sarah was literally snatched away. Neither she nor Abraham had a say in the matter. Sarah is taken against her will in order to be placed into the harem of King Abimelech. Note: Sarah being 90 says something of her incredible beauty.
Once again, aside from Abraham’s actions revealing a total lack of chivalry and respect for his wife, you can’t escape the reality this is the second time he’s acted in such a way! Even though God had supernaturally interceded when this happened in Egypt demonstrating an incredible measure of grace to Abraham, it’s now evident he hadn’t learned from his mistake.
While there is no doubt Abraham struggled with fear, in both of these two situations, his first inclination was to lie instead of placing his trust in God and the sufficiency of His promises. It’s sad, but while Abraham failed in Egypt and had been the recipient of God’s amazing grace, so many years later, he now makes the exact same mistake!
It’s been said, “The best of men, are men at best.” And yet, Abraham is not just any man! The Scriptures hail him as the “Father of our faith!” He’s on the Mount Rushmore of Biblical heroes! It really is incredible so many years into his journey with God, after so many failures that God’s grace effectively covered that Abraham would still commit such a sin!
We have to at least consider why? For starters, it should be pointed out Abraham doesn’t leave Mamre because God prompted his move. Not to mention, there is no record of Abraham consulting with God or being provided with any type of divine direction.
As a matter of fact, Abraham’s decision following on the heels of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah seems to imply this move was reactionary. Whether he was upset that God had not spared the city or was grieved Lot had been caught up in the judgment we can’t say for sure, but the fact he doesn’t consult with the Lord before moving is revealing.
Just as his move to Egypt signified a distance had developed between Abraham and the Lord, it would appear this journey to Gerar implied a similar dynamic existed. Abraham’s failure to seek the Lord set the stage by which he was now operating independent of this divine relationship. There should be no surprise that such a failure was inevitable.
Genesis 20:3-5, “But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, ‘Indeed you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.’ But Abimelech had not come near her; and he said, ‘Lord, will You slay a righteous nation also? Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? And she, even she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ In the integrity of my heart and innocence of my hands I have done this.’”
How interesting that in order to defend Sarah “God came to Abimelech (not Abraham) in a dream.” Look how God begins… “Indeed you are a dead man!” There are a lot of things you never want to hear God say, but “you’re a dead man” ranks high on the list. “Abimelech, you’re messing with the wrong lady!” Once again how cool that God protects Sarah even though her husband has played the fool and vacated his responsibility to defend his wife.
I find a lot of hilarity in Abimelech’s response, “Whoa, whoa, whoa… Wife? Seriously God, I had no idea know she was married or You know I wouldn’t have done this. You got to believe me. They both said they were brother and sister. This is all clearly a misunderstanding.”
Notice what else Abimelech says, “Will You slay a righteous nation also?” It’s not an accident this is coming off of the judgment of Sodom. No doubt word of what happened had spread around the region and even a pagan king like Abimelech recognized the divine involvement.
His appeal is that, while Sodom clearly deserved judgment because of their wickedness, God needed to take into account that he was actually “innocent” before judging him.
Genesis 20:6-7, “And God said to him in a dream, ‘Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart. For I also withheld you from sinning against Me; therefore I did not let you touch her. Now therefore, restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.’”
Hahahaha… I also love God’s response to Abimelech’s claim that he was “innocent.” He says, “Yea, I know you did this in the integrity of your heart.” God is being totally sarcastic. “Oh yea, I know you took that woman by force from ‘her brother’ against her will so you could do whatever you want to her sexually because you’re such a noble and upstanding guy!”
God continues by making another thing clear to Abimelech… “The only reason you haven’t violated her hasn’t been on account of you being such a nice guy, but rather the fact I haven’t let you.” He says, “I withheld you from sinning against Me… I did not let you touch her.” As we’ll see towards the end of the chapter God “withheld” him using some kind of plague.
God then lays down an ultimatum… “Abimelech, if you want to insure I don’t kill you and everyone else you know, you need to return Sarah to Abraham and ask that he pray for you.”
What’s interesting about these verses is that it’s not only the first mention in Scripture of this office of “prophet,” but it’s the first time we have “prayer” mentioned in the Bible. Note… In the O.T. there were three established offices through which God interacted with humanity:
The office of King was designed for God to exert His authority over His people through a man, the office of Priest was for a man to represent the people before God, with the job of a Prophet being the inverse - a man standing as God’s representative to the people.
And while there is no doubt prayer would serve an important role in the functionality of all three offices, because Genesis 20 presents the first mention of “prophet” and “prayer” together it would appear the two were intimately intertwined. Abraham was a prophet (God’s representative) for one reason and one reason alone… His relationship with the Lord.
What’s interesting about this passage is that while it affirms Abraham was a prophet, it also tell us his actions had failed to effectively represent God. Abraham’s fear caused him to undoubtedly tarnished his witness. Which then makes God’s instructions that Abimelech still go and have Abraham intercede on his behalf all the more fascinating.
It’s as though God is pointing out that while there was due reason for Abimelech to not respect the vessel itself (this man Abraham), he needed to look beyond Abraham and see that it was God speaking and not him. What grace that God was still willing to use a broken, failed man who’d tarnished his witness to represent him!
It should also be pointed out that in having Abimelech go to Abraham under such a pretense God was seeking to remind Abraham of some important truths as well!
Genesis 20:8-13, “So Abimelech rose early in the morning, called all his servants, and told all these things in their hearing; and the men were very much afraid. And Abimelech called Abraham and said to him, ‘What have you done to us? How have I offended you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done.’ Then Abimelech said to Abraham, ‘What did you have in view, that you have done this thing?’
And Abraham said, ‘Because I thought, surely the fear of God is not in this place; and they will kill me on account of my wife. But indeed she is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, ‘This is your kindness that you should do for me: in every place, wherever we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’’”
If you’re like me I can absolutely sympathize with everything Abimelech says to Abraham. Not only is he being obedient to follow through with the instructions God has provided him, but this “what the heck man” reaction seems totally appropriate all things considered.
Notice Abraham’s response… First, Abraham blames Abimelech. “I was afraid you guys were going to kill me in order to take my wife, because it seemed rather obvious ‘the fear of God was not in this place.’” Secondly, Abraham makes excuses for himself. “The truth is that what I told you wasn’t a complete lie. Sarah is actually my half-sister as well as my wife.”
Then, in an incredible twist, Abraham has the audacity to ultimately blame God. He says, “‘When God caused me to wander from my father’s house’ I found it necessary to concoct this story fearing my life would be in constant danger because of Sarah’s beauty.”
Abraham is literally saying that if God had never called him to originally leave Ur of the Chaldeans, he would never have feared for his life or felt inclined to develop such a falsehood. He admits, “In every place, wherever we go, she says of me, ‘He is my brother.’”
It’s incredible that there is no apology or admission of guilt. Even with Abraham affirming this story had been a lie, he dodges personal responsibility by blaming everyone but himself. What a terrible witness - especially when God’s already affirmed he’s a prophet!
Genesis 20:14-16, “Then Abimelech took sheep, oxen, and male and female servants, and gave them to Abraham; and he restored Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelech said, ‘See, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you.’ Then to Sarah he said, ‘Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; indeed this vindicates you before all who are with you and before everybody.’ Thus she was rebuked.”
Abimelech not only does what God required of him, but he actually takes things one huge step further. In addition to restoring Sarah to her husband, by giving Abraham “sheep, oxen, servants, and silver” Abimelech goes above and beyond in order to make restitution.
I love this line Abimelech says to Sarah, “I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver…” Oh snap! What a dig! He refers to Abraham as her brother, not her husband! Abimelech then continues by saying, “This vindicates you before all who are with you.” In the KJV this is actually translation as, “Behold, he is to thee a covering of the eyes.”
A more accurate translation would be, “With all that money I just gave your brother why don’t you go buy yourself a veil to conceal your beauty instead of lying about your relationship.” There is no doubt both Abraham and Sarah were not only humbled by this “rebuked” of Abimelech, but understood the greater lesson God was trying to communicate.
Genesis 20:17-18, “So Abraham prayed to God; and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants. Then they bore children; for the Lord had closed up all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.”
Not to get ahead of ourselves, but for context it’s important you realize directly following this story of yet another one of Abraham’s failures what happens. Is God mad? Does God judge Abraham? Does God make him suffer? Are God’s plans for his life limited, placed on hold? Nope! The very next thing God does following this story of Abraham’s repeated failure is finally fulfill His promise giving them a son! God’s blessing followed their failure!
You see I believe the reason Moses includes this particular story is to hammer home the reality that there was literally nothing that made Abraham worthy of the incredible grace God had showed him. As a matter of fact, the story of Abraham really only illustrates two constants: He’d so often fail, but God’s grace would always remain sufficient.
Understand… This is the entire point of Abraham’s life. Anytime he departed from his relationship with God… Anytime he stepped out in his flesh… Anytime he resolved to do something apart from the divine, failure was inevitable. Truth be told God allowed Abraham to fail specifically to emphasize the simple importance of walking with Him.
This is why so many Christian’s experience failure when they buy into the lie that you can make a better you! You see the only motivator that’ll transform your heart… The only reality that’ll change your life… The only influence that actually possess the power to liberate you from sin and make you more like Jesus is the grace of God. There is literally no other way!
Your spiritual life will always be characterized by one of two things: Your constant failure or Jesus’ permanent victory. There’s no middle ground… No hybrid of the two. Your work, energies, and efforts will always yield failure, and His grace will always prove sufficient.
This is why, in much the same way that any successful resolution requires you look outside the power of self for help, all spiritual growth in your life will only manifest when you admit you’ve never be able and instead fall back on the reality He always is!
If you desire to attend church more frequently this coming year, placing yourself under a sense of obligation will never suffice. The remedy is to instead allow God’s grace to so grip your heart that there’s no other place you’d want to be than with your church every Sunday.
If you’ve been wrestling with some nagging sin, 12 steps to corral your flesh will never work. Instead of wresting with sin, may I simply encourage you to focus instead on walking with God knowing there’s no room for darkness when your life is filled with His Light.
If you want to read your Bible more regularly, imposing rules and structures only ends up turning the activity into work, as opposed to it being an exciting way to engage with God.
Friend… While it’s true God allowed Abraham to experience incredible, even embarrassing failure when he stepped out in his flesh, please note what always followed? Because Abraham’s faith in a Savior had declared him permanently righteous in the eyes of God, his failures were always proceeded with a greater portion of God’s grace.
In John 1:16 we read that because of Jesus and the sufficiency of His work on the cross “of His fullness we have all received (speaking of His righteousness), grace for grace.”
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