Godís Faithfulness PDF Print E-mail
Written by Skip Jackson   
Sunday, 26 August 2018
God’s Faithfulness
A Sermon by Sydney V. (Skip) Jackson — August 26, 2018
Indianola Presbyterian Church, Columbus, Ohio
Texts:  Genesis 12:10-20

I’ve been working on this sermon for 29 years.  It started in seminary with an assignment to translate and do a full exegesis of Genesis 12:10-20—that is, to support all my translation choices by analyzing and interpreting how the Hebrew words are used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible—and then to point the way toward how I might preach a sermon on the text.  It ended up about 20 pages.  So here’s my translation.

Sermon Text — Genesis 12:10-20 (my own translation)
Now there was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to reside there a while as an alien because the famine was so severe.  Now when he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his woman Sarai, “Please consider this.  I know that you are a woman beautiful to behold. Thus when they see you, the Egyptians will say, ‘This is his woman,’ and they will slay me, but you they will let live.  Please say you are my sister, in order that it will go well for me on your account, and my life may be spared for your sake.
Now as soon as Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians looked at the woman, since she was exceedingly beautiful.  When Pharaoh’s officers saw her, they sang her praises to Pharaoh, so that the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s household.  Then it went well for Abram on her account, and he received flocks and herds, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels.
Then the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with great afflictions because of Sarai, the woman of Abram.  So Pharaoh summoned Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me?  Why didn’t you tell me she was your woman?  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my woman?  So now here is your woman!  Take her and go away!” And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his woman and all that was his.

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.
Thanks be to God.

Well, the next semester I had to write a sermon for a preaching class, and time being in short supply, I chose this text since I had the scriptural work all done (and gotten a pretty good grade).  But what to do with this odd story about Abram, whom we’d only just met 10 verses before in Genesis 12:1?  We heard last week how God spoke to Abram promising blessings beyond measure, whereupon Abram packed up his family and belongings and went off into the unknown.  The Apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews view his actions as a supreme example of faith.  Yet first thing, here’s a story full of trickery and deception.  Has Abram gotten off on the wrong foot?  What are we to make of it? 
I couldn’t find a commentary that didn’t condemn Abram for falling short of God’s demands here.  Calvin says Abram failed to rely on God’s grace as he was called to do.  Modern commentators speak variously of his lack of faith, of his cowardice and lack of honor, of his self-serving expediency in scheming to sacrifice Sarai to save his own skin, and finally of his unprincipled lie that led to God afflicting and innocent Pharaoh and his household.  They see a shamed Abram standing silently before Pharaoh’s accusations and then being (in the words of one commentator) “unceremoniously bundled out of [Egypt] with his tail between his legs” (J. C. Gibson, Genesis).  But this didn’t seem quite right to me.

By this point in seminary I’d learned enough to know that Pharaoh is not a good guy in Hebrew scripture.  He is the historical arch-enemy and ruthless oppressor of the Hebrew people, and Egypt is a place where bad things happen.  Over and over again, God is virtually defined as the one who freed the people by bringing them out of slavery in Egypt.  So I went looking to see if there was anywhere in the Hebrew Bible where God chastised or condemned Abram for his actions.  I did this by including in my sermon more than a dozen different scripture passages in Genesis—pretty much one after another—every single one where God encounters Abram.  But what I found was a big fat zero.  No condemnation whatsoever.  Every encounter was about God’s promises, blessings, and assurances—what God wanted for Abram and never anything about what God wanted from Abram.  And with this I preached about how we can be too concerned about what God demands of us—getting all wrapped up in trying to be good enough for God—when instead we should be remembering God’s great faithfulness to us.  We don’t have to be good enough for God to love us.  God is for us.  So why are we against us?

Well, the sermon got a pretty good grade, but the professor commented that she thought it might not preach very well with all that scripture in it.  It’s hard to hear all those words and take it all in.  So she thought that doing some kind of dramatic reader’s theater might help to make all that scripture a bit more accessible.  Well, a few of years later I was at First Presbyterian in Lebanon, OR, and I pulled that sermon out for a really busy week.  And the professor was right!  The message was a good one, but the sermon didn’t preach very well.  People seemed to feel it was dry and a bit overwhelming.  (Me, too.)  And it still left hanging this notion that somehow Abram had failed in this story.

I let that sermon sit for a good many years, but then took another shot at it from this pulpit in 2010.  I tightened up the dozen plus scriptures by focusing in on just a key verse or two and doing more storytelling in my own words to set the scene.  As before, I emphasized God’s promises, blessings, and faithfulness. But more importantly, by then I’d learned about trickster stories.  So I told about trickster stories.

Trickster stories are common in all the world’s cultures, and the trickster character—like Br’er Rabbit or Coyote or Raven or Anansi the Spider—is a boundary crosser who typically disrupts normal life by breaking both physical and societal rules and then re-establishes it on a new basis.  The trickster often acts against the powerful and privileged in ways that benefit society’s underdogs.  So in a popular trickster story from the Tlingit People of the Pacific Northwest Coast, The trickster Raven steals the sun from a powerful figure, who is hoarding it for himself alone, and then Raven releases it so there is light for all the creatures in the world. 

Trickster stories are one way for the powerless to sustain hope in desperate times.  They read or hear these stories “from below,” so to speak, with the ears of those who lack power, who are maginalized in their lives.  The trickster stirs things up and disrupts the usual power dynamic, because cultural values like honor, valor, strict honesty can be misused by a ruthless power like Br’er Fox… or Pharaoh.  The story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt is very much a trickster story.  So if we join in condemning Abram, we risk standing with Pharaoh over and against a much weaker people struggling to survive in the face of both famine and abusive power.

With this I returned as before to the good news of God’s promises and God’s great faithfulness.  A very good lesson for us all.  And in general, people seemed to appreciate it.  A couple of OSU academics suggested I should publish the sermon.  (That's what academics do.)  But now eight years later I think I could have delved deeper into why this story follows immediately after the story of God’s promises to Abram—land, a great nation, descendants, blessings for his family, and indeed blessings for all peoples. 

It has to do with justice.  The fulfillment of God’s promises to this wandering nobody inevitably will require some kind of redistribution of power, wealth, and privilege in the world.  The song of that insignificant teenaged girl in Luke comes to mind:  “My soul magnifies the Lord… for he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Abram and Sarai hear the Lord’s promises, and immediately they encounter a great threat from Pharaoh, the most powerful tyrant in their world.  And this trickster story shows them triumphant in the end.  I can only imagine just how much people in ancient Israel—a tiny country caught between the two great powers of Assyria and Egypt—would have enjoyed hearing this story of how Father Abraham left Egypt not only with his wife but with all that wealth he’d acquired from Pharaoh—“flocks and herds, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels.”  No wonder this plot line is repeated two more times in Genesis—in Genesis 20 with Abram and Sarai and in Genesis 26 with Isaac and Rebecca.  The writer knows a crowd-pleaser when he sees one.

The story begins, “there was a famine in the land.”  There’s always a famine or some other calamity.  So Abram and Sarai become refugees, leaving their home behind for life to live as aliens in Egypt, subject to the unlimited power of Pharaoh.  It’s not the last time this will happen to the Hebrew people.  Survival is a strong motivator, just as it is now as refugees stream to our borders even knowing that I.C.E. (the enforcement arm of Homeland Security) can do virtually anything it wants to them, even take away their children.  Abram knows what Pharoah is like, knows full well that this all-powerful despot can take anything he wants—Abram’s wife, Abram’s life, makes no difference to Pharaoh.  Wife or not, if Sarai strikes Pharoah’s fancy he will simply move on her grab her by the… well, for himself, because he can do anything.  So a little trickery is called for. 

As we watch Pharaoh lay all the blame on Abram, I think it’s striking how similar dynamics play out in our own day.  “What is this you have done to me?” Pharaoh demands.  It’s all about him and how everything reflects on him and his.  I… me… mine.  “Why didn’t you tell me she was your woman?”  Like it would make a difference to Pharaoh.  Power takes whatever power wants.  And power is never at fault.  Power never apologizes.  Power deflects.  So Pharaoh blames it all on Abram.  Abram didn’t act properly.  He didn’t tell the truth.  (Note however, just which one of these two God acts against in the story… not Abram.)

The Pharaohs of our world are always asking (demanding!) that any opposition must act with proper decorum, honor, civility, within the “rule of law”—whether it’s white power, male power, economic power, or political power that’s at stake.  It’s their way of taking treasured cultural values meant to bring and bind us together, and exploiting them to deflect from real injustices and protect the status quo.  Don’t fall for it.  Don’t end up blaming Abram.

 Don’t fall for it when people call for #BlackLivesMatter to stop disrupting pro football games and find some other proper venue for their protest—never mind the killing of so many unarmed black men by law enforcement.  Don’t fall for it!  When counter demonstrators at white power marches are blamed when violence erupts, because “there are good people on both sides,” don’t fall for it.  Those who spread hate and division have no basis insisting on civility and decorum.  And in a world where sexual violence is epidemic, don’t wind up blaming the victims and don’t fall for claims that it’s the #MeToo and other women’s movements that are the problem when sports programs are dropped from schools and colleges, when good-ol’-boy networks are broken up, or when high profile football coaches get into trouble.  There real problems here, real injustices.  And they’re not “Fake News.”

This wonderful trickster story in Genesis 12 serves as an immediate assurance that even Pharaoh cannot ultimately stand in Abram and Sarai’s way.  None of the Pharaohs of the world can stand in the way of God’s blessings.  God’s promises are sure.  God’s grace, God’s faithfulness, God’s steadfast love—they all endure forever.

It has taken me 29 years to get to this sermon.  And now it occurs to me that I’m not done yet.  In fact, none of us are done yet.  For there’s ever more to dig into when it comes to hearing what the Spirit has to say to the church.  Thanks be to God.  Amen and amen.
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