In September 1992, I was headed to Russia to participate in my first ever ministry trip, an evangelistic outreach with Walk Thru the Bible Ministries and the JESUS Film Project. I was scheduled to fly from Seattle to New York where I would meet up with the rest of the team. From there we would fly to London and on to Moscow. After arriving there, we would fly south to the Black Sea.
On the day I was to leave, my flight was canceled. By the time they rebooked all the passengers, I had missed out on all the connecting flights to New York. I could wait a day and travel by myself to the Black Sea or I could buy a new ticket with my own money and fly to Moscow via Vancouver and Frankfort.
As all of this was unfolding, I thought of Romans 8:28, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” I distinctly remember standing by the SeaTac ticket counter praying, “God, I love you. God, I believe you have called me for a purpose. But God, what are you doing?”
To make matters worse, when I finally reached Moscow, I arrived without my luggage because it had gone to Lisbon. It would be four days before my clothes arrived at the Black Sea. Here I was trying to be faithful to God’s calling. Yet I was getting hammered over and over again!
In Genesis 12:1-9, God came to an idol worshipper named Abram. We know him today as Abraham, the name that God gave him later. He lived in the city of Ur, a busy commercial center located near the Persian Gulf in modern day Iraq, near the border of Kuwait.
God told Abraham to leave his home and family and set out on a journey to a new land. When he arrived in the land of Canaan, he was 75 years old and his wife, Sarai, or Sarah as she is known later, was 65 years old. God gave Abraham some incredible promises. God would give the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendents. God would give Abraham a family. In addition, God would bless the entire world through Abraham. God also commanded Abraham to be a blessing to those around him.
Abraham responded to God’s promises with worship. He built two altars in two different locations. He called on the name of the Lord. Everywhere he journeyed in this new land, he left behind a witness to God’s grace.
God promised to give the land to Abraham’s descendents. But before the ink is even wet on the deed, Abraham discovers that the land isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. Abraham’s faith is rewarded with famine (Genesis 12:10).
“If this is how God treats his friends, then I’m better off on my own,” Abraham must have thought. He takes off and heads south to Egypt without consulting God (Genesis 12:11-16). Instead of trusting God, Abraham takes matters into his own hands. Instead of maintaining integrity in the trial, he compromises his faith.
Rather than solve the problem, one compromise soon leads to another (Genesis 12:17-20). Abraham leaves the land God promised to give him. He loses his wife and puts his future descendents in peril. Instead of being a blessing to the world, Abraham is a source of plagues. As a result, he receives a rebuke from a pagan king. Instead of being a witness to God’s glory, he gets kicked out of Egypt and labeled as persona non grata. Chastised, he limps back to the land and to his relationship with God (Genesis 13:1-5).
King Charles told Oliver Cromwell on one occasion to pose for a portrait. Cromwell didn’t want to because he thought it vain. But because the king commanded, he obeyed. The artist was a rather diplomatic man. He noticed that Cromwell had a rather sizable wartlike growth on the side of his nose, near his cheek. He carefully suggested that Cromwell turn his face to the other side so that there might be a little better pose. Cromwell responded, “Mr. Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything you see; otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”
When God paints his servants, he portrays them honestly, warts and all. In spite of his failures, there are five lessons we can learn from this scene in Abraham’s life.
The first lesson we can learn is the teach-test principle. God will instruct his children, and then follow those lessons with a test to see if we have learned. He will not move us on until we learn the lessons he has for us today. In Genesis 12:1-9, God taught Abraham about his power and his character. He followed that with a test—a famine (12:10).
The second lesson is to remember God’s promises when our plans “go south.” Rather than trust God to care for him, Abraham took matters into his own hands. He failed God’s test.
The third lesson is that when our plans “go south,” we need to live with integrity. As Abraham learned the hard way, one compromise leads to another. Abraham asks his wife to lie about their relationship and say she was his sister. He was worried the Egyptians might kill him if they knew the truth. On the one hand, it was true, since they had the same father. On the other hand, it was a lie because they were married.
Abraham’s worst fear is realized when Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, decides to add Sarah to his harem. If Abraham refused Pharaoh’s gifts, he has to admit his lies. But if he accepts the gifts, he compounds his guilt.
The fourth lesson we can learn is that when our plans “go south,” we need to remain true to our calling. Instead of being a source of blessing, Abraham is a source of judgment. Instead of being a light to the nations, he is rebuked by a pagan king.
The fifth lesson we can learn is that when we fail, we should return home to God. After being kicked out of Egypt, Abraham goes back to the Promised Land, rebuilds his altar, and once again calls on the name of the Lord.
Vance Havner was a preacher in North Carolina. He told a story about an elderly lady who was greatly disturbed by her many troubles—both real and imaginary. Finally, someone in her family tactfully told her, “Grandma, we’ve done all we can for you. You’ll just have to trust God for the rest.” A look of absolute despair spread over her face as she replied, “Oh dear, has it come to that?” Havner commented, “It always comes to that, so we might as well begin with that!”
Life does not always turn out as we hoped. Sometimes our plans go south. When they do, we need to remember God’s promises, live with integrity, and stay true to our calling.
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on June 30, 2013. It is part of a series on the life of Abraham. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.