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“The Hole in the Sidewalk”

Genesis 20:1-18
Bob DeGray
October 29, 2006

Key Sentence

God patiently rescues and warns us when we fall into repeated sin.


I. Abraham Falls in the Hole (Genesis 20:1-2)
II. God Protects Abimelech (Genesis 20:3-8)
III. God Warns Abraham (Genesis 20:9-18)


        Several years ago I used a story in a sermon that has been remembered by many of those who heard it, far more than usually remember sermon illustrations. It was called “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters” from a book of poems by Portia Nelson. It’s a perfect fit with what we will be seeing today in Genesis chapter 20:

Chapter I: I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in I am lost . . . I am helpless It isn't my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don't see it. I fall in again. I can't believe I am in the same place. But, it isn't my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III: I walk down the same street There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in . . . it's a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.

Chapter IV: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.

Chapter V: I walk down another street.

        Genesis 20 is one of the most disappointing texts in Scripture. We just saw Abraham at one of the high points of his spiritual life, receiving the renewed promise of a son and interceding before the Lord for his nephew Lot. A chapter earlier we were told Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. So we expect Abraham at this point to be solid in his faith and his walk. We don’t expect him to fall back to the habitual sin of these chapters, reliance on human wisdom and human manipulation of circumstances. It’s disappointing almost to the point of shock when he walks down the same street and falls into the same hole. It’s also vaguely comforting, because we have to admit we too have our habitual sins, and even when it seems we’ve matured in faith, if we turn down that street we’re likely to fall into that hole. It’s a relief to see that God patiently rescues and warns us when we fall into repeated sin, and to know from Scripture we can turn down a different street.

I. Abraham Falls in the Hole (Genesis 20:1-2)
        Genesis 20:1-2 Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, 2and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, "She is my sister." Then Abimelech king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.

        This is almost a repeat of the events of Genesis 12, more than 20 years earlier, when Abraham was starting his walk of faith. “10Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. 11As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, "I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12When the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife.' Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you."

        There are differences between the two circumstances, of course. In the first instance there was a famine in the land; in this week’s text, no reason for the move is given. It could very well be that the devastating effects of the destruction of the cities of the plains had made it difficult to sustain Abraham’s flocks and herds even in the hills. A second difference is that rather than going all the way to Egypt, Abraham here goes only to Kadesh. You may remember that the well where Hagar saw ‘the God who sees’ was located between Kadesh and Shur, on the way to Egypt. Abraham goes there first, then moves to Gerar, a coastal city occupied by the earliest clans of what would become a Philistine migration from the islands of the Mediterranean.

        While in Gerar, Abraham falls in the same hole. He says of his wife ‘she is my sister’ and the king of Gerar, Abimelech, takes her into his harem. Some marvel at the fact that Sarah could still be so attractive at the age of 90. But remember, people’s life spans were longer; Abraham lived to 175, Sarah to 127. Also, in order to give birth to Isaac, Sarah’s aging process may have been delayed or reversed. Sarah may still have been beautiful, though a more mature beauty. This doesn’t mean other reasons for marrying Sarah weren’t present. Abraham was a man of wealth and power. Alliances were made by marriage. If Abimelech was convinced Sarah was Abraham’s sister, he might have taken her to form an alliance, despite her maturity.

        But the bottom line is Abraham turns down the same street, there’s the same big hole in the sidewalk; he’s gotta know it’s there; he still falls in. It’s habitual sin brought on by habitual lack of faith. Lack of faith, from Abraham whose faith was credited to him as righteousness. Lack of faith, from Abraham who by faith left his homeland. Never assume you’re entirely safe from old temptations. Bob Deffinbuagh, whose work I’ve often quoted, calls this chapter “Don’t Ever Say Never.” It’s always possible to fall in that hole. I’ve talked for years about what I call characteristic sin. Not everyone has a characteristic sin, but many do have one area or a few where we struggle more than in others. Bruce Wilkenson illustrates this in a series we’ve used with the men, Personal Holiness in Times of Temptation. He asks you to imagine a friend who struggles with shoplifting. You and your friend go to the store, and you’re happily perusing the shelves, when you notice he’s next to you, rigid, hands in pockets, sweating. He says “I just want to pick something up.” What’s no temptation to you is to him because this is his area of weakness.

        What are the besetting sins that hound people in our church? After years of ministry, I think I can make a ‘top five’ list. It’s not comprehensive or in any kind of order, but I think you may find yourself on this list. Try to identity your areas of habitual sin so that you can begin to work on them. Now if you find yourself saying ‘Oh, it’s all of them’, that’s not from God; Satan is trying to immobilize you. Also, you may notice the lack of a category like ‘relational issues’ or ‘marital discontent’. My conviction is that our difficulties with others and the harm we do to others grows out of our habitual sins. Discord with others is a symptom rather than a cause.

        Number one on any list, especially for men, is the battle with lust and pornography. At a District meeting last week I talked to Jonathan Daugherty, founder of a ministry called ‘Be Broken’ which helps people with sexual addiction. One claim he makes is that 50% of men struggle with some form of sexual addiction. 100% of men, and no small number of women struggle with sexual temptation. But many indulge, whether on the internet, or television, by adultery or in the thought life. It becomes habitual - hard to walk away from, easy to fall back into. If you’re struggling in this area, get help. I’m not embarrassed to talk to you or connect you with others.

        Similar in many ways, though blessedly less common, are addictions, drugs or alcohol or both. In most cases these addictions have a physical force as well as an habitual force, and that makes them doubly dangerous. Again, you have to get help. Also somewhat similar is food, which can be an area of habitual sin. It may show itself as habitual overeating. Proverbs calls this gluttony. If you regularly embark on a program of diet and exercise, and always fail, I think for you it is sin. It’s the hole in the sidewalk and it does affect your life. More extreme versions of food issues include anorexia and bulimia - and these have shown up in this body as well.

        Moving in a different direction, perhaps the most common habitual sin I’ve tried to help people with is anger. It’s worth citing at least one key Scripture: Ephesians 4:29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” So many of us struggle with these key relational commands; many would cite failure in this area as their besetting sin. The extreme form is abuse, which both our culture and our convictions condemn. Yet I’m sure someone here has been abusive this week.

        Bitterness and anger are only two of the things that grow out of selfishness. In a sense all sins do, but selfishness is especially focused on money and time. Our culture steeps us in an atmosphere of materialism, so that we become fogged to our compulsive spending on ourselves - often as competitors within a marriage, leading to marital discord. Or maybe we’re clutching money we ought to be giving, out of a desire for security, a desire that wars with God’s desire that we depend on him. The same things can be true of time: we see ourselves as stewards of money, managing what God has given, but too often we have the underlying attitude ‘my time is my own . . . I deserve a little time . . .’ for whatever. But the call of God in Christ is to be stewards of time as well, making the most of the time God has given, not wasting the time nor trying to spend more hours than a day has. If you consistently find your self grasping for time or money, making excuses for the poor use of it, or getting into relational difficulties because of it, I think you’ve fallen in the hole.

        Last on my list is rebellion and pride. Rebellion is that feeling that drives you to say ‘I won’t’ when facing something you know you should do. It’s the sin of ‘my way, my life, my rights - you can’t tell me what to do.’ This rebellion can be directed at God or at others - husbands, wives, children, parents: ‘you can’t tell me what to do’. God does have the right to tell you what to do; you’re the creature, he’s the creator; ‘does not the potter have a right over the clay? We’re to submit to the Father, and we’re to submit to one another. Pride also shows up in habitual unwillingness to ask for help, seek wisdom from others, admit mistakes or change course, or in hard-heartedness toward my sin, my circumstances or my loved ones.

II. God Protects Abimelech (Genesis 20:3-8)
        So we have characteristic sins, as did Abraham. How does God deal with it? Surprisingly, God often graciously protects us and others from sins’s effects. Genesis 20:3-8 3But God came to Abimelech in a dream one night and said to him, "You are as good as dead because of the woman you have taken; she is a married woman." 4Now Abimelech had not gone near her, so he said, "Lord, will you destroy an innocent nation? 5Did he not say to me, 'She is my sister,' and didn't she also say, 'He is my brother'? I have done this with a clear conscience and clean hands." 6Then God said to him in the dream, "Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience, and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. 7Now return the man's wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all yours will die." 8Early the next morning Abimelech summoned all his officials, and when he told them all that had happened, they were very much afraid.

        God is not God only of Abraham, but also of all nations. One of the ways God shows this in Scripture is by having Gentiles show greater faith and righteousness than his own people. We see this in Jonah, where everyone believes God and submits to him except Jonah. God begins to show this pattern here in Genesis. He watches out for one of the early Philistines, Abimelech, who responds in righteous fear. God comes in a dream and says ‘you’re as good as dead’. We sense that bad things are already happening to Abimelech and his people. Abimelech asks ‘will you destroy an innocent nation?’ Something was going on that was an immediate threat to this clan.
        But Abimelech was innocent - righteous - in this matter: he had not yet actually taken Sarah to be his wife, and he had taken her into his harem on the word of Abraham that she was his sister. God acknowledged the innocence of the king but made it clear that apart from divine intervention he would have committed a grave offense. The way Abimelech handled this matter now would determine his destiny. To delay or disobey meant certain death. The wonder of this passage is not the fact that Abraham could regress so far in his Christian growth and maturity. We’ve already seen that this kind of characteristic sin is entirely believable. While the faithlessness of Abraham comes as no surprise, the faithfulness of God to Abraham at this time of failure is amazing. He’s going to rescue and honor Abraham despite himself.

        Abimelech, waking from his dream, believes all this. He summons his household and tells them, and they believe. Why? Because sometimes pagans are more righteous than God’s people. But why in this case? Could it be a rumor of Sodom and Gomorrah had reached the Mediterranean coast? I think so; the God of Abraham was linked to that powerful judgment in the minds of all the people in that region; Abimelech and his clan were shaken by the destruction of Sodom and determined not to get on the bad side of Abraham’s powerful God. And God honors that fear.

III. God Warns Abraham (Genesis 20:9-18)
        But God also rebukes Abraham through Abimelech. Verses 9 to 18: 9Then Abimelech called Abraham in and said, "What have you done to us? How have I wronged you that you have brought such great guilt upon me and my kingdom? You have done things to me that should not be done." 10And Abimelech asked Abraham, "What was your reason for doing this?" 11Abraham replied, "I said to myself, 'There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.' 12Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife. 13And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother." ' " 14Then Abimelech brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. 15And Abimelech said, "My land is before you; live wherever you like." 16To Sarah he said, "I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated." 17Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls so they could have children again, 18for the Lord had closed up every womb in Abimelech's household because of Abraham's wife Sarah.

        After informing his servants, Abimelech summoned Abraham and sternly rebuked him for his deception: "What have you done to us? And how have I sinned against you, that you have brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin?" Abraham responds, as many of us do, not by seeking forgiveness, but making excuses: "I said to myself, 'There is surely no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.' Abraham’s first excuse was fear: he would be killed, and Sarah would be taken. This fear was based on bad theology, that God can only act when men are willing to obey, only where He is known and feared. Verse 12: “Besides, she really is my sister, the daughter of my father though not of my mother; and she became my wife.” The second excuse is even less satisfactory. He admits to lying about his marriage by telling the truth about his family tree. Facts can be, and often are, used in such a way as to convey falsehood. Verse 13 “And when God had me wander from my father's household, I said to her, 'This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, "He is my brother." ' ” The third excuse we could call ‘tradition’. When all else fails, we can always fall back on these well worn words: “We’ve always done it that way.” Abraham’s was trying to justify his present sin by citing the fact that he’d sinned this way before.

        I don’t think Abimelech was impressed with Abraham’s explanation. Nevertheless, God had severely cautioned him, and he knew Abraham was the only one who could intercede for him to remove the plague which prohibited the bearing of children in his household. So restitution was made. First, Sarah was given back to her husband. Gifts of sheep, oxen, servants and a thousand pieces of silver. Further, Abraham was invited to settle in the land wherever he chose.

        So Abraham has been rebuked, and we hope he heard God’s warning over the sound of his own voice making excuses. We suspect it may be so, because the narrative of his life from here on is one of faithfulness and not failure. But we can’t know for sure. The one thing we know is that God has been patient. This is the second time Abraham has fallen in the same hole, and the third or fourth time he has resorted to human approaches rather than trusting God’s faithfulness. Yet God continues to affirm him as a prophet and answer his prayers, as seen in the healing of Abimelech and his household. God continues faithful to his promises even when Abraham breaks faith. This may be one of the incidents Paul had in mind when he told Timothy: “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”

        Genesis 20 is a great example of God’s patience, which we saw in our Scripture reading earlier. I love Psalm 103: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. 9He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; 10he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” 2 Peter 3:9 “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Paul says “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. 16But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” Paul says what Abraham might have said, ‘you want an example of God’s patience - look at me’. Paul had been a persecutor of the church, by his own admission proud, hypocritical and covetous. But God was patient and did not immediately judge him, but instead rescued him.

        God is patient with all of us so that we will see that Jesus came into the world to save sinners and that by believing on him we receive forgiveness and eternal life. God patiently withholds judgment so that we might repent of our sinful rebellion and turn in faith to his Son, who bore our sins on the cross. This is the crowning achievement of his patience. But he’s also patient with us when we fall back into characteristic sins, as Abraham did in Gerar. He rebukes and warns us, that we might turn from those sins and walk in righteousness, as Abraham did after Gerar.


        But how do you do that? How do you deal with characteristic sins that can be so powerful? Fortunately for us, Paul struggled in this area, and in Romans 7 and 8 he gives the most helpful answer I’ve found. In Romans 7 Paul describes what I take as the believer’s struggle with the sinful nature: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . .18I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. . . 22For in my inner being I delight in God's law; 23but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. 24What a wretched man I am!” Even Paul was cast down when he considered his characteristic sin.

        But he goes on to say “Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . 8:1Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. 3For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. 5Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.”

        Do you live in Romans 7 or Romans 8? In Romans 7 we are paying attention to the fears, the desires and the pride of our sinful nature - our eyes are on us. In Romans 8 our eyes and minds and desires are on God through the Holy Spirit - it’s about him not about us. As we become self forgetful and Spirit pre-occupied we begin to experience the victory over sin, the life and the peace that the Gospel promises. Now this isn’t the only thing we do about characteristic sin - we repent and confess, we get accountability, we set boundaries, we pray for awareness, but all of those are walking around the hole in the sidewalk. More than any of these we need to walk down a new street, the street of life in the Spirit, the street where our eyes are set on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. The person whose life is focused on what the Spirit desires and on walking with him will more and more turn down that new street. And we have that opportunity because as he did for Abram, God patiently rescues and warns us when we fall into repeated sin.