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May 19, 2013

Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” Genesis 18:6

The best children of the best parents will struggle and they will make bad choices.  There are no perfect families!

The good news is that the Bible is full of fractured families.  Open this book and you will see yourself and you will find that God speaks to you.

This is not a book of airbrushed saints.  It is filled with the stories of sinners who find hope in the amazing grace and kindness of God.

Last week we looked at the story of Abraham, who we described as “the flawed father.”  Today we focus on Sarah, who I am describing as “the perplexed wife.”

The first thing to say about Sarah is that she was a godly woman.  Twice in the New Testament she is commended: First she is praised as a woman of faith (Hebrews 11:11), and then Peter holds her up as a model for all Christian women (1 Peter 3:5-6).

In Sarah, we have womanhood at its very best.  But as we will see today, even this godly woman struggled with doubt, and engaged in manipulation that brought pain into the lives of the people God had placed around her.

As you and I are, so Sarah, the beautiful, godly model of faith, needed the grace of God in her fractured life, just as Abraham, the father of all the faithful, needed the grace of God in his.

The good news for us in this story is that God persevered with this fractured family.  Grace means that God does not give up on people who mess up!  Faith is for fractured people and for fractured families.

Please open your Bible at Genesis 18.  This is a story about hospitality, a story about Sarah, and a story about God.

A Story about Hospitality

He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him.  Genesis 18:2

The story begins with Abraham sitting “at the door of his tent” (18:1). Abraham sees three men.  But three times we are told in the story that God himself appeared to Abraham.

The LORD appeared to him… (18:1)

The LORD said “I will surely return to you.” (18:10)

The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh…?” (18:13)

In each case, the word “LORD” is printed with four capital letters.  Whenever you see this word in the Old Testament, it means the personal name of God—Yahweh, the great I AM.  God Almighty came to dinner with Abraham!  He talked with Abraham, as a man talks with his friend.

The New Testament tells us that God became a man in Jesus Christ.  But way before that, there were multiple occasions when God appeared as a man, making himself visible.  Why does he do that?  In order to cultivate a friendship with people like us.

It happened in the Garden of Eden when God walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day.  God took a visible form so that he could walk and talk with the man and the woman.

Here we have God appearing in human form as a man, flanked by two angels appearing in the same form, coming to share a meal in the home of Abraham.  We call this a theophany.

The perplexed wife

When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.”  Genesis 18:2

Notice the word “Lord” is not in all capital letters.  Here it means “sir” or “master”—a term of respect, indicating that Abraham did not yet realize he was in the presence of God.

I love what happens next, because it’s easy to imagine the domestic tension.  Three visitors arrive unexpectedly, and Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes” (Genesis 18:6).

Talk about fast food!  Sarah’s “instant bakery” swings into action.  When I read this story I am always reminded of the time, during the first year of our marriage, when I had invited a friend to stay with us in London, and promptly forgot to tell my wife.

11 o’clock one Sunday night, the doorbell rang.  Karen and I looked at each other: “Who in the world is at the door?”  I open the door and Karen overhears me saying: “Ah Jim, great to see you. Come on in. Let me show you to your room.”

A few moments later I come down the stairs to a perplexed looking wife. “I’m really sorry.  I messed up.  I completely forgot about this.  He’s an old friend from Scotland.  He says he hasn’t eaten since breakfast.  Can you rustle something up?”  That was a moment of being shown amazing grace, which led to—as grace always should—substantial repentance!

It was a little like this for Sarah, except that there was no fault on the part of Abraham.  God simply showed up.  The visitors from heaven appeared.

God came to this fractured home and this fractured family.

Abraham and Sarah were blessed by opening their home to these visitors.

It is easy, especially in our culture, to shut other people out when life in your home is not as you would want it to be.

Others seem to have fine homes and you think, “Nobody would want to come to mine.  My home is not as I would want it to be.”  Don’t forget, Abraham and Sarah had a tent!

Hebrews uses this story to encourage Christians in the ministry of hospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2).  The story of Abraham and Sarah is an example of this.

He says “angels,” because Christians this side of the resurrection should not expect a theophany.  But we can anticipate that God will bless us through brothers and sisters in Christ who will be like angels, servants to you, who bring his help and blessing into the home.  So, don’t shut others out when your life is fractured.

The first instinct, when your life is fractured, is to withdraw.  Don’t do that!  Open your fractured life and home to other godly people.  You may be surprised at how wonderfully God ministers to you through them.

A Story about Sarah

Unbelief crept up on this godly woman

They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?”

And he said, “She is in the tent.” Genesis 18:9

The heavenly visitors made sure that Sarah was within earshot.  Although they spoke first to Abraham, what they were about to say was for her.

Then God Himself speaks: “The LORD said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him… Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years.  The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah… So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’” (Genesis 18:10-12).

Sarah believed in God, but she did not exercise faith, at this point, in regard to this promise.  It is possible to trust God in regards to eternal salvation, but not to trust him in regards to this particular thing that was going on in her life.

It seems to me that Abraham had some responsibility here.  If you turn back to Genesis 17, you will see that God had previously appeared to Abraham and given the promise that Sarah would have a son.

When Abraham heard this he laughed.  “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:17).  But, if you read the rest of chapter 17, God pressed the promise on Abraham until he believes.

So when Abraham hears the promise a second time, in chapter 18, he does not laugh.  But Sarah does.  Which seems to indicate that she was hearing the promise for the first time.

Abraham is the father of many nations.  Why has Abraham not told Sarah about this promise?  Why is he not ministering the word to his own wife?  Come on, man, you’re asleep at the wheel.

It seems then that Abraham did not share the promise of God with Sarah.

Perhaps he did not want to get her hopes up.  Maybe he did not think that she would believe.  But here we have the great man of faith, the father of the faithful, and he has not taken spiritual leadership in his own home.

Abraham hasn’t been building up his wife’s faith.  Perhaps that is why God does not rebuke Sarah for laughing.  He rebukes Abraham: “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh?’” (Genesis 18:13).

“Abraham, why haven’t you been cultivating faith in your wife?  You’ve been so concerned about all you’re doing in ministry that you haven’t been building up your wife.”

“Abraham, you have some responsibility here.  I gave Sarah to you and I gave you a promise for her.  Why is she laughing, Abraham?  Why has she not heard this before?”

But Sarah also has responsibility.  She was a godly woman.  She is a model of faith for Christian women today.  But even Sarah struggled with unbelief, and more than that, she tried to cover it up before the Lord.

At this point in the story, it seems that Sarah comes out of the tent.  She speaks directly to God, and the first thing she says is an outright lie: “But Sarah denied it, saying, ‘I did not laugh’” (Genesis 18:15).  Speaking to God is what we call “prayer.”

“But Sarah denied it, saying, ‘I did not laugh,’ for she was afraid” (Genesis 18:15).  Afraid of what?  Afraid, perhaps, of what was going on in her heart.  She talks to God, but she knows that her prayer is a pretense.

And God knows that she is covering up.

Behind Sarah’s unbelief lay an extraordinary story of manipulation

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar.  And Sarai said to Abram, ‘Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ Genesis 16:1-2

Sarah wants a child.  There is nothing surprising about that at all.  And she is prepared to go to any lengths to get what she wants.  There’s no doubt about who is driving this: “Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children from her” (16:2).

Abraham listens to the voice of Sarah.  His union with Hagar leads to the birth of Ishmael and this already fractured family is now plunged into a web of conflicting loyalties and hidden resentments.

What we have here is the story of a believing woman who uses her power to get what she wants.  She does this in a way that dishonors God and brings pain to everyone around her.

I asked Linda Green, one of our women’s ministries directors, for her thoughts on how Christian women today might use their power to get what they want in ways that dishonor God and bring pain to others.

This is what she said: “Women innately recognize they have power over men and can use that to get what they want.”  She then suggested nine ways married women might manipulate their husbands.

  1. “Leaky faucet”—complaining and nagging until he gives you what you want.

 

  1. “Trial lawyer”—verbally out-talking him and shutting him down with her verbal skills.
  1. “Blame game”—making her husband feel like he is responsible for her unhappiness, anger, or sadness: “If only you made more money, were home more, had a better job….”
  1. “Clue”—expecting him to read her mind but giving little in the way of clues: Sighing, pouting, giving one word answers but when he asks what’s wrong, answering “nothing.”
  1. “Smoke signals”—banging pots and pans around in the kitchen to make a point that you’re doing the dishes, without actually coming out and asking for help.
  1. “Water works”—most men don’t like to see a woman crying so even when he thinks he’s right, he’ll usually soften to stop the crying.
  1. “Angling”—withholding sex or using sex to get what she wants.
  1. “Guilt trip”—laying guilt on him; telling him how disappointed she is in him.
  1. “Performance trap”—making him feel inadequate: “We’re the only ones I know who haven’t been to Disneyworld™, etc.”

There are multiple ways a believing woman can use her power to get what she wants in ways that dishonor God and bring pain to everyone around her.  That’s what Sarah was doing, and the effect of it was that unbelief crept up on this godly woman.

A Story about God

God comes near to Sarah

The conversation has been with Abraham, but the purpose of this visit is to confirm the promise to Sarah.  Picture Sarah hiding in the tent.  She is not coming out to meet with God.  Perhaps she was embarrassed by the weakness of her own faith or the shame of her own manipulation.

Maybe you know what that’s like.  People see you as a leader, they look to you, and you have a certain reputation.  God has given you responsibility in ministry, but when you look into your own soul, you say to yourself, “What would people think if they knew how threadbare my own faith actually is?”  That’s where Sarah was.

God knows how threadbare your faith is!  Nothing is hidden from him, and he doesn’t give up when his people mess up.  That’s why you don’t need to pretend in prayer.  Nothing about you comes as a surprise to him.  He set his love on you, knowing you at your lowest and weakest point.

Here’s what often happens in relationships: Boy meets girl.  They see each other at their best, and both of them think each other something special.

They get married, and from then on, their lives become an exercise in trying to make sure the other person doesn’t find out what those things were that were successfully concealed in courtship!

But God set his love on you, knowing you at your worst!  Christ died for you.  That means the presence of God is the one place where you are completely known and where you have nothing to fear, no matter how threadbare your faith is right now!

God exposes her unbelief

Sarah laughed to herselfGenesis 18:12

Notice what the Lord does when he comes near.  Sarah did not laugh out loud—it was in her mind, in her heart.  As far as Sarah was concerned, her unbelief was a private matter.  Sarah was safe.

It’s easy to do that, coming into church well-dressed, nobody knows what is hiding in your heart.  But God knows—he sees all things.  Nothing is hidden from him.

God loves you at your worst, but he will not leave you at your worst.  God exposes her unbelief, so that he can restore her faith.  How do we know that God restores her faith?

God restores her faith

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised… Hebrews 11:11

The Lord appeared to her a year before the birth of Isaac, so she must have conceived very soon after the unexpected visitors came to her home.  She received the power to conceive because she “considered him faithful who had promised…”

Sarah’s faith was restored through this encounter with God.  She could say with David, “The Lord is my shepherd.  He restores my soul.”  How does God do that?  How can faith be restored?

How Faith is Restored

Look to who God is

Is anything too hard for the LORD?  Genesis 18:14

The reason that Sarah struggled with unbelief is that her eyes were fixed on Abraham and on herself.  Abraham was nearly 100 years old, and Sarah was just ten years behind him.  So the promise of God seemed impossible, “He’s hopeless and I’m not much use either!”

Hope does not lie in us.  Hope lies in the Lord.  As long as you look at the weakness of your own faith, the difficulties and pressures of your own life, the problems with your spouse and your children, you will find yourself sliding into unbelief, because there isn’t an answer there.

But when God speaks to Sarah, he lifts her gaze up from the discouraging horizons of her own life and says, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? Look to me!”  He says.  “I am the sovereign Creator, the great I Am, the King eternal!  Nothing is impossible for me, and I am for you.”

Faith grows as you get your eyes off yourself and your problems, and your limitations and your failures, and onto the living God, the LORD, for whom nothing is impossible.

Listen to what God says

“At the appointed time I will return to you about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son…”   Genesis 18:14

And Sarah did have a son, and she named him Isaac (Genesis 21:1-3).  By the way, if you’re in your 80’s or 90’s, this does not mean that you will conceive and have children!  So, how does this speak to us today?

The revealed purpose of God for Sarah involved the birth of a child and, given that she was in old age, it seemed to her that she might miss what God had planned for her.

The point of the promise is simple, “My purpose for you will be fulfilled.  Nothing will stop it, Sarah.  Despite all the twisting and turnings, disappointments and failures, my purpose for you will be fulfilled.”

Everything God has planned for your life will be accomplished.  Look at your own life and you will see twisting and turnings, disappointments and failures, but God’s purposes for you will be fulfilled.

“He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).  Here is God’s promise for you: Everything God has planned for your life will be accomplished.  Many Christians live with the idea that you’re supposed to be on this train, and if you miss out on it, you can never get back on track.

Here you are single and longing to be married: Everything God has planned for your life will be accomplished.

Here you are married and longing to have children: Everything God has planned for your life will be accomplished.

Here you are married and wishing that your marriage was more than it is:

Everything God has planned for your life will be accomplished.

Here you are anxious for your children, wondering what their path will be:

Everything God has planned for your life will be accomplished.

I’m not saying that everything you have planned for your life will be accomplished.  God does not say that every purpose will be accomplished if your husband shapes up.  You just put him in the place of God.

God does not say every purpose will be accomplished if a child is born to you, or if your children turn out as you hoped, or if you finally meet that person of your dreams, or if you get out of that dead-end job.

No!  “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”  Period!  Look to who God is.  Listen to what God says.  And your faith will be restored.

  1. Quit manipulation

Manipulation is using your power to get what you want in a way that dishonors God and brings pain to everyone involved.  Learn to recognize manipulation, and wherever you see it, quit it.

  1. Confront unbelief

Unbelief is a weed that grows in the darkness.  It hates the light of day.  So confront unbelief.  You do that as you quit pretending and recognize unbelief for what it is, and then look to God and listen to what he says.

  1. Grow through grace

Your gentleness made me great.  2 Samuel 22:36

God was very gentle with Sarah.  He’ll be gentle with you.  He knows all about you already, so don’t be afraid to draw near to him today.

 

© Colin S. Smith

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