It is embarrassing how long it has been since I updated the sermon posts! Sorry to those who follow regularly. Here is a recap of the teachings for Genesis 13-17.
In Genesis 13 we see Abram coming back to the land God had promised to his descendants. It takes him a while, though, to come full circle. He is still meandering, not heading straight back, rather he takes his time coming back not only to a physical location but to the God who spoke to him there.
We often find ourselves in the same place. We fall and then avoid coming back into fellowship with God because we are afraid of retribution or a lack of acceptance. The beautiful thing about this story, as Abram parts ways with Lot and moves further into this land God had promised, is that God honors his return. God honors the fact that Abram chose to come back and does not even chide him for taking so long. God reaffirms his promise and adds that Abram will have children that are like the dust in number. What a beautiful picture of God's gracious acceptance of us when we do repent (turn away from what distracted us) and turn back to him.
In Genesis 14 a story unfolds of kings going to war with each other over tribute payments that were not paid. Abram's nephew Lot gets caught up in the fray and his whole family is taken captive by invaders. All of the local rulers in Lot's area gave up and went home defeated. Abram gathered some allies and went to recover the captives and plunder taken in the conflict.
The great thing about this seemingly mundane story is not so much in Abram's recovery of Lot and the captives. The shining moment comes instead when Abram interacts with Melchizedek. Basically at that time the system of governance was thug rule. Whoever had the most allies and could beat others in battle became their own ruler/king. When Abram presents Melchizedek with a tithe gift, Melchizedek offers him all of the plunder.
The gleaming glorious moment is Abram's refusal: "I have raised my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, and have taken an oath that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, 'I made Abram rich.' I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me--to Aner, Eshcol and Mamre. Let them have their share."
Abram takes nothing from the plunder. This man who came back from Egypt loaded from having sold his wife to Pharoah's harem looks past wealth for once to the promise of God's provision. He commits to look only to God for blessing and material gain so that God will be glorified!
Genesis 15 finds Abram finally being honest with God about his doubts and fears. He asks God about his inability to produce an heir and for a confirmation of God's promise. Again, we have an aversion to speaking frankly with God for fear that he will strike us with his holy lightening (actually that is Zeus, not YHWH). But we do not see that here!
God responds to Abram with loving compassion and confirms his promise with a covenant ceremony, something Abram was familiar with. God cuts a covenant with Abram, but we do not see the reciprocation of Abram at this time. God commits to the covenant, not based on Abram's great performance as a man of faith, but because when God makes a promise he keeps it.
In Genesis 16 Abram and Sarai conspire to make God's promise come true by hook or by crook. They decide that a surrogate heir would be just as good as an heir from both of their bodies. This all works very well, until Sarai suspects the surrogate mother of contempt. Mistreatment by Sarai and the turning of a blind eye by Abram drive Hagar to flee.
This could have been the terrible end of a sad story. But God intervenes. He promises Hagar that he will care for her and her son, encouraging her to return to Abram's household. Hagar is comforted because God is aware of her struggle and will bless her son. It makes such a big impression that she names him Ishmael--God will hear.
One might expect Genesis 17 to hold stern rebuke from God, but quite the opposite is true. God comes to Abram and restates his covenant, this time asking for Abram to accept it by the way of a physical change to his body--circumcision. God promises a son in one year's time that will be born of Sarai.
At this time, God completes the covenant by giving part of his name to Abram and Sarai. They will now be Abra-ha-m and Sara-h. God is YHWH and he is now identifying these two flawed human beings as part of himself. The redemptive picture here is beautiful and full. God will fulfill his promise, not because of their perfection, but because of his faithfulness.