When your Life is Stuck on Pause: Meet the Gracious Friend of Sinners (Gen. 18:1-15; 21:1-7)
We are actually winding down our mini-series in the book of Genesis called When your life is stuck on pause (yes, this series will not be stuck on pause forever). I think the biggest lesson that has emerged so far in the life of Abraham is that what we truly need is not that thing at the end of the pause, but for God to unstick the things that we love (that are our hearts are glued to) more than God.
Tim Keller says, “to be holy is to be wholly God’s.” We have seen God do so much to draw Abraham’s heart to be wholly God’s. In fact, that is what “blameless” means in Gen. 17:1. It means to be “whole.” We have seen the way God got to Abraham’s heart was through grace. And guess what? That is the way God will come to win our heart as well because of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Grace extended to us is to transforms us.
Last week we talked about the importance of being in a covenant. Today we will look at one more aspect of what that means. Take note:
I. The friendship of the Lord is extended to His covenant partners (vv.1-8)
Last week we talked about the fact that to be in a covenant with the Lord means to surrender to His terms. If you surrender to the Lord, you will receive His benefits. One of the greatest benefits of being in covenant with the Lord is His friendship. This whole chapter is about friendship with the Lord. It is His friendship that He extends grace to us to transform us. A friend is someone to whom you open your heart. A friend is someone you understand and who understands you. Notice this chapter starts with “and” and says “him.” The author wants you to know this is a continuation of the previous chapter. What happened in the previous chapter? God once again confirmed the covenant he has with Abraham and Sarah. Again and again, God shows up to show His commitment to His people. One of the benefits of the covenant is that if you surrender to it, you will get more of the Lord even if your circumstances do not change. What are some characteristics of this friendship?
Abraham is again by the Oaks of Mamre. This is where he decided to stay when Lot left, building an altar there (Gen. 13:18). He hasn’t moved. Why does the author tell us? Perhaps to set up the fact that while Abraham is staying in obedience to the Lord, Lot is moving closer and closer to Sodom, as we will see in Gen. 19, where he is a businessman. Abraham is walking with the Lord in obedience. Amos 3:3 asks, “How can two walk together if they are not agreed?” 1 John 1 tells us to walk in transparency with the Lord by regularly confessing sin so we can walk in fellowship with Him.
As I mentioned earlier, I think the author wants us to compare Abraham and Lot again. Abraham sits in the shade of a sojourner’s tent, a welcoming place to travelers; Lot will sit at the gate of an evil city, hazardous to strangers who enter. Abraham “lifted up his eyes” and saw the Lord (Gen. 18:2), while Lot earlier, “lifted up his eyes” and saw land (Gen. 13:10). Lot will also treat the visitors a lot differently than Abraham’s eager service here. Once Lot left the land and his uncle for his own wealth and glory, we see two different pictures of the consequences of not surrendering to the Lord and His covenant.
There is nothing like having a meal with someone. It is a picture of closest intimacy. Before we look closer here in this chapter, it is important to notice the importance of what is known as a covenant meal. In ancient times, to seal a covenant, both parties would have a meal afterward to symbolize unity, friendship, peace and fellowship. We do that today when after making a wedding covenant, we eat at a reception. That is very biblical!
Randy Hohf in an article explains this.  For example, in Gen 26:28-30, Isaac makes a covenant with Abimelech, symbolizing union, fellowship and peace between former enemies. Right after that, they “made a feast and they ate and drank” (Gen. 26: 30). We see the same thing in Gen 31:44-54 between Laban and Jacob.
The most significant example of a covenant meal, however, is in Exodus 24, at the climax of the sealing of the covenant between God and Israel. After Moses offered the sacrifice, sealing the covenant with the “blood of the covenant”, he and the elders and Aaron and his sons went into the presence of God on the mountain where they “beheld God and they ate and drank.” (Ex. 24:11). The eating was a celebration of the new union between Israel and God, a union established by the blood of the covenant (i.e. by sacrifice).
Think about the Passover meal. The Passover Lamb was a sacrifice representing their deliverance from death. The family was gathered together and the lamb eaten in a fellowship meal with deep spiritual significance. It was celebratory, joyful, interactive, and done in the presence of God. It’s interesting to me that the first miracle that Jesus does is to bless a wedding (John 2). He shows up to celebrate over the marriage covenant and provide for it.
Ten times in the book of Luke, Luke is having a meal with all kinds of people. Why highlight that? As a letter written to Gentiles, Luke-Acts is about God welcoming Gentiles into His New Covenant. Jesus was known as a glutton and a drunkard (Matt. 11:19). Isn’t it also interesting that the night where the Lord instituted the New Covenant, He used bread and wine? (Luke 22:14-20). In the New Testament, the believers would have meals and then have communion afterward. There was no secular and sacred divide. Everything was sacred. In fact, Paul rebuked Peter for eating with just the Jews. It wasn’t just a matter of preference, it was anti-gospel (Gal. 2:11-14).
In Revelation, the church of Laodicea kicks Jesus out. Jesus knocks on their door saying he wants to come in and “eat with them” (Rev. 3:20). In Heaven, “the full fellowship in the world to come is also expressed in the imagery of the banquet, specifically, a marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7), for which the participants must prepare.”
So what we see here is God extending friendship to Abraham over a meal to once again confirm the covenant. What a humbling and condescending God we have to draw near to us like this! This is way before the incarnation, but already we see a God who is near. Abraham, by his obedient faith in the previous chapter, is enjoying the benefits of the covenant, one of which is friendship with the Lord. Ps. 25:14: “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear Him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” Do you know that three times in Scripture God calls Abraham his friend? (2 Chron. 20:7; Is. 41:8; and Jam. 2:23). No one else has that title until Jesus says that he no longer calls his disciples, servants, but “friends” (John 15:15). The point is not that we are not servants anymore, but that Jesus will relate to His people on an intimate level as friends.
c) Wholehearted Eagerness
Look at Abraham’s response to God as God visits him as his friend. Moses is showing the people how they should treat the Lord in their midst. Some of this language in this section is used by the Israelites in relation to offering sacrifices. By the way, three “men” show up. In Gen. 19, two of the men are described as angels. One of them is Yahweh, which means this is another pre-incarnate visit of Jesus Christ. There is debate as to when Abraham realized this was the Lord and two angels, but I think he recognized Him immediately. Notice the word “bowed down,” which is typically used of worship, as well as the word “O Lord,” recognizing one of higher rank.
I want you to notice how eager Abraham is to serve the Lord by making a meal for the three visitors. The words “ran” and “quickly” is mentioned over and over again. Imagine a 100 year old man running! He is not half-hearted. Surely hospitality was a big deal back then, but he is all in it here. Notice as a wealthy and powerful leader as he is, he decides to serve himself. He is not too “big” to serve in this capacity. Abraham is probably enjoying a siesta here, but he is not inconvenienced by serving the Lord. He doesn’t tell them to wait until his nap is over. He doesn’t say he’s too old. Notice the phrase “since you have come to your servant” (Gen. 18:5). This basically means, “It is my pleasure you have come, you have made my day.” What makes your day? Is the Lord’s presence that makes your day?
How quick are we to serve the Lord? I am thankful to be part of a church where it is not like pulling teeth to find and get servants. It is hard to be friends with someone who wants to be served the whole time. It requires servanthood and humility. Because the Lord has made us enemies into His friends, let’s respond to that love in wholehearted eagerness to serve Him and each other.
d) Giving the best
Abraham also gives his best to these men. Perhaps we can relate to this. I remember being in India and visiting homes of relatives and they would be like, “Please have a small snack.” So I would sit down, but only then to find this elaborate feast. Abraham does the same thing, offering them initially “a little water…a morsel of bread,” but then preparing a grand meal. There were only three guests, but three seahs (six gallons) of fine flour were baked, plus a whole calf, and the meal was served along with curds (yogurt) and milk as a compliment to the savory fare. It was a royal feast. Warren Wiersbe says, “Abraham served the Lord generously and gave Him the best that he had. Sarah baked bread from “fine meal” (Gen. 18:6), and the meat was “tender and good” (Gen. 18:7). No leftovers or second-rate fare for such important guests!”
What’s the best thing you can do for the Lord and for Living Hope? Give God your best. Why? Because God has given us His best in Jesus Christ. I am not simply talking about our money, but our best energy and our best time. I wonder how our worship on Sunday would be different if we came here getting good sleep on a Saturday night, preparing our hearts over breakfast to read the passage beforehand, praying for ourselves, writing out our offerings earlier and coming to serve others? Not to be legalistic about this, but because we want to respond to the Lord’s presence in our midst.
I want to apply this point at another level. I think one of our strengths here at Living Hope is that we all love to eat. What would happen if we started to see our eating together as having covenantal meals? That it wasn’t about what food is there on a Sunday or who has the Sriracha sauce, but a beautiful symbol of God’s covenant with us in Jesus Christ. We who were His enemies, now made friends with Him, which means all in Him are now united. As a result, we made every effort to glorify Him in celebration over a meal? We, who otherwise would be so divided according to the world, are now united in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What a witness when people would come down and see all of us in a covenant meal because of what our God has done? I’m not saying we can never miss a meal or never eat out, but thinking bigger than our own preferences and being eager to serve our best the Lord in this way? Note secondly and lastly,
II. The friendship of the Lord transforms us by grace (vv.9-15; 21:1-7)
God extends His friendship not to pamper us, but to perfect us. It is for our sanctification and growth. We have one person in this story we have not really heard from: Sarah. How is she doing with everything? We saw in Genesis 16 that having a child was an idol that she was a slave to, from her culture. She ends up beating up Hagar and kicks her out. We don’t know how she reacted to Hagar’s return. We don’t know how much Abraham has communicated with her from Genesis 17. We don’t know how she felt when Abraham all of a sudden shows up not calling her Sarai anymore, but Sarah, as God told him to do (Gen. 17:15). So far all the appearances of God have been to Abraham.
This chapter is for Sarah. She is really a broken woman with a heart full of bitterness and hurt. She is still full of unbelief. And when our life is stuck on pause, sometimes our stubbornness and unbelief wears us out. We get depressed. We are full of despair and paralyzed. We hate ourselves instead of our sin. We want to give up. The only laughter we have is one of cynicism and unbelief because our joy is gone. But God has come to Sarah when she has hit rock bottom. As Pastor Tony Evans has said, “When you hit rock bottom, it is because God wants you to know He is the rock at the bottom.”
God has not given up and will now extend His grace to this broken woman and to us as well when life wears us out. Whenever God’s grace shows up in someone’s life, there is a deep sense of joy and laughter. Not only will God extend grace, His grace will transform our sorrows into gladness; our mourning into dancing. How does the grace of God transform us in our friendship with God? First of all:
a) Grace draws us out
In typical God-like fashion, he asks a question, “Where is Sarah your wife?” (Gen. 18:9). First, how did they know he had a wife named Sarah? We know these are definitely not ordinary people. Secondly, as Oswald Chambers says, “The Lord’s questions always reveal the true me to myself.” God does not ask this question because he doesn’t know. This is a question really asking, “Where is Sarah in relation to me?” Sarah is in the tent hiding. It was customary in Abraham’s day, as in some cultures today, for women to be neither seen nor heard while male guests were entertained. Sarah thus prepared the bread out of the sight of the men (cf. 18:6), and now she remains inside the tent as they ate. However, you think once they called her name (and the divinely changed name, cf. Gen. 17:15), she would come out, but she’s eavesdropping as though the Lord did not know she was doing so.
And just like when Adam and Eve were hiding, God drew them out (grace draws us out not drives us out) with questions, He does the same here. Remember to Cain, “Where is Abel? Why are you angry?” (Gen. 4:6; 9) and to Hagar, “Where are you going? Where are you coming from?” (Gen. 16:8), our God draws us to Himself. Is the Lord asking you any questions today? Is His grace drawing you out of the places you are hiding from Him?
b) Grace is personal and experiential
Sarah has been experiencing God through second hand experience, from Abraham. Everyone has to experience God on their own. It is not good enough to experience grace from hearing it through someone else. Let’s not settle for second-hand experiences. We cannot expect to know God just from listening to what our spouse or our parents or from our pastor.
The grace of God is personal. Notice earlier that God came to Abram in darkness and as an awesome fiery torch (Gen. 15:9-18) But here God comes in daylight, with sore feet, and very gently. Here God is a friend passing by. He comes as a weary traveler. Tim Keller says, “Why was God so different with Abram as with Sarah? We can’t put God in a box. God also does not put us in a box. We humans default to putting God and others in a box, but God does not do that. God does not work off a template.”
Sometimes God comes dramatically and suddenly to save people. Other times He comes gradually, through a process. In Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis often has his characters enter Narnia in different ways. Sometimes it is through the wardrobe (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Other times it’s through a painting (Voyage of the Dawn Treader). What does that tell you? It tells you that my Christian experience does not need to imitate your Christian experience. I also do not need to project my Christian experience on someone else. Grace is personal and experiential.
c) Grace perseveres through our unbelief
The Lord now makes a specific promise. He uses covenantal language, “I will surely…” He is speaking life into barrenness, hopelessness and decay. This is the Lord. Only He can do something like that! In Gen. 18:11, we learn that “the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah.” The Hebrew literally reads, “Sarah no longer experienced the cycle of women.” As Paul would say, she was as “good as dead” (Rom. 4:19). Not only has she been infertile all her life, she is now 90 and in menopause. She is doubly dead.
Now we see Sarah’s heart in Gen. 18:12. She laughs to herself. The one chance to meet the God and she blows it by laughing at him. Yet He doesn’t leave. She says, “After I am worn out…” She hates herself. The word “worn out” means useless, good for nothing. It is self-hating and full of loathing, despair and despondency. Notice the word “pleasure” here. This is very revealing. She is not talking about having pleasure of a child here. The word “pleasure” refers to sexual pleasure. She is crudely saying that she and her husband are no longer having sex, and that her husband has not touched her in years. What does this tell you about Abraham’s faith? God told him he was going to have a son through Sarah (Gen. 17:16), but he hasn’t touched her or even told her.
God is encouraging them to have physical relationship again and perhaps even saving their marriage, as old as it is. In Gen. 18:13, God asks another question that reveals He is all knowing. He is able to see into our thoughts and attitudes. We can’t hide from Him. I wonder how we might live if we remember that God hears and knows everything we think and say? But notice what God doesn’t say. When Sarah laughs, He does not say, “How dare you laugh at me? Do you know who I am? And do you know who you are?” Notice he doesn’t even repeat her self-hating language. Some of us are good at self-hating. But let me tell you that God’s grace triumphs over our self-hate. Grace does not allow it because it is not truth. Sarah is precious to the Lord, otherwise He would not have come to her tent. He only deals with the real issue: Her unbelief. He is gentle with her.
God asks essentially, “Why did she disdain herself and me? Why is her laughter so bitter, cynical and skeptical? Is anything too hard for me?” Actually the word “hard” can be translated “wonderful.” Sarah’s unbelief has caused her to lose a sense of wonder. Our hearts all long for a sense of wonder. It is really only found in the Lord. Grace perseveres through unbelief, even when you deny it and lie. Notice God, amusingly, does not blow up at her like an angry drill sergeant for lying. He is gentle, but He is firm!
d) Grace transforms
Look over at Genesis 21. God is faithful. She names the child Isaac, which means laughter. Notice she says, “Who would have said….Yet I.” She is laughing at the wonder of the grace of God. That’s what grace does. It transforms our cynical laughter to one of wonder. Heb. 11:11 tells us she finally believes.
We must be careful here. We are not preaching here that “Look, Sarah is 90. She could never have a child. But she believed and was blessed. So, if we really pray, trust God, and dream big dreams, we can experience the great, the miraculous, the impossible.” This cannot be the application of this text or this series. I am not giving you keys to get you what you want at the end of your “pause.” Does this teach that if we believe like Sarah, God can do the impossible through our faith? The point here is that Sarah does not believe. She is laughing. After laughing she lies. The one time she meets God she laughs at his face. The key that unlocked the power of God in her life was not her faith. She didn’t have any. It was the son of promise born into her life through the grace of God.
But what is this story saying? Luke 1 tells us what this story is really saying. Listen to Keller, who can say it much better than I can: “Centuries later, an angel shows up to a woman and announces, “You will conceive and give birth to a son” (Luke 1:31). She said, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34). She was as skeptical as Sarah was. If it was impossible for Sarah to have a child with an old husband, how could Mary have a child with no husband? When Mary asked how, the angel said, “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). or “For no word from God will ever fail” (NIV, 2011), which is essentially the same thing Sarah was told: “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14) Why does Luke interpose both Sarah and Mary’s story with almost the exact same words that the angel says to both of them?
Because Jesus is the true Isaac. Jesus is the ultimate son of promise. Jesus is the ultimate One in whom we hear the laughter of God’s grace, triumphing over the impossibilities of our situation. Sarah had to deal with the problem of infertility. But our problem is far graver. The ultimate Isaac came to deal with our ultimate problem of sin and death. What is truly impossible is that you are I should live forever. This is more impossible than having a baby at 90. What is truly impossible is that you and I, in spite of the way we had lived, would be adopted into the family of God. This is exactly what happens through Jesus, the ultimate Isaac, the ultimate Son of Laughter. How could Jesus do this?
Jesus lived in a heavenly world of laughter. Jesus was in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18), which meant that the Father and the Son rejoiced in each other with laughter through out eternity. But Jesus came to this world to become “a man of sorrow/suffering” (Is. 53:3). On the cross, he cried out, but he was forsaken. Why? Jesus lost the divine laughter, receiving all the sorrow, mourning, weeping, gnashing of teeth that we deserve, so that we can have laughter. He took our place. He took the condemnation for our sin, so that we could have forgiveness. He took our death so that we could have life. That is the story.”
So grace is here for us. If you want God’s grace, the only need you need is need; all you need is nothing. You cannot say you earned it or worked for it. It is the midst of our unbelief, our failures, when we are as “good as dead” that our great friend of sinners can come with grace to transform even our laughter into one of absolute and complete wonder. All you need is to need it.
Keller, T. from a tweet on 28 February 2012, https://twitter.com/#!/desiringgod/status/174576332993347584 accessed 28 Feb. 2012.
Duguid, Iain quoted in Hughes, R. K. (2004). Genesis: Beginning and Blessing. Preaching the Word (255). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (2001). Genesis: A Commentary (266). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Ross, A. P. (1998). Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (343). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Wenham, G. J. (2002). Vol. 2: Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary (46). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Hughes, R. K. (254).
Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). Be Obedient (74). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
Evans, T. from a tweet on 4 November 2011, https://twitter.com/#!/drtonyevans/statuses/132426339285344256 accessed 28 February 2012.
Chambers, O. “Have you felt the pain inflicted by the Lord?” http://utmost.org/have-you-felt-the-pain-inflicted-by-the-lord/ accessed 2 March 2012.
Krell. K. “A Divine Encounter,” http://bible.org/seriespage/divine-encounter-genesis-181-15 accessed 2 March 2012.
Keller, T. From the sermon, “Real Joy and the Laughing Woman,” transcribed in http://bentohwestloop.blogspot.com/2011/06/wonder-of-laughter-gen-181-15-211-7.html accessed 2 March 2012.
http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_do_people_enter_Narnia accessed 2 March 2012.
Waltke, B. K., & Fredricks, C. J. (268).
Keller, T. Ibid.
Keller, T. Ibid.