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Famines, Deserts And Other Hard Places

Trusting God When The Wells Are Dry

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 15, 2012

Selected highlights from this sermon

Where do you turn when hardship hits? Do you trust God to see you through those tough times? Abram (Abraham) was in the will of God when famine hit the land. He went to Egypt, told a lie about his wife, and the ramifications are still felt today.

Isaac, faced with the same situation, stayed where God wanted him. And in the midst of the famine, Isaac harvested a hundredfold that season. God is able to provide for us in the middle of a hardship. But do we trust Him to do so?

I begin today with a question: Where do you go when you are in a tight place? Of course, if someone in your home is having a heart attack you call the paramedics. If you have a fire you call the fire department. But what do you do when there is no agency that can take care of your problem for you? What do you do if your spouse walks out of your marriage? What if you are unjustly fired and unjustly accused? What then? What if the doctor walks into your room and tells you things about your body that you thought would only be true of somebody else? You have cancer. What then?

Broken relationships and pain! Where do you go?

The title of this series of messages is Famines, Deserts and Other Hard Places. I chose this title not because I think that America is going to have a famine. I think that given our wheat fields in this great nation, we’ll not experience a famine, but we may experience a financial downturn, and sometimes during those times of struggle (and some of you are in that predicament right now), we wonder what to do and where to turn. And in the Bible, as I look at the Scripture, I realize that the closest thing to economic hardship is really a famine because they didn’t have an economy like ours. So I’ve been looking in the Scripture and finding out about famines. In fact, the next message in this series is going to be on all the different things that God does through famines. But today we’re going to look at the life of a man who experienced an unexpected famine and what he did right and what he did wrong, and where do we go from here?

The man’s name is Abraham and the story is in Genesis 12. You know it well probably, but Abraham was actually there in Ur of the Chaldees and God called him and told him that he was to go into a land that God would show him. He traveled without a map. In Genesis 12:1 it says, “The Lord said to Abram,” and by the way, you’ll notice in Genesis 12 it is Abram and Sarai. Later on they are renamed Abraham and Sarah by God, so I’m going to go with their renamed names because that’s what I’m primarily used to. So the Lord said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation.”

And Abraham goes. I wonder how he convinced Sarah that he should do this. “I’ve heard from God. Let’s go.” Can you imagine that? Husbands, try it. (laughter) So they come into the land and behold the Canaanite is there, but he’s in the land, and the Lord confirms this is the land He has chosen for him. God confirms it. And Abraham builds an altar unto the Lord (verse 7) and he worships to the Lord, and in verse 8 he went to Bethel on the west side and Ai on the east, and there he built an altar to the Lord, and called on the name of the Lord, and Abraham journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb (that means the desert). Is he in the will of God? Yes. Is he there by obedience to God? Yes. This land was a gift to him from God and he was obedient in following the Lord. That’s why we are surprised when we get to verse 10.

In verse 10 we read, “Now there was a famine in the land. So Abraham went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.” In the middle of obedience, in the middle of doing God’s will, right in the place of blessing (the land of blessing) there is a severe famine.

Maybe you’ve experienced that too. You left one job and you took another, and you prayed about it and you gave it to God, and now six months later the company is being downsized and you’ve been let go and you say to yourself, “How can this be? I must be out of God’s will.” Not necessarily! Abraham, in the middle of God’s will, obedient to God, experienced a severe famine.

Do you remember that Jesus told the disciples to get into the boat and go to the other side? Were they in God’s will doing what Jesus told them to do? Yes, and in obedience to Christ they experienced one of the most devastating storms that they’d ever experienced. Don’t ever think that the most holy path is always the smoothest path. Sometimes the roughest path is the holy path for you and for me.

Well the famine came to Abraham and as trials do, they came without instructions. There was no tag on it from God saying, “Abraham, you have a severe famine and you have a wife and you’ve got camels and servants to take care of. I want you to do this.” No, trials come without instructions, without guidance, and there we are. God has a purpose but we sure don’t know what it is when we are going through it.

Now, I need to emphasize that it was not wrong in this sense for Abraham to go to Egypt, or to clarify, I think it was wrong for Abraham to go to Egypt, but that doesn’t mean that whenever a famine comes you shouldn’t move. As a matter of fact, in the next message I’m going to point out that God often uses famines to move people. That’s the way in which the Israelites got into Egypt. It was because of a famine. But in this instance Abraham in the land that God gave him experienced a famine and what did he do? He went down to Egypt. And I think that the writer intends not only that he went down geographically but that he went down spiritually in a panic doing something that seemed reasonable to him—a better opportunity, if you please—rather than trusting God.

So now we have Abraham in the land and he resorts to deceit in order to protect himself. You’ll notice it says in verse 11, “When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarah, his wife, ‘I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife.” Then they will kill me but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.’”

Well, Abraham, that makes us smile a little bit. My life will be spared for your sake. Actually it’s a half-truth. Did you know that Sarah was really his cousin? He explains that later. So in a sense it was a half-lie—half-truth, but in this instance a half-truth became a whole lie, and Abraham was willing to jeopardize his wife to save his own skin, and she apparently went along with the deceit.

It’s something like a man who expects his wife to sign an income tax statement that she knows is fraudulent. It has wrong numbers but she is asked to be party to the lie, to the deceit. And this is what Abraham does in the case of Sarah. So she goes along with it and she is 65, by the way, and still so beautiful that he knows that the Egyptians will see her and they will want her, and that Pharaoh will want her.

Well you say, “Age 65—she’s starting to get up there.” Remember that the people in those days lived longer, and then remember that Liz Taylor lived to 79. I googled that on the Internet this morning. That’s why I am able to share that little bit of news with you. (laughter) Normally things like that don’t stick in my mind. And she kept her beauty into older age. I wouldn’t say that 79 is old age. I think you are actually just getting started when you are in your seventies, but nonetheless Sarah was very beautiful—stunning in appearance.

And so what happened now is that his lying becomes profitable because, you see, if they said that she was his sister, now the custom was that Pharaoh was going to have to negotiate with Abraham and give him some kind of a dowry and buy him off so that Pharaoh could marry his sister, and that’s exactly what happens. You’ll notice it says in verse 15, “When the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abraham; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.”

Abraham thought to himself, “My deceit is working.” Not all lies are immediately exposed. Sometimes they work, like the Sunday school boy who, when he was asked what a lie was, said, “A lie is an abomination unto the Lord, but a very present help in time of trouble.” (laughter)

Could I say in parenthesis that not all financial blessing is a sign of God’s favor? Pharaoh gave Abraham all of these things, even though they were given to him based on deceit. And so Abraham says to himself, “The lie seems to be working,” but there is a shadow over Abraham’s soul. There’s no question about it. And the shadow becomes very evident because the Bible says now that he lost his testimony in Egypt. Notice it says that the Lord afflicts Pharaoh. Well you might say, “Why doesn’t the Lord afflict Abraham?” God had something special for Abraham and Sarah, so instead of afflicting Abraham, which he well might have done, he actually afflicts Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.

So Pharaoh called Abraham and said, “What is this that you have done to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” And Pharaoh gave the men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

Abraham backslid when he was in Egypt. He resorted to deceit and lying and panic, and he didn’t trust God. You’ll notice that there is no altar in Egypt. Nowhere is there any indication that he sought God’s mind in the midst of this famine, in the midst of these dry wells. He did not seek the Lord, but he did what seemed right, and it involved deceit. And here he is being reprimanded by a pagan king. The pagan king says, “Get out of here.” Can you imagine Abraham turning around and witnessing to him and saying, “You know you shouldn’t believe in all of your pagan Egyptian gods. You should agree with and worship the God who spoke to me, who gave me the land.” Could Abraham say that with integrity? No. It’s like a businessman whose mouth is totally stopped because everyone at work knows who he really is, how he behaves, what he has done, what is in his resume, the corners that he has cut, the lies that he has told, the little deals that he has tried to wheel, and he is paralyzed when it comes to his witness for Christ because you could just imagine what the people would say. Spare me!

So Abraham leaves and his testimony is gone in Egypt. Now it’s interesting that when he does this it has a great deal of impact on his family. It has negative influence on his family. Remember this—that when we backslide you and I may come back as parents, but maybe our children don’t. This was certainly true in the case of David, wasn’t it? David bounced back from his adultery. He received God’s forgiveness and was back in fellowship, but his kids never recovered.

So here you have an instance where Abraham was deceitful. It affected Sarah. You can imagine the rupture in that relationship that took place, as Sarah had to become a party to Abraham’s deceit, but it also influenced a man by the name of Lot, his nephew. Lot was there in Egypt and evidently went with Abraham, of course, because the text says that they were together. They separated later in the next chapter. And Lot looked at the riches of Egypt, and even when Lot came out of Egypt, Egypt did not come out of Lot’s heart. He had seen something that he wanted and he never got over it.

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, is there any evidence for that? And the answer is yes. In Genesis 13 where Abraham and Lot separate because they each needed their own pastureland, Abraham told Lot that he could choose whatever he wanted and he’d take the opposite. Verse 10 of chapter 13 says, “And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.” He said, “This is so good. It reminds me of Egypt,” and Lot made that decision and he ended up in Sodom and Gomorrah, and what a sad tale that turned out to be—decisions with repercussions.

But there’s something else that happened in Egypt, and that is that when [Abraham] was there he brought back with him an Egyptian girl—a servant in the household, and her name was Hagar. The Bible refers to her as Hagar the Egyptian, and Abraham obviously got her when they were there in the land of Egypt. And you know the rest of the story, how Sarah couldn’t have children at that time, and Abraham has a relationship with Hagar, and Ishmael is born and the whole history of the Middle East was affected by that decision that he made.

So Abraham bounces back and he’s back in fellowship. You say, “Well, how do I know that he’s back in fellowship?” Chapter 13 opens with him going to the Negeb and then going to Bethel where he had been at the beginning, and you’ll notice it says in verse 4, “to the place where he had made an altar at the first and there Abraham called on the name of the Lord.” The backslider was worshipping God again, and the backslider came home and was restored by God.

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what’s the bottom line here? How does this change our lives and my particular famine?” You may be in a situation where your wells are dry, so to speak, and I speak not only economically but also in terms of relationships, in terms of hardship, in terms of crisis. How does it affect us? Let me give you some observations and then nail it to the wall for all of us.

First of all, the God who saves us is the God who sustains us. The God who went with Abraham into the land would have been able to keep Abraham in the land. There’s no question about it. Now as I already mentioned, it isn’t wrong for us to move when we’re in a famine in one part of the country and go to another, but for Abraham, this was unique. The problem was he believed in God’s guidance into the land, but he couldn’t trust God to sustain him in the land.

There’s a very interesting passage in Genesis 26 about Isaac, the son of Abraham. Beginning in verse 1 it says, “Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech, the king of the Philistines. (That’s actually on the way to Egypt.) And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you.” And then God reiterates His covenant with Isaac, and Isaac trusts God to keep him in the midst of the famine, and to grant him the grace to stay there. And what follows in the rest of the chapter is quite unique and even surprising because we notice that Isaac (it says in verse 12) sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold. Wow! That’s unique isn’t it? He was in the land of famine but God says, “I am going to provide for you in the midst of your famine. I’m not going to take the famine away but I’m going to grant you grace and strength so that you can live in the midst of the famine.”

To those of you who are going through an actual economic famine, what this means is that where we are [is where] we are. We can’t change our situation. Many of us who are going through that perhaps can’t. We can’t change where we go. We can’t just pick up and move. It’s so complicated. Can God sustain you in the midst of that heartache, that famine? The answer is yes.

Isaac reminds us of the fact that you should be willing to do anything. You should be willing to trust God not only for a harvest, but the rest of the 26th chapter says that the Philistines filled the wells that Abraham had dug, and Isaac went, it says, and he re-dug Abraham’s wells and they had water. Look around. There may be some move you can make that you’ve not thought of, and one of the moves, since we’re speaking economically, is downsizing.

I know that there are some folks who have said this, and this an actual story, though not connected to Moody Church, about a real estate developer who was making so much money (a Christian), and he said, “You know, we just open our hands like this and God fills them.” One success after another! And then when the downturn came in the real estate market, and he was unable to meet his obligations, he suddenly learned something—that God sustains us in the midst of famine. We may live through the famine but we can’t live as we always lived. He had to downsize. He had to sell off. He had to lose a lot of money, but that, from God’s standpoint, is part of the teaching. He says, “I will sustain you in the midst of the famine. It may be hard. It may be difficult, but don’t give up hope.” And the reason that we should not give up hope is because of the next observation I’d like us to make.

And that is that God doesn’t leave us even when we leave Him. Here’s Abraham and he is supposed to be sustained in the land, and he panics, and decides to do something foolish (go into Egypt). And next week I’m going to tell you about some people (I have their letters in my file), who in the midst of financial need, have done very foolish things. In one or two instances it is men, who without their wives knowing it, invested money in a get rich quick scheme that they found, hoping to cash in on all of this money, only to discover that their nest egg became a yolk, and it didn’t work at all.

Does God abandon us then, because you see there are two different kinds of famines? There’s the famine over which we have absolutely no control. That’s the famine that Abraham had when he was in Egypt. You don’t control those kinds of things. None of us controls the economy or the company in which we work. We can’t control that, but the “famine” (I’m putting it in quotes) that Abraham experienced when he was in Egypt—that mess was self-created. And today there are some of you who are in a self-created hard place. Somebody told you, “Don’t marry that guy,” and you thought that you knew better, but they were right, weren’t they? Somebody said, “No, no, your wife told you don’t invest money there.” I don’t know why it is, but women have this fifth sense, or sixth sense. They have more sense than we do anyway, and they say no, and you know better. I received a letter from a man. Well, I’ll tell you about it next week, but the point is this: Some messes are self-made.

Does God say, “Well, Abraham, you know when you left the Promised Land to go into Egypt I stopped at the border because I’m not going to have anything to do with somebody who so disobeys me and uses deceit in order to get ahead and to save his neck.” No, God walks with us. God is there with us. God accompanies Abraham into Egypt. God brings a plague on Pharaoh for Abraham’s benefit. God restores Abraham, even though his testimony is lost, and he discovers that “You know what? This God who led me is also the God who forgives me. He’s the God who restores me and he’s the God who I can worship again. I can build another altar. I can come back from my backsliding.”

Some of you, and you know who you are, have become so cynical in your walk with God. There’s no longer really warm fellowship, because you feel that God wasn’t there for you, and you say to yourself, “I’m in a mess. I made it and God’s not helping me in it.” If you are a believer God is with you there. He is for you. He is rooting for you, but He wants you to come back into fellowship. He wants you to say that you have strayed long enough, that you’ve done your own wrong thing long enough, and that you want to come back because it is better to have a dry well in Canaan than it is to have the lush pasture land of Egypt. It is better to have a dry well than a poisoned oasis. And so the Lord says, “Return to me. Believe me and trust me.”

There’s a final lesson and it really is the bottom line of everything. Every famine we go through is a test of our trust. Now of course when I speak about famines in the next message I’m going to talk about the need for us as a community to walk through famine. But for now I’m talking about us as individuals. It is always, always a test. We have to just stand back of this passage and think about it again because you never get tired about thinking about the Scripture and meditating on it.

Why did Abraham say, “If we go down into Egypt they may kill me?” What do you mean they may kill him? Was there any chance in the world that Abraham could die in Egypt and be killed? Of course not! Why? Well, it’s because God just plainly told him, “I’m giving you this land and I’m giving it to your descendants.” He didn’t have any descendants at that point. How could the promise of God possibly be fulfilled if the Egyptians had killed him? Even if Abraham had said, “I’m going down to Egypt,” he should have simply said, “I’m going down. We’re going to tell the truth. My life is in God’s hands. It’s not in Pharaoh’s hands. God gave me a promise that someday through my seed this land would be populated and that’s good enough for me. My life in God is secure.”

It’s very interesting that in Galatians 3:8 Paul says that when God said to Abraham, “In thy seed the nations of the earth shall be blessed,” he actually said that Abraham believed the Gospel. He said the Gospel was preached to Abraham. We look at the text and we say, “Boy, there’s no Gospel here. There’s nothing about Jesus dying for our sins.” No, all of that will eventually come to pass, but inherent within the promise that in thy seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed there was entailed the coming of Jesus, the Redeemer. Wow! You know what the bottom line was? Abraham never really believed the Gospel in this instance. He never believed that the person who led him into the land could sustain him in that land until and as long as he wishes to.

Abraham experienced a crisis of faith. He could not trust God to continue; to lead there yes but beyond that he couldn’t grasp it and he failed.

Every famine is a test. Can we trust God no matter whether it’s a matter we created or one created for us? Can we trust him? That’s always the issue.

Sometime ago when I landed at O’Hare Field, the plane that I was on stopped at a gate that was very far from baggage claim. Shortly after I got off the plane I found myself in step with a young mother. I want to describe her to you. She had a baby in one arm. She was pulling her suitcase with the other hand, and she had a little toddler, perhaps three, trying to keep up with her, going ahead and behind as little toddlers do. And I had a free hand. So I said to her, “Would you let me pull your suitcase? I have only one briefcase. I’d be glad to.” She said, “No, I can handle it.” I said, “I promise I will stay in step with you wherever you are going. Just let me pull it for you.” She said, “No, no, I’ll take care of it.”

Later on as I meditated on that I realized that she was just obeying a little bit of common sense and wisdom. You just don’t trust a man you’ve never met before. The fact is I could have taken that suitcase and in ten steps or less been in the crowd and disappeared and then what was she to do? But I thought to myself how different that all would have ended if she had known me. If she had been a member of Moody Church or an attendee, if she knew me, and I said, “May I pull your suitcase for you; may I take it?” she probably would have said, “Well sure, here’s my suitcase, and by the way, here’s the baby too.” (laughter)

And then I thought about how Jesus walks with us in life, how we are carrying out suitcases, and trying to manage and trying to manipulate, and trying to control. And some of that might not be wrong but at the end of the day Jesus says, “Don’t you see that I’m beside you? Why don’t you let me carry your baggage?” There’s nothing wrong with praying frazzled prayers all the time that have no faith like, “Oh God, help me, help me, help me.” Peter prayed in desperation and said, “Help me, I perish,” and it worked for him. But I think (and here of course I’m just using my imagination) that in heaven all of the angels are processing these prayers and taking a lot of them and just throwing them in the waste basket, because what they are saying is, “Father, they keep asking you for help, but one thing they will not do, and that is trust. They will not take their sin and their failure and their concern and their deserts and their famines and just turn them over to you.” It doesn’t mean that you’ll get an immediate answer, but you are walking with Somebody beside you who, if you knew His heart (and I know I desire to know His heart and wouldn’t claim that I know His heart completely anyway), would say, “Let me carry it for you. I’ve not abandoned you. I’m walking in your direction and if you are going in the wrong direction I’ll even lead you in the right direction.” But today, could we tell Jesus that we give Him our suitcase? It may be a relational issue. It may be a financial issue. It could be a health issue. The Bible does say, “Cast all your burdens upon him because he cares for you.” He really cares for you, and knows the famine you’re going through, and knows how it’s going to end, and knows your part in it.

Today at The Moody Church we’re going to have the privilege of singing in just a moment, and when that happens, prayer partners are going to step out into the aisles. I’m told we have about 27 different places in this sanctuary where you can find a prayer partner. If you are in the balcony you go up the stairs. They will be at the top of the stairs in the rotunda area.

What I want you to do is to ask this prayer partner (and you don’t even have to ask them, because they are ready) to simply take your request in a single sentence and commit it to God and trust him to do it.

Now that’s not the end of it. What I want you to do this morning I would like you to do every day of your life as I try to do. We always live in surrender—not just prayer, though thank God for prayer, but in submission to God because what we’d like to see here at The Moody Church is to see God answer so many prayers, because they are prayers made in faith and commitment because He really does care for you. He really does.

Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You today for the story of Abraham, and even in his failure we see ourselves. Now restore Your people, Lord. There are people going through times of very great famine. Some can’t pay their bills. Other people are going through times of stress, questioning Your will, not knowing where You want them. Lord, every person (everyone), including the one on this platform, is filled with questions, concerns, and burdens. Today in faith we give them to You. Help Your people to connect, to be willing to share, that we might see Your glory in this place. And for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, may they lay their burden down and receive You today. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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