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Prone to Wander

Self-reliance distances us from God, but there is always a way back.

One spring day, two friends set out on a canoe trip in the wilderness of Ontario. After paddling all afternoon the first day, they came to a portage, a trail through the woods that would take them to their next lake. The sun was low in the sky, but they wanted to get to that next lake and make camp, so they decided to go ahead. It would take two trips to get their gear from the one lake to the next. As they reached the halfway point on their first trip, they encountered an extensive blow downa great swath of trees blown over by a windstorm. The trail was nearly impassable, especially with a canoe on their shoulders, but they managed to pick their way over and under and around the obstacles and eventually make it to the lake.

By now it was getting dark, but they figured since they'd already made the trip once, the second trip would be easier. Soon they found themselves back at the blow down, and they plowed ahead. After a few moments one of them began to feel something was wrong. "I think we're off the trail," he said. They considered going back to where they had started and getting back on the trail, but the going seemed easier now. "Let's keep going," his partner said. "The trail's to our right. We'll cut back to it later."

They pressed ahead, blundering into the woods through the darkening maze of trees and shrubs. Before long they both had that sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you know you're lost, but neither was prepared to admit it. After floundering about some more, they found themselves in a swampy lowland with no idea where the lake was, where the trail was, or where they had started.

A little while before, they had been having the time of their lives. Now they were lost and alone in the woods, having left the trail.

One of them said, "Let's get out the compass." They did, and they set their bearings for the northeast, the direction the trail had been heading. They plowed through thick underbrush, and eventually they stumbled upon the lake they'd been looking for.

It was late that night before they had a fire going and some food in their stomachs and they were able to reflect on the lessons of the day.

Lesson one: If you lose the trail, go back to where you last had your bearings.

Lesson two: When in doubt, get out the compass.

Lesson three: Believe the compass.

For those two friends, getting off the trail led to nothing more serious than some panicky moments and some unnecessary bushwhacking. But for some people who get lost in the woods, it's a much more frightening experience that sometimes leads to disaster.

We're going to discover how easy it is to lose the trail and get in trouble. But we'll also discover there's always a way to get back on the path.

Genesis 12:10: Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, "I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife.' Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you."

When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh's officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.

But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram's wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. "What have you done to me?" he said. "Why didn't you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!" Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.

Obstacles are opportunities for us to meet with God

Abram was doing great. Having heard the call of God, he packed his belongings, left the city of Ur, and traveled hundreds of miles to arrive in an unknown land of promise. The first thing he did was build an altar to worship the God who brought him there.

This journey's off to a great start. But no sooner has he arrived in Canaan than he encounters a problema blow down, we might call it. It was a famine. It may have been the first famine he's ever had to deal with. Abram's from the metropolis of Ur. His family apparently had means. Now a stranger in a strange land, he's got people and livestock depending upon him for food.

This journey of faith is not easy. The moment you make a decision to follow God, you can almost count upon something going wrongsome disappointment, setback, temptation, or pressure point. Does God deliberately throw obstacles in our way, tumbling down trees in front of us to make the journey difficult? He doesn't have to. Life is tough enough. Things happen. But when they do happen, they become opportunities for us to come to know, trust, and love him. God allows these things so he can meet us in the middle of those circumstances and reveal his character and shape ours, so we're prepared for the future he's called us to.

That's what's happening here. There's no indication God sent the famine. But because it happened it was Abram's first opportunity in this new land to trust God to provide. But look what Abram does in verse 10: "Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe."

There's more going on than Abram running to the next town to buy groceries. Egypt, in the Old Testament, almost always represents a worldly response to a spiritual challenge. Whenever the people of Israel come against some enemy, they are tempted to form an alliance with Egypt, to rely on that nation's military and economic strength. It begins here with Abram. Instead of trusting God to provide in Canaan, he chooses to go to Egypt.

Our failure to trust God in difficulty is costly

Notice the language. He went "down to Egypt." When you read in the Bible about someone going down somewhere, they're almost always going in the wrong direction. When people get close to God they go up to Jerusalem, up to the mountain. When you read about them going down, they're up to no good. We use that expression the same way. We talk about the compulsive gambler going down to the racetrack, the lonely business traveler going down to the lounge for a drink.

The text never says God told Abram to go to Egypt. There's no indication Abram consulted God about this. He took matters into his own hands and went to Egypt. That's where he left the path, and that's where he got into trouble.

He simply exchanged one problem for another. Sarai was attractive. Not only that, she was a foreign woman with some measure of wealth. So she would have been a handsome addition to Pharaoh's harem. But if Pharaoh knew Sarai was Abram's wife, he would have to kill Abram. If Pharaoh thought she was his sister, he could take Sarai and leave Abram alone. He might even be nice to Abram.

So he comes up with this scheme, in verse 13: "Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you." What a guy. Husband of the year material.

At first it seems his plan has worked. Pharaoh takes Sarai into his household. He lets Abram live. In fact, he showers Abram with gifts. But people begin to suffer because of Abram's sin. Judgment comes to Pharaoh's household because he's committing adultery. People are afflicted with terrible diseases. Not to mention the disgrace and humiliation, the violation Sarai has endured. When Pharaoh discovers the truth, he rebukes Abram and banishes him from the land.

How far Abram has wandered. Instead of trusting God to provide in the land of promise, he goes down to Egypt. Instead of trusting God to protect him, he comes up with this sister act to save his own skin. And have you noticed something else? It's been a long time since Abram's built an altar.

S can be our signature sin

Last week I was watching Monday Night Football. It was a meaningless game to me, but it wasn't to the Baltimore Ravens. They were fighting for a playoff spot. They were heavily favored to win, but they were struggling in the first half. They couldn't score a touchdown. Even though on two occasions they got to the goal line, they could not get the ball across. What was surprising was that one of their running backs all year long had demonstrated a remarkable ability to get into the end zone. He was leading the team in rushing touchdowns. He was one of the league leaders. But they weren't giving him the ball. Again and again they gave the ball to other running backs, who would stop short of the goal line.

The commentators were puzzled as to why the coach was not using his most potent weapon. The camera caught the coach with a puzzled look, obviously frustrated at their inability to score. Standing next to him was his leading scorer not even in the game. They never did score that first half. Every armchair quarterback was asking, What's the coach thinking? Go with what got you there.

We could ask the same question of our hero. Abram, what are you thinking? The journey began so well. You went to Canaan. You built two altars. Faith, courage, and obedience got you here. Now deception, manipulation, and using people. What are you thinking, Abram?

It's not the last time Abram does this. He tries the same scheme again to save himself from King Abimelech, with disastrous results. On another occasion, when he and Sarai begin to panic about God's ability to provide a descendant, they come up with their own scheme, by which he will have a child through her maidservant Hagar. Abraham takes matters into his own hands so many times it's been called his signature sin.

S could be the signature sin of the human race. How many times do we come to some blow down, some disappointment or perplexing circumstance, and instead of trusting God, we flounder off in search of a better way?

A single Christian begins to wonder if she'll get married. Someone takes an interest in her, but he's not a believer. She knows the Bible warns against marrying someone who doesn't share her faith. She knows it can draw her away from the Lord. But instead of trusting God for her future, she presses on with the relationship, getting farther and farther away.

Our deviation from God's path happens one step at a time

Nobody gets lost all at once. It happens one step at a time. A little wandering from the path, finding our own way this one time. You need the job, so you lie on the application, then in the interview. Soon you're deceiving customers. You're feeling lonely one night, so you click on the pornographic website just this once. Before you know it, you're down in Egypt, and you and everyone around you is in trouble.

The Bible says all of us like sheep have gone astray, every one of us has turned to his or her own way. An old hymn puts it this way: "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love." Sometimes it's deliberate; sometimes it happens without our realizing it. We all have a tendency to make our own way instead of following God. It leads to hurt and heartache for us and everyone involved.

In Abram's case, unwitting people were led into sin and afflicted with diseases. Sarai was exploited, and Abram left in disgrace, having made himself an enemy and dishonored the name of God.

What about the servants and livestock Abram acquired? This turned into a financial windfall for Abram, but it was wealth God never intended him to have. It would cause nothing but trouble for him in the days to come. The land could not sustain so many people, so much livestock. It led to conflict between himself and Lot. They had to part ways, and that led to spiritual ruin for Lot's household.

So it is with our wrong choices and sinful schemes. It always leads to hurt and heartache, to wasted years and wounded hearts.

There is always a way back

Abram's made a mess of things, but the journey doesn't have to end in Egypt. Look what happens in the next chapter. Verse 1: "So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev." He's headed in the right direction. He's found his compass, perhaps. Verse 3: "From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord."

It took him a while, but eventually he made his way back to the trail, to where he last had his bearings. There he called on the Lord. We're not told the content of his prayer, but I believe it went something like this: "I am sorry, Lord."

The wonderful thing about this journey is that we can never wander beyond the reach of God. There's always a way back to the path. It's the way of repentanceconfessing our sinful mistakes, receiving God's forgiveness, and setting out again on the path God has put before us.

First John: If we say we have not sinned, we're kidding ourselves. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and he'll forgive our sins. He cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

God cannot spare us the natural, painful consequences of our mistakes. That's why John says, "I write this to you so that you will not sin." But by his amazing grace, God is able to restore us to a right relationship with him and to set our feet on the path that leads to a life of blessing.

Abram made some terrible mistakes. He'll make them again. But this is the beginning of transformation taking place in Abram's heart, a change that will lead to a culmination when he goes up to Mount Moriah with his son and offers him to God, trusting God to provide. In that moment he receives his son back and becomes the father of many nations.

With God failure is never final. No sin is unforgivable. No mistake is irredeemable.

Let's come back to the lessons learned by our two canoeists.

Lesson one: If you lose the trail, go back to where you last had your bearings.

Some of us need to admit we're lost, we've wandered from the path. Maybe you've been off for a long time. Maybe you thought you're taking a minor detour. Don't take another step in the wrong direction. Don't waste another day in Egypt. Go back now to where you last had your bearings, and call on the name of the Lord, through whom you find forgiveness.

Lesson two: When in doubt, get out the compass.

Some of us find ourselves faced with a blow down. Maybe you're getting discouraged, and you're beginning to panic and thinking you need to find your own way around this mess. Don't do it. Get out the compass. Don't turn to the left or to the right.

Lesson three: Believe the compass.

Trust God and his call on your life. Trust the path to take you to the life he promised.

Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.

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Sermon Outline:


Genesis 12 teaches that after we lose the trial, there's always a way to get back on the path.

I. Obstacles are opportunities for us to meet with God.

II. Our failure to trust God in difficulty is costly.

III. Self-reliance can be our signature sin.

IV. Our deviation from God's path happens one step at a time

V. There is always a way back.


There are three lessons to learn if you lose the trail: