Faith Facing Conflict

Published: Monday, 21 August 2017

Red DeerThis sermon was given by Geoff Pound at ABC on 20 August 2017. It is the third in the ‘Journey in Faith’ series on the life of Abraham and Sarah. The sermon manuscript concludes with some Questions for Personal Reflection and Group study.

Scripture Reading: Genesis 13: 1 - 18

An article emerged recently that gives lots of tips for students writing their university admissions essay, for crafting a CV or for nailing that job interview.[1]

The author highlights this point: “Don’t all the time brag about your achievements. Instead recount the times you’ve struggled and even better the times you’ve failed.” She says, “Failure is gold! Figure out what you’ve learned from failure. Tell about that. Be honest… Just remember those exhausted admission or employment officers sitting around the table in the winter. Jolt them out of their sugar coma and give them something to be excited about.”

I love the authenticity of the Bible in the way it tells of failure in the Abram story. We’ve seen how he started off so well in Ur responding to God’s call and travelling to Canaan.

Last week in Egypt when the going got tough he took some wrong moves. He began to lie. He lost face. He lost his faith. He almost lost his wife.

But today we see how Abram learns from his failure. He comes back to Bethel. He gets right with God and starts all over again.

What good news this is for us – failure doesn’t have to be final. You see, nobody has ever been drowned by falling into the Yarra River. Nobody has ever been drowned by falling into the Yarra River. But some have drowned by staying there!

So, remember if we’ve fallen away from God, we can come back and although it may be hard, God will welcome us back. ‘Failure can be gold’ if we learn from it.

Last week we saw Abram stepping into a famine.

This week we see Abram stepping into friction.

Don't ever let people tell you that the life of faith is easy! It’s hard! In some ways, it’s more difficult because we are going somewhere on the journey of faith. And God uses these tough times to deepen our trust and develop our character.

Let’s read the details of the conflict in chapter 13 versus 5 to 7:

 

Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together; for their possessions were so great that they could not live together, and there was strife between the herders of Abram’s livestock and the herders of Lot’s livestock. At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites lived in the land.

Here’s Abram with a quarrel on his hands. Their flocks were so great there was overcrowding. These were wandering farmers with great flocks and no fences. It doesn’t take much for tempers to flair and friendships to fray.

Wealth can be a wonderful asset but wealth can also be a great divider! If you want to see a family break up… if you want to see a church break up… introduce a lot of money into it.

At the end of v 7 there’s an insightful comment:

At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites lived in the land.

The quarrel of Abram and Lot didn’t go unnoticed. Their behaviour was under observation.

The opera duo, Gilbert and Sullivan, formed a partnership. They bought a theatre but it wasn't long before they had a row. Then a rift developed and they fought it out in court. They wouldn't talk to one another. They wouldn't go and see one another. Gilbert would write the words and post them off to Sullivan. Sullivan would write the music and post it off to Gilbert. When they came on stage at the end of a performance, instead of both coming forward they went to the opposite ends of the stage to bow away from each other.

There may have been harmony in the opera but there was discord in their relationship. It took the edge off their success. It limited their greatness.

Let’s remember that the Canaanites and the Perizzites are also living in the land. We’re not living in a vacuum. People are watching those who say they have faith in God. They’re quick to point out our inconsistencies and all we do affects our witness for Christ. I wonder what the Canaanites and the Perizzites think about us?

Now look at verse 8 and the way that Abram’s faith entered into this conflict.

 

Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders... 

Here is the first principle:

Take the initiative to bring the conflict out into the open with the one with whom you have a difference.

Sometimes when there are differences it’s easier to play avoidance. It’s tempting to stay away from each other like Gilbert and Sullivan.

Research promoted this week said that if we know people who are different from us, if we mix and live with people who are different in age and culture and religion, we will have lower levels of fear about the other.[2] The challenge is to come together and mix and meet with people who are different, especially when we have differences that are causing conflict.

Sometimes it’s easier to believe that conflict is not happening.

Sometimes it’s easier to hit back, to rush to the defence of your family and blame the other group.

Not so Abram. He’s learnt from his experience in Egypt that it’s best not to sweep it all under the carpet, but name conflict and grapple with the truth.

Abram also realises the urgency. He knows that conflict can fester.

Didn’t we see the escalation of strife this week in Charlottesville?[3] In just a few hours a vigorous protest turned to the injuries of many and the death of a young woman.

Didn’t we see how the conflict in parliament this week over dual citizenship so quickly burnt like a bush fire that gathered in people across the Tasman and caused strain with our Kiwi neighbours?[4]

In only a few days the marriage equality debate has reached new levels of mudslinging and name calling.[5]

Conflict escalates so fast.

Abram knows that when people are upset their attitudes are like ready-made concrete. Initially, they’re still pliable but leave them too long and those attitudes will harden and set and be almost impossible to move.

Abram is swift to nip it in the bud! Sorting out conflict can be like stepping into a hornet’s nest. It can be a costly business. We can so easily get stung.

Paul Simon put it so well in his much-loved song:

“When evening falls so hard I will comfort you. I will take your part.

When you're down and out, when you're on the street.

When darkness comes and pain is all around,

Like a bridge over troubled waters I will lay me down.”[6]

Abram didn't say ‘Sort it out yourself’.

He didn’t say, ‘I will tell you what to do.’

Here is Abram laying down as a bridge over the troubled divide.

The second principle is in verse 8: Put the whole conflict into perspective.

 

V8: Then Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred.

In other words:

‘Let's not destroy our relationships over a few stupid sheep that are getting mixed up and upsetting our shepherds.’

‘Let's not squabble over whether those sheep are yours or mine! We’re not poor. What does it matter? There is too much at stake! We are family.’

When we start with the principle of family ties or the biblical principle that we are brothers and sisters in the family of Christ, then the things that are upsetting us like wandering sheep are so trivial.

So, let’s get it all into focus.

Is it worth losing relationships and losing sleep and losing peace of mind just for the sake of a few material possessions?

The text highlights a third principle: Identify the Causes.

Often in the heat of things the cause of the conflict can be forgotten.

Abram points out that their flocks had grown and the place was just too small for them to subsist together. It had happened gradually, almost imperceptibly.

This can happen in families when there are new factors, like moving house, having children, starting new jobs or when children leave home.

Friction can creep up on churches when churches change, when new people come, when new ministries start. These changes bring new factors that alter the dynamics and these can irritate. They can disturb and divide.

So, it’s wise to identify the cause of the conflict.

A fourth principle emerges in v9: Discover the Best Solution.

Abram asks:

Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me.

The land couldn't support them all so they may as well recognise it and separate.

It's not always advisable or possible to separate in a conflict.

A one-eyed Baptist said to the Quaker, Elton Trueblood, “We Baptists have such a long history. We go right back to John the Baptist.”

To which Trueblood said, “You go back further than that. You Baptists go back to the earliest times when Abraham said to Lot, ‘You go your way and I’ll go mine!”

It’s not good to make separation our first and only response.

It’s not commendable for organisations to be brittle.

When there are quarrels at work, in our flat, at church or in our relationships do we just move out, leave and break up? We need to look for ways to prayerfully work it through especially when we’ve made vows to one another.

It’s not always a positive thing to separate and the way through conflict is not immediately clear. But Abram shows us that the challenge in conflict is to discover the best solution.

The fifth principle: Display big heartedness.

In verse 9 Abram says to Lot.

 

“If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” 

 

That is amazing!

Abram didn’t say ‘Look I'm older than you so I’ll take this land and you can have that’.

He didn't suggest tossing a coin.

He didn't even propose that they draw lots. That might have been confusing!

He said, ‘Lot, you choose’. What a mature attitude Abram is developing. So different from last week where he’s grabbing and grasping.

Just think of how such a generous attitude would help if it were adopted in the wider relationships of human beings. Think of how quickly big heartedness would dissolve petty disagreements.

Faith can afford to step aside because faith knows that our lives, our time and our rights are in God’s hands.

So, Lot was invited to choose and in v10 we read:

 

10 Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. 

Can you picture Lot’s eyes gazing eastward, feasting upon the green river plain, thinking ‘This is like the garden of Eden, this is like the luxury of Egypt’?

It says in v11:

 

11 So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward; thus they separated from each other. 

‘So Lot chose for himself’. Here’s the element of selfishness. He didn’t say: “Uncle Abram, you decide. You are senior. You are wiser.”

In this passage, we get a hint that Lot’s choice is leading to his doom. In verses 12 and 13, as Lot pitches his tent toward Sodom, so his heart was moving there too. A foretaste of the doom to come.

That’s the trouble with greedy decisions. That’s the problem when we choose for ourselves. Back to the man of faith…

Can’t you feel sorry for him? Poor old Abram. He’s got the rough end of the stick. The old man is left with the cold, hilly, less fertile territory.

What a mug. He’d been diddled—taken for a ride by his shrewd nephew.

Abram lost a lot and he was probably thinking, ‘Did I do the right thing in giving Lot this freedom?’

Some of us wonder whether we were right to give our young person the choice at a particular time. We can't go on choosing for them all their life. We’ve got to stand aside and sometimes they will make the wrong choices. And it's not our fault but we’ve got to keep praying for them and always acting with a big heart.

Abram was probably downcast and doubting.

Had God’s promises of land been torpedoed by this conflict?

Had God’s gift been taken through Lot’s land grab?

Will God’s outlandish promises be kept?

Verse 14:

 

14 The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; 15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 

In this story, isn’t it fantastic to find that when the Lord speaks to Abram it’s always at the right time – just the time he needs it. Don’t you find that so reassuring?

God says, ‘Raise your eyes now’.

What an uplifting word.

When we’re downcast the Lord says, ‘‘Lift up your eyes’! I've got something to show you that you’ve overlooked.”

Abram, you thought you'd lost the land but it is still yours.

Abram is probably feeling dejected because he’s got no children of his own. And now he’s lost Lot — his own flesh and blood, but God says in v16:

 

16 I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17 Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord.

Here is Abram building another altar to the Lord to praise God for speaking so reassuringly and to thank God for renewing these wonderful promises.

Just as God spoke to Abram at his time of conflict and loss and dejection so God speaks to you and me:

v14 ‘lift up your eyes from where you are’.

People have often thought that when we look up to see Mount Everest or the Sistine Chapel ceiling, that the act of looking up inspires awe.

Some psychologists tested that theory. One experiment featured getting a number of students to look up at a huge reproduction of Kandinsky’s painting, ‘Sky Blue’.[7]

76 students were randomly assigned to view the painting.

Some saw it at eye level (five feet),

Some saw it just above eye level at six feet.

Some saw it below eye level at four feet.

Then the students had to judge the work according to different criteria including the extent to which they found the painting interesting and awe-inspiring.

Those who looked up rated the painting more positively.

Those who looked down gave the lowest appraisals and

those viewing at eye level made judgements in between.

So, if you’re an artist looking for good reviews remember how to hang your work!

 

‘Lift up your eyes from where you are’.

Where are we now? Where will we be tomorrow?

Some of us will be at home, others in class rooms, some on farms, in offices and hospitals. And that place may be a place where we are dealing with conflict and strife.

Like Abram these things can make us downcast.

We wish we were somewhere else.

We want to get out of here.

But in the place where we are, that place where there’s friction, that place where we feel used, that place where it’s not fair, that place of loss, that place where we’d much rather not be, ‘Lift up your eyes’.

Ask God to help you see that place as a place of advantage.

With the eyes of faith, ask God to help you enter into its possibilities and potential.

Response

Every week we’ve seen Abram building an altar and offering his situation to God.

This morning again, we have bowls of sand and the opportunity to offer our lives to God.

In this time of reflection, maybe your candle can represent a strain, a tiff, a rift or a conflict you are going through and this is an opportunity to offer it and the people in it to God.

Maybe lighting your taper can be a prayer for others close and dear to you who are going through a time of friction.

Or perhaps your offering may be for a national conflict or an international divide that’s giving you great heartache.

Let your candle be your prayer.

Benediction

Loving God, as we stand on the brink of this new week

Fill us with the sensitivity and wisdom to know the path to which You call us,

The willingness to leave,

The stamina to stick at it,

The courage to embrace its mysteries and

May we have love in our every step.

AMEN.[8]

Questions for Personal Study and Group Discussion

‘Faith Facing Conflict’

1.“I love the authenticity of the Bible in the way it tells of failure in the Abraham story.”

How do you resonate with the way the Bible reports the failure of Abraham and gives a ‘warts and all’ account?

2.”Failure can be gold if we learn from it.”

Got a gold medal story of failure and then learning from it?

3.“Abraham has a quarrel on his hands.”

Got a quarrel, a conflict or an experience of friction that's causing you pain or concern at the moment?

4.“At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites lived in the land.”

How aware are you, as a follower of Jesus, of being under observation and being watched for consistency/inconsistency in your life and witness? Give examples.

5.Some conflict resolution principles arising from the study:

  1. Take the initiative and bring the conflict out into the open
  2. Put the conflict into perspective.
  3. Identify the causes.
  4. Discover the best solution.
  5. Display big heartedness.

Any of these principles you find particularly challenging at the moment? Can you explain and illustrate?

6.Any other guidelines not brought out in the study that you have found helpful in a situation of conflict?

7.In verse 14, after the conflict and separation, Abram seems somewhat downcast, yet God speaks: “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are…”

“In this story, isn’t it fantastic to find that when the Lord speaks to Abram it’s always at the right time – just the time he needs it.”

Share a way in which God’s word or God’s activity came to you just at the right time.

Prayers

“Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are now…”

In prayer, build and light your altar of thankfulness and praise.

Ask God to help you (and others) see your life, situation and circumstances in a new, hopeful and promising light.

 

[1] Rachel Toor, How to Conquer the Admissions Essay, New York Times, August 2 2017.

[2] Abbey Dinham, Research Suggests More Diversity, Less Islamophobia, SBS World News Radio, 17 August 2017. Also on video, ‘Diverse Communities’, SBS World News, 16 August 2017.

[3] Charlottesville Clashes Prompt Protesters to Speak Out Against White Supremacists, ABC News, 14 August 2017.

[4] Stephen Smiley, Barnaby Joyce’s Surprise Citizenship Sends Ripples Across New Zealand’s Political Parties, ABC News, 16 August 2017.

[5] Facebook posts are full of personal and low-level statements this week but check out this newspaper article on some of the harmful effects from the debate in Matt Neal, ‘Marriage Equality Debate’s Negative Impact in South-West’, The Standard, 21 August 2017.

[6] Bridge Over Troubled Water, YouTube.

[7] Tom Jacobs, ‘Look Up, See a Masterpiece’, Pacific Standard, July 26 2017. Take a look at the painting.

[8] This prayer is an adaptation of Jan Richardson’s prayer from ‘In the Sanctuary of Women’, p3. It has been on the cover of our Midday Prayers this week at WellSpring.