Christians Making a Difference in the Community
One of the great debates consuming our society today is the debate over the separation of church and state. The debate finds its source in a statement made by Thomas Jefferson in the 1800’s concerning the “wall of separation.” Some argue that the “wall of separation” that Jefferson referred to when he wrote to Baptist in Connecticut was the separation between church and state. Others argue that the “wall of separation” that Jefferson was referring to was the “wall of separation” between the federal government and state governments. Needless to say, today we have many people spending a great deal of energy to keep the sacred with the sacred and the secular with the secular.
The problem that is often found in church and state relations in found in how the two often times view on another. When it comes to the secular, Christians often have the perspective of the government as an evil empire. This perspective is generated often times by what the scriptures declare about the secular government. On one hand, you have the state being described as controlled by demonic powers. It was the apostle Paul who said, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. ” In the book of Revelation we find the godless government at its worst destined for destruction. On the other hand, the scriptures clearly declare the government in a positive light. The apostle Paul tells us that the government is ordained and authorized by God and that Christians are to obey the authorities of the secular government for that very reason.
Here is the reality of this seemingly contradiction. God establishes the government and at times will function as God intends it to do, but at other times the secular government established by God functions as God never intended it to do. The secular Government is much like the sacred church. The church is also established by God, and at times functions as a blessing to all, but at other times the God established church acts like the devil and brings misery on many.
With all this said, how do we as Christians make a difference in a secular society? How do we impact the secular with the sacred? How do we keep ourselves from the one extreme of isolationism as well as the other extreme of secularism? The last thirteen verses of the twenty-first chapter of Genesis give us some great insight into answering these questions.
In these verses we have two characters, Abraham and Abimelech. This is not the first time that we have met Abimelech in our study of the life of Abraham. In chapter twenty we were introduced to Abimelech on account of the foolish actions of Abraham and Sarah. They lied to Abimelech about their marital situation, a lie that would put Abimelech under the judgment of God. The meeting of the two in these verses in different from the first meeting.
The meeting of Abraham and Abimelech is significant to answering the questions that have been proposed. It is significant because you have a Patriarch and a prince meeting together. It is significant because you have the sacred and the secular coming together for the purpose of good. This coming together of the two parties comes in a form of a covenant, an oath taken between two parties. The situation that is presented in these verses enables us as Christians to see how we can truly make a difference in our community. It enables us to see how we can participate in the secular without loosing the sacred. If we as Christians and as a church are going to make a difference in our community then we must first earn respect by means of your experience with God.
I. Earn Respect by means of Your Experience with God
We see this truth demonstrated in verse twenty-two, “Now it came about at that time that Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, spoke to Abraham, saying, ‘God is with you in all that you do.” The period of time between Abraham and Abimelech’s first meeting is debatable. It would seem that the period of time is about three to four years, enough time for Abraham and Sarah to conceive and have a child. During this period of time Abimelech was able to observe the life of Abraham. The conclusion that Abimelech came to was that Abraham experienced God in his life and it was evident.
The evidence of Abraham’s experience was made known to Abimelech when the two first met back in chapter twenty. Even though Abraham had deceived Abimelech and put him in a dangerous situation, Abimelech recognized the hand of God upon Abraham. The first evidence that God was with Abraham came to Abimelech in a dream. The Lord spoke to Abimelech in a dream and warned him about Sarah. He also said to Abimelech that Abraham, Sarah’s husband, was a prophet. The second indication that the Lord’s hand was upon Abraham came to Abimelech after he confronted Abraham concerning his sin. After Abimelech made restored Sarah back to Abraham, Abraham prayed for Abimelech and the Lord heard Abraham’s prayer and he healed the plague that had come upon Abimelech’s household. Without a doubt these two instances gave evidence to Abimelech that Abraham had an experience with God and God was with him. But I also imagine that over the three or four years that Abimelech watched Abraham live his life and how God blessed Abraham’s life that he knew without a doubt that God was with him in all that he did.
The experience that Abraham had with God would in turn earn him respect and esteem from the pagan king Abimelech. This is especially interesting when you realize that of all people, Abimelech had all the reason to disrespect Abraham. Abraham lied to Abimelech, he jeopardized his life and the life of his family, and he was accused by Abraham of having no fear of God. All of these things could have cultivated a deep disrespect for Abraham. Abimelech could have said that Abraham was nothing but a hypocrite who acted worse than he did, but he didn’t. The reason for such respect is found in the experience with God that Abraham possessed. God restored Abraham and God was with Abraham and he was blessing him in everything that he did. Therefore, the presence of God earned Abraham respect with the secular ruler.
The presence of God in our life, our daily experience of God, is by no means a liability in the arena of the secular, but instead it is an asset that can earn us respect and favor with those without an experience of God in their lives.
A good illustration of this truth is found in the book of Acts. After Pentecost and Peter’s great sermon many people were being saved, the church was unified, they were meeting each other’s needs, and they were worshiping the Lord every day. Verse forty-seven of chapter two in the book of Acts says the church was, “praising God and having favor with all the people.” God’s presence was upon them and the result is that they had favor with all the people. This means that believers and unbelievers alike respected and esteemed the church on account of God’s presence, on account of the experience with God that the early church had. The writer of Proverbs confirms this truth as well when he wrote in Proverbs sixteen, verse seven, “When a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.” Eugene Patterson’s contemporary translation of this verse says, “When God approves of your life, even your enemies will end up shaking your hand.”
Does the public notice that God is with you in all that you do? Have you earned the respect of those around you because your life is pleasing to God? When God is with us and the world notices, even the enemies of God will respect us. If we are going to make a difference in our community then we must earn respect by means of our experience with God.
II. Find Common Ground to Work On
The next observation that will help us as Christians make a difference in our community is somewhat of a tall order, but it can be done. If we are going to make a difference in the secular then we who make up the sacred must find a common ground to work on with those who make up the secular.
Why is this a tall order for Christians and church? We often have the mindset that if we don’t agree totally on all points of matter then there is not common ground to work on. This is demonstrated well within Christendom with the many different denominations. The reason that there are so many different denominations illustrates the fact that we don’t agree all points of matter. But it does not mean that we, as the church, cannot find a common ground to work on with other churches.
In June of this year Billy Graham is coming to Oklahoma City to hold an evangelistic crusade at the Ford Center. What is amazing about this event is that churches all around the state, from all different denominations, will unite on a common ground, the gospel of Jesus Christ as the only means of being saved. It is not impossible for churches to find common ground with other churches for the purpose of glorifying the Lord. In the same manner it is not impossible for Christians and the church to unite with the secular on common ground for the purpose of good.
Abraham and Abimelech reveal this truth in verses twenty-three through twenty-six, “Now therefore, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but according to the kindness that I have shown to you, you shall show to me and to the land in which you have sojourned.’ Abraham said, ‘I swear it.’ But Abraham complained to Abimelech because of the well of water which the servants of Abimelech had seized. And Abimelech said, ‘I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, nor did I hear of it until today.” In these verse we see at least two matters of interest for both parties, matters of interest that would provide a common ground for both of them to work on.
The first matter of mutual interest for both parties is that of peace. Abimelech’s request to Abraham was a request for a peaceful relationship between the two since they were to coexist in the same region. Most likely the request was made out of self-interest and self-preservation on the part of Abimelech.
A little insight to the matter is given back in verse twenty-two where it says that “Abimelech Phicol, the commander of his army spoke to Abraham.” The presence of the commander of Abimelech’s army indicates that Abimelech viewed Abraham as a mighty force to be reckoned with. He most likely heard about how Abraham was able to defeat the powerful kings back in chapter fourteen and rescue Lot at the same time. He also noticed how the Lord was blessing him with prosperity and protection. H knew that Abraham and his God made one powerful team. Therefore, he would seek a covenant a treaty between the two, one that consisted of peace.
Abraham would respond to Abimelech’s request with a mutual interest for peace in verse twenty-four, “Abraham said, ‘I swear it.” This is not the first time that Abraham made a peaceful alliance with pagan kings. He did the very same thing back in chapter fourteen when he was staying in the oaks of Mamre. The common ground that the two could work on for a praiseworthy clause was that of peace.
Jesus said in his great sermon on the mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” God’s people should be advocates for peace within the secular government. One of the greatest testimonies that we have a Christians is to show a sinful and divided world that peace can be achieved if we work at it. Of course, if we the church are going to have any credibility in the secular word with peace, then we might need to begin to cultivate it within the church. The second matter of interest that would provide a common ground for prince and pagan to work on is found in Abraham’s complaint to Abimelech.
While Abraham has Abimelech’s ear he voices a complaint that he has concerning a certain issue in verse twenty-five, “But Abraham complained to Abimelech because of the well of water which the servants of Abimelech seized.” The verb complained means to “determine what is right. ” Abraham is pleading for justice for that is what justice is all about, “determining what is right.”
One cannot have true peaceful relations without justice. Here lies the second matter of mutual interest that the two could agree on: to do what is right. Abimelech, in an indirect way is going to acknowledge the injustice and do the right thing in verse twenty-six, “I do not know who has done this thing; you did not tell me, nor did I hear about it today.” Abimelech pleads ignorance in the situation, but he corrects the situation once it is made know to him. We know this to be true not because the text tells us directly, but we know it to be true because Abraham and Abimelech would then go and cut a covenant between one another.
Christians and the secular government can come together in matters of determining what is right. Justice is a form of morality and Christians can find different aspects of morality that are of mutual interest of both the Christian and the state. In an article in Christianity Today concerning Christians in politics the author says that Christians and the state can find a common ground in the areas of common morality, civil morality, and social morality.
Christians are aliens in a foreign land, just like Abraham in this text, but that does not mean that we cannot come together with those of this world for good and praiseworthy purposes. In fact, we must find a common ground to work on if we are truly going to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But there is a warning to our involvement that is revealed in this text. We need to find common ground, but don’t compromise you character or your principles in doing so.
III. Don’t Compromise Your Character and your Principles
It is one thing to find common ground in secular society for the purpose of good, but Christians must not find that common ground by compromising their character or their principles.
Within these verses we have a subtle rebuke of the foolish actions that Abraham took back in chapter twenty. It was in chapter twenty that Abraham deceived Abimelech concerning Sarah by telling him that she was his sister and by not telling him that she was his wife. Abraham lied to save his neck.
The fact that Abimelech had to ask for an oath from Abraham indicates that he was lacking trust in Abraham. Abimelech says in verse twenty-three, “now therefore, swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or my offspring.” You can see from Abimelech’s words that he did not have a trust in Abraham.
Abimelech knew that God was with him and he knew that God had restored Abraham after his foolish deception, but he also knew that Abraham was capable of deceiving. Therefore, he asks Abraham to swear by God that he will not deal falsely with him. This is a significant rebuke to Abraham. This statement on the part of Abimelech is also significant for God’s people and their need to maintain a godly character.
Professing Christians have high expectations of them from the world. The world, the secular, expects God’s people to be people of integrity, people of character. Even more importantly, God expects his people to be people of integrity and character. People should be able to trust God’s people on account of their character. President Clinton when he ran for President was questioned about his character and he responded “character is not the issue.” I disagree; as Christians, character is the issue. Our credibility before a secular world is established through our integrity and character. It is one thing to find a common ground to work on, but don’t in anyway compromise your character and integrity in finding that common ground.
Just as important to our character is our principles. In fact, if you compromise you principles you in essence compromise your character. We can find common ground to work on, but not at the expense of the beliefs that we hold and cherish. We must be in the world, but not of the world. To maintain this position as God’s people in the community we must realize that we will need to go our separate ways on many issues on the account of our principles.
After Abraham and Abimelech made a covenant, and Abraham named the place Beersheba, we are told in verse thirty-two, “So they made a covenant at Beersheeba; and Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, arose and returned to the land of the Philistines.” Though the patriarch and the pagan found common ground to work on, the separation of the two reveals that they are still very different. You have two men and two ways.
The same is true of us, the church, we may find common grounds to work on with a secular society, but the truth still remains, we are different from the world. We have different priorities of the world, we have a different purpose than the world, and yes, we have different principles than the world has. Therefore, there will be issues that divide, issue in which the church must raise up and say “Thus says the Lord.”
The world says, “It’s a choice.” God’s people say, “It’s a life.” The world says its an alternative lifestyle.” God’s people say, “It’s a sinful lifestyle.” The world says, “It will help the economy and education.” God’s people say “It will destroy lives and families.” The church has a higher calling a calling to proclaim the righteousness and justice of a holy God. Our first responsibility is not to the authorities of the world, but to the one who has the authority over the world Jesus Christ. There are times when God’s people must tell the world, “We must obey God before we obey man.” We must find common ground to work on, but not at the expense of our character and our principles.
IV. Never Forget Your Ultimate Purpose
As God’s people get involved with the secular to make a difference we must never forget our ultimate purpose. We strive for peace and justice with the secular world for a purpose and Abraham reveals that purpose is revealed in the actions of Abraham in verse thirty-three, “Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.”
Abraham does two things in this verse: he plants a tree and he calls on the name of the Lord. Here we have a name for God that shows up for the first time in the Bible. The Hebrew name for God here is “El-olam.” In chapter fourteen the Lord was called “El-elyon” which means “God most high.” In chapter seventeen the Lord was called “El-shaddai” which means “God, almighty.” Now, the Lord is called “El-olam” which means the eternal God, the everlasting God. In planting the tree and calling upon the Lord we have Abraham doing two things, which reveal the ultimate purpose of God’s people. We have Abraham worshiping and witnessing. In doing these two things Abraham was proclaiming the truth of the one true God, God most high, God almighty, and God, the eternal God.
The tree was a reminder of the covenant, but it was also a statement of faith that God would protect his well and that the tree would be a constant reminder of God’s provision of water from that well. By planting the tree Abraham was telling the whole world about Jehovah, El-olam and his faithfulness.
As Christian involved in the secular world we must not forget our ultimate purpose to be a witness of Jehovah, El-olam to the world. But we don’t have to plant a tree to declare the faithfulness of God because God planted the tree for us. God planted a tree on place called Calvary, a tree that revealed his love and faithfulness to humanity. Christians must remember that we must point a secular and dying world to a tree called Calvary. Kings and kingdoms will all pass away and when they do what really matters is what we did with the Son of God who died on that tree and shed his blood so that we can have forgiveness of sin.
When George Briggs was governor of Massachusetts, he had three friends go and visit Israel. One of the attractions that they visited in Israel was Golgotha. As they made their way up Golgotha’s or Calvary’s slope one of the men picked up a branch to help him make the climb. When the men returned from their trip they gave the governor the stick that they had picked up on Calvary and said, “Governor, we want you to know that when we stood on Calvary, we remembered you.” He gladly took the gift with gratitude and replied to the men, “I appreciate you consideration of me, gentlemen, but I am still more thankful for Christ, who thought of me there.”
The greatest difference that we as Christians and the Church can make in our community is pointing people to the tree of Calvary. The greatest impact we can have on a community for God is by proclaiming the truth of Christ in a world that so desperately needs him.
We the church and individual Christians can make a difference in our community. It begins first by earning respect by means of our experience with God. God’s presence in our life is an asset. Then we must find common ground to work with those in the secular, a common ground that does not cause us to compromise our character and our principles. We must remember the ultimate purpose of God’s people: to point people to Jesus for Jesus can make all the difference in a community.