A Pilgrim’s Progress

, ,

Our pursuit of holiness is seen in the choices we make.

Genesis(102) (Part of the Origins(100) series)
by Marc Webb(81) on August 29, 2021 (Sunday Morning(349))

Obedience(36), Sacrifice(16), Trust(25)

A Pilgrim’s Progress

The book “The Pilgrim's Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come” is a 1678 Christian allegory written by John Bunyan. The entire book is presented as a dream sequence told by an omniscient narrator. The allegory's protagonist, Christian, is an everyman character, and the plot centers on his journey from his hometown, the "City of Destruction" ("this world"), to the “Celestial City" or “Heaven” ("that which is to come") atop Mount Zion. Christian is weighed down by a great burden, which is the knowledge of his sin that comes from reading the Bible. This burden, which would cause him to sink into Hell, is so unbearable that he seeks deliverance. The book is the journey Christian takes to be delivered from his burden of sin. Along his journey he meets a lot of different people from Evangelist who points him to the “shining light” for deliverance, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, Mr. Legality and his son, Civility, who try to deliver him from his burden by trusting in his own good deeds to remove it. Later Christian is directed forward by Goodwill, who is shown to be Jesus, to "the place of deliverance.” Christian finally reaches the "place of deliverance" (allegorically, the cross of Calvary and the open sepulchre of Christ), where the "straps" that bound Christian's burden to him break, and it rolls away into the open sepulchre.

After being relieved of his burden of sin Christian continues on his pilgrimage meeting people such as Sloth and Hypocrisy. He spends three days in the House of the Palace Beautiful, which is a place built by God to refresh pilgrims and godly travelers, and he leaves there clothed with the Armour of God. Christian meets Faithful in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, who ends up being burned at the stake as a martyr. He goes to a place called Lucre, where he is offered all the silver in the mine. He gets captured by Despair and taken to the Doubting Castle, where he is imprisoned, beaten and starved. Christian uses the key called Promise to unlock the castle and escape. Christian meets some shepherds who warn him about the Flatterer but is soon deceived and gets stuck in his net. ​​ He meets an Atheist, who tells him that Heaven and God do not exist. Along the way he meets up with Hopeful who shares the journey with Christian. He meets Ignorance, who believes that he will be allowed into the Celestial City through his own good deeds rather than as a gift of God's grace. Finally, Christian, even though he has a rough time because of past sins wearing him down, is welcomed into the Celestial City with the help of his friend Hopeful.

As I thought about this story, it made me think about my own story. When I was saved at age seven I don’t remember feeling weighed down by a burden of sin as Christian was, but I understood that I was a sinner in need of a Savior. Maybe some of you, this morning, can identify more with the first part of Christian’s story and have had the feeling of being weighed down by the burden of your sin and then being relieved from that burden when you gave your life over to Christ.

The second part of Christian’s story, from after he was relieved from his burden until he entered the Celestial City, is one that every Christian can identify with. Think about your pilgrimage of faith and some of the people you have met along the way. You’ve probably heard stories of faithful saints who have died for the cause of Christ. You have probably met hypocritical people. Maybe you have been captured by despair and had to use the key of the promises of God to get free. Maybe you have met an atheist who made you question your faith in the existence of God. Maybe you have met ignorant people who think that God will just let them into Heaven based on their good works. Maybe you have had friends who helped you along the way of your pilgrim’s progress.

I use this word, pilgrim, to define those who are on a journey of faith in a foreign land. We know that the Pilgrims came over to the New World from England to find religious freedom. They were strangers in a strange land and they traveled a long to be able to worship the way they saw fit. We are also strangers in a strange land and Jesus has called us as Christians to be in this world but not be of it. This means that as we make the pilgrimage from “This World” to “That Which Is to Come” we are to live in this world but not live the same way that the world lives. This is where the pursuit of holiness comes in. In our pursuit of holiness we progress from the “milk of the word” which is the basic, elemental teachings of Christianity first learned by new believers, to the “meat of the word” which is the deeper, more complete teachings of God’s Word. We also progress from the old way of talking, doing and thinking to a new way of talking, doing and thinking and Jesus is the model for our pursuit of holiness.

This morning we continue the story of another pilgrim traveling in a strange land. Pastor Stuart has already recounted to us the beginning of the story of Abram and how he was called out from his country, from his people and from his father’s household. Along the way he seemed to resist God’s call for twenty-five years until his father passed away and then he continued on to the land of Canaan where he built altars to the Lord. Last week, Pastor Stuart showed us Abram’s pilgrimage to Egypt because of famine in Canaan. Abram asked Sarah to tell a half-truth so the Egyptians wouldn’t kill him but he didn’t seem to worry about Sarah being taken into Pharaoh’s harem. But God was faithful even though Abram was faithless and delivered Sarah from being defiled. In fact God delivered Abram, his wife and everything he had from Pharoah and from Egypt. This included all the material possessions, cattle, donkeys, male and female servants, and camels, given to Abram while he was there.

In our scripture this morning we are going to see that Abram is making progress in the spiritual journey he is on. We have seen him make some bad choices the past couple of weeks but this week we will see him making good choices not only in the way he deals with his nephew Lot but also in his relationship with God. He is growing spiritually, progressing in his faith and pursuing holiness, and it can be seen in the choices he makes. That brings us to our big idea this morning that our pursuit of holiness is seen in the choices we make. Every day we are confronted with the choice to follow God and his Word or to follow the world, to follow the “straight and narrow path” to the “Celestial City” or to follow the “wide road” of the “City of Destruction.” We will, just like Abram, have our ups and downs, we are going to make good choices and bad choices, but it is important to our spiritual growth that we daily choose to pursue holiness. The pursuit of holiness is vital in our Christian walk as we strive to be transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Before we study our scripture this morning, let’s pray: Lord, we pray for your Holy Spirit to come upon us as we open your Word this morning. Show us the truth of your Word and let it guide us in our daily walk with you. Help us to make the right choices as we strive to be more like your son, Jesus, and pursue holiness daily.

There are three points to the message this morning, Rededication, Resolution and Revelation. The first point is Rededication and is found in chapter 13, verses 1-4. This is what God’s Word says, “So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, he and his wife and all that belonged to him, and Lot with him. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold. He went on his journeys from the Negev as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place of the altar which he had made there formerly; and there Abram called on the name of the Lord.

We saw at the end of last week’s sermon that Abram was essentially escorted out of Egypt with everything he had including his wife, cattle, donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. We notice this also includes his nephew Lot. Lot has not been mentioned since Abram left Harran to go to Canaan and he is not mentioned in the episode in Egypt. He is now brought to our attention again because he will play a major role in this episode as Sarai did in the last one. We notice that Abram and his entourage leave Egypt and go up to the Negev which was going back the way he had come to Canaan, to the land promised him by God. We also notice that Abram is a rich man as he has accumulated livestock and silver and gold, some of it probably coming from his time in Egypt. God had been faithful to Abram even when Abram had been faithless and even though Abram made some bad choices in Egypt God still blessed him. We see Abram’s pilgrimage continue as he goes from the Negev to between Bethel and Ai, to a place where he had built an altar before and called on the name of the Lord. The altar was still there, perhaps implying that the promises still stand too. It is interesting that the whole time he was in Egypt we aren’t told that he built an altar or that he called on the name of the Lord.

He seems to be repenting of his faithlessness in Egypt and again worshipping the God who called him out of paganism into the Promised Land. He has progressed spiritually from half-truths and relying on his own strength to again calling on the name of the Lord. He has made a good first choice to return to where he last met with God. This choice shows that he is pursuing holiness and doing what is right. He is rededicating his life to God. We can learn an important lesson here about returning to God and rededicating ourselves to him. Maybe you are at the same point in your life this morning that Abram finds himself in. Maybe you have strayed from God and made some bad choices in your life lately. Maybe you recognize the fact that you have not been pursuing holiness daily or at all in recent times. If so, this first next step may be for you: Rededicate myself to God in making right choices and daily pursuing holiness again. ​​ 

Our second point this morning is Resolution and is found in verses 5-13. This is what God’s Word says, “Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. And the land could not sustain them while dwelling together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to remain together. And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. Now the Canaanite and the Perizzite were dwelling in the land. So Abram said to Lot, “Please let there be no strife between you and me, nor between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me; if to the left, then I will go to the right; or if to the right, then I will go to the left.” Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar, this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself all the valley of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the valley, and moved his tents as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord.”

As Abram pilgrimaged from the Negev to Bethel and Ai, Lot continues to go with him. It may be that Lot was considered to be Abram’s heir and so he traveled and stayed with Abram and Sarai. Lot has prospered probably as a result of being a relative of Abram and part of his entourage in the previous episode in Egypt. Earlier we are told that Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold and here we are told that Lot had flocks and herds and tents. They were both wealthy in livestock but where Abram was wealthier overall with silver and gold, Lot had wealth in “tents” probably meaning servants and possibly other family units.

Next we see that a problem arises because Abram’s and Lot’s possessions were so great. The problem came as a result of the livestock, flocks and herds they had accumulated. It is ironic that the blessings that the Lord bestowed upon Abram and Lot, which came as a result of the bad choices that Abram made in Egypt, has become the source of strife between their herdsmen. They both had accumulated so many possessions that we are told twice that they couldn’t remain together because the land could not support the two of them in the same place. Their herds had become so huge that there wasn’t enough good grazing land for both of them. The strife came as a result of Abram’s and Lot’s herdsmen each looking out for their own employer’s interest. We are also told that the Canaanites and Perizzites were dwelling in the land which alerts us to a couple things. First, this was not Abram’s and Lot’s land to begin with. There were other indigenous peoples already living there and this would have already stretched the grazing land pretty thin as it was. Second, if these peoples saw that the foreigners were not united, they may have taken this opportunity to take by force what Abram and Lot had. Third, the strife between their herdsmen would hurt Abram’s and Lot’s witness. Remember Abram had put up an altar and called upon the name of the Lord in this land. This probably did not go unnoticed to the pagan peoples living there.

Abram may have had his witness in mind as he makes another good choice that shows us he is growing in his character, relying on God and pursuing holiness. Abram refers to himself and Lot as “brothers” appealing to the relationship between kin that should make forgiveness and restoration easier. Abram doesn’t want strife with his “brother” and puts forth a resolution to the problem they find themselves in. He proposes that they separate and he asked Lot to look to the right and to the left and take the first choice of the land. Whatever was leftover Abram would take. Abram was speaking in faith believing that the land was his to give away. This is an interesting choice on Abram’s part. First, if Lot decides to leave it would effectively leave Abram without an heir. Second, Lot could have selected the Promised Land, which would have negated at least some of the Lord’s promise to Abram. Maybe Abram thought that Lot would want to stay with Abram and live together peaceably or maybe Abram thought Lot would turn him down and allow Abram to make the first choice which would have been his right as the elder statesman of the family. Abram’s choice shows a wise, generous, and peace-making heart. Abram is trusting in God, leaving it in his hands knowing that he is in control of all things.

Next we see the choice that Lot makes and it tells us a lot about where his spiritual growth and his pursuit of holiness was at this time. At first glance we may think he made a good choice. He looked at the Jordan Valley and saw that it was well-watered which would have been good for his flocks and herds. This valley reminded him of the Garden of Eden and of Egypt that he had just left. He is probably thinking if he chooses that land he won’t have to worry about famine again. But we soon learn as the first hearers did that the choice Lot makes was not a good one. We can see that Lot reminds us of Eve in that he looked and saw that the land was good just as Eve looked at the forbidden fruit and saw that it was good for food and pleasing to the eye. A lot of times when we make bad choices that get us into trouble it is with our eyes. We live in an age in which the ways of the world are increasingly entering our minds through our eyes. Especially with TV and the Internet, our eyes are flooded with images of things that oppose God and contradict His teachings and purpose for our lives. We must remain ever diligent in guarding our eyes from what the world has to offer.

We also see that the author gives us insight about the land that Lot chose. He chose the land of Sodom and Gomorrah because it looked good on the outside but that would change after it was destroyed by God. Afterwards, it would not be so appealing. God destroyed that land so well that even to this day archaeologists can’t find the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah. Next, to look to the right and to the left was essentially to look north and south but we find out that Lot actually looked east, chose that land for himself and journeyed east toward Sodom. We have seen throughout Genesis that the direction of “east” means going away from the presence of God. Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden eastward. Cain after killing Abel went eastward. And the builders of Babel went east to the plain of Shinar, where they built the Tower of Babel, rebelling against God.

We notice that Lot even pitched his tent near Sodom and later on we will find out that he was actually living in Sodom as one of their own. At the very end of this section we are given a hint why God destroyed Sodom. It says the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord. This reminds us of people before the flood and indicates that they deserve the same fate. Mathews says ‘“Great sinners’ is a uniquely Hebrew phrase meaning “one of a kind” sinners. They are sinners that are a corrupting influence on society whose sins are a violation against humanity and are opponents to God.

Phillips helps us understand Lot’s spiritual condition at this point in his life: He “was weak in his devotions, worldly in his desires, and wrong in his decisions.” Lot may not have known in the beginning what the people of Sodom were like but he should have realized it as he pitched his tent near Sodom and it would have been unmistakable after he moved into the city. We know from later stories that Lot chose to continue to live in Sodom with those evil and wicked people, up until its destruction. What can we learn from Lot and the choices that he made to pitch his tent toward Sodom? Lot chose the physical over the spiritual. He chose the easy and comfortable life. He didn’t make his decision through the eyes of faith and didn’t consider the moral and eternal costs of his decisions. This story should move us to ask ourselves some hard questions this morning. Are we making choices based on what we see, hear, feel, and enjoy? Are we making decisions pressured by our circumstances? Are we choosing the things of this world or the things of God? Are we seeking to be in control of our own lives or submitting our lives to the will of God? Are we willing to submit our speech, our thoughts and our actions to being more like Christ than the world? Our pursuit of holiness is seen in the choices we make. This brings us to our second next step this morning which is to “not ‘pitch my tent’ near Sodom but claim the Promised Land that God freely gives me.”

We then see that Abram lived in the land of Canaan. Interestingly enough, Lot going to Sodom took him outside of the Promised Land meaning that God’s promise of the land to Abram was still intact. ​​ Abram had made the right choices, pursued holy living and now God was going to give him a fuller revelation of his promise to him. Our third point this morning is revelation and is found in verses 14-18. This is what God’s Word says, “The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth, so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered. Arise, walk about the land through its length and breadth; for I will give it to you.” Then Abram moved his tent and came and dwelt by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord.”

As soon as Lot makes his choice and separates from Abram, God comes to Abram and reiterates his promise to him again, showing that God approved of Abram’s treatment of Lot. God then rewards Abram’s choices with a fuller revelation of his promise to him. Last week we saw that even when we are faithless God is faithful and this week we see that when we are faithful God is faithful. God then “fleshes” out the promise that he has made to Abram. First, the land is more precisely defined. God is not going to just give his descendants some land, God is going to give his descendants all the land that he can see in every direction. In the Hebrew, we notice that the Lord asks Abram to “please” look to the north, south, east and west. Only four times in the entire OT does God use the word “please” in addressing a human being and in each instance God is asking someone to do something that transcends human comprehension. We see this when God asks Abram to believe that his wife Sarai will have a son at her age, when God asks Abram to sacrifice his only son, when God asks the Israelites to ask their masters in Egypt for gifts of silver, gold and clothing as they were leaving and here.

Also, God not only promises the land to his descendants as before but to Abram as well and that this land will be theirs forever. This reminds us of the promise of the rainbow that God gave Noah. It was for all people and for all time. God also expands the promise of descendants. Abram would not just have an heir and some offspring but his descendants would number the dust of the earth which won’t be able to be counted. Lastly God gives Abram the land and to take possession of it by walking through it. This process would have been the equivalent of measuring the land. In ancient times, taking the measure of something was a sign of ownership. Abraham has neither the land nor the descendants to give it to at this time yet he continues to wait on and trust in the Lord.

Lastly, we see that Abram moved his tent by the oaks of Mamre in Hebron. Hebron would become the patriarch’s center of operations for many years to come. The cave of Machpelah, near Hebron, will be the first piece of real estate purchased by Abram and will be where all the patriarchs are buried. The religious significance of this place is emphasized by the fact that he builds an altar there. This episode began with Abram making the right choice to rededicate himself to the Lord by worshipping at the altar he previously built. It ends the same way as he chooses again to worship the Lord by building an altar in Hebron.

As we conclude this morning I want to talk about two words that truly describe Abram. The first word is “tents.” Abraham was a literal pilgrim as he traveled from Ur to Canaan as a stranger in a strange land. He was also the prototypical spiritual pilgrim in that this earth was not his home. Along the way he learned obedience and patience and had extraordinary experiences with the one true God. He trusted in God and went where God told him to go and did what God told him to do. He may have had a lot of questions along the way but he didn’t seem to ask them and God didn’t answer them. God promised; Abram believed. God commanded; Abram obeyed.

The second word is altar. It’s not the stones that matter but the intent of the heart. An altar is a sacred place where we meet with God. But it’s not just another place where we meet with another person who is our equal. It is where we meet with the omnipotent, eternal and Most High God. It is a place where we must approach God with total respect and honor because there is no one like our God. We don’t worship Him because he needs it but because we are moved by who he is and what he has done for us. The altar is also a place of sacrifice. In 2 Samuel 24:24, King David says, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” We must sacrifice all that we have and all we have is ourselves, our hearts. We must submit all of ourselves to him and to his service. The fire doesn’t fall on an empty altar. The fire falls on a sacrificial life offered to God. The altar is also a place of revelation. God revealed Himself to the patriarchs and prophets and established covenants there when they sought Him. If we want God to do the supernatural and reveal himself to us we need to have regular meetings with God. Hebrews 11:6 says, “He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” The altar is lastly a place of fellowship and intercession. Abram built altars to call on the name of the Lord, to fellowship with God, and to pray. Abraham had such a close relationship with God that he was called “the Friend of God” by God Himself. If we want God to call us his “friend” we need to set aside a place and time to meet with him every day, not a hurried 5 minutes to check off our “to-do” list, but a sweet, unhurried, time to wait on God & bask in His glory.

That brings us to the last two next steps this morning. The first is to “live as a spiritual pilgrim in this world trusting and obeying God along the way” and the second is to “build altars to the Lord and meet with him and sacrifice myself daily to him.”

As Gene and Roxey come to lead us in our final hymn, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, I pray that we would take this opportunity to rededicate ourselves to you. Help us to purpose in our hearts to make right choices and pursue holiness daily. Help us to pitch our tents in the Promised Land and not in Sodom. Help us to live as pilgrims in this world trusting and obeying you and help us to build an altar where we can regularly meet with you and be willing to sacrifice all of ourselves to you daily. In Jesus’ name, Amen.