05 Jul July 5, 2020: Live (Recorded Worship Service)
July 5, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Some people love rollercoasters. I am not one of them, but rollercoaster is an apt metaphor to describe the section of Genesis that deals with Abraham. The story of Abram and Sarai is one of the most up and down stories of faith imaginable—that is, until we look in the mirror, make an honest assessment of our spiritual lives, and realize this spiritual rollercoaster is often our own.
This morning we return to our series on Genesis, picking up in chapter 16. Thus far, Abram has already experienced two ups and one down in his ride of faith. In Genesis 12 God asks Abram to leave his home, his extended family, and his familiar, comfortable way of life to launch into an unknown future in pursuit of a vision he will not live to see to fruition. And, without hesitation or question, Abram does exactly that. The roller coaster starts going up as God promises to bless Abram and Abram trusts and obeys.
Almost immediately, though, the coaster starts hurtling downwards. As a famine pushes Abram and Sarai towards Egypt, Abram’s faith falters. He fears for his life and apparently forgets God’s promises. God had specifically said, “I will make you a great nation,” and speaks of Abram’s offspring to come. It’s hard to have children if you are dead, but nevertheless, Abram gives into his fear and instead of trusting God to be faithful, Abram takes matters into his own hands. He substitutes Sarai’s well-being for God’s promises.
In chapter 15, God, in great love and mercy, picks Abram up and makes an amazing statement to him: “I am your shield, Abram.” The subtitle of this scene might just as well have been, “I will keep my promises, Abram. I will take care of you. You didn’t have to substitute Sarai for my protection.” God goes on to say, “Eliezer of Damascus will not be your heir, but a son who is your flesh and blood.” And Abram believed the Lord. Then the Lord went on to make a covenant with him, an unbreakable commitment, as we talked about a couple of weeks ago. Abram’s faith is rolling up again and all is well.
Until, that is, we arrive at chapter 16. Now the story shifts to Sarai. She knows, of course, of the promises of God in chapter 12 and the covenant of chapter 15, but hey, she’s getting older. She’s now 75 and her ability to conceive and bear a child is going, going, gone. When a woman desperately wants to become pregnant and it just doesn’t happen, and all her friends are having children, and the clock is ticking, it can be incredibly painful. She complains to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having kids.” Sometimes, when we have been trusting God for something to happen in our lives and it doesn’t, like Sarai we can start to question God’s promises, or not believe them anymore, or blame God because we aren’t getting what we want when we want it. It’s understandable and I feel for Sarai just as I feel for myself and others when our dreams seem elusive. The question is how will we respond when we find ourselves in these kinds of situations?
Like Abram a couple of chapters ago, Sarai takes matters into her own hands. She concocts a scheme for Abram to sleep with Sarai’s slave, Hagar, saying “perhaps I can build a family through her.” As a slave, Hagar was nothing more than a tool to Sarai, not unlike a hammer or a rolling pin, rather than a human being with innate dignity and worth. Just as Abram had done in Egypt, Sarai is making her own negative substitution, substituting Hagar for God’s promise that Sarai herself would become a mother. Abram readily agrees and the rollercoaster of faith is plummeting to the bottom again.
Hagar conceives and eventually gives birth to a son named Ishmael. Her story and Ishmael’s are also testimony to the God who loves and never abandons his people, but that is a story for another day. Significantly for Sarai, however, when Hagar becomes pregnant, suddenly she who is the slave has something to hold over her mistress and she doesn’t miss an opportunity to rub it in. She knows how painful Sarai’s childlessness has been and as Rev. Stan Ott says, “I’m sure it must be in the Hebrew somewhere that Hagar says to Sarai, ‘Nanny, Nanny, Boo-Boo! I am PG and you aren’t!’” Don’t you know that was a fun household to be in once the love triangle got started?
Sarai is hurt and angry and conveniently forgets whose idea started all this. She says to Abram, “My suffering is all your fault. May the Lord judge between you and me” which is a ancient way of saying, “take a hike, Abram. Go fly a kite. Scram.”
Time and again God promised that Abram and Sarai would have descendants, promised to be their shield, to be their great reward, and time and again, both Abram and Sarai become afraid or impatient, and they substitute their desires for God’s promises, their way for God’s way. And every time, they experience pain. We see it over and over. Adam and Eve substitute the forbidden fruit for Eden. Esau substitutes a bowl of stew for his inheritance. The Hebrews will substitute a golden calf for the God who loves them. Out of fear Abram substitutes his wife for God’s security. Out of impatience, Sarai substitutes her maid for God’s promise.
Every time we substitute something for God and God’s faithfulness, we end up in more pain than we ever anticipate. Yet, God never tires of us, nor abandons us. God’s covenant is absolutely inviolate, so no matter how many times we mess up and steer our roller coaster toward the abyss, God keeps God’s promises.
If you remember our sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Lively Virtues, those pairings are all about substitution. When we substitute pride for humility, envy for kindness, anger for patience, or gluttony for self-control, pain is the result. We suffer loss, yet God continues to love us, just as we see God continue to love Abram and Sarai. Despite yet another colossal failure of faith on their part, God doesn’t throw up his hands in despair. God keeps his promise with the birth of a child, as we’ll soon see. It is already a sign of the type of substitution God regularly engages in, substituting his grace for our lack of faith. The greatest, most vivid example of that is the death of Jesus, an act of divine substitution which is captured in one of the verses of How Great Thou Art: “And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in. That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin.” Jesus makes the positive substitution of his life for your life and mine. It is the best news in the world. God loves you more than you can possibly imagine, and the cross is the loudest, clearest demonstration of that.
As a theological construct, substitution is a difficult idea. In fact, most of the versions of substitutionary atonement that I hear espoused I find terribly flawed and they make me exceedingly uncomfortable. So I want to tell you a true story that happened in our area that I find instructive in understanding what substitution in scripture is all about. Almost 40 years ago now, on January 13, 1982, to be exact, a Boeing 737 aircraft left Washington National Airport. The plane failed to gain altitude, barely crossed the 14th Street Bridge and plunged into the Potomac River head first, the tail of the plane hitting the bridge and breaking off. All of this occurred in a blinding snowstorm, and it was later determined that the plane had not been adequately de-iced before leaving, which led to the tragedy.
A man named Ernie Windsor was a paramedic with the U.S. Park Service, and it was his job to fly with the rescue helicopter the park service deployed in the event of an emergency. As soon as they received word, Ernie and his pilot were in the air, flying over the Potomac. “As we approached the sight of the wreck, we could see the tail section coming out of the water,” said Ernie. “In the water was jet fuel and suitcases and a tennis racket and pieces of clothing, and as we came closer to the tail section, we could see there were six people hanging on…three men, three women. Only one had a life vest. I threw the helicopter door open and dropped the few vests we had on board down to them, took a rope and tied it to a seat belt and lowered it over the side of the helicopter.
“As I watched, the seat belt fell in the hands of a bald-headed man, who was about 50 years old. He had a moustache. He took the rope and, to my surprise, he gave the seat belt to the woman next to him, put it over her body, and quickly we lifted her, took her to the bank where outstretched arms grabbed her, released her from the rope, and went back. This time, I dropped two ropes over the side, and to my surprise, the bald-headed man with the moustache caught the seat belt again, but then he turned and gave it to the next woman who was by him. She was unable to put it on. The cold was beginning to take her senses away. So the man on the other side of her took the seat belt, put it over him, grabbed the two women, one in each arm, another man grabbed the other rope, and we took off. Four people were the most that we could carry, and I could remember as we left that bald-headed man with the moustache watching us pull away.
As we flew over the open water, one of the women that the man was holding began to slip from his grasp and suddenly she fell, landing on a piece of ice floating in the river. She was safe and we were able to get the others to safety. Five were saved and one to go. We felt relief. Things had gone well, but we wished to come back quickly to that tail section and find the bald-headed man with the moustache. When we arrived, he was gone. We came down low and began to circle looking for any glimmer or shadow under the water. I had determined that if I saw anything I was going in after him, so badly did I want that man. But we never found him.”
That man’s name, the bald-headed man with the moustache, was Arland D. Williams, Jr. The 14th Street Bridge is named after him. Arland D. Williams, Jr. was a man who exemplified the love of God. He understood the concept of a positive substitution. When he held each of those people, helped them put the harness of rescue around them, he was loving them the way God loves us. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus said. “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Much of the Abraham story centers around faith. Faith is our response to the incredible love God has for us, demonstrated in his covenant with Abram and later, through Jesus’ loving sacrifice on the cross. God’s love is a gift, one that we are meant to share, not hoard. In this time of global pandemic, racial unrest, and lives that are anything but routine, we have opportunities every day to think of others first, to put their needs ahead of our own, to treat every single person, whether we know them or not, as the neighbor Jesus tells us to love. So, the next time you are tempted to substitute something in place of God’s promises, out of fear or impatience or doubt, take a step back. Give yourself again to the God who loves you. Truly, God is worthy of your trust. He won’t let you down.
Thanks be to God. Amen.