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Sermon: The Threat

March 24, 2011

Note: I am moving away for the Lectionary texts the next few weeks in order to spend more time in the Abraham-Sarah narrative this Lent.

Genesis 12:10-20

The most powerful drama since the earthquake and tsunami in Japan has been the race to get the cooling system up and running in the nuclear plant.  A complete meltdown resulting in fire and explosion could release an enormous amount of radiation, threatening the entire region.

I have wondered about the workers and what must be going through their minds.  These are the employees who put on protective suits and go into the damaged plant to attempt to restore electricity.  This week, two workers were hospitalized when they simply stepped into a contaminated pool of water while laying electrical cables.  These workers were exposed to more radiation in that one incident than most people are in a lifetime.  It is said that the level of radiation was enough to cause burns on the skin and even damage to bone marrow (“Food, Water Worries in Japan; 2 Workers Hurt,” NPR News).

What in the world causes a person to take such risks?  I might have seriously considered quitting my job rather than endangering my life inside the damaged plant.  What do you think their families think about all of this?  Do the workers feel it was their duty?  Do they place complete trust in their protective gear?  Do they get extra pay?  Do they think of it as a humanitarian mission that will save the lives of many?  I can’t imagine how they keep their sanity as they go back in day after day.  They must trust that they can be kept safe and that they serve the greater good.  They must see some purpose in risking their lives.

And thank goodness there are people out there who will rise to the occasion and act selflessly for others, even when there is risk involved.  That was the original call to Abram, to go out into the world so that all the families of the earth might be blessed.  Certainly, there was quite an upside to God’s call.  Abram’s name would be made great, and he would be the father of a great nation.  Abram would be a source of blessing.  Yet there was also risk.  Abram needed to put his complete trust in the One who made the promise, and he had to leave his family and homeland to journey into a land that would be shown to him later.  Abram believed the promise, and he departed with his wife Sarai and everything they could load on their wagon.

They soon discovered that the promise they believed was a lot more risky than they had imagined.  The land to which they were sent was a land of famine.  So they had to set out again, this time to Egypt, but Egypt was no safer.  Abram realized that because his wife was so beautiful, the resident Egyptians might try to take Sarai by making her a widow.  He proposed to her that they pretend to be brother and sister.  Instead of death at the hands of the wife-stealers, Abram hoped for blessing.  He figured that if some man wanted Sarai, he would naturally cozy up to her “brother” Abram.

Most scholars take this behavior as evidence that Abram doubted the promise of God and the ability of God to see it through to the end.  The reasoning is that if Abram had full trust in the promise and in God, that he would have figured that God could find a way to take care of these two and keep the promise alive.  Instead, Abram decided he needed to intervene.  He wasn’t quite ready to leave his fate in the hands of God.  As one writer put it, “The bearer of the promise is the greatest enemy of the promise” (Gerhard Von Rad, quoted in Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis [Atlanta: John Knox, 1982], p.129.).  It was Abram’s own doubt that was the greatest threat to the promise of God.

What happened, of course, is that Abram asked his wife to become another’s wife for Abram’s own sake.  Pharaoh was the one who discovered Sarai’s beauty and took her as a wife.  He gave Sarai’s “brother” lots of gifts—sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves.  The favor Abram had hoped for came his way.  There is no record of what Sarai thought of all this.  She silently agreed to her husband’s machinations and became Pharaoh’s wife.

God, however, did not agree.  God afflicted Pharaoh’s house with plagues, though it doesn’t seem quite fair, since Pharaoh had no idea he was taking Abram’s wife.  It seems more reasonable that Abram should have been punished for throwing his wife under the bus and tricking Pharaoh.  No doubt Sarai would have like to have seen her husband suffer just a little bit.  God did not like Abram’s interference in the promise and took action to be sure that the happy couple were reunited.  Pharaoh, though, wasn’t so happy about either the plagues or the deception, and he told Abram and Sarai to get out.

It seems reasonable to me that Abram would have been afraid.  He was in a foreign land away from family that could support and protect him.  Yet Abram is hardly a sympathetic figure here.  He acted in a way that protected his own skin, but at the expense of his wife, and, as it turned out, he endangered the promise.

But just as God is able to protect the promise from the threat of Pharaoh, God is also able to protect the promise from the promise bearer who thought he knew best how to bring God’s plan to pass.  God took the bumblings of Abram and redeemed them.  God kept the promise on track even though Abram did his best to derail it.  Because the promise is God’s, it will continue, regardless of what Pharaoh might do to interfere or Abram might do to “help.”

*     *     *     *     *

Abram found himself in what he thought was a crisis.  You have probably heard that the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.”  Abram felt danger at the possibility of being killed so others could take his wife, but within the danger was an opportunity to trust in the promise and the One who made the promise.  Abram, unfortunately, responded poorly to his crisis, and apparently, he is not alone.  Something I read this week suggests that all human beings tend to panic and over-react to the crises in our life, and that just makes things worse.  Psychologist Rollo May said, “It is an old and ironic habit of human beings to run faster when we have lost our way” (The Saybrook Forum).

Abram responded only to the threat and his fear, and instead of calmly considering his situation, ran faster, right into more trouble.  The text would seem to have us believe that Abram should have remembered the promise given to him, and trusted that God could follow through.  But that’s not what happened.  Abraham panicked and simply reacted—just as most of us do.  Thankfully, no matter what our failures, God is still God, and God was able to clean up the mess so that the promise could continue.

That seems like the kind of knowledge that can allow us to live boldly.  God doesn’t simply make promises, but is able to keep those promises, and no interference by Pharaoh or blundering on our part will prevent God from carrying on.  The confidence that understanding can inspire in us allows us to do great things, to react to a crisis with a sense of calm, to face each day without fear, even to risk.  Abram risked leaving his home.  Workers in Japan risk their lives.  Firefighters and police officers put their lives on the line.  Teachers, if nothing else, risk their sanity by stepping into the classroom each day.  We can do this thing called life.  God has promised to be with each of us.  Maybe you haven’t received the grand, unmistakable call of Abram and Sarai, but God has promised not to leave you.  Ever.  The psalmist wrote a hymn of thanks and praise to God:

Where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in [Hades], you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast…I come to the end—I am still with you (Psalm 139:7-10, 18b).

At our beginning, God is there with us, sharing life.  In every crisis, as we face every threat, God is there, sharing strength and grace.  And finally, we come to the end, and God is still with us.

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