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When The Tank Runs Low

First Lesson Sermons For Sundays After Pentecost
Wally Gaines was a pastor in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was a great storyteller, and he told a lot of stories about his grandmother. Wally's family was poor and when times were especially difficult Wally's grandmother would say, "When the tank starts running low, then pull the plug and let it all out." That didn't make a lot of sense to Wally as a child. One day, years later, Wally was visiting his grandmother in the nursing home. He remembered this old expression and asked her to explain it. Here's what she said: "When times are bad and the tank runs low, that's when we pull the plug and let it all out. Then, what was left in the tank will water those things of God, and God will take oil from on high and refill it."

Wally's grandmother was a woman of faith and courage. She understood something very important. In her expression she was saying: when we are down and out, that's the time to let go. When life pushes you down in the ruts 'til you can't see anything but mud, then give up. Your own strength can't solve the problem, so rely on God's. Trust God to figure something out. When the tank runs low, just pull the plug and let it all out. In a culture where we honor power and self-sufficiency, that is a real challenge.

And that's just what Abraham did. Abraham is one of greatest figures in the Old Testament. The Apostle James praises him. Paul uses Abraham again and again as an example of faith and trust. Abraham's name appears three hundred times in the Bible. Martin Luther admired him so much that he said the New Testament writers didn't make nearly enough of him. Abraham was a great man. If we're looking for an example of Wally Gaines' grandmother's saying, here it is. Abraham was constantly pulling the plug and trusting God. Over and over again Abraham is giving something up. He gives up his family security and his homeland. He gives up his status and his comfort and goes to a strange land where he is a total nobody. God tells Abraham to go, and Abraham goes. But then God says, "Go," one more time. It's different this time. Very different. This time God says to Abraham, "Go to the land of Moriah and offer Isaac there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I shall show you." Abraham must have been in a state of shock. This was his only son. All of God's promises depended on this child. Abraham probably thought his ears were filled with desert sand and he was hearing God wrong. How could God ask such a thing? How could Abraham agree to it? But, Abraham starts packing.

When you read this story in the Bible you see that all of the preparation is done in silence ... a silence that seems to shout, it is so ominous. This order from God is different in another way. This time there is no promise, no reassurance, no hope for the future, nothing. There is only the order and then silence. This is the emptiest of empty tanks.

Author Anne Lamotte speaks of the fear she felt when her son was very sick. She says the experience helped her to see just how little she is in charge of in life. Lamotte also says that even failure and loss can be a gift when it helps us discover that we cannot rely on our own wisdom or ability.1

Elie Wiesel, the great Jewish writer, says this of the story of Abraham and Isaac: though it is "... terrifying in content, it has become a source of consolation to those who, in retelling it, make it part of their own experience."2 When we pull the plug, we acknowledge our helplessness. Then we have to depend on God. This dependency brings consolation with it.

God asked Abraham to do something unthinkable: to sacrifice his son. But I think what God really wanted was for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in his heart. Isaac had become an idol to Abraham. Abraham adored this special son to such an extent that all other loyalties were fading away. Listen to the way early Jewish interpreters imagined this dialogue between Abraham and God.

"Abraham, take your son!"

"Which one, God? I have two sons."

"Take your only son!" came God's reply.

"But, Lord," argued Abraham, "Ishmael is the only son of Hagar, and Isaac is the only son of Sarah."

"Whom you love," answered God.

"Lord, I love them both."

"Isaac!" came God's devastating reply.3

Isaac was the one Abraham loved more than anything. God knew where that would end up. Abraham's loyalties were turning away from God. We do that too. We make idols of our children, our principles, our social position, sometimes even our religious denomination and traditions. Abraham idolized his son, Isaac, and this clinging attachment threatened his obedience to God, and it threatened the future of God's holy nation. In holding so tightly to Isaac, Abraham risks losing both Isaac and God. The terrible thing God asks Abraham to do sets Abraham free from making his son into an idol.

God gives gifts to each one of us, both in the people we love and in certain talents we have. But all these gifts are a serious problem if they are more important to us than the God who gives them. The giver is always more important than the gift. When we love God enough to be willing to give up the gift, then the gift is in its rightful place and can become an even greater blessing.

Bruce is a good example. He has a great gift for encouraging people. Where he was working there was an executive who had some differences with Bruce. The executive rearranged the staffing and Bruce was out of a job. Bruce was angry and upset. He fought hard through every possible channel to get that job back. Bruce was so sure that he belonged in that particular job, doing that particular work. That was where he could use his gift best. After a long hard struggle, Bruce was still out of a job and totally demoralized. He just knew that he wouldn't find another job like that one. So, Bruce pulled the plug. He went through the process of giving his gift for encouragement back to God. Eventually, Bruce moved on to another job. Soon he discovered that his gift of encouragement was being used far more than it had been in the first job. When he talked about it his face glowed. Bruce had given his gift back to God and God had returned it to him in abundance. In pulling the plug, Bruce had learned to trust God more than his gift.

When Abraham's terrible test is over and the angel has intervened in the nick of time, the Bible tells us Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees. He sees a ram caught in the bushes. But what Abraham sees is much more than a ram. Now Abraham really sees. Abraham sees that God will provide. Now Abraham's love for Isaac is first of all love for God. Through this shifted allegiance Abraham's love for his son becomes love for his neighbor, love for God's creation, love for all those that will come after him. The Bible tells us that the love for God that Abraham now has will pass on to all humankind and be a blessing to all the families of the earth. That becomes possible because he loved God first!

Do we dare to do that? I wonder. It's hard enough just to survive when life seems hopeless. Do we dare to pull the plug, give what little we have left, and trust that God will be there?

There was another time when a son was offered up, a time when God's tank was empty. When God's Son was offered up, there was no ram for a substitute. On the cross, we see the self-emptying love of God. In Jesus, God has opened the floodgates of heaven to pour down all the oil from on high to fill us empty people up again. That's what Wally Gaines' grandmother knew. We do too. Amen.


1. Anne Lamotte, Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books,1999), pp.162-163.

2. Elie Wiesel, Messengers Of God (New York: Random House, 1976).

3. Harry Freedman and Maurice Simon, eds., Midrash Rabbah (London: Soncino, 1961, Vol. 1), p. 486.
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