Look at the Child

Luke 2:22-40

“Simeon and Anna Praise the infant Jesus” by Arent de Gelder (1645 – 1727)

I grew up in Michigan’s Bible Belt. Not quite the same as the bible belt that runs through the south, but the streets rolled up on Sundays because all the businesses were closed kind. My own religious history is somewhat unique, and confusing for those who haven’t lived that kind of experience. Anyway, that’s something for another time, but if you’re ever curious, I’m happy to talk about it. 

So I grew up in Michigan’s Bible Belt. I didn’t grow up evangelical, but there were surely evangelical influences in my community. This often came to the fore during Advent, or what everyone else knows as the secular Christmas season. Christmas is a season, it is just after Christmas day not before it. During December, there are all sorts of other things for Americans, particularly evangelicals to get worked up about. There was the “don’t x out Christ” way to oppose writing Xmas, which, of course, is not that at all, but X is the first letter of the Greek word Christos, which means Christ, and X is, itself, an acceptable abbreviation for Christ. There’s also “happy holidays” versus “Merry Christmas,” despite the fact that the word “holiday” is derived from holy day. People are divided on the virgin birth, people remind us that the stable in first century palestine was actually part of the house and not a separate shed out back, and so we imagine it wrong. Was there a star? What kind of star? Who were the magi? Were there only three, or more? Whence did they come? Could things in the story happen like that? And do you remember the bit of very one-sided controversy a few years ago over the Starbucks cup that was just red and didn’t say Merry Christmas? Oh, the so-called war on Christmas. Which is, itself, the war on Christmas, but that is another discussion. And even apart from the controversies, there’s trees and wreaths and ornaments and tinsel, oh, so very much tinsel, and lights, and the consumerism, and there’s oh, so much to look at and focus on. 

People look all sorts of things, but in all these things, it seems that no one is actually looking at the child, the flesh and blood occupant of the manger.


Lest we think that Christmas is over, we’ve got more than a week of Christmas left, we find ourselves in a scene which is not as moving as the manger and the shepherds and the angels, and is certainly not as well known. In fact, we only find it in Luke’s telling. 

We have here Simeon, and he is a rather shadow-y figure, since he only shows up once. We know he’s old, how old, we do not know. Tradition holds that he was somewhere between 270 and 360 years old. Now, there are reasons for this tradition, and immediately we get caught up in the details: how could someone live that long? And in getting caught up in the details we often miss the bigger point. What we can be confident of is that he is old, and that he has been waiting for something for a long time. 

Simeon isn’t noted to be a priest, rather that he was a righteous and devout man, that the Holy Spirit rested on him, and that he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” He was looking forward to the consolation of Israel. Someone who would set things right, who would bring healing to a hurting people, looking forward to when the cosmos are made right. 

And he was told that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s anointed. 

And so Simeon, seemingly in the temple because that is what he does. There’s nothing special about this day, nothing special about what Mary and Joseph and Jesus are doing, here, this was quite a normal thing for a family to do. The sacrifice that they make is the offering for people who are poor, so they are clearly of no particular standing. And the temple was always bustling with activity, it was like the city commons, people where there, and people from all over could be in the outermost court, even those who were not Jews. And so there is no particular reason why this family would have been in any way remarkable. 

But Simeon, we are told, was guided by the Holy Spirit to go to the temple at the moment when the family was completing their religious duty, and something amazing happens. In this unremarkable moment with this seemingly unremarkable family this aged man, whether you believe that he’s 360 or 270 or a normal old age, this aged man, sees the thing for which we waited for his entire life, the thing for which he looked forward to. Finally, this an was able to see that which would bring the consolation of Israel. And in his aged hands, probably spotted with age and perhaps twisted with arthritis, but this aged man holds this baby and affirms that he is now able to depart for his work has been accomplished, for “my eyes have seen [God’s] salvation.” 

And all Simeon did was show up at the temple, and look, and pay attention, and listen to God’s urging. 

I almost imagine tears of joy streaming from his eyes as he sees the fulfillment of his life’s journey, and which he holds in his arms. 

And then we see Anna, another prophet, who was also advanced in years, long been a widow, and had dedicated herself to the service of God, and we are told that she began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 

And here we have two movements, recognition and telling. Because Simeon wasn’t the only person who was looking for the redemption of his people, others were as well. And Simeon recognized the salvation that he held in his hands, and Anna could not, nor did she want to, keep the news of this salvation to herself, but she praised God and spoke to people about what she had seen, told all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 


And so we find ourselves in Christmas, when everyone else thinks Christmas is over, and there’s actually something nice about that. No Santas in the mall and no I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas on the radio, and even Hallmark has moved on. The gifts are unwrapped the wassail is gone and the tinsel is starting to come down. 

And it allows us some space to us to think about what we are looking forward to. The restoration that we have been looking toward. We may not have quite the years that Simeon had, but we carry weight with us, as well. The end of secular Christmas allows us to listen to the promptings of the Spirit, to show up, and to look, to pay attention, and to see, even in the most unexpected, and perhaps unlikely places, the salvation of God. 

May we be like Simeon and never give up. And when we stop looking at all the other things around us, and we look at the child, we can look to the One who meets all the hopes and fears of all the years. And may we be like Anna and talk about this child, and who this child will grow up to be, and still is, to all who are, themselves, looking for redemption, even if what they long for is not identified exactly in that way. Our world longs for redemption, we look forward to redemption. We look forward to justice, to peace, to wholeness. We look forward to a time in which inequality is eliminated, oppression and injustice cease, when wars no longer rage, and it is in the promise that this child holds that all of this can be found and ultimately accomplished. And may we give thanks to God when we get a glimpse of salvation, even in the seeming unlikely places, and may we speak of this glimpse of salvation to a world which longs for redemption. 

Restoration Amidst the Ruins

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

I am fascinated by ruins. I think it started where I grew up. I grew up in a small town that used to be a fairly sizeable community, but as the nearby city continued to grow and expand, and as more people started working there, the community began to decline, as well. It’s not a unique story, it’s a story which has played out in countless communities across the nation, and we might even be able to recognize some of that even more close to home.

The main industry in town was once a sawmill. There was a river that went right through was dammed up, and that provided power for the mill, and the logs would float down the river. I’ve seen old pictures of that sawmill, and it was a significant industry. By the time I was born, the sawmill was long gone, but there were still remnants of it, not the least of which was the dam, that had been broken down over the years and became a waterfall. As a child, we spent a lot of time down by the river — which makes me sound a bit like a hillbilly, when I think about it— but anyway we often went to the river to fish. On the other side of the river from the public access, there was still the foundations of a building, and sometimes when the river level was low enough, the water wouldn’t make it over the dam, and you could actually walk on it. And I would love to walk out on it and what is usually covered by water is what looked to be stairs, going from, what looked like just the river, and leading up to, what at that point was just the upper part of the river. Down below the waterfall were big chunks of stone and concrete. I spent a lot of time looking at all that, wondering what it was like, wondering how these pieces fit together, wondering what it was like when the sawmill was still there. As I got older, and started doing some historical digging I found some photos of what it was like, and I would make copies of the pictures and take them down to the river and try to recreate them in my mind. 

Finding ruins fascinating is not unique to me, not at all, a lot of people like it. I like ruins because I like to imagine what once was, try to imagine in my mind what it would have been like in its heyday. One of the first things that I often do when I move to a new place, is to try to find all the backroads and side-streets. The largely abandoned places that look like they were forgotten by time. It helps to get a sense of not only where a place is, but where a place was. And I would wonder what this place was, and I would imagine what it must have been like, and often, I go and do research and try to put the pieces together. Perhaps in some way, it is also a way to honor these places that feel so forgotten, by trying to remember the life that had been there, the people who had spent their lives there. And so it is fascinating, but it’s also deeply sad. 

It’s deeply sad because these ruins were something. Maybe they were businesses. In days gone by, someone would start young working for a company, and they would be able to spend their entire careers there. They felt like they mattered the company, and the company respected them and cared for them. A lot of these ruins date to that era. And so this was a place where so many generations of people had spent their lives, and they worked and earned money to buy a home, and maybe grow a family, and retire in a respectable manner. It was a place teeming with life and conversation. Perhaps they were a row of homes, and these homes saw the fullness of domestic life. Saw families come in and out, saw families grow and shrink. Absorbed laughter and tears. 

Perhaps it was an old church building. Maybe it was a church that closed, or a church that moved from the city when the population became less white and people were scared and left the cities in droves. Church buildings are places where people encounter the Divine, where they are baptized and incorporated into the body of Christ which extends beyond time and space. Churches are where people gather around the sacramental table and encounter the living Christ in a tangible way. Churches are places where people, for generations, sing and pray and weep and express joy and everything in between. But these church buildings are just shells of what once happened there, with only the echoes of the past remaining. 

And so these are also deeply sad places, because they are windows not just to the past, but they are windows to what used to be, and what used to be is much more painful than the past. 


We find ourselves again, now, in the final part of Isaiah, after the exiles have begun returning. And this wasn’t just a city that they moved to, this was the place that was given to their ancestors by God, this was their ancestral homeland and the sign of God’s presence and favor. It was returning to this place that kept many people going in exile. While in exile, some focused on looking to the future and making a life for them where they were, and they stayed where they were. But others so badly longed to go back to their ancestral homeland, and as often happens, I think they probably wanted to go back to the glory days about which they heard stories, or for the older people, that they remembered from their youth. And few things are more painful than trying to return to a history that once was–or as is usually the case, once was in one’s nostalgic memory, but never quite in reality. 

And so they would come back and what they found was a shell of what once was. It wasn’t empty, people lived there the whole time, but the glory days of the kingdom were long gone, and there was no way of rebuilding the once grand structures that were there. And so they sought to try to recreate what once stood there, and recreating something is never quite possible, and recreating something legendary is impossible. And so no matter how much they would work, they never seemed to be able to rebuild the land to the glory that once was there—or that they remembered there through their rose colored glasses. 

And so what we have here is not the initial shock and devastation of the invasion of Babylon, this is the, perhaps, more painful reality that they will never go home again. They are in a place that looks a bit like home, that echoes of home, that rhymes like home, but what they had wanted to get back to doesn’t exist any longer. They can go to the place where home was, they can build buildings that look like their home, but the realization that they can never truly go home is an incredibly painful and sobering reality to try to live into. 

And this is the context into which the prophet speaks these words. With these words, the prophet is seeking to draw the people into the future, rather than trying to recreate a past. Now, let me be clear, a future includes the past, so future and past are not opposites, but rather it the question of whether our orientation is forward while knowing where we came from, or is our orientation trying to grasp at a past which cannot ever be reclaimed. And so I imagined that it felt like it was hopeless and filled with despair looking at the world that has collapsed in on itself. 


We don’t have to look far around us to see ruins. Literal or metaphorical. I know that I felt it when I picked up the Enterprise this week to see the word that the Home Front isn’t coming back. I know most of us knew this, but it’s different to hear the final word. This place, after all, has long held such an integral part of our community. The village has vacant lots where life once teemed, and main street is seeing a third vacant building along with the former Key Bank and the former Veronica’s. 

Not that our community is in ruins, but there is, for many of us, remnants of the community which once was, but is not, and probably won’t exactly be again. 

Over the course of this pilgrimage with the pandemic, our church community has lost people significant to our church, pillars of our community, who were here when we were together, but will not be with us when we can gather again. And ruins are not just physical, but familial and emotional, as well. 

We look around us and our church is smaller, and our communities don’t teem with life as they once did, and our family circles are missing more people, and the economy is shaky, at best, and the schools might not be as good as they once were, and it feels like we are looking at ruins of a once proud city. 

But the prophet came to them, not to cover their eyes from what they saw, but to try to open the vision to a new future. A future which includes the past but is something new, different, renewed. 

They shall build up the ancient ruins, and they shall raise up the former devestations; they shall repair ruined cities…

And so the prophet invites them into a future, yet unseen, but a future which can be imagined, even in spite of what they see. And this is the call of Advent. Advent welcomes us not to the sentimentality of mulled cider and spiced candles and roasting chestnuts over an open fire, but Advent welcomes us into a vision of wholeness and restoration for the entire cosmos. We are invited to imagine a reality yet unseen, a reality in which looks like a lush garden, when all we see is an arid desert. This was the hope for the ancient people so long ago, and this is the hope for us, too, the completion of a hope that began with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, and the hope that continues to call us forward, in joy, even among ruins. With the confidence that the ruins are not the final word. 

The Great Multitude of the Saints

Revelation 7:9-17

All Saints’ Day is a day I feel. It’s a day I feel in my bones, in the deepest recesses of my being. It’s also a day that I have a hard time talking about. And I think it’s because there’s something ineffable about it, something which can best be experienced, best be sung, rather than expounded upon with words. But here we are. And words are what I have, or am supposed to have.

I think this year is harder, as well, because it is much more raw than in other years. Since this day last year, we, as a church have lost three pillars of this congregation, and personally, I have lost two significant people in my life, and so this is still very open for me right now too.

But this is the mixed blessing of All Saints’ Day, is that it invites us into this space, it invites us to remember, and to celebrate, but even more than this, it invites us to look beyond the veil, and this passage from the Revelation does just that. 

Revelation usually brings up images of fear and war and destruction, and all that. But this is what happens when only part of the Revelation is read. Indeed, it is a single narrative unit from beginning to end, and when you realize that the community for whom this was written was one in which it seemed as though the world was falling apart, and the Revelation, in part, helps to put this experience into a broader context, and when you read it from beginning to end, you can see the comforting and hopeful direction of this enigmatic text. 

The text before us is an amazing sight. We are given an image of an innumerable multitude. Uncountable. If you listen closely, perhaps you hear echoes from early in the Sacred Texts, at the very beginning of the story of the people of God, all the way back to Abraham. Abraham was unsure of what was going to happen, and God asked Abraham to step out of his tent and look to the night sky. And with no tall trees and no glow of street lights, the stars were just that much brighter. I imagine that it would have felt as though Abraham was surrounded by stars as they reached across the horizon as far as the eye could see. And this, God said, this is how many your descendants will be. I always imagine Abraham starting to count, 1…2…3…but giving up when he realized that it is impossible, that it is uncountable. And here, on the other side of the Bible in this vision to John the Seer, exiled on the Island of Patmos, we have this vision of a great multitude that no one could count. 

But what is so amazing about this, is not just that it is a lot of people, but that it is people of every nation, all tribes, peoples languages. A multitude representative of the diversity of humanity that God created all together, in one place, standing before the Christ, robed in white, waving palm branches in their hands in celebration, in triumph, in worship. 

We are told that these are those who have come from the great ordeal. They are the ones who have now entered into the rest awaiting those who have completed the journey of the life of faith, the struggles of the church militant, and this is an image of the church triumphant. 

Indeed, these people are the saints. And these are the people we remember on All Saints’ Day. 


When we hear the term “saints,” we usually think of super-Christians, those who were better than the rest of us. And lest we think that saints are just a Roman Catholic thing, we need to look no further than St. John’s Lutheran Church to see that the Reform movement of the sixteenth century did not get rid of the concept of the saints, but rather, returned it to the fullness of its meaning. In the Latin creed we profess that we believe in the communion of Saints. But the saints are not just people with names like Francis of Assisi, or Benedict of Nursia, or Lucy, the namesake of the community of our Roman Catholic siblings here in the village. But the saints include people with names like Martha, and Henry. Margaret and Harriet, Alanson and Jim.

And today is the day that we remember and give thanks for those saints who have gone before, those saints who have completed the journey, who have gone through the great ordeal. Those saints who now stand in the great multitude with brilliantly bright robes, with palm branches in their hands. 

But this is not all, for we see not only the saints of all places and all times, but we also see a perfected reality, a reality that was originally intended, and which will be brought to completion. 

“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”


But today, we not only remember the saints, we also have an experience with them. The sacrament which we celebrate today is not only something that invites us to remember, but most importantly to experience. The Holy Supper is that moment when we are lifted up into the heavens to commune with Christ, and the saints of all times and all places. The sacrament, then, is the time in which we sit at the table with all the saints, when we are bound together with them as an organic whole, with Christ as the head holding the whole thing together. 

I remember a story told to my by Allan, one of the saints that I remember this day. When his father died, Allan went to the monastery nearby. He went to celebrate the sacrament because he so badly wanted to be with his father again, and it was that sacramental moment which brought him close again. And this sacramental moment does the same for us. It unites us with one another, but it stretches even beyond the grave to unite the people of God, from every nation, people, tribe, and language. And within that multitude, that multitude too great to count, if you look closely, you might see faces that you recognize, with names that you recognize. Names like Allan and Gregg, and Jackie, and Newt, and Joel—and so many more. 

And let us continue “forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” And that when we finish our part of the journey, that we might also take our place amongst that beautifully diverse multitude, that we might wash our robes in the blood of the Lamb only to find them even more brilliant than before, as we take up our palm branch and join our voices with the saints. “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Life from the Lifeless

Exodus 17:1-7

“Is the LORD among us or not?”

This, I think, speaks to the heart of the matter, not just for this particular story, but the grand story as well. 

This is what was at the root of their worry when they found themselves between an army and a sea, this was at the root when they arrived at Marah to refill their water skins only to find out that the water was undrinkable and they complained to Moses. This was the root when they were out of food and they complained to Moses. This is the root here when they arrive at a camp, and find that there is no water and they complain to Moses again. Moses understandably gets frustrated, because none of this was his idea, he was kind of pushed into this whole thing kicking and screaming. 

They took up their beef with Moses because he was there. He was leading them. He was flesh and blood and they could see him and hear him. But their complaints weren’t really with Moses, and I wonder if they knew it deep down, too. Their complaints were with God. 

And so it gets to the question “is the LORD among us or not?”

It’s a question that is asked so many times, with varying objects. 

It is a salient question now, as well, with the pandemic, with the social unrest, with the cultural clash, the political firestorm. The economy is  still tenuous and much of life is uncertain. Is the Lord among us, or not? 


At times, we find ourselves looking at the Israelites in the wilderness in a negative way. Looking down on them. Assuming that, if we were in their shoes, we would understand what was going on. We would be able to trust in God. We would get it. 

But if we focus on the Israelites and their testing and their complaints, I wonder if we are missing the point. On the one hand, of course, these complaints are extremely valid. In that region, you get dehydrated without even realizing it. The dry desert air almost wicks moisture out of your body, and even before you realize that you’re thirsty, you are violently ill and in need of IV fluids. And so this was a legitimate concern, because without water, they will die. But, on the other hand, I wonder if the point is not so much the people and their character, but the character of God. I wonder if the point of the story is God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. I wonder if the point is that God can take their complaining, their testing, their questioning, their doubting. I wonder if the point is that rather than sending plagues to punish them, God sends them water — God sends them life. 

I wonder if the amazing thing, the big thing is not so much the fact that God provides water, but that God provided water from a rock. That God brought forth life in the middle of a lifeless desert. That living water can gush forth from something as seemingly lifeless as a rock. 

And this is the amazing thing. Water comes from a rock, a valley of dry bones come back to life, a people who are nearly obliterated continue to exist. And a dead man can come back to life three days later. God can bring life to a place which seems otherwise lifeless. We saw last week that miracles and gifts can show up in unexpected ways and the same remains true here as well. 

But I wonder if we have the same questions. If we have the same wonderings. “Is the LORD among us or not?” 

We may not be in need of water here in the northeast, but we most certainly have times when we wonder if God is among us. Is God with us? Is God going to show up? Is God going to remain with us? Or will God, at some point give up on us? 


And so the ancient people wanted a sign. They wanted confirmation that God was with them. And so they received water. Rather than the manna which left them looking at it and each other and saying, “what is it?” the Israelites now received something closer to what they had in mind this time. But even more important, I think, than the water was the way that it came. 

And it is out of this, out of this rock, this seemingly lifeless rock that streams of living water poured. Abraham and Sarah had a child long after that ship had sailed. Hebrews tells us that these two people were “as good as dead,” and from them a nation came. St. John tells us that when Jesus was being crucified, his side was pierced and water and blood flowed out, water came from near lifelessness. And after three days, life emerged from the dark and cold abyss of death. 

The answer to the question, “Is the LORD among us or not” is not so much in the thing, but in the thing signified. Not so much in the water itself, but in the life from a barren place. 

And so we are invited into this as well. Not demanding that water pour out of a rock, but we are invited into seeing God’s work of bringing life out of seemingly lifeless places. 

The signs of the Divine abound around us. The invitation for us is to notice them. To step aside, as Moses did which got this whole thing moving, and notice. To notice these signs of life. 

Because if we can see some of these, if we can pay attention to them, notice them. Perhaps we can find the trust in God’s limitless love and faithfulness. Perhaps we can come to see that God will not tire of us and leave us behind, that God will journey with us whether we traverse the desert, or a lush vineyard. 

And perhaps we will be able to help others to see this life which can spring from the unlikeliest of places. And I wonder, where might new life be springing in you? Where might life be gushing out around you? Where might there be a river of life flowing from a place which is tired and seemingly lifeless? In you? In your family? In our communities? In our church? 

Where in the midst of all this arid space, when we are tired and weary and stressed and burned out, even now, might there be life flowing in or around us?

I think of this great hymn, the text of which was written by William Williams in 1745:

Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty,
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.

Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield;
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield.

“Is the LORD among us or not?”

This is an honest question. And this is a fine question. This is a question that we ought not be too afraid or too timid to ask. Asking the question isn’t the difficult part. The challenge for us, is can we look and listen for the answer?

God the Liberator

Exodus 12:1-14

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

In the Jewish ritual of the Passover, this question is asked by the youngest child present. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” It is a scripted question, designed to help teach about the meaning of Passover, not all that different from the question and answer format of the Heidelberg Catechism. 

We reënter the story, again, after some time has elapsed. Last week we saw God call out to Moses from a bush that was burning but was not consumed. After some back and forth, Moses acquiesces to God’s call and makes his way to Egypt. And Moses meets Aaron, who will be his voice before Pharaoh.

But Pharaoh, thought to be a god in flesh, and the ruler of the greatest superpower of the region didn’t buy it. “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” And he hardened his heart and he made a horrible situation worse. Moses and Aaron return, and to try to prove his point, Aaron threw down his staff, and it became a snake, but Pharaoh’s magicians did the same thing. We are told that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. 

We then read of a series of plagues that God used to warn Pharaoh and the Egyptians, for God to show that Pharaoh is no god, that Pharaoh is no match for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Each time, Moses goes to Pharaoh and calls for Pharaoh to liberate the ancient people of God, and each time Pharaoh refuses. And so the plagues come. Water turned into blood, yet Pharaoh’s magicians could replicate this, and his heart was hardened. Second came the frogs, which covered the land, and Pharaoh’s magicians could do the same, and his heart was hardened. And the dust of the earth became gnats, and the magicians could not do this, and said, “this is the finger of God,” but Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. Then the flies, the livestock would become diseased and died. The people were inflicted by boils, and then hail, and finally locusts descended and devoured every living thing. Each time Pharaoh’s heart grew harder and harder. Until finally the final plague was announced, and this brings us to our reading today. 

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”


This was the start, this was new beginning, this was new creation. This moment would be one of the most formational moments in the history of the people of God. 

And yet, this moment was not really one of celebration, it was not a moment of joy. It was also a time of great suffering. It was a time of chaos, it was messy, it was disorderly. And this is the paradox of the passover, which, in many ways, mimics the paradox of the faith. The tension of the journey of faith. The mixed blessing. 

To return to the Jewish passover ritual, some of the wine is taken out of the glass while they are recounting the story. A bit for each of the plagues, to always remember that while this was something that gained freedom for the ancient people, this also caused great suffering for others, and we ought not rejoice in the suffering of others, even while we remember the freedom for the ancient people, indeed for us, which is just on the horizon. 

And so in twilight, in the space between day and night, in the space between days, between today and tomorrow, lambs are sacrificed and shared while God finishes the showdown of sorts between God and Pharaoh. 

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

This moment, this moment is the liberation of the captives, the freeing of the slaves. Rather than a great and powerful nation, God called out to a nomadic herder in his old age, and made a covenant, God continued to stay with this ragtag group of people who were absolutely nothing in the eyes of anyone. Even in the midst of slavery, God continued to be the God of this people, this people who were beat down, who were captives, who were weak, powerless, poor. This people remained the people of God and it is at this moment that God will effect their liberation. 

And this is what God continues to call the people’s minds back to. God rarely called their minds back to creation, “I am the God who created all of this,” nor does God often remind them of Noah and the flood, nor does God even remind them that God approached Abram and claimed him before he even knew what was going on. No, God continually calls back their minds to the fact that God freed them from slavery in Egypt. And so God is the creator, God is the covenantor, but most of all, God is the liberator.

Time and time again God reminds God’s people that they — we — were slaves and that God brought them — us — out. We are to remember that we are not God’s people because we did anything to deserve it, not because we were strong, powerful, rich, mighty. But perhaps just the opposite. Because we were poor and enslaved and oppressed. 

Just as God brought the ancient people out of their misery so long ago, so does God visit us in the depths of our misery, in the depths of our Egypt and brings us out. 

This story of the ancient people of God can resonate in our lives in so many ways. Both personally and collectively. This is another liminal experience, quite literally, at twilight when the whole system is set into motion. Twilight, of course, is the space between days. And they find themselves a different people between the sunset and sunrise. But this space of in-between brings echoes of another time in which Israel, or at least the one who would become Israel, wrestled with a man/an angel/God through the night until daybreak. The liminal space is often one of struggle, tension, conflict. 

Freedom for Jacob from the captivity of his own self and ambition didn’t come without this battle, freedom for the ancient people of God from slavery didn’t come without this messy and disorderly experience to peel back the strong grip of Pharoah. 

I think about us, as a people, as a nation, and wonder if we find ourselves in a similar liminal space, with something on the horizon. At the same time as there are cries for order and civility, those who are struggling under the weight of centuries of oppression remind us that freedom never comes without a struggle against the powers of evil that brought about the oppression in the first place. 

I think about us as individuals, as we so often find ourselves in liminal spaces of varying sorts. New life does not come easily into the world, but never without struggle, pain, tears, sweat, and blood. The liminal spaces are never easy places to be, but we are never left alone in them. The point is not to fight against them, but to cling to the God who has promised to lead us through them into the next chapter of the grand story. 

“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

God continually reminds the people that God led them out of slavery so that they would remember, that they would have compassion, and that they would also join God in the work of justice and liberation. “Do not oppress a stranger,” we read, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We are to remember that God is the God of all, but in a special way, the God of the poor, the enslaved, the oppressed, the wronged. And because God has brought and is bringing us out of Egypt, we are called to visit other people in their Egypt, those people who are enslaved spiritually and emotionally, or those people who are literally enslaved, still today. 

That just as God stands with the poor and the oppressed and the captive and the wronged, so must we. 

And this is who we are, we are a people who were enslaved, but have been freed. We were a people who were captives, but have been liberated. We are a people who have been given a new start, a new beginning, a new identity, something else to form our identity around. Whereas the ancient people may have counted their calendar from their slavery, they are now to begin the calendar, to begin their year with liberation, albeït a mixed blessing. And so, we, too, are invited to find our identity not in those things which torment us, those things which hold us captive, but we are invited to find our identity in Christ, who came to us and led us out. And to live as liberated and freed people, we are called to join God in God’s work of liberation. Liberation for the lost and lonely, liberation for the poor, liberation for people in our own nation who are both oppressed, held down, and people here and around the world who are in modern day slavery. 

And at its core, this is what the church is. The ministry of the church is one of liberation, of freeing people from what which constricts, that which binds, that which hinders, both figurative and literal. And just as we are being loosed of our chains, we also help to remove the chains of others. 

And this, sisters and brothers, is the good news of the gospel. Good news into which we are invited. The question is phrased, “why is this night different from all other nights?” not “why is that night different…” It is something into which we are invited not only to remember, but to experience anew, that when we gather and we hear the scriptures, and we see the font to remind us of our baptism, and when we see the table around which we gather when we commemorate another night when Jesus gathered with his disciples for a meal, and both of these remind us of that freedom, that liberation which God has and is accomplishing for us, for others, truly, for the life of the world.

The Thin Place of Liminality

Genesis 32:22-31

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel by Louis Leloir, 1865.

I have heard from people in some form of recovery, usually from alcohol, and often they share a similar kind of experience. The first time that they are on their way to a meeting, or to a substance abuse counselor, is usually the most terrifying moment. It is a time in which one is in transition from dependence to sobriety, from an old life to a new life. It is a time in which something is going to be different, but the individual has no idea what that different way of being will look like. It is the space between spaces, it is a threshold experience. It is a liminal space. 

This is one of the clearest examples of such a space, though it is certainly not the only one. You have experienced many liminal spaces. Perhaps it is the morning after college graduation and you realize that you don’t have class to go to, or papers to write, or the first time you bring a new baby home from the hospital and you sit down and look at this tiny and helpless human, and you look around you and think, “okay, now what”, or the first day of retirement when you wake up early as you often do, but as you lay in bed you realize that there is no work to go to today, and there isn’t tomorrow either, and now you have to find a new way to exist in the world. These are but a few. The relative comfort of the known behind you, the uneasiness of the unknown ahead of you. 

Today we not only find a thin place, that is, a place where the Divine and human meet, and here in a very physical, tangible, and visceral way, but also a liminal space in many ways. It is the liminal space of the space between days, and it is the liminal space of a transition in Jacob’s life. Remember, Jacob had fled after he stole Esau’s blessing, and Esau was out for him. He has this dream at a place he names Bethel. He continues on to the land of the East, and the term “the east” is a recurring one. When the human progenitors were driven from the garden, the story goes, they were driven to the East. Abraham was taken from the east to the land of Canaan. And now Jacob travels to the East. He goes to Haran, to his mother’s brother–his uncle. There he falls in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel (for those doing a mental genogram, that is his cousin), and ends up marrying her sister Leah instead and then stays and works longer, and then marries Rachel. Between his two wives and two concubines he had a boatload of kids while there, and those kids will be particularly important a little later in the narrative. I know, this is a really dysfunctional family. Jacob cuts a deal with Laban for a subset of his livestock, and through a really strange breeding program that Laban, apparently, found to be unfair, though to be fair, Laban wasn’t quite so honest and forthright with Jacob either. 

So there’s a bit of a family rift there, and he packed everyone up to head back home, though the departure was something of a surprise to Laban. Laban finds out that Jacob high-tailed it out of here, and he chased him for seven days until he, and his entourage, overtook Jacob and his entourage. They met, had a heart to heart, and made an agreement with one another, and both went their separate ways. Jacob is coming home, and he sends messengers to tell Esau and gifts to Esau ahead of his arrival. 

And this is where we are right now. 


This is a hingepoint in Jacob’s life. He has spent his life fleeing from others, and now he has started to make amends. He had spent a good portion of his life away from home, and now he’s going back home. 

He sends across all of his family, all of his servants, all of his things, and for some reason, he stays on the other side of the river. The reason why is not really known, and not really our concern right now. But we are told he was left alone and that a man wrestled with him. This is particularly strange because we don’t know anything else. We don’t know where this man came from, or why he is wrestling, but simply that he is wrestling. 

Jacob is turning a page in his life, and leaving behind his life with Laban, and at the same time, he is leaving behind his life of cheating. Jacob has set his intent on going ahead, but has not yet crossed over that line, over the Jabbok river. He is alone, and it is night, that is, he is in the small space between days. In more ways than one, Jacob finds himself on a threshold, in a liminal space. And we are told that a man wrestled with him through the night. 

Day is breaking, and we are in that moment of twilight, the liminal space between light and dark. Daybreak, that is an important time on biblical stories as well as folktales.  Jacob wrestled with all his might and the man did not prevail over Jacob, and we are told that he struck Jacob’s hip socket and put it out of joint. The man asked to be let go because day is breaking, and Jacob replied that he would not let go unless the man blessed him. He’s not going to go through this wrestling for nothing, he is going to wrestle a blessing out of it. 

And the man asks his name, and the mysterious man, who we learn later is none other than God Godself, gives him a new name, Israel — to struggle or strive with God — for he has striven against God and humans and has prevailed. And this might just seem like a story to explain why the people of Israel are called such, but I think it’s much more than that. We see a few places where God changes someone’s name. Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Simon to Peter, and Jacob to Israel. And just as Jacob strove with God and humans, so also the people of God are the people who strive with God and with humans. Thinking of it this way makes us think a little differently, I think, of what it means to be the people of God. 

He named the place Peniel, which means “face of God” because he has seen God face to face. We are told that the sun rose upon him as he passed—having made it past and through that liminal space, the dawn of a new day breaking—limping because of his hip. 


This is one of my absolute favorite stories in the Bible, and has been meaningful to me for years, since I was in high school, actually. I found myself in a faith struggle of my own, and my church had a seminary student as an intern, and I talked to him about my struggle, and he encouraged me not to shy away from it, but like Jacob, to lean into it and to wrestle a blessing out of it. 

There is something significant about these liminal spaces, and, at least in my experience, we don’t pay much attention to them, we just seek to get past them. The Franciscan Richard Rohr describes liminal spaces as those moments when one has left the tried and true but has not replaced it yet with anything else. It is a time when anxiety tends to be high, when if you pay attention, your gut is churning, and you find you don’t know how to be. Some of these can be a good kind of anxiety, the kind that brings hopeful expectation. Others are the terrifying kind of anxiety, where you feel lost and alone. Alone. Like Jacob was on the bank of the Jabbok River. 

And those in-between experiences, those moments of standing on a threshold, those liminal experiences can feel like a wrestling match. Perhaps we are wrestling with ourselves, the part of yourself that wants to turn back, and the part of yourself that wants to step through that door wrestling together to see which path you will take. Maybe even you are wrestling with the Divine, as you seek to wrestle a blessing out of the moment, out of the situation, out of the struggle. 

And when the sun rises, as it does, if you look closely, in the twilight of the morning, you might notice that the place where you are standing is Peniel, and that you, too, have striven with God and humans. And like Jacob, you may find that you have not made it through unscathed. Though it will heal, and with time it may become more of a souvenir than an injury, a reminder of what you came through. 

And so, sisters and brothers, lean into the liminal places when you find them. Lean into the fearful and anxious. Lean into the times of transition, the times of in-between. Because if you look closely, it may be when the Divine is so close so as to touch.

Ordinary Scene in an Extraordinary Story

A sermon delivered to the Altamont Reformed Church on 5 July 2020

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

A story is told about a man who lived in a town by a river. The rains came and it rained and rained, and the river crested and before anyone realized it, the town began to flood, even worse, the dam was on the verge of breaking. Most of the townspeople read the signs of the times, and heeded the warnings to evacuate. And so most left for higher ground. But the man didn’t go anywhere, because he knew that God was going to save him. The water continued to rise, and he moved to the second floor of his house, and a boat was going through making sure everyone was out, and they saw him, and they said, “come with us!” and the man waved them off, “God will save me!” he shouted back. But the water kept rising. And eventually, he moved to the attic. Since they knew he was there, another rescue team was sent. They saw him in the window in the attic, and they said, “Come with us! You’re going to drown!” and the man waved them off again, and said, “God will save me!”. The water kept rising. The man moved to the roof, and finally a helicopter was sent, but the man waved off the helicopter, “God will save me!” the man shouted. Well, the man drowned. When he saw God, he asked, “why didn’t you save me?” And God replied, “I sent two boats and a helicopter! What more did you want?”

Perhaps you’ve heard that story before, it’s certainly not my own invention. But it speaks to how we often think about God’s action, right? God is so often only for those things that we don’t understand. God only works through supernatural means with special effects. Maybe the man would have thought that the water would have stopped, or maybe he would have imagined that he would have a protective bubble around him, that would keep from the water? I mean, these are the types of things we expect when God is involved, that it has to be something like this, something which is not otherwise explainable. 

Right? And this is part of the problem. Because we know much of how the natural world works. We know why the sun comes up, and it has nothing to do with a divine battle, and everything to do with the rotation of celestial bodies held together by gravity. Things like procreation are pretty amazing, but we also understand how that works. We understand what causes diseases, even if we cannot always cure them. We can even gain more insight about evolutionary processes. For those who insist that God is the answer to those things we don’t understand, then the more that is understood, the more that God is squeezed out. If God is only there to explain those things that we don’t understand, then we do one of two things: we either reject knowledge and understanding because we are afraid that it eliminates the need for God; or, we reject God because we no longer need a deity to explain the things we don’t understand, because we understand more. 

I don’t think you have to think too long before you can imagine examples of both of these. I have seen incredible numbers of documentaries seeing to explain the things that seem miraculous in the Bible, so as to help us reason our way out of a belief in a deity. I’ve seen someone try to explain the plagues and explain the passage through the sea, I’ve even seen one that tried to explain that the whole sojourn through the wilderness was led not by God but, obviously, by aliens. 

Of course, as if often the case, I think that both of these are wrong, and they are wrong because they are both predicated on the same misunderstanding about God: that God only does things that we don’t understand. And when we spend our time trying to figure out: is this explainable and therefore just a natural process, or is this not explainable and therefore attributable to Divine intervention, we are completely missing the entire point. 


In our path through Genesis, we have seen God speaking clearly enough that Abraham is going to move to the other side of his world because he was told to. We see God telling them that God will make a nation from his descendants, we see God reiterate this promise. Abraham argued with God, and we see God very clearly in the forefront of much of this story. It can almost make us think that this is how things go. 

But here, if you look closely, you see something different. 

Our reading takes pieces because this story is long, it’s the longest chapter in Genesis. We pick up after Sarah had died. Abraham was old and near death. But we have a problem. Isaac does not yet have a wife. But there’s a problem. On the one hand, God took Abraham from his home and sent him to this land. On the other hand, he now finds that he is living amongst other people, other people who follow different gods and different ways. And so here, we must understand that we are also seeing a great deal of cultural impact as well, and it is important that we do not read into this some kind of prescription or normativity. In the time, one usually married within one’s clan, there were a host of reasons for that, but it needs to be clear that this is not a prescription for how things ought to be. 

So Abraham doesn’t want Isaac to intermarry with the Canaanites, again, complex reasons here, not racial in the way that we understand it, and he doesn’t want Isaac to go back to where he is from, because God brought Abraham from there to a new place, and doesn’t want his descendants to go back, so Abraham enlists a servant to go find Isaac a wife. Again, cultural context, not prescriptive. 

So his head servant heads off to Aram-naharim, to Abraham’s kindred, to find a wife for Isaac. Yes kindred. Remember, cultural context. So the servant heads off, it’s quite a journey when you don’t have a plane, a train, or an automobile. 

So he gets there and he brings the camels to the well. And the village well was the common place for fetching water. And it was around the time when the women would come out to gather the evening supply of water. And I imagine that he was tired, travel weary, and a bit unsure of what to do. But he’s at the watering hole (literally, it is a watering hole), and so he says something, perhaps not unlike what we might do. “O God, let this all go okay. I’m here by the well, when I ask for a drink, and she shares a drink and gets water for the camels, let her be the one.” 

You can read the story. She gives him a drink and then offers to water his camels, and there we go. He explains the situation to her. Then he gives her gold bracelets and a gold nose ring (surely you didn’t think nose rings were a modern invention?), which were classic betrothal gifts, and she goes back to her mother to explain what is going on. The servant explained the whole thing again to her mother and older brother, and invited the servant to spend the night. 

They asked for ten days for Rebekah to figure it out, the servant wanted to get back, and so they called Rebekah and asked, “do you want to do this?” And she said yes. Marriages may have been arranged, but that didn’t mean that the ones being arranged were not consulted. So she agreed, and went back, and the rest, as they say, is history. 


So why on earth would we read this rather unremarkable betrothal story? And why on earth, would the writer spend so much ink on it? Why did they take the longest chapter in Genesis for this? 

I said that this story is different, and I’m not sure if you noticed, but God never says a single thing. The story never reports God doing anything, there are no angels. The whole thing seems, well, rather ordinary. And so on the one hand, this is an important part of the story, because this will be the way for the next generation in this promise, one step closer to the fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham. 

But I also wonder if it is the ordinariness of it that is also crucially important. Because I don’t think that anyone would deny that God was there and working, even if not in front and center. We can’t see it, and I certainly don’t think that the servant’s prayer was some kind of magical incantation that brought this all about. But God was there, in the background, working in ways that we can’t always see, especially in the moment. God was there, working through humans, and human situations, through actual people in history, working with and through them, not as mindless automatons, but in and through who people are. And it is through this ordinary story, that would otherwise be rather unremarkable, but is remarkable because of the story into which it fits, this grand story that includes them but goes vastly beyond them, the story that includes us, as well, in the ordinary moments of our lives which may also be remarkable in ways we may not expect or see. 

We can get a glimpse of the God who is not just in the special effects, but who is also in all the ordinary things, as well. We can see that God can also be in the ordinariness of the two boats and a helicopter, even if we wanted the special effects. And here we can get a glimpse that God is not just for supernatural things or things that we do not understand and cannot explain, but God is upholding this all, working in and through everything, even something ordinary where God never makes an appearance. 

And so, sisters and brothers, let us remember that God works through ordinary people, and through ordinary things. The promise of God is rooted in the reality in which we live, not some mythical reality beyond where we are, even in things so very simple, routine and ordinary. 

Sarah Laughs and Hagar Weeps

Genesis 21:8-21

Before there was a child, there was a promise. A promise which required a child to be fulfilled, but to two people advanced in years, unable to bear children, this promise nonetheless came. At some point, after he was done travelling, Abraham, then Abram, looked around, and considered the fact that the promise that was made to him required children and he did not have any. In a vision, God came to him, and Abram mentioned the problem. He doesn’t have any children, and Eliezer of Damascus was his heir…is this what the plan is? 

God responded that, no, Eliezer is not to be the carrier of the promise, but Abram’s own child will be so. God asked him to step out of the tent, directed Abram to the stars in the sky which reached all the way down the the horizon, and said to Abram, “Count the stars, if you are able…So shall your descendants be.” We are told that Abram believed. ‘

And yet, there was no child. And especially at the time it was assumed that anytime there was a problem with bearing children, the woman was always at fault. And so Sarah, then Sarai, did not want to stand in the way of God’s plans and purposes. And she knew that she could not bear children. And if not her, than someone must in order for him to have a child. So she and Abraham decide to take matters into their own hands to try to bring about God’s promise, and she offers her servant Hagar to be used. 

And so Abram listened to her and Abram and Hagar conceived a child. But soon problems came between Hagar and Sarai. Whether it was real or perceived contempt, we are told that Sarai dealt harshly with Hagar, and Hagar ran away. But God spoke to Hagar and told her to return, for the child that she carries will be the patriarch of a great people, and here God told her to name the child Ishmael, which means “God hears.” And she returned and she gave birth to a son. And Abram named him Ishmael. 

God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son, and Abraham laughs, because it’s a crazy thought, but there will be a second child brought into the world in a home in which no children were supposed to come. But regarding Ishmael, God said, “I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.” Yet, even with this blessing that God will grant to Ishmael, the promise will come from Isaac, who will be born to Sarah.

And into the world came this child, this impossible miracle child born to parents both over ninety years old. 

The narrative moves forward sometime, because we enter the story here when Isaac was weaned, and Abraham prepared a feast. And we can feel the narrative change a bit. No longer is Ishmael named, but he is “the son of Hagar the Egyptian.” And yet while he is not named in this narrative, it is all about him.


At the time of the feast we are told that Sarah saw “the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son — literally, she say the son of Hagar laughing. The irony, of course, is that Isaac’s name means laughter. Abraham laughed, Sarah laughed. But at this point, laughter is not acceptable for this, not young man. Perhaps we want to attribute some sinister motive to Ishmael, something that would make him deserving of this fate. But that cannot be inferred here. 

What is unknown is what pushes Sarah over the edge. Perhaps she sees Ishmael and it dawns on her that he is the oldest son of Abraham, that this boy will be his heir, that this boy will be the bearer of the promise, that this boy, this boy who was brought into the world by her handmaid, this child will be the child. And for some reason, Sarah can no longer stand his existence. She cannot have this boy in her house, she cannot have this boy in her life, she certainly cannot have this boy along with her son. Because this boy is Abraham’s son, but now that she had Isaac, he’s not her son. 

And so she goes to Abraham and asks him, instructs him, really, to cast out “this slave woman with her son,” and she won’t use Hagar’s name here either, it’s almost like for Sarah, neither of them are humans, just objects. And Sarah had to know that this would be a death sentence. In the time, a woman had to be under the protection of a man. So where would she go? There is no way that Hagar and Ishmael could survive in the desert alone. But she didn’t seem to care, her hatred of Ishmael burned ever hotter. But Abraham cared for this boy. He was his son, after all, and this was distressing to him, indeed, it was evil in his sight to do such a thing to a mother and child who hadn’t done anything to deserve it. 

But God tells Abraham not to be distressed. Which, I don’t know about you is troubling to me, and here even God doesn’t speak their names, but God says to do as Sarah tells him, and that because Ishmael is his son, that God will make a great nation of him. Indeed, the promise follows Abraham’s descendents — all of them. 

And so early in the morning, before dark. Before the light of the sun shone upon them, and I wonder if Abraham was still ashamed of what he was about to do, he packed a few provisions for them, knowing that this would never be enough to sustain them, but he couldn’t send them off with nothing. In fact, he gives them the very basics. He took bread, a waterskin filled with water, and gave it to them, and he cast them out. To wander in the wilderness, in the desert.

In the dry wind of the desert, it does not take long before dehydration sets in. And a waterskin does not last all that long. And we are told that Hagar cast Ishmael under one of the bushes and sat a ways off. And while this may seem like abandonment, it resembles funeral practices, and so we may infer that he was very near dying of dehydration. And what is a mother to do? She is supposed to provide for him, to protect him, to ensure that he has a life, yet she is not able to do any of this. And so she goes off a bit, out of desperation for her son, whom she is sure is about to die, and she weeps. Sarah laughs, and Hagar weeps. 

But this is not the end of the story. Because God heard the voice of the boy. Laughter could not exist beside the boy whose name means laughter, and now the boy whose name means God hears is heard by God. And Hagar returned to him, held him fast, and God provided a well to sustain them. 


And so we have this story about Abraham and Sarah, although it is really about Hagar and her son, her son who is never named in this story, her son Ishmael. Ultimately, this story is about the grace of God that extends far beyond anything we could imagine. 

Because there is this boy who was cast out because he was not the child who was supposed to be the bearer of the covenant. This child which was brought into the world because Abraham and Sarah were unsure of God’s plans and decided to get a jump start. This child who would not carry on the covenant. This child who was born of a foreigner. This child was heard by God. God heard this boy. 

This boy would be cut out of the family, but not out of the promise. God promised that Abraham’s descendants would be a great nation, and that promise is also fulfilled for all of Abraham’s descendants. That even in these two people, these two people who were otherwise inconsequential, these two people who were powerless and had no rights of which to speak. And yet, God turns God’s ear two these two people. Because God has not forgotten God’s promises to this son of Abraham, favored son or not. The story for Ishmael could have ended here. But it didn’t. It did not play out the way that anyone intended, but God showed favor on this servant woman and this young child. 

And while we are used to holding Abraham and Sarah in favorable light, they are not so here. Here they are not the heroes. Here Hagar and Ishmael are the heroes. 

God was with the boy. And this is the thing about the Scriptures, the heroes are not always heroes, and the righteous ones do not always act righteous. Indeed, as in this case, those who are supposed to be the heroes turn out to be the villains, and those who are supposed to be disposable, weak, and nonessential are still so very important to God. Because even though the boy and his mother were cast out from Abraham’s house, kept from passing on the covenant, God was with the boy. 


Indeed, it is this other son of Abraham that the Arab people trace their heritage back through. Indeed, they are the great nation which was promised to Ishmael. And yet, God was with the boy. And not only in this particular instance, perhaps God’s grace and mercy is bigger than we would imagine, and perhaps ours ought to be as well. 

And just as Ishmael, near death, and Hagar, distressed and unable to watch her son die, just as Ishmael, who was removed from the house of Abraham so that he would not inherit along with Isaac, just as Ishmael who was weak and otherwise forgotten, cast out to die or never be heard from or seen again, this boy, Ishmael was heard by God. And so, we, in the wilderness, forgotten, alone, scared, near death, we too are not kept from God, we too are heard by God in our state. And so even in these moments, we are not abandoned, left to our on devices, or forgotten. Things may not work out the way that we intended, but that does not mean that we are abandoned. 


Before there was a child, there was a promise. And then there were two children, both sons of Abraham. And these two sons of Abraham were both part of the promise, both were heirs of the promise that God made to Abraham and his descendants. God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants will be numerous held for both of his sons. Scripture tells us that “God was with the boy.”

So how can we, the descendants of Isaac, think and speak ill of the descendants of our half-brother, Abraham’s other son? After all, God was with the boy. Who are we not to be?

Laughable Hope

Genesis 18:1-15; Romans 5:1-8

Finished. This is what Abraham’s line was to be. Ended. Cut off. Sarah couldn’t have children, and their best hope was Ishmael, the child of Abraham and Sarah’s servant. But God says, “No, Sarah will bear a child,” and Abraham says, “Yeah, sure, bless Ishmael.” And so here we have three visitors showing up to visit Abraham and Sarah in the heat of the day and Abraham and Sarah prepare provisions for them to refresh and nourish the body, while they provided conversation to refresh and nourish the spirit. 

But the men come with news that they’ve heard, but they probably haven’t really heard before. News that Sarah would give birth to a child. Now, Abraham was a hundred and Sarah was ninety and while many things may seem to be different from the world of Abraham and Sarah and our world, one thing that is pretty consistent is that there comes a time when one is no longer able to bear children. There is a point of no return. And there is no indication that Abraham and Sarah were particularly distressed about their lot in life. Children were far more important, practically, than today. But I would imagine that they would have dealt with the future and the shape of it. Sure life probably wasn’t what they intended or expected, but this was what they had, and they have had many years prior to grieve the reality. 

But now God has told them that they’re going to have descendants, and Abraham also had a little difficulty with this, because, it’s obvious they are far too old for children. And then these visitors come and they say something similar, that Sarah was going to have a child. Sarah laughs and we think, how could she laugh? Well, it is a laughable proposition. It’s ridiculous, really. 

And yet we know that even in her old age, Sarah had a son and they named him Isaac. 

And even with this, no doubt life wouldn’t have turned out the way they would have intended. Parents, both about centenarians chasing around a child. 

And yet, as Paul writes in Romans just before our passage, Abraham was “as good as dead,” yet out of this comes a new creation, comes new life, comes an unexpected turn. 

Life comes from a valley of dry bones, the dead comes back to life, and new life comes from this couple from whom no new life was supposed to come. This new life didn’t quite come as intended, it didn’t work the way they expected. But even for people who had given up hope, hope was still not something which eluded them. Of course, the hope that was given to them probably wasn’t the hope that they, at least initially, held out. 


And we read in the Letter to the Romans. This was toward the end of Paul’s life writing to this church that he did not start, and wishing to visit with them. And I could imagine that Paul, pen and parchment spent a bit of time reflecting on where he had been, and the life that did not turn out the way he would have expected. He had been through great suffering. Beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, threats, and the like. And yet, somehow out of this seeming wreckage of a life, new life came forth. 

And the apostle doesn’t sugar coat it, either. He doesn’t skim over suffering. He doesn’t gloss over it, ignore it, try to make it seem easier or less like suffering. No heretical prosperity gospel here. But while he doesn’t try to gloss over it, he does strive to give a meaning, a purpose within it.

suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Now, let’s be clear about this. Suffering is not something which is good, it is never something which should be sought out, it is never something which should go unhealed. There is so much suffering in the world, we should seek to alleviate it whenever possible, for there is so much suffering that we cannot fix. When I served in the inner city, I would speak to people from the country who would say some variant of, “Oh they must be so much more connected to God, being so clearly dependent on God for everything.” Which is a nice middle-class way of rationalizing and spiritualizing the horrors of poverty. And I would always respond with, “No, poverty is terrible, and we need to eliminate it.” Suffering is not good. However, suffering is something which can be redeemable. It is something which can be used by God to bring out something good, something life-giving. Indeed, new life can come from that which is supposed to be dead, barren, fruitless. 

And so he doesn’t just speak of suffering, and not even primarily, but he mentions it in order to get to hope. 

Hope is one of those words which is so often used that it has largely lost much of its spiritual and religious depth. We use “hope” in a similar way as wish. I hope the sun is shining tomorrow. I hope this summer will be less humid. I, ordinarily, hope the Brewers win the World Series. But these aren’t really hopes, these are wishes. Hope is something that runs deeper. The writer of Hebrews speaks of hope as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” 

And hope is not just a wish for the future but it is an anticipation, and expectation. We can hope for the future because we know of what God has done in the past. We know that the road for Abraham and Sarah was supposed to end. Except it didn’t, God brought new life from a place from where it was not supposed to come. We know that Paul suffered greatly and found himself executed, and that should have been the end of it. Except it wasn’t and the message of Jesus continued to spread all over the world not only because of Paul, but he had no small contribution to that. 

And so it is this hope, this anticipation, this confident expectation, that allows us to face the world, to face whatever the world may bring. 


And this same hope holds true for us today. And this hope is not just wishful thinking, it is not just a desire for things in the future, but it is a hope that God’s desires will come to fruition, the hope that things will be made right. And this is what the world needs most, and this is what the people of God can most provide for the world. In a time when things are increasingly hopeless, when hope seems to be an extremely rare commodity, the people of God are given an abundance of hope. 

More than anything, the people of God are a people of hope. We are people of hope not because things always work out the way that we want or the way that we expect or the way that we plan. We are a people of hope not because we do not experience hardship or suffering. We are a people of hope not because we are optimistic or always have the ability to look on the bright side of things or to search out and find the silver lining in a cloud. No, none of these things. 

We are a people of hope because God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We are a people of hope because Christ lived, died, and rose again for you and for me and for all of us, and not only us, but for the whole world. We are a people of hope because the same God who was faithful so many times in the past will remain faithful.

But to what does our hope point? Our hope points to the sharing of the glory of God. Our hope points to the fulfillment of the promises of God. This is the ultimate object and foundation of our hope. 

And this is not just for the things of the end times, but it is hope that God’s desires and God’s purposes will, in some way, be worked out though life, as well. So often this doesn’t happen the way we expect, or the way we want, certainly not the way that we plan. But we can have the confidence that God can redeem it, God can use it, and that God’s purposes will be accomplished. 

Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, none of these are ends in themselves, they are useful insofar as they lead us to hope, and this hope, this expectation, even confidence, which is far more than simply wishful thinking, this hope does not disappoint us not because of our own abilities to be hopeful, not because our ability to be optimistic, or anything of the like. Hope does not disappoint us because our hope is rooted in what God has done, and because we know of what God has done, we can be confident of what God will ultimately do. 

And so if God can bring forth new life from people who were “as good as dead,” think about what God can do with the likes of us. 

The Creative Space of Chaos

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Hendrik did not pay attention in the childbirth class. I know, I know, he wasn’t born yet, but still. We paid attention, we had books, I learned about timing contractions and when to call the doctor, and what to report to the doctor. We had a mental note of things to put in the bag to bring to the hospital. But he came three weeks early, and all the steps were out of order. It was rather chaotic. I think I remember telling Marie just as things were starting to snowball that this is not very orderly. And then things proceeded rather chaotically. Things were moving fast until they weren’t, and then they started to, and then there was a lot of beeping from different machines, and nurses and doctors looking rather serious, and people moving rather quickly. But it was out of that chaos that a new life came. It was that chaos that provided the space for a new life to enter the world. 

I don’t think I’m the only one who likes order. I like order, I like structure. Order and structure does not necessarily mean legalistic or rigid, though it can, but that’s not why I like order or structure. The human body is quite flexible, but it is the structure that makes it flexible. Without a skeleton, a body is just a lump of flesh.  

We are living in a time where disorder is more prevalent. Protests and marches, and some riots. It almost seems to be an uprising of sorts. We also see tear gas and pepper spray and rubber bullets, and riot gear. The nation is a powder keg right now, and even the smallest of sparks is able to ignite it, it seems. If you watch a place where the protests turned into riots, it looks like chaos. And when you look around the nation, it can seem as though we have descended into chaos. And we assume that chaos is bad. Order is good, chaos is bad. At least, this is the assumption. 


The first chapters of Genesis are not a science or history book, at least as we understand history or science. What we have in the first chapters of Genesis is poetry and mythology. It is far more concerned with meaning, with Truth, with a capital T, than with simply facts. What we have here before us, is poetry. 

Origins have always been a matter of intrigue for peoples, and this stretches throughout history. Every single culture has a story of origins. Where we came from, and how we got here. And this story here, for those who grew up hearing it, is so well known that we kind of move through it, “yes, yes, I know this.” Or, because this serves as a lightning rod, either we read it as scientific fact and insist all sorts of things about it, or we understand that they didn’t have a scientific understanding, and they certainly didn’t in the way that we understand science, and then we kind of gloss over it.  

But precisely because I don’t think that this is neither science nor history, it is precisely this reason that I think we need to look closely, here. 

And so it starts with God. It is also an expansive vision, here. This is not a national origin story, or the origin story of a particular region, race, ethnicity, or anything else. What we have is the origin of all things, “heavens and the earth” is shorthand for everything that exists. The earth was what we stand on, the heavens were everything above that. Everything that we see, those are “the heavens.” Of course, they had no idea of solar systems and planets, much less galaxies or a universe, but no doubt had the ancients known about these, they would have included them as well. 

And so the first action that is reported in the sacred scriptures is God’s action. In beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 

We continue, the “earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

Here we have five words that are piled up: formless, void, darkness, the deep, the waters. These words are all used individually or in combinations throughout the scriptures to indicate chaos. Here it is an empty, arid, unfruitful, unproductive chaos. We tend to understand chaos to be mad, as if it is a result of sinfulness. But there’s absolutely no moral judgement given here to this. Whereas in other creation stories, there is a struggle between gods of order and chaos, but here, there is no struggle. Chaos is not personified. It exists neutrally. Rather, what we have here is a painter’s palette. 

I’m no painter, but I know painters, and the palette holds paints, and it is the place where the artist mixes colors that will eventually go on the canvas. But before the painting begins on the canvas, the artist has what appears to be a mess on the palette. It doesn’t look like anything, it doesn’t look like anything that could ever become something. It is chaos. It is, however, chaos with a direction, with a purpose. The chaos is necessary for the creation of something new. You need stuff, stuff that is all mixed together, and out of that, order and structure can come. 

And this is what happens. In a really fascinating way. 

The first day, light is created and there is a separation between day and night. Light and darkness, seeming opposites, put together in a harmonious whole. 

The second day, the waters are separated, for the ancients, the sky was a dome, and rain was water above coming through the dome. And so this is how they understood it, there is water, which is often understood to be the symbol of chaos for the ancient people, and a dome is placed there, and the sky is separated from the waters. Two things which are understood to be opposites, put together in a harmonious whole. 

The third day, dry land appears, and there is a separation between the sea and the dry land and plans are put on the land. Sea and land, seeming opposites are put together into a harmonious whole. 

And then beginning on the fourth day, we see the each are given their cognate. Whereas day and night were distinguished on the first day, on the fourth day we have the sun and moon. To lights, a greater and lesser, one for the day and one for the night, placed in harmony. 

Whereas the second day, sky was created to separate the waters, on the fifth day, birds and sea creatures are created, and placed in harmony. 

On the third day, dry land and plants were created, and a distinction between seas and dry land was created, on the sixth day, land animals and humans were created.

And finally, on the seventh day, God created the sabbath, almost like a lintel to hold a structure together. 

3 —->6
2 —->5
1 —> 4

An all of this, came from that which was described just a few verses earlier as formless, void, darkness, the deep, the waters. The epitome of chaos. 

And all of this makes me wonder if chaos, or what we understand as chaos, is not inherently bad. I wonder if chaos would also be the space out of which something new is created. Here, we see order being brought out of chaos. We tend to assume that chaos is, by nature, bad. That chaos must be avoided at all costs. And similarly, that order is always good That order must always be sought and maintained at all times. 

But even when a birth goes more according to plan, it is always somewhat chaotic. But it is that chaotic moment that brings forth something new into the world. 

Rather than being a scientifically historical account of origins, this speaks a lot about us, and about God, and about life. It is about God bringing order out of chaos. Taking something which is unfruitful, unproductive, and transforms it into something fruitful, something productive. 

I wonder if God can bring something new out of the chaos that we are experiencing now, too. Perhaps chaos is not necessarily bad, perhaps it can also be the space out of which something new can be born. 

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