Category Archives: Sermons

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. 

—-7—-
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. 

The Light that Follows the Darkness: A Funeral Meditation

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” writes C.S. Lewis. The Cambridge Professor and writer lost his wife to cancer after only four years of marriage. His reflections written during that time were later published in a book titled, A Grief Observed. Lewis continues, “I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness…”

Grief is an experience that is hard to name, and even harder to describe. This is the nature of the human condition. This uncomfortable and confusing mixture of emotions is not something to run from, but to allow it space to dwell.

Grief involves both mourning our loss, but also remembering all that was good. And so today, we grieve his absence from us. We mourn his loss and we celebrate all of the light that he brought into the world.

And grief is so hard, it is so confusing, it is so messy, because we know in our heart of hearts, we know in our spirits, in the deepest parts of our being, we know with a deep knowledge that this is not how it is supposed to be. We know that this isn’t right. And it is okay to name that. It’s good to name that.

This is why we gather together. We do so not to avoid looking at death, but to stare it down. We look into the grave not because the grave has the final word, but so that we can stand over it, defiantly shaking our fists, and proclaiming with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

We look death straight in the eyes, because it is only by doing so that we, eventually, we might see through death. That we might see that the grave is not simply a pit of darkness, but that we might, eventually, see the light breaking forth in the darkness of the depths, that one can see the light of a new day. That even in the deep depths of death, the light of Christ can break through, even there.

***

And it is only when we look at the source of our grief, when we look at death, when we look at the grave, when we stare down the darkness as we wait for the light to shine forth can we say with Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” It shall be well not because we ignore the pain, not because we turn away from it, not because we ignore it, but it shall be well because we trust that even in the midst of this, that God joins us where we are. That God experiences what we experience, that God feels what we feel, that God suffers alongside of us, and that, eventually, God will help us past this grief, past this suffering, past this pain. That God will lead us from darkness into the light.

All manner of thing shall be well because we do not grieve alone and we do not pick ourselves up alone. All manner of thing shall be well because death does not have the final word and the grave is not the most powerful force. All manner of thing shall be well because we have hope that life follows death just as the dawn follows the darkness of night.

We have hope because we trust that God is doing something beyond our vision. We have hope that God can bring good out of bad. We have hope that, as we read in the Psalms, “those who go out weeping…shall come home with shouts of joy.”

“Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus, “for they will be comforted.”

The night brings darkness. But when you look into the darkness, you will, eventually, see the morning light breaking through as a sign that a new day has dawned.

Wait…Where are we going?

Sermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin. Text: Genesis 15:1-18.

It is one thing to hear about the promises of God, or to read about the promises of God. It is another thing altogether to really feel and understand the promises of God. Especially when you are in a difficult place. It can be hard to think that God has a purpose when it seems like you’re just moving this pile of bricks from here to there and back again, or when you are facing seemingly endless health problems, or when you feel trapped. It can be hard to believe that God has a purpose when you look around and see the sparse sanctuary. It can be hard to believe that God has a purpose when this world seems to only tear itself apart.

It is easy to read about the promises of God, it is easy to hear about the promises of God, but when things don’t seem to be working, when things don’t seem to be turning out, it can be really hard to truly believe the promises of God.

But surely this is just a problem for us? Right? Surely this didn’t happen with the great patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith? Right? Well, maybe not.

Abram — later to become Abraham — is the perfect example of faith, I would always think. You see, when God told him to get up and move out of his country, away from his home, and move to the other side of the world — at least what he would have understood to be the world. What did Abram do?  Genesis never reported him ever saying a word, just that he got up, packed up his tent, gathered his flock together, loaded his camels, and he and his wife Sarai headed off to a new land that they did not know, filled with people that they did not know, who spoke a language which he did not know. At the command of God, Abram just packed up and went. The perfect exemplar of faith.

Abram goes up and settles in what would be the Promised Land. There was a famine, though, and so he moved to Egypt, a major world power, where he would have access to food and resources. He did well there, although he had a little run-in with the Pharaoh — the ruler of Egypt — who sent him away. Abram went back to settle in Canaan, the land that God Promised to his descendants, while his nephew, Lot, settled elsewhere. God told him to get up again, and to walk the length and breadth of the land. So Abram got up, and he wandered all around, and finally made camp.

Up until this point, the relationship between God and Abram had been pretty straightforward. God speaks, Abram listens. God commands, Abram obeys. Abram, the perfect exemplar of faith. But we must keep reading, because the story of Abram doesn’t end there, and there is certainly more than what we have seen thus far. Abram, gets to a point where he says, “Wait…I don’t quite understand this.”

***

Twice in our passage today, we see Abram asking God some overdue questions. All this time, God has been telling Abram that he will be the father, the patriarch of a great nation. Abram, at this time, is very old, he is tired, and he knows that he likely doesn’t have a huge amount of time left. I can imagine Abram would begin to be concerned, after all, he didn’t have any children. So if he didn’t have any children, and he was going to the father of a great nation, it obviously couldn’t be his children, but it must be a servant in his house. I mean, it surely wouldn’t have added up to Abram.

“Uh…God?” Abram responded, “You keep telling me about all of these descendants that I’m going to have, but I don’t have any children…so how, exactly, is this going to work?” To answer, God points up to the sky and tells him, “Look up and count the stars. This is how many your descendants will be.”

And Abram believed. This is what is interesting, is that Abram believed. Abram “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

God then told Abram, “I am the God who brought you from your home, and gave you this land for your descendents.” God reminded Abram that he has followed God so much already, reminding Abram of what God has done, and what God has promised.

Now, we are told that Abram believed, but he is not yet done asking questions.

“But how do I know this?” Abram asked.

Suddenly this Abram that I had mentioned in the beginning of this message, this Abram who is the perfect example of faith because he never asked questions, this Abram is gone. We’re left with another Abram. We are left with an Abram that believes, but yet has questions. Abram doesn’t really do anything that exciting or earth shattering himself, Abram is just another guy who sometimes does great things, who other times makes great mistakes and has been given an inkling of faith, who has simply been shown the immense grace of God. Abram is replaced with, well, a human being who is not that different from you or I.

We are left with this Abram who wonders how all of this is going to be accomplished because things just aren’t making sense.

You see, Abram believes, but he also seems to be wondering, can I trust God? Can God really do this? Is God telling the truth?  Abram believes, but this doesn’t mean that all of his questions or uncertainties vanish. Abram has questions for God, and God gives him some answers, but not quite the answers, or in the form, that he was expecting.

Does this sound familiar? God says, “Go!” and we go. At some point, though, we begin to ask, “Wait…where are we going and how are we getting there?”

So Abram asked this question, and how does God respond?

God tells Abram to get a cow. Rather than telling Abram, God decides to show him something.

Now in the ancient world, a covenant — which is like a contract — was made in several different ways, one of them was to take an animal, cut it into pieces, and each of the parties would walk between the animal pieces. The unspoken message, then, is that if one of the parties breaks the covenant, they will end up like these animal pieces. Pretty gruesome, I know, but also very powerful. We’d probably take our commitments a little more seriously if we had to walk through animal pieces.

So Abram gets a cow, as well as several other livestock, and goes beyond what was told of him and he cuts them in two. Abram knows what’s going on here.

Abram them falls into a deep sleep and he has a vision and a torch and a smoldering pot pass through the animal pieces. It’s a common covenant ceremony, except Abram didn’t pass through the pieces, this covenant was one-sided, that is God promised these things to Abram, and God takes on the responsibility to fulfil them.

I think that this part of the story is quite telling. Abram, the person on whom God chooses to lay all of the promise for the world. The person that God chooses to carry on that promise. God chooses to put all of God’s chips into one person, and that person is Abram.  This person suddenly begins asking questions about what is going on. “How is this going to work?” Abram asks. “How do I know that you’re telling the truth?” Abram asks.

This isn’t surprising, after all, Abram is human, human like you and I.  This is not really that insightful at all. What is insightful about this is how God responds. God not only tolerates his questions, God is open to his questions, God responds to his questions, God seems to welcome his questions. God could have become frustrated with Abram, and decided to start over with someone else, someone who wouldn’t ask questions. But God doesn’t do this, not in the slightest.

***

And it is in this story that we are able to see the developing relationship between God and God’s people. God is not just a deity who commands, but does not otherwise involve Godself, no, God is deeply connected with God’s people, relationally so.

And while it would have been much easier for Abram if God would have just given him a vision that would clearly show how things would have played out, that’s not what happened. God gives him a little bit, and a little bit. Look at the stars, see me make a promise to you in a way that you understand. This does not take the place of faith, but it confirms faith.

As the writer of Hebrews tells us,

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:8-16, NRSV.)

So when the promises are hard to believe, when they seem distant and unfounded, when you look around and you don’t see a path forward, remember Abram. Remember his questions, his conversations, and remember our gracious God who welcomed his questions and interacted with him.

So take heart, brothers and sisters, for you are in good company. And keep watch for those glimpses of the promise. Perhaps they won’t be obvious as a smoking pot and a flaming torch passing through split animals, but God continues to give glimpses of God’s promises to be viewed and accepted in faith.

Take heart, brothers and sisters, and let us remember the story of Abram, and let us gaze upon the steadfast promises of the Divine in faith.

The Redemptive Wilderness

DesertSermon originally delivered to the Calvary Reformed Church of New Berlin, Wisconsin.
Text: Luke 4:1-13.

 

The other day, I went out for a walk, as I often like to do in the winter, on the lake behind my house. It is shallow, and it freezes over quickly, solidly, and smoothly. For someone who cannot swim, this may seem to be an odd thing to enjoy. But for some reason, I find it enjoyable, almost cathartic. As a child, one of my favorite things was when my folks took me to the Holland State Park in the winter, when the shoreline of Lake Michigan was frozen, and I could go exploring on the ice.

And as I walked out there, the snow crunching under my boots, the hairless parts of my face stinging from the sub-zero wind with no houses or trees to break it, I looked around at the frozen landscape with houses a bit in the distance, smoke and steam curling up from their chimneys, I began to wonder, as I sometimes do, why do people live here? Not necessarily me, I know why I live here, and I love living in the north. And not necessarily the European immigrants who came here, I know why they did, but before that. Why would people settle in a place that, for nearly half of the year, becomes an icy, harsh, and unforgiving landscape?

In the second year of seminary, as part of our formation, we went on an intercultural immersion trip, to experience and learn about another culture while immersed in it, and I was a part of the group that went to Oman. Oman is a wonderful nation on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, with Saudi Arabia to the northwest, the United Arab Emirates to the north, and Yemen to the west. We spent time there with one of the RCA missionaries there. The RCA has had a continual mission presence since the late 1800’s. We were there in winter and it was still in the mid-to-upper 70’s and sunny. There are areas good for cultivating crops, but much of the landscape is a rocky, mountainous desert.

We spent a day and night in the desert, and for how hot it was during the day, it gets quite cold at night. It is a place of extremes. You can easily become dehydrated without even realizing it in a relatively short period of time. And while we were in the desert, we were visited by a group of bedouin who were selling their handmade goods. The bedouin are nomadic herders who live in the desert, and as they were there, I also began to wonder, why would anyone settle here in the first place? Why would they make their homes in this arid, hot, and unforgiving location?

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that this region of the world is the cradle of the three distinct, yet related, Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And it is not just that they are from this place, but this geography is engrained into the spirituality of these faiths as well. When you can have an understanding of the landscape it is a bit easier to enter into the biblical world in your imagination. The geography is harsh, the climate oppressive, and drinkable water relatively scarce.

Throughout the sacred scriptures, the wilderness is a place of trial, a place of temptation, a place of faith-formation. Most of all, it is a place where one learns, through experience, what it means to completely trust in and rely on God.  It is a place where it is obvious that people are not self-sufficient, and where it is clear that they rely upon God for even the most basic needs.

The ancient people had a long lesson where they learned to rely on God for guidance, food and water, and healing when vipers were sent to the camp. After his conversion, Paul spent three years in the desert of Arabia as part of his formation, and here we see that a significant part of Jesus’ formation took place during these forty days in the wilderness — the desert.

***

After Jesus was baptized, we are told that he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. He was not just picked up and dropped and left to fend for himself like some sort of a reality TV show. No, he was led by the Spirit who remained with him. And it was to this sparse landscape that he was driven, not to a Wisconsin-style wilderness lush with vegetation and flowing water.

We are told that Jesus didn’t eat anything during those days and at the end we are told that he was famished. After all, he was fully divine, but he was also fully human, both at the same time, two natures inseparably united in one existence. And as he was human, he needed to eat, just like you and I.

And it was at this point, he was tired, hungry, his body and spirit was likely at its weakest, and at that point that we are told that the devil shows up. How often do we have an experience like this — that the tempter, the accuser, shows up when we are at our weakest, when we are tired physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and presents us with a path that is particularly appealing to us in whatever weakened state in which we find ourselves. And so the Tempter comes to Jesus and before him lie two paths. On the one hand is the path that is consistent with his mission, the path that is self-sacrificial, the path that shows power through weakness, the path that is tough but that ultimately leads to restoration and redemption. And there is a second path that the Tempter invites him to. The path of comfort, ease, and power and authority without sacrifice. It is a path that trusts in the illusion of certainty rather than the uncertainty of divine providence.

He was tempted with the ability to make bread from stone, and therefore not having to trust in divine providence. Throwing himself off of a high building to test the Divine, and the promise to give him all of the kingdoms of the world without suffering or sacrifice.

The appeal is to his base impulses. Hunger, safety, power. And in many ways this is not that much different than us. Because it is not just about these three things — it is about something more significant, something much deeper. The temptation is, “Can I depend on God?”

***

These are temptations that we all face as well. Can we depend on God? Can we rely on God? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our lives? Can we trust God to lead us through the wilderness experiences in our church? Or in our country, or in our world?

As we have learned from Scripture, the wilderness can be destructive, but it can also be redemptive. The wilderness can consume, but it can also purify. The wilderness can cause us to get lost, but it can also help us to find our direction.

And I cannot help but wonder if this is the gift of Lent. It is traditional, during Lent, to give something up. The root of that tradition is to try to, in some way, relate to the sufferings and of Christ, and relate to the denials that Christ went through in the desert when he ate nothing and denied those very real temptations. But I often question the value of giving something up for Lent, because so often it has lost focus.

We give up candy, or chocolate, or ice cream, or television or red meat, or other things in which we feel that we should not indulge. It becomes yet another self-help practice. But this misses the point. Or, we can deny ourselves something to prove to ourselves that we can do it — mind over matter and all that. But this also misses the point. The point of Lenten discipline is to bring us back to a point of focus and dependence on God.

We so often imagine the devil in this story the way that we typically do — bright red skin, black hair (with a widow’s peak), horns, and a forked tongue. The problem with this image is that the devil is clear. It is easy to resist evil when it is clear and in plain sight, and in the way that we expect to see it. However, so often it is not so clear. So often the lies and temptations do not come from our culturally conditioned view of the devil, but rather in faces that look less sinister, in voices that sound less distinctly evil. Often the tempter takes the form of a face that seems more friendly, a voice that seems more genuine. Perhaps the face that we see wears a business suit and makes great promises to us, perhaps the face we see is the one that looks back in the mirror and the voice that we hear is the one that we hear inside of our minds when we are alone.

And it is so often at our weakest moments, moments when we are afraid, tired — physically, emotionally, or spiritually — or otherwise weakened. It is these wilderness experiences in our lives that we, too, face temptations. Unemployment, sickness, fear, struggles with finances, with difficulty seeing the way forward, difficulties hearing God’s voice. It is at these times that the tempter can come with a familiar voice and face and tell us that there is another way, there is a way that is easier, that seems safer, a way that we can have everything now without having to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus the Christ.

***

And now, we have insulated houses with central heating systems that can keep us warm, and we have air conditioning when the heat is dangerously high. We don’t have the same experiences in the same ways as our spiritual forebears. After a while on the lake, I came home stoked the woodstove. But still, we are not exempted from wilderness experiences. We are not exempt from the feeling of being lost in alone in a hostile atmosphere. Sometimes it is less obvious, but just as real. And just like the ancient people of God, and just like Jesus, we are not exempted from the lies and temptations from the Tempter.

And we need preparation to be able to face the tempter with a clear head, and not fall for the lies which sound often sound so appealing. And it is this what Lent offers us. It offers us the opportunity to refocus our lives, to reorient our lives, to place God and God’s desires as the center of our lives, and to grow in our ability to depend on God rather than on mortals or horses or chariots.

And so this year for Lent, don’t worry about giving up something but do something that will bring you closer to the Divine. Maybe it is a book, maybe it is regularly reading scripture, maybe it is a spiritual discipline of study, fasting, prayer, or service. Maybe it is to take a walk amidst the cold and ice and snow to understand that, regardless of our illusions, we are never self-sufficient or self-sustaining, but rely completely on the Divine hand.

So whatever your wilderness — our wilderness — we, too, are presented with a couple of paths. On the one, we can seek escape from it. And on the other we can lean into it, and discover what God may be helping us to learn.

Not Always Calm and Bright

Massacre of the Innocents, Peter Paul Rubens

A sermon originally delivered to Calvary Community (Reformed) Church in New Berlin, Wisconsin. Text: Matthew 2:1-23 | Oremus Bible Browser

The Magi have come and gone, it has been an unremarkable two years for the young child, but now, things are going to become challenging once again. It was a messy entry into the world for Jesus. Unexpected, painful, controversial, scandalous. Things have calmed down for this family in Bethlehem, a family who have found a home to begin their lives. The chances are great that Mary and Joseph still didn’t exactly know what was going on, not only because they have a child and no one is fully prepared for a child when the first one comes, but also because of the odd and difficult way that this child came to be.

While the visit of the Magi may have seemed like a welcome surprise of joy, with them comes unbelievable tragedy and fear and hardship not only for the family but also for all young boys in the region. You see, the Magi didn’t just come to visit the baby Jesus, but they also visited Herod, and brought to Herod’s attention a new king who was born in Judea. Herod didn’t know exactly who it was, but suddenly he is told that this new king was born.

So Joseph has a dream to flee to Egypt, to safety, to live as refugees because Herod is going to seek out the child and kill him. Egypt, of course, was the place of slavery, the place of danger, the enemy. But in a strange twist of events, Egypt becomes the place of safety, the place of refuge, while the promised land is the place of danger. I don’t think that this is just for shock value, but I think that this is significant to show that those who were assumed to be hostile were hospitable, but those who were supposed to be hospitable turned out to be hostile.

It is another act in the story of Jesus turning the world upside down and inside out.

This is not the story of Christmas that we like to imagine, we like to think of peace on earth, but there is no peace in this, in fact, what we have here is the exact opposite of peace.

Here we see a scared and insane Herod who is so afraid of the threat that this child poses to his rule that, when not able to find him, orders all the young boys to be slaughtered, in order to ensure that this child was also wiped out. An angel appears to them yet again to travel south to Egypt in order to flee from Herod’s wrath. So, not only did Jesus come into the world in a family of turmoil, he lived out his first years as a refugee in a foreign land. This certainly isn’t the image of Christmas that we like, or think of, and this certainly isn’t what is supposed to happen to the family chosen by God to bring into the world God-in-human-flesh.

We can truly see in Matthew’s account that Jesus truly did and continues to upset the broken order of the world. People are afraid, upset, frustrated by Jesus’ coming, and this will continue through his life and ministry. Jesus really upset the world. Far from the nativity scenes that we all have around our church, our homes, and other places.

We don’t have the same kind of experience of fleeing a mass slaughter of the innocents, but I wonder if the story is not so far removed from us after all. People have to flee their homes in Syria because of the ongoing war which gets closer and closer to home. Palestinian Christians are continually harassed and threatened by Israeli soldiers simply while they are trying to go to work, and home, and to visit family, and to the market, and other activities of daily living. There are people fleeing war-torn areas of Iraq and Syria and yet many of our politicians are openly refusing to offer refuge to these people in need, these people who are not that different from the situation that Jesus found himself in. Again we see the place that is supposedly hospitable turning out to being hostile. 

Even closer to home, we have to deal with children which are disappointed because we could not afford to purchase for them what they truly wanted, we have to deal without disappointments when our Christmas celebration was less than picturesque, when the family was fighting, Christmas dinner was not the spread that we wished it was, with another year of our lives seeming to continue to unravel. We deal with the deep sadness when a loved one is missing from our Christmas celebrations and no Christmas wish can bring them back. We have unarmed children-of-color killed and no one is held accountable.

You see, Jesus didn’t immediately eradicate sin and hurt and pain from the world. Jesus is part of God’s ongoing plan to do this, little by little. Whereas Herod seeks power and might and violence in order to retain power, Jesus chooses weakness, a family who was able to cross a border and live for a time as a refugee, as a stranger in a foreign land, in order to survive. But as we know, Herod died and Jesus lived. Herod faded away and Jesus took the spotlight, far greater than even the great Herod could imagine.

I think that this is one of the reasons why Matthew told this story, this story of fear, and worry, and insecurity, and unsettledness. I think that this is why Matthew told about all the troubles that Jesus was born into and that his family and he went through. You see, Jesus was born a king, but not the type of King that you and I think of. He was not born in a palace, he was born in a stable. The announcement of his upcoming birth was not heralded with great fanfare, it was whispered in the dark and almost caused a divorce. Jesus was not born privileged to rule, but he was, for the first years of his life, raised as a refugee in a foreign land.

You see, Jesus was not immune from the troubles that we face. Neither Jesus nor his family were kept from hardships or trials. Their life was not cushy, nor was Jesus born with a silver or gold spoon in his mouth. No, Jesus’ birth, in fact, brought about the slaughter of so many young boys throughout the kingdom.

This also gives us another piece of hope and comfort as well. Jesus came in the midst of confusion and turmoil, and difficulty, and if Jesus was present in all of that then, Jesus can be present in all of that now.

So many times, bad things happen, trials happen, and we wonder, why us? Why is this happening to us? Perhaps we may even fear that God hates us. Does this sound familiar? But here is the interesting thing, the circumstances surrounding his birth and his first years were very difficult and challenging. It may not seem that significant to us now, but these are issues of children out of a marriage relationship, infidelity, contemplation of divorce, fleeing for one’s life, and living as refugees.

I can imagine that none of this was really the Christmas gift that they really wanted, but it was the gift that they received. It was not what they planned for their lives, but it was what life dealt them. This is not what they signed up for, but is is what they received. It is like one of those terrible gifts that you just want to give back to the sender, but you cannot.

I wonder if there is something significant here. You see, Jesus came into the middle of a messed up world suffering the pains that it threw at him and his family, Jesus was not spared any of the ugliness of the world, but endured it just like us. But the thing here, is that isn’t not just a he-did-it-so-we-can-too, thing. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize without weaknesses, but was tempted in every way as us, but yet without sin. I think that Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is that we also do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our problems and messed up lives, because he was, from his birth, subjected to the very same problems, and the same messed up life. The beauty of this is that, through this, we are not told simply to keep our chin up, but all of this helps us to understand that Jesus is right with us through our points of trial and turmoil, Jesus is right with us in our anger and sadness and fear and disappointments and insecurities. Jesus is right with us because he wasn’t sheltered from this in his life, but he was put into the thick of it.

Jesus was not just with these people in the ancient world, but is with us today. Even when things are difficult, hard, and seem almost impossible, this doesn’t mean that Jesus is absent from us, but it could mean that Jesus is right with us.

This is the good news of Christmas, that Jesus came into the world, that God took on human flesh to live with us, and through the holy Spirit, he continues to live with us and in us and through us. This is the promise that God offers to us today, that Christ promises to be with us in our times of fleeing, in our times of fear, in our times of insecurity, in our times of danger, in our times of despair. Christ promises to be with us. The church year starts with Advent and Christmas, and Christmas starts with a baby, but the story doesn’t end here. The story continues as Jesus grows, faces the Devil face to face, teaches, and heals, and shows grace, and calls to faithfulness, and sacrifices himself only to die and rise from the dead three days later. It is this grand story of redemption that we celebrate this year and every year, and this is why we do this each and every year and we ought never grow weary of it. Because God has taken on flesh, not simply out of curiosity or as an experience, but to live and dwell with us in the mess and muck of our lives in order to break us out of our circle of destruction and sin that we are caught in and from which we are unable to free ourselves.

So life contains happiness and joys and celebrations, but it also includes sadness and tragedy and pain and unjust rulers who slaughter young children. But God, in Christ, did not stand at a distance from all of this, but entered right into the midst of it, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. This is the promise and the hope that we have for Christmas. The call to us is to stay on this path that Christ has blazed, to keep the faith, and to join Christ in his redemptive work, and to be a foretaste of redemption for the world. We do this not because we are strong enough to do it, but we do it because we are weak, but Christ is strong, and it is through Christ that this all is able to happen.