Tag Archives: Genesis

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. 

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.