The lectionary editors brought these texts to us in Lent, of all times, because they contain elements of the journey to the Cross that are worth our thoughtful consideration. Both of the texts deal with questions of disbelief and wonder, judgment and grace. And isn’t that what we know to be true about the narrative of the Crucifixion and Resurrection? The stories that, very soon, we will be reading during Holy Week?
Today let’s take a step back and consider how God uses these two stories, the portion from the Hebrew Bible in Numbers 21, where the Israelites meet “snakes on the plains”, and the Gospel of John, where we listen in on a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. What is there message for us, the Church, today?
THE ISRAELITES AND MOSES
This story is part of the Exodus narrative, the journey of God’s people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The themes of humans rebelling, Divine correction and mercy, and then God providing all they needed (not wanted) are told over and over in the book of Numbers. Our text this morning begins after the death of Miriam, Moses’ sister, and Aaron, the high priest. Moses is still leading the people (and will until they reach the banks of the Jordan River). They had just been turned back from Edom, losing that battle. God directs Moses to go around Edom, not engage them in battle again.
The loss in battle stings. They people were frustrated. V4 says they were “impatient” – a better word might be discontented, or discouraged. The Hebrew suggests wanting to “shorten” the time or cut to the chase. Weren’t they supposed to have a God who could do ANYTHING? And if God is so powerful and Almighty, couldn’t they have something to eat besides Manna?
In this moment of change, where their first goal was frustrated and they were embarrassed by losing, they responded the way we might. When something doesn’t go the way I want, first I get a little mad. Then I get mouthy. Then… I have a choice to make. Because it is what I DO in that moment of decision that shows where my heart truly lies.
Logic doesn’t always work. The Israelites were defeated by Edom. God directed Moses to lead the people around them. This made for a longer trip. Like kids the back seat of the car, they complained. “Why aren’t we there yet?”
But to be clear, it wasn’t their complaining that was the real problem. It was their “speaking against” God’s provision and leadership. It was a pattern of wanting to do things by what their human minds thought was the best course of action. Their faith was on shaky ground. If they couldn’t see it, taste it, touch it, and experience it, they didn’t believe God could do it. It wasn’t that their faith wasn’t strong enough. It was that they made choices which defied God leading them through these difficult circumstances.
So… the snakes. I can tolerate snakes. I appreciate that black snake that has visited our back yard in search of small rodents. (You go, dude.) I don’t even mind copperheads, as long as they nest some place else. They have their place in the ecosystem, even if I don’t exactly like it. But God unleashing snakes? Really?
It should not surprise us, we who are lovers of God, that there would be a way through this crisis. A place of mercy. An option to be healed.
The seraphs had a bite that burned like fire, and killed. But if the Israelites only looked up to see the bronze seraph on the pole, as God asked, they could find their healing. In the moment of crisis, even when they did not understand why, or like the circumstances they were in, they could look to God for mercy. If they were a “stiff-necked” people… (NO I’m not looking!) …well…
Consider that the very image of their pain, the seraph, was what prevented their death. Perhaps they had the memory of the blood of the Passover Lamb, smeared on their doorsteps, which brought death to the households of the Egyptians, but saved them. In any case, those who accepted the offering of mercy and healing, responded to the covenantal God who delivered them from slavery.
There was a choice to believe. Or not. To look up. Or Not. And this was the quandary where Nicodemus, a Pharisee, found himself. To put the Gospel reading in context this morning, let’s recall the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus was known to be a Pharisee. He was one of the leaders of the Jewish faith atthat time who were not too thrilled with this upstart rabbi, Jesus… One of the leaders who were actively plotting to see Jesus killed. But Nicodemus, to his credit, comes to see Jesus because of his unanswered questions:
Who is this guy and what is God doing?
Jesus, in his fashion, answers in a circuitous way: In v. 3 Jesus tells him that you can only truly see the work of God in your midst, the KINdom of God, if you have been given new eyes, or in biblical language, “be born again.”
(An aside: The phrase “born again” has been co-opted by some Christians to mean a specific prayer, moment in time, and religious response. I’m not saying that isn’t a valid understanding, but it is not the only interpretation and application of this text!)
If we understand this phrase, “born again” to mean more than just a one-time moment, there is a richness to Jesus’ response. It suggests the concepts of regeneration, renewal, being delivered FROM something you understood before, being born TO something new. It suggests a process, a lifetime, a concept that includes growth and change, acceptance of God’s guidance and… dare I say it? Obedience!
Twice in the third chapter, in v4 and v 9, Nicodemus says, “How are these things possible?” I read these words to be more along the lines of confusion, not disbelief. I think Nicodemus came to Jesus because he truly wanted to understand. He wanted to see and believe. He just didn’t see how it could be true. In the words of Commander Spock from Star Trek, “it is not logical!”
Jesus uses words which are the language of choice, of expectation, and of revelation. Nicodemus, aren’t you a teacher of the law? Didn’t you spend a lot of time studying this? What are you choosing to see, Nicodemus? What did you expect God was doing, Nicodemus? The responses are gentle, calm, but to the point.
V 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
Jesus uses language and images that someone who has studied the Torah should immediately grasp. There is kindness in his rebuke but also clarity. V 14 “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness” (this is a simile, Nicodemus, are you paying attention??) so must the Human one be lifted up…
Just as God brought healing to rebellious, doubting, complaining people bitten by snakes (remember that from the Torah, Nicodemus?)
So must I (Jesus) be lifted up for your healing.
This image of the Crucifixion is on our minds in this Lenten journey. From the other side of Holy Week and Easter, we can superimpose the image of Christ on the cross, Christ first being raised and suspended on the transverse beam of the cross. Dying there. Being buried. And then, on Easter morning, Christ being lifted up, resurrected from the grave.
But even though we are still in Lent, we must not forget that Jesus being lifted up includes the action of the Ascension, of Christ’s return to the right hand of God, a place of power and judging. We must reflect on the exalting, the empowerment that Christ gave us through the Holy Spirit, to effect change in ourselves and in our world. We are lifted up from where we live in the struggle and frustration of day-to-day sin and pain. Where it is far too easy to say, “Lord, no. Not again!”
This choice we must consider, one of believing and choosing to live empowered lives, Holy Spirit lives, is the process of following Christ. If we share in this life with God, we are “lifted up” people. We experience the same love of the covenantal God for the people of Israel. We are relationally drawn to God, and to one another, and how we live out our faith should demonstrate to the world around us that we are CHANGED!
Where do we take this message of healing and mercy and hope and grace, Church? How does it impact our lives personally?
One of the problems with the Gospel message is that it seems to have two classes of people: the IN crowd, and the OUT crowd. The Jesus people and those… SINNERS. The people who love light and the people who love DARKNESS. If we are people of redemption, people who want to demonstrate love and forgiveness, what do we do with this?
First – can we bring light to the darkest situations around us?
As a church, you already do – donating food, helping the homeless, providing safe clothing for children, and volunteering in many other places around the community. Who have you ignored? Who are you too uncomfortable to go and serve? We all have our areas of challenge and are ill at ease. Who are you choosing to NOT serve?
As a person, just walking around the planet, what could you do? Who can you listen to, provide safe haven for? Whose voice needs yours to amplify its cause? Many times we sit by, silently, and shake our heads and say, “oh that’s a shame.” (I do it, too.) Our youth, like the ones in Parkland, Florida, are showing us the power of a few voices. They are bringing the light of their very lives into a very dark conversation. And we can do that, too. We can bring our voices alongside others who are marginalized and ignored.
Second – Can you expose the lies of darkness for what they are?
When wicked things come into the light, it is hard to stand the stench that they bring. Our first response is to shudder and look away. Snakes. On a plane. UGH NO THANKS. But someone, like Samuel Jackson, in the film Snakes on a Plane, has to lead. (spoiler alert!) You might have to yell at people to strap in, and then punch a hole in the side of the plane so that the snakes get sucked out… and people can live.
That “stench” may be how you feel about politics… and as pastor, I can NOT tell you who to vote for. But I CAN tell you that you need to examine the deeds of politicians as they are brought to the light. And then use your gift of citizenship to campaign and vote.
Third – and perhaps the hardest – can you, in your heart of hearts, experience change? Can you embody the love of God – a love that, as we learned in John 3:16, “so loved the world” that Christ was sent for us?
How does that change express itself? Perhaps it is in realizing who God loves and how God loves them. In the gospel of John, it was the sinners, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the Samaritan woman at the well.
For us, it is a Love Unknown… A way of caring for people we don’t really know, but who we think are not love-able by God.
There’s the people we might be so quick to condemn because of their life choices… “for God so loved…”
Or the people who have seemingly rejected God… “for God so loved”
The people who sit beside us in the pews… “for God so loved”
The people we work with (and sometimes disagree with us)… “for God so loved”
God demonstrated love through Christ to us, not because we understood it, but because our humanity, our stubbornness, our sinfulness demanded it.
My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me; love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. O who am I, that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die?
Thank you for your warm welcome. I’m delighted to serve you today for my friend Pastor Glennyce. We are part of a women’s clergy group and have enjoyed some wonderful times of laughter, prayer and inspiration. You are blessed with a great pastor!
My sermon this morning is based on the popular and epic blockbuster of the summer. It’s everyone’s SHEro, Wonder Woman! There are biblical themes in her story, themes that link our culture’s treatment of women and superheroes with God’s purpose in the world.
I should also mention: If you have not yet been to see this movie, I will have a few spoilers for you. (Fair warning!)
For some background: Wonder Woman is the story of Princess Diana, daughter of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. She lives with her tribe on the island of Themyscira. Though she did not know it until she was an adult, she was the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta, making her a demigod. Or demigoddess.
The myth is a powerful one. A young woman comes into her own, discovers she is born into a time of conflict where her unique gifts and powers are needed to make things right again. She is unspoiled by greed. She is not overly impressed with her personal powers. She doesn’t even realize she is beautiful.
The movie, set in World War 1, includes a handsome fighter pilot (of course) who crashes on the shores of Themyscira. Diana rescues him and then chooses to go back into his world to fight against the “bad guys”. She wears a tiara which can be thrown as a blade-edged boomerang, and wields a Lasso of Truth. Her bracelets become indestructible shields, blocking bullets and creating thunderbolts. She wears her sword down the back of her evening gown. What did you expect for Wonder Woman’s fashion accessories? She IS an Amazon. Did you expect tutus?
Wonder Woman, like the biblical women we will read about today, is larger-than-life. She faces injustice and evil and does not back away. In fact, like Deborah, our first SHEro, she realizes she has power and that she can use it to help others. (I kinda like that name… Deborah!)
Deborah The Lord Will Deliver Us Judges 4:1-10
Deborah was elevated to the position of judge in Israel. Our text in the NRSV calls her a “prophetess”. She is one of the twelve charismatic leaders, or judges, in Israel listed in the book of Judges. God put Deborah into leadership to provide spiritual and tactical leadership. The time she was born into was a period of struggle and suffering for the Jews. The Israelites had come out of Egypt, been led into the Promised Land, and faced a series of challenges from foreign powers trying to take the Land of Canaan from them. Historians suggest that the book of Judges was committed to writing during the Babylonian Exile (550 BCE). The book’s message of hope and promise of deliverance must have resonated deeply with a captive nation!
Deborah ruled as a judge – not just to resolve legal disputes. She served in that role as a prophetess, a warrior and, as you might read later in Judges 5, she was also a poet and singer! She was given power to lead by God and used it wisely.
With our Wonder Woman theme in mind, Deborah fulfilled roles as a leader, ready to battle against evil with her unique insight and power, and as a defender of her people. Deborah knew her tribe. Her motivation was for their safety and the return of peace.
When Wonder Woman goes into battle, she assesses and charges the line of enemy fighters, blocking bullets with her indestructible bracelets. She charges into “No Man’s Land.” To quote the Tolkein SHEro Éowyn, She is. No. Man. The battle belongs to Wonder Woman. Or… in the case of Deborah, it belongs to the woman who follows the Lord!
Deborah is a role breaker and risk taker. There was no other general like her recorded in Jewish history. There are many conservative Bible commentators who try to explain away her calling and her power. It’s clear she was not a typical woman of ancient Israel. In fact, given the inequity in the representation of women in Holy Scripture, where their power and status were minimized, she must have been extraordinary. SO extraordinary that she was not excised from the texts. That’s something to ponder
But the ancient mindset affects even how we translate her name: is she really “Deborah, wife of Lappidoth” when the literal translation of her name could be “Deborah, the fiery one”? Lappidoth is a derivative of the Hebrew word for fire or torch or lightning (לַפִּידlappiyd). In the adjective form it would be “fiery”. She may indeed have been married. And the guy she married could have been a fiery one, too! But in our text, she was called to more than marriage and family. And she probably had a bit of FIRE in her belly.
Now, what about Barack, leader of the army? He appears to be thoughtful, reserved, and more conservative. He seems highly analytical, maybe to a fault… I grant you that. In fact, some commentaries go so far as to characterize him as reluctant and wimpy for not “manning up.” But what exactly do we read about his character? Is that true?
Did Deborah usurp Barack’s role in leading the Israelites against Sisera, the general of
King Jabin’s army? No. She gave him direction. Deborah took the lead, but as any wise military leader knows, she prepared her general and soldiers to have a successful battle. And then as the skirmish develops, allow circumstances to dictate what happens next.
Then why did Barack want her there? Because she presented the power and guidance of God. It was not enough for Barak to hear and go. He asked for guidance and her presence. That sounds like a cautious, thoughtful, careful leader to me. A respectful one.
Later in chapter 4, you’ll read that the mighty iron chariots of the Canaanites, so feared by the Israelites, got (literally) stuck in the mud! Barack led a rout of the Canaanite army, and God did indeed deliver General Sisera into the hands of a woman.
In the interests, of time, I’ll let you read up on how General Sisera dies. (Quite honestly, that’s a ghastly and bloody bit that makes for great cinema, but not great sermons. That’s your homework. The story of Sisera and Jael.)
But what about Deborah as a woman and a leader. Isn’t that, well, unbiblical? Well I guess it depends on how you look at it. Was God in charge of the battle with Sisera? Yes. Did Deborah take over a “man’s job”? No. Barack was not the judge of Israel. That was Deborah’s role. It was not hereditary and it wasn’t elected. She was put into that role by God. And she knew it. And, coincidentally… so did Barack!
God is both compassionate and a righteous judge, humble and forceful, intuitive and logical. Deborah reflects the God who called her. A balanced leader. One that eyes the situation and seeks God’s direction as she acts with thoughtful and wise plans. Deborah exhibited concern for the welfare of her people.
It’s very much like Wonder Woman’s response when she sees the suffering around her in the war zone. People who are wounded. Without food. Hungry children. Destroyed homes. The situation is no longer abstract. She is not just practicing archery and hand-to-hand combat. She is moved to action. Her compassion pushes her to respond.
My friend, Dr. Christy Sim writes:
Today, as we confront suffering in our own world, brought about by years of conquest, lust for power, and patriarchal disregard for the marginalized, we could become overwhelmed by the vastness of the abstract forces working against us. …When we feel with those suffering, we access a deep passion to act. We, like Diana, can rush onto the battlefields of our times and work to create change. Feminine power is often found in compassion.
When we are moved with compassion, we extend ourselves for those in need around us. Your church, like mine, is strategic and committed in your involvement with those who need our help. You invest your time and money in projects like the Special Olympics, or Christmas in April. That’s what God’s people do! We visit the sick. We befriend the stranger. We defend those being bullied. We care for the immigrants in our midst. We do not stand by and wring our hands and say, “oh, that’s just terrible.”
NO, Church. We DO something.
If compassion is our motivation, then like Deborah, we can make a palm tree our office and change the course of a nation. It really doesn’t take riches or CEO status or prestige to make a difference! But it does take action. And, like Deborah, when we see God’s plans unfold in front of us, we can proclaim this is God’s work. And the Lord receives the honor and the glory.
Sometimes, it is not just in serving God with our actions. We serve God with our words as we communicate God’s work in our lives. Just like our second SHEro this morning from the Gospel of John…
The Samaritan Woman at the Well Come and See John 4:7-30
This SHEro was not a powerful warrior, general and prophetess. She was an outcast. The scripture I’m about to read drops us into the middle of her story. The conversation between Jesus and the woman is found in the John 4:7-30.
The Samaritan Woman at the well… She has to be one of the most misunderstood women (in my opinion) in the Bible. A woman who had to come to Joseph’s well in the heat of the day to draw water, not in the morning or evening as most of the households would do.
The well in ancient times was a gathering place. The turn-of-the century Starbucks. If there was no river or other water source, any water you needed had to be pulled up, poured into larger pitchers and carried to where you needed it. Water for drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing. Water for your animals (unless the pasture had a spring). It was the source of life, literally Living Water.
That this woman had to get water for her household in the heat of the day meant that either she was a poor planner and household manager (not a good sign), or she was some kind of social pariah.
We learn from her encounter with Jesus that she has had five husbands, and that she is not married to the one she lives with now. This isn’t because of some lustful living. In all likelihood, she was divorced five times because she could not bear sons (a reason for divorce in ancient times). Or it is possible that her husband had died (and if she had not died in childbirth he might die first). It’s likely that she was not married because the brother or closest relative of her last marriage didn’t want another wife. So her notoriety is most likely not from shady living, but sheer dumb luck with the genetic lottery!
But the beauty in her story, to me, is that she discovers who Jesus really is. From his invitation, she accepts the Living Water, and she is changed. She returns to the village and says, “you GOTTA see this guy” – and because of her testimony, we read later in John 4 that many people in the city believed in Jesus – because of her testimony.
When the Samaritan woman experiences true change, when she understands who she is in the eyes of Jesus, there is an amazing metamorphosis that takes place. She can’t stay who she was. She becomes who, I think, God intended her to be… the messenger that brings salvation to a whole city.
If you have seen the Wonder Woman movie, perhaps you remember that Princess Diana goes through a metamorphosis as well. She was a princess, one who was not supposed to go to the practice fields where the Amazons were practicing hand-to-hand combat. She was supposed to be paying attention to her lessons. She goes to the training ground anyway. She practices in secret with the other warriors. She learns how to fight off multiple opponents. And when she crosses her bracelets… She becomes Diana, the demigod, not just Diana, the daughter of Hippolyta.
When Diana is deciding to leave Themyscira she says, “It is our sacred duty to defend the world. And it is what I am going to do.” Her mother, who does not want to leave, says, “If you choose to leave, you may never return.” Diana responds, “Who will I be if I stay?”
How can we, who have been transformed by the love and power of Christ, stay as we are? How do we say “no” to the God who has created us, changed us, empowered us, and now challenges us? The problem is not you or me. The problem is we. We are not telling our stories of hope and transformation!
Our challenge now is to take the stories of the Scriptures and allow them to transform us. So much that who we are, wherever we go, we have a story that changes the narrative. Let’s face it. The world is ready for some Good News!
The world’s stage has despot after despot, bigot after bigot, racist after racist, tyrant after tyrant trying to crush down and destroy any person who does not fit his or her definition of “our kind of people”. Can we sit back and say we are tired of the battle? Can we? If we do, we can no longer blame the person on the stage, spouting lies and prejudice and hate. We can only blame ourselves for our inaction. We are letting the noise of politics and conflict drown out the message of hope. God’s hope.
We instead must go to our villages – and tell the people around us, “Come and see the Christ, the Savior of the world.”
“Come and see” the God who routed Sisera’s army.
“Come and see” the women and men God has raised up to lead.
“Come and see” the God who knows everything we have ever done and yet passionately loves us.
“Come and see” the God who welcomes us to his Table and feeds us with compassion and grace.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14 ESV)
Thank you, my new friends, for the warm welcome to your church and your pulpit. I have enjoyed my friendship with Pastor Dee and other women ministers in the area, as part of the group called RevGalBlogPals. We found each other through the magic of the internet. The six of us in our small ministerial group meet about once a month. We laugh, talk, cry and pray about ministry and about our lives. I’m honored to preach here today for your pastor and my friend.
I did not mention in my bio that I was a member at one point in a United Church of Christ congregation. During my high school and college years, my family attended First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio, the church of Washington Gladden, Boynton Merrill, and Chalmers Coe. Being in a UCC congregation is very much like coming home! I say this to reassure you… I may be a crazy Baptist preacher, but I honor my UCC roots!
As you read from my bio, my primary ministry is that of a chaplain. When I worked at a trauma center, it was not uncommon to get that middle-of-the-night phone call. In a groggy, sleep-deprived state, I jumped out of bed, put on my shoes and headed for whatever emergency I was called to… But before I responded in person I needed to know Who’s Calling – and get straight in my mind what I was walking into.
Today’s text in Genesis 22 is one of those texts with a wake-up call in it. For if we do not remember the nature and intention of Abraham’s God, we can easily go careening off into the wrong direction. We can also do this text a grand disservice and take it as a simple conversation. Perhaps we might join philosopher Immanuel Kant in the depths of his cynicism. But this text can point us back to the Imago Dei, if we are paying attention.
After all, it is a hard story to hear, isn’t it? As if Genesis chapter 21 wasn’t bad enough – the story of Sarah and Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael… of jealousy and banishment… and of God’s protection and provision. If we read this story with ears of disbelief, we might respond much like the Abraham immortalized in another of Bob Dylan’s songs, “Highway 61.” You may be old enough to remember it:
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
I invite you to ponder Genesis 22 with me as we try to find the threads of grace and justice and hope and peace that we believe ARE the hallmarks of the Divine’s work in the world. In a broken, twisted, confusing world like ours, there are many around us who do NOT see that God is there.
My imperfect take on this text is simply this: as you read these words, never ever let the Covenant God of the Patriarchs out of your sight. Read these words through the filter of a relational God, not an impartial, angry God. We will indeed struggle if we forget this story in its context. The context is one of a covenant relationship. And it is a covenant relationship that will go through a severe test of faith (for Abraham).
A Covenant God. A just God. A God who asked Abraham to leave everything he knew to go off into a new land, with a wife who has yet to bear children, to begin a great nation.
A Covenant God. A God who keeps promises. A God who tells Abraham to walk for 3 days and then kill his son as a sacrifice. Our minds boggle. WAIT… Hold on now… Binding up a human being for sacrifice? Where is this relational God now?
The binding of Isaac, or the Akedah, is found in the Sacred texts for Jews, Muslims and Christians. The text weaves in faith and despair. Hope and disbelief. Kierkegaard in his work Fear and Trembling takes chapters and chapters to untangle the philosophical questions in this story. Never fear – I will not read the entire book to you! (But, should you wish to wrestle with this personally… there is your assignment!)
The relationship and love of a father for his son is emphasized in the construction of the very words of our text. In true ancient storytelling fashion, the repetitive words make it clear that this son, this Isaac is precious and beloved.
From our text in v. 3: Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…
Yes. His only legitimate son and heir. That one.
and go to the land of Moriah,and offer him there as a burnt offering…
…and Abraham is given this horrible task…
The classic Jewish midrash by Rashi suggests God made this as a request to see if Abraham would really obey and follow him, only to then reward him.
The Holy One, blessed be He, makes the righteous wonder (or wait), and only afterwards discloses to them [His intentions], and all this is in order to increase their reward.
Was this just a “test”? Was this a challenge to expand Abraham’s faith or just the beginning of the tale of God’s faithfulness?
When God promised Abram his descendants would outnumber the stars in Genesis 12, did Abram know how it would happen? He had no children, no land other than the space he pitched his tent! He did not yet know how God would do all these things but believed. We read in Genesis 15 and later in Romans that God “credited it to him as righteousness”. Against all the odds of the improbable, Abraham believed.
The Apostle Paul reminded us of this in Romans 4:18-22
18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
And isn’t that what we are called to in a time of improbable politics and conflict? We are called to believe that though it seems unlikely, God is at work… in and through and in spite of us!
On some level, Abraham had faith that God would do something even though he thought he was to sacrifice Isaac. In his own words in Genesis 22: 5, Abraham says…
Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; WE will worship and then WE will come back to you.
…WE will worship and then WE will come back to you.
Was it a prophetic statement or a quiet and desperate prayer by Abraham? “WE will come back?”
I would suggest to you that Abraham may have been uncertain HOW God would bring offspring… with no son… or how Isaac would return with him, alive, but he believed that El Shaddai, the All-Sufficient One would do it! Based on all Abraham knew of God’s work in the past, he had faith.
Rev. Jacqueline Lewis says: “Faith in God means remembering deliverance in the past and expecting deliverance in times to come.”
Remembering deliverance… expecting deliverance… I suggest to you that THIS is the narrow way through to understanding and living with this text.
Two other characters in this story deserve a moment of our reflection.
Other than knowing the backstory, that she is Isaac’s mother, she is absent from this narrative. It’s not surprising. Women in the time of the patriarchs did not offer sacrifices nor lead worship, so they would not have made this kind of journey. They supervised households, had babies, made clothing, cooked meals, tended flocks and crops, and fetched water.
Sarah’s real worth in her culture’s eyes was measured by how many sons she birthed. She believed her barrenness was from God. In Genesis 12, she said that God had “prevented” her from having children, and in order to see that promised sea of descendants appear, she suggested Abraham have children by her slave, Hagar. She saw no other option.
How do we view Sarah? Do we see her as a schemer? Someone trying to keep her position as Abraham’s first wife?
Or do we see her through the lens of a woman who knows she is only chattel? Someone who not only could be replaced, but has no other recourse? Someone who only has an outside chance that things might go her way… but just in case… she pegs in her own position in the sand.
When we force people to the margins in society, whether by virtue of race or economic status, why are we then taken aback by their desperate measures? Rather than long-range planning, Sarah found a short-range solution. It’s a strategy that many of us have fallen prey to, if we are honest… Fear that I won’t get what’s “mine” or I will lose what little security I have.
Women of today are all Daughters of Sarah… If we from our place of privilege can find compassion for Sarah’s plight, can we then transfer that compassion to “the Hagars” in our lives? The people who have been intentionally shoved into exile? The ones who do not have favored status? The ones who are aliens…?
So, Church, how might we respond today to the marginalized and ignored…?
The other character I’d ask you to consider is the ram, who is, as the poet Yehuda Amichai said, “the true hero of the Akedah” [Ah-KAY-dah]. Listen to the first part of his poem:
The True Hero of the Akedah Yehuda Amichai translated by Chavatzelet Herzliya
The true hero of the Akedah was the ram Who did not know about the pact among the others. It was as if he volunteered to die in place of Isaac. I want to sing, for him, a memorial song, About the curly wool and the mortal eyes About the horns that stood silent on its living head. After the slaughter, they were made into shofars To sound the blast of their wars And to sound the blast of their celebrations….
The ram caught in the branches may have been reaching to eat the last tender shoots of a limb. Picture the deer in your neighborhood, straining to get the new, freshest buds off the top of your azaleas. Or the cow reaching through the fence to find the greenest grass.
Perhaps the ram was struggling for survival in a part of the world where green things and water are scarce. One could imagine the ram losing its footing and its horns becoming enmeshed in the branches. It could not get away… and it was there. Stuck. Waiting. A Divine appointment. To be sacrificed would be a merciful end rather than a long, slow death by thirst and starvation.
Could this happen naturally? Yes! It did, as suggested by art found in “The Great Death Pit” from an archeological dig in the 1920s led by Leonard Woolley. (See pictures here at the Penn Museum website.) Some of the sculptures had a stylized animal, either a goat or a ram, caught in the branches of a small tree or bush. They were dated to be around 2100 BCE, the approximate time it is suggested Abraham lived.
The ram is also significant because it reminds us that the ancient peoples did not always use animals as sacrifices. The scarcity of resources, or fear of survival, led them to sacrifice children to the gods, like Amar-utu the Akkadian god of the desert sun.
Abraham was called out of this practice to worship the One True God. In this transition of a people group from old beliefs to new, he saw the ram as a reminder from God: I will provide for you.
Rev. Kathryn M Schifferdecker from Luther Seminary says “the sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac becomes the foundational act for all the Temple sacrifices that follow”
With our modern-day eyes, we can make the connection between God providing the ram, with God making a way for us, for our faith to declare us as righteous. We know Christ, the Mediator between the human and the Divine.
And who is this mediator—true God and at the same time truly human and truly righteous? Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given us to set us completely free and to make us right with God.
How do you come to know this? The holy gospel tells me. God himself began to reveal the gospel already in Paradise; later, he proclaimed it by the holy patriarchs and prophets, and portrayed it by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law; finally, he fulfilled it through his own dear Son.
Abraham moves in this uneasy space of the old (human sacrifice) and the new (the ram). The ram brings a pause in the downward arc of the knife:
Whom do you serve? (You gotta serve somebody!)
Look up and see what God is doing! What God has already DONE.
We are all bound and unbound from challenges, illness, even death by the Creator God who made us. Even those we love the most. We bring heart-felt requests to God, believing, as Anne Lamott says, “someone hears us when we speak in silence.”
We must ask ourselves when we feel stuck: “Who’s Calling?”
Whom do we serve?
Do we SEE God?
Do we HEAR God?
Do we respond with understanding?
Can we sit with the tension of this text?
Can we feel the agony of an impossible decision?
Can we spare compassion for our neighbor who does not have enough money for rent AND food AND utilities AND medicine AND clothing?
Can we see this story from our places of brokenness?
Can we remember we only see one side to a story?
Do we forget there is a place for God to speak into our lives and change us?
Are we listening and responding to God’s Call?
Are we finally waking up from a deep sleep, grabbing the phone in our sleep-fuzzed states?
Are we even move-able? Or are we, as Anne Lamott says, like “mushrooms, living in the dark, with poop up to our chins”?
Church, Church! Christ speaks!
Do we answer, Who’s Calling?
It wasn’t in the plans for our senior pastor to come down with some form of the Maryland “plague.” Nor had I planned on preaching tomorrow. As I did some chores and cooked dinner this evening, I meditated on the verses for tomorrow’s service. I read her manuscript (which is wonderful) and now it’s time to refocus and make it God’s Words through me…
It is a wondrous thing to have just spent the last day with some wonderful clergywomen. We listened, talked and dreamed. More will come from our time together in the days and weeks to come. But for now, my focus turns to the sermon prep I need to do.
I am not worried nor anxious. There is a sense that God has brought me through many twists and turns to come and partner with this congregation and be a part of what the Spirit would do in our corner of Christendom.
As I sat with Scripture tonight, I stopped to re-center, breathe and remember…
… deep breaths
… long talks
… friends on this journey
… Christ at the center
… the Eucharist shared with loving hearts and hands
HOPE: Seeing each other and our world as God sees us Romans 5:1-11
It’s so good to see everyone! It’s great to be out of the snowdrifts and black ice, isn’t it? This time last week our driveway was an icy luge in-the-making and we opted to stay safely at home. But we missed you!
In this season of Lent, our sermon series is organized around the Voices of Our Faith.We are focusing on words that reflect the way we approach a life in God – words like justice, hope, mercy, reconciliation, and joy point us towards Easter and the Resurrection of Christ.
Todd spoke last week on Justice – where we work for the world to become as God created it to be. That is, to move past societal norms and politics and focus on the Creator’s design for our world, one that has beauty, equality and justice.
The Voice of Our Faith this week is the voice of HOPE.
HOPE. What is it? What do Hope-filled (or HopeFULL) people do? What difference does Hope make in a Christian’s life?
Hope is an elusive word and it’s one that we misuse all the time. It’s not wishful thinking (“I hope it doesn’t rain on Opening Day for the Nats!”) or a wish-on-a-star-God-make-it-happen kind of prayer. (Though don’t we all pray that way sometimes?)
Hope is vesting ourselves in what is possible. It moves from the present to the future. Hope is desire combined with confidence and discipline. It is based on reality, or, in the Christ-follower’s case, on the Promise that God is absolutely true, absolutely trustworthy, absolutely the same yesterday, today and forever.
Hope is the fire that fuels our passion for justice. It’s beyond feelings, in fact, Hope buoys us up when we feel discouraged and depressed.
Wishful thinking, on the other hand, is when we really REALLY want something to happen. It’s passive. It’s not necessarily based on reality. It’s expressing uncertainty and wishing for the opposite. Tossing a penny in a wishing well or wishing on a star have no guarantees but they can, for the moment, make us feel better.
I like how Eugene Peterson expresses the difference between Hope and Wishing:
“Wishing grows out of our egos; hope grows out of our faith. Hope is oriented toward what God is doing; wishing is oriented toward what we are doing…
Wishing is our will projected into the future, and hope is God’s will coming out of the future. Picture it in your mind: wishing is a line that comes out of me, with an arrow pointing into the future. Hoping is a line that comes out of God from the future, with an arrow pointing toward me.” (Eugene Peterson, in Living the Message, Daily Help for Living the God-Centered Life)
When we build on Hope, we are embracing the reality of God’s work in our world and in each other. When we are hopeFULL, it changes…
What we see
What we hear
What we say
What we want
How we respond
I. When we have hope, we see each other, and our world, as God sees us.
INTELLECTUALLY, we get this. Practically and emotionally, we have a problem, because we rarely experience it.
Why don’t we experience hope?
I think one reason is because we are caught up in the present and the demands in our lives:
Bills and student loans
We are overwhelmed and frustrated. We have little to no endurance. And we lose perspective on what’s really going on.
We do not see God at work. We forget the spiritual realm is active, and God is present and working.
Hope has staying power. It fuels our passion for justice. It allows someone to look past the reality of one’s struggles and believe God can bring change. It energizes and moves us to change. Why else do you think people stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama 50 years ago and banded together to demand change? It was their Hope in justice, God’s justice, to prevail in a human justice system.
Let’s stop and think for a minute… Imagine…
Imagine standing on a bridge, one named after Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general and Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. Imagine preparing to walk, peacefully, towards Montgomery, Alabama to petition your state to give you voting rights – ones that you already had been given almost 100 years earlier in the 15th Admendment. Rights that were systematically denied you, and others like you, simply because of your race.
Based on history alone, with generations of discriminatory voting practices, why would you believe that things could change? HOPE.
Hope brought about people who persevered. A week later, in a third attempt, the march started towards Montgomery. The numbers swelled from a couple hundred to 25,000 by the time they reached the capital. And Congress, galvanized by the reaction to that Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, and the show of support from a united front of men and women from many races and religions, passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a few weeks later.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march. President Obama and family, and former President George W. Bush walked across that bridge in a symbolic act of remembering how far we have come, and how far we have to go as a nation. The original marchers, some of whom were present at yesterday’s commemorative events, explained why they decided to march in 1965. They had a confidence that was based on Hope. They were ready to see change.
“When I was a child, I didn’t know how it would affect my life now, but it also makes me sad that some of the same battles of the sixties, we seem to be fighting over again. And things don’t go away. We keep renaming the same stuff and I think every generation thinks they have to start a battle over. But if you don’t know the mistakes and the gains of the past, you’re destined to be bogged down in the same stuff.” – Selma marcher Joanne Bland, 11 years old in 1965
II. It is this kind of hope – one that is active, based on truth and action, that Paul is writing about in Romans.
Paul the lawyer, Paul the Jewish scholar and Paul the human being help us understand something of the nature of Hope. This chapter is a long “therefore” building on everything Paul has written in this letter. A legal argument, if you will, that started back in the previous chapters.
Paul the lawyer set out a logical argument and explanation of the basis of our hope and faith in God. I know it’s a challenge to wade through Paul’s writing sometimes – but don’t let all those dependent clauses and therefores and wherefores throw you off!
Paul explains that it is God doing the work of reconciliation. It is God showing mercy to us.
Paul explains that
We have peace (verse 1) because we are in relationship with God
We have access to God by faith (v 2) because of God’s love, compassion and forgiveness
We are loved in spite of who we are (v 8) – sinners – to use the old-fashioned word – people who fail to live up to God’s standards and who hurt one another – and yet we are accepted by God because of our relationship through Christ.
Paul the Jewish scholar also asks us to remember the faithfulness of God. He knew that God heard the cries of the Jews in exile. The slaves in Egypt. The testimony of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. The oppression of the Jews by the Roman Empire.
Paul wrote out of an intimate awareness of how God can be trusted.
Perhaps he remembered the words of Jeremiah to the refugees in Babylon:
From Jeremiah chapter 29 11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
These are words that were written to captives in Babylon, words that they believed but did not see come to pass until their great-grandchildren went back to Jerusalem.
Or perhaps Paul the scholar remembered the promises of God in Joel 2, words that reached across centuries to the coming of the Messiah:
28 “… I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.”
Words that came true on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled a crowd. These words from Joel are yet to be completely fulfilled – they are full of promise for God’s final redemption in the world to come. Words where WE can find HOPE.
Poignant words, to be sure, for a bridge in Alabama, for Christians who are beheaded in Libya or killed in Nigeria or Mali. They are words of Hope for our country as we try to understand the brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, or the shooting of a homeless man in LA.
Our world needs Hope, doesn’t it?
But I think the perspective I value the most as I try to wrap my head around the legal arguments of Paul the lawyer, and the centuries of Jewish history by Paul the scholar, are the honest hope-FULL statements of Paul the human being.
Paul the human being reminds us that we will walk though more than our share of disappointments, frustrations, doubts, questions and fears. Our very human condition of failure found in the word “trouble”.
Going back to Romans 5:
2b …we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Common English Bible)
Depending on the translation, “trouble” is translated “affliction” or “sufferings” or “problems.” The Greek word is “tribulations” – the soul-rending, heart-breaking events that make us want to give up… the long, dark nights when we are discouraged or depressed. We’re not talking hangnails or flat tires, here. It’s the stuff that causes us to give up completely.
Paul the human being was writing to the Church in Rome – where there was at least some opposition to the Church there, if the outright persecution by Nero and others had not yet begun. “Tribulations” (troubles) were a very real possibility.
Paul the human being reminds us that God invites us to persevere – to make it through the long haul… As someone who likes my coffee quick and hot and ready to go, who loves her microwave and cooks pre-fab dinners, I am honestly not a fan of endurance and perseverance. Our culture is INSTA-everything! It’s not “telegrams” any more — it’s “INSTAgrams!”
Anne Lamott says:
“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
When we persevere, when we hang in there, we are invited to lay claim to the promises God has made to each and every one of us!
God’s love is why we hope – hope in God does not disappoint us. Paul says it is an Artesian well poured out into us, full of God’s presence and promises.
From verse 5… “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
This is the “REAL PAUL” – the man who wrote later in 2 Corinthians about having a “thorn in his body” that he had to live with. Something that he suffered with, endured, and kept serving God.
I think he knew what he was talking about.
III. So how do we live out our Hope?
First, we remember that this process of living a Hope-FULL life has no short-cuts.
There will be problems and disappointments. Sometimes it will be simply because “life happens” — like cancer, or dealing with nature. Other times, it is when trouble comes because someone else has directly or indirectly brought it on us – the car accident, dishonest stock broker, or identity thief.
From our troubles, we gut it out with perseverance, demonstrate our character, and discover the faithfulness of God – HOPE in God.
We also need to remember that life is best done TOGETHER.
We are relational beings created in the image of a relational God. We watch, encourage, pray and love each other. Anyone who has ever been in a support group or 12-step group will tell you how much strength and courage is found in others’ presence and love. You can’t get it on-line. It doesn’t happen from a distance. It’s life together.
There’s something else we see in people who understand the power of Hope. A Hope-FULL life is one that is visible and demonstrable.
Hope brings a challenge to live out the ways God is at work in our lives, so that others can find hope in God as well. You can watch someone who is hurting, yet who has a deep-in-the-gut trust in God, and you know that they believe God keeps God’s promises.
I think about the people in my life who are up against incredible odds… physical, emotional, psychological, relational… day after day, they live in a way that honors God and reflects their HOPE. They inspire me to hang in there just a little longer.
Rep. John Lewis, one of the original Selma marchers, tweeted yesterday, “When people tell me nothing has changed, I say come walk in my shoes and I will show you change.”
Do you think he believed on that day 50 years ago that he would celebrate this day with an African American president? That he would be an elected Representative to Congress from the state of Georgia? I think the work of the Lord exceeded his expectations! This is a man who has lived out the word HOPE.
Hope brings us back to the cross.
The cross of Christ is a place of acceptance. The reminder that our present, finite souls are part of a huge and infinite reality.
The cross is a place where forgiveness, reconciliation and hope-FULL people demonstrate to one another God’s love. It’s one of the reasons that I love how we serve one another communion. It’s God’s hope, in the bread and the cup, put in our hands, that transforms our lives.
Every week we celebrate Communion, we remember these words of Paul – God’s Hope demonstrated through God’s love for us. We boast in the HOPE of God’s glory to be made real in us and through us. The gifts of God for the people of God point us back to the cross where Love brought about reconciliation, peace with God, and Hope. They are a reminder of the ever-present, ever-nurturing Spirit of God within us. They speak to our souls – where we will touch the Infinite Hope, the life-changing power of the risen Christ.
If we remember this, we can make it through life’s disappointments and challenges. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.
I took this photo over the summer, standing on the back deck of a beach house. (You can tell by the picture that the beach we frequent is a “dunes and seagulls” kind of beach, not a “boardwalk and fries” kind of beach.) One side of the house is a tidal marsh, the other faces the ocean and a row of natural dunes.
The afternoon I took this picture I had been reading on the back screened-in porch, a glass of iced tea nearby, and a ceiling fan making it a warm and bug-free place. At one point, I glanced up and saw this squall line coming across the water. On our side of the bay, we still had sunshine and a gentle breeze. The rapidly-advancing storm made a contrast I could not help but see.
I know many folks who are “storm walking” right now. They are dealing with cancer, divorce, bankruptcy, unemployment, bereavement… the list goes on. It’s part of my life’s work as a chaplain to frequent these stormy times with others. Many times they are strangers, but sometimes, they are friends. I thought about these folks, and how I don’t always “get” what they are dealing with, (or when I’m in a “storm” of my own, they don’t “get” where I am struggling.) It sets up a communication barrier, which we all seem to try and bridge with assumptions and judgements, based on our personal experiences and perspectives. And it doesn’t work so well!
The same would be true for the political rhetoric that is erupting all around us. It doesn’t matter what the issue is, there is a paid ad by a special interest group or PAC that vehemently defends one position while mocking the opponent’s. Life just isn’t that easy. Not matter who you listen to, the world is not black and white! It is (dare I say it) shades of grey. 🙂
Have we really stopped listening to one another? Why is that? Are we so blinded by our own interests and political positions that we can’t understand one another? What happens our common sense, our good judgement and perspective?
How often have I made an assumption about things I am struggling with, (specifically, because I don’t feel helped or supported) because I was stuck inside the storm?
Do I recognize that there are times have I been safely in the sunshine and had no idea how much rain was falling on others?
When have I failed to notice that the conditions someone else faced blotted out their horizon?
Do I see with perspective, understanding and compassion? Or do I just say, “well, I guess they should have had an umbrella?”
I’m pondering and writing a sermon on the Beatitudes this week. I have no clue how this all fits in… but I wanted to share it. Because, you see, it seems to me that while we are ALL living in sunshine or rain, we can always choose to live under grace…