Inspired by Joshua 24:1-15

So we have to start by asking that now familiar question, “How did we get here?” Especially because, since last week’s reading of the Ten Commandments, or vows as we called them, at Mt. Sinai, we have fast-forwarded through quite a bit of Israel’s history. To sum up, after they left Mt. Sinai, they continued on their journey through the wilderness to their new home, Canaan, the Promise Land, “a land flowing in milk and honey”, as scripture describes it. But it takes them forty years to get there.

On the way, their whining and complaining never ceased, testing God’s patience at every turn, including, but not limited to, still having trouble giving up their old Gods, after all these years. They finally make it to the border of the Promise Land, where Moses gets to see it from afar, but dies before he’s able to enter it. His protégé, Joshua, takes over as leader of the Israelites, and is tasked with moving them into Canaan, their new home.

"The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan" by Gustave Dore
And this is where it gets ugly. They don’t just move in like they’ve found the perfect apartment complex. No, because you see, Canaan was already inhabited. It already had thriving societies and cultures and nations. So, if the Israelites were going to move in, they were going to have to take it, and that meant fight for it. And they ended up doing more than just fighting for it, they systematically annihilated everyone and everything in their path.

And then had the nerve to attribute these genocidal tendencies to God! How convenient, right? Every nation the world has ever known has a dark chapter or two in their history, and the Israelites, our faith ancestors, were no different. America has slavery as one of its dark chapters; Germany, the Holocaust; South Africa, apartheid. But it’s not just nations that can have a dark chapter. The Catholic church has the inquisition. And our very own Martin Luther has his extremely anti-Semitic writings.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing the Israelites by saying, “Well, everyone has done this!” But if the Bible teaches us anything, it’s that, from cover to cover, it is chock full of example after example, of how God’s people have broken the Ten Commandments, and if the Bible was still being written today, our dark chapters would be in their too. Why? Because the more our sin is revealed, the more God’s grace is revealed. Why?

Because we believe in a God that loves us unconditionally, as that is the only kind of love that works with us humans who continually make bad choices. And our religion, has spent way too much time covering that up, rather than celebrating it. Think of the time and energy that has been spent on trying to make us look like we somehow deserve God’s grace, that somehow we have earned it, that somehow Christians are a better breed of humans, when that couldn’t be further from the truth!

It doesn’t take much reading of church history to see why phrases like “holier than thou” or “goody two shoes” or “self-righteous prig” (that’s one of my favorites) or names like “prude” or “priss” or “choirboy”, all get directed at Christians. Because if we’re honest with our history, it’s our own fault, we’ve asked for it. Christianity has a long history of using our faith to elevate our moral superiority over other nations, over other groups, over other religions, over people of color, over women or nonbinary individuals, you name the group and Christianity probably has a history of lording itself over them at some point.

And scholars have offered many reasons why we have a habit of doing this: for power, for wealth, for our egos, but I think most pastors read history and just say, “Oh, that’s because of sin.” And why is our faith even around still, after all we have done wrong in God’s name? Most pastors see that and say, “Oh, now that’s grace.”

However, there could have been a different way we lived out our faith over the centuries, that didn’t include us trying to hide our imperfections. We could have owned them. We could have been honest about our imperfections, about our sin. Not in a “Look what I got away with!” kind of way, but a “This is who we are.” kind of way. Imagine how freeing that may have been for people over the centuries, and today, who were trying to do their best but just kept falling short—for them to hear from us, “Join the club. We’re trying too. And we’re falling short too.” With maybe even an invitation to, “Come and try with us!” But no, we have had this nasty habit of judging others faults, making them feel less than, when we are struggling with the same things. Institutionalized bullying is what it comes right down to.

In a letter to his friend and colleague, Phillip Melanchthon, Martin Luther told him to “sin boldly.” Now this wasn’t Luther giving him an excuse to sin. This is what he wrote, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin.” This was just Luther’s odd way, and yes he was an odd duck, this was his odd way of saying—you can’t celebrate God’s grace until you have first lifted up your sin! And the more boldly you do that, the more boldly you’re going to celebrate God’s mercy! So own it! Own it!

I’ve got an idea for a new motto for Christianity. Imagine someone going to our website, and seeing right on the front page, in big bold letters, “WE SIN…A LOT.” That’s the kind of boldness I’m talking about! Imagine that as a conversation starter! I can hear people seeing that motto and asking, “Umm, if y’all sin that much then how do you even function? How do you even get by then?” And then we can say, “I’m so glad you asked! Let me tell you about a carpenter I know. Great guy! Loved wine. You’d like him!”

If we could be that bold about our sin, imagine how much bolder we’d have to be about God’s grace and mercy! Which brings us to our reading from the end of the book of Joshua. They have finally “moved in” to their new homeland, “a land flowing in milk and honey” which had turned into a land flowing in the blood of those they trampled to acquire it. And Joshua and God take a moment to give them a hard reality check! Because even though things are going well for them right now, they are not going to stay that way for long.

And so they tell them, you’ve got to decide! You’ve got to choose who you are going to follow, God, or your old gods. Which was really another way of saying, you have to choose between your present or your past. You can’t have it both ways. If you want to continue to live in the past then you go right ahead. Make a decision and own it! But you can’t live your life with one foot out the back door and expect to move forward.

God, God’s people, and this world, need you fully here, in the present. And God wants all of you, meaning, all that makes you who you are—all your faults, all your strengths, all your sins, all your good deeds. And God invites you to be bold about all of it. Remember, the bolder we are about our sin, the bolder we can be about God’s grace and mercy.  Unfortunately, Joshua did not understand this and gets a few things wrong.

If you keep reading there’s a few more verses to the end of the book where the people tell Joshua that they have indeed chosen to serve God. And Joshua basically tells them no, they can’t, because they haven’t in the past and he sees no indication that they will in the future. But that’s not what he gets wrong. He then tells them that God won’t forgive their rebellion or their sins. But that’s only because he hadn’t met Jesus yet. Thankfully we have, and hopefully, we’re getting to know Jesus better and better every day. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Ten Vows

Inspired by Exodus 19:3-7, 20:1-17

Raise your hand if you have experienced long car rides with children, or as a child yourself, that was full of whining and complaining during the whole trip! I got lucky. I was blessed with the greatest traveling companions in my children. They never whined or complained. They didn’t even ask to use the bathroom! I would have to ask them if they needed me to stop! The worst traveling experiences we had was that one of my girls got car sick pretty easily, but she was usually able to tell me in time for me to pull over, usually.

But that’s it really, and I can handle cleaning up vomit in my car much better than whining and complaining! I feel bad for families whose car rides are more like hell on wheels. I just can’t relate when people share stories of car rides that were full of “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”, or fights between siblings in the backseat, or someone yelling, “Don’t make me pull this car over!” Like I said, I really was blessed with the best traveling companions.

Unfortunately for Moses, he was not. We really haven’t skipped a whole lot since last week’s story of the Exodus. After escaping the Egyptians through the Red Sea, the Israelites continue their journey through the wilderness. And the traveling doesn’t go well. Talk about horrible traveling companions! Trust me, you would not want to go on a road trip with them! They griped, and whined, and complained the whole trip! Granted, it was a forty-year road trip, but still! I don’t know how Moses kept his cool as well as he did, without yelling “Don’t make me pull this car over!” every five minutes of those forty years!

And it’s not so much that they were constantly complaining about not having enough water or food, those things are important and so those complaints can be overlooked. But at one point they asked, “Is the Lord really with us or not?” I’m imagining Moses hearing that and saying, “Are you kidding me right now? Do you not remember, two walls of water, one on the right, one on the left, waving at fishes swimming by? And you’re wondering if God is really with you or not?” Like I said, the worst traveling companions ever!

So it comes as no surprise that God stops at a rest area called Mount Sinai. Clearly, everyone needs to get out and stretch their legs, and take a break, before anyone loses their temper and kills someone. And it’s there, at that mountain, that God says, we need to talk. If this is going to work, you and I, we need to lay down some ground rules.  Because I promised to be with you forever, and we are already getting on each other’s last damn nerve! And so, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments to share with them.

And the first thing I want to point out about them is that they really shouldn’t be read just as a list of laws. I kind of think that the author missed the boat by calling them commandments. As a wise colleague pointed out to me, another way of thinking of them are as vows or commitments, rather than just laws or commandments. For these are really how God has envisioned our relationship working, both with God and with each other. So, as an alternative, try thinking of them as commitments, or even as vows that we make, one to another.

And speaking of relationships, the next thing I’d like to point out about these ten vows, are that some of them are directed at God’s relationship with us, and some of them are directed at our relationship with each other. Now, what’s significant about that is, you’d think, God would have just split those down the middle right? Here’s five for you and I, and here’s five for you and each other. But no, only the first three are for our relationship with God: have no other gods; have no idols; and do not misuse God’s name. That’s it.

Pretty straightforward, in spite of the fact that they still continue to confound us. The rest of them, the last seven, are all about our relationship with each other. And that communicates a lot to us. That tells us, that our relationship to each other, is more important to God, than our relationship with God. Or, if that’s too hard for some of you to swallow, hear it this way, our good relationships with each other, are how God wants to be in good relationship with us. The two relationships are not exclusive.

We cannot be in poor relations with each other and expect our relationship with God to be ok, or vice versa. It just doesn’t work that way. The two go hand in hand. And they either feed and nourish one another, or tear down and destroy one another. There’s no in-between. Think of it this way. How many of your relationships with people are measured by how they treat other loved ones in your life? For instance, let’s take this “random” example.

Let’s say you have a daughter who has been in a long-term relationship, and let’s say you’re about to meet this boyfriend for the first time. And your spouse tells you how much said daughter is hoping you’ll like said boyfriend. Now, whether you “like” him or not is not the bottom line is it? How he treats her is. Your relationship with him, is going to be heavily based on how he treats her. The two relationships are not exclusive. They go hand in hand. And so it is with God.

Our relationship with God, is heavily based on how well we treat each other. That’s how important it is for God. And what do we mean by “each other?” The people in our families at home? Think bigger. Remember the story of Joseph. The people of Bethlehem then? Think bigger. Remember the promise to Abraham. Then, every human being on the planet? Think bigger! Remember Noah’s ark. All of creation, is what we mean by “each other!” It’s all or nothing! How we interact with everyone and everything around us has a direct impact on our relationship with God, and vice versa. And these ten vows, are God’s way of breaking that down a bit for us.

At the Bible study on Wednesday evening, we will talk about these individual vows in a little more detail, I hope you will join us. But before we can talk about any of these vows in more detail, we must first have this foundation, of why these are important, and what their purpose is in our lives—to nurture and strengthen our relationship with the world around us, and thereby with God. Why? Because we’re going to need those two relationships for any troubling times ahead. For God knows that in spite of how much the Israelites have to complain about at this point in the narrative, more troubling times are ahead for them. And God is doing God’s best, to prepare them for that. May the lessons they learned, prepare us as well, for every trouble that life throws at us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

This is Not the End

Inspired by Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29

So how did we get here? How did we get from last week’s story from Joseph’s life, to this story commonly known as the Exodus. You’ll probably notice me ask that question often, as we sail through the great stories of the Bible this Fall, skipping a few along the way. How did we get here? Well, for those of you who are following the daily readings printed in the bulletin insert, you know exactly how we got here but for those of you who haven’t, shame on you! Kidding! I’m kidding! I do highly recommend them though, and there is also a daily devotional to go along with those readings that you can find at the website listed in the insert. But I think if you read them you will get an even better picture of how all of these stories are going to eventually lead us to Jesus’ story.

Last week we had the story of Joseph being thrown into prison after being accused of sexual assault. Funny how timely these old stories can be right? In spite of being in prison Joseph still finds success there and is given charge of the whole prison. Eventually he catches the ear of the Pharaoh, the king himself. And in a scenario that was made for movies, he ends up becoming the ruler over all of Egypt, second only to the king!

If you aren’t familiar with this story, or haven’t read it in a while, I highly recommend you do. It’s the last 14 chapters of Genesis and it’s just one of the greatest dramas in all of scripture! So, long story short, Joseph is ruling over Egypt when a famine hits the entire region. In fact, his leadership is what saves them from starvation. He reunites with his brothers, yes those brothers, the ones that threw him down that dry well and then sold him into slavery, and invites his whole family to join him in Egypt to weather the rest of the famine. However, his family ends up staying there.

Well, his family didn’t just stay there, they grew! Remember that promise that God gave to Abraham two weeks ago? “I will make of you a great nation.” Well, God wasn’t ly’n! They grew…like rabbits! They grew so big, that they became a threat to the nation of Egypt, who wondered how they could keep them under “control.” What once was a blessing to Egypt in the form of Joseph, was now thought to be a curse. And so, Egypt devised a plan to deal with the Jewish question. Slavery.

Slavery was how they were going to keep them under control. Slavery was how they would keep them from rising up against them. Well, that plan backfired. There’s only so much a people can take before they resist, or fight back, or run away. And that’s exactly what they did. They ran. After much arguing and fighting, Egypt’s king finally gives up and lets them go. And under Moses’ leadership, with God at his side, they run, fast and hard, to freedom’s waters.

And that’s where our story picks up. They have run as far as they could run, to the edge of the sea. Meanwhile, the Egyptian king changes his mind and had begun to ran after them with his armies. The Israelites look back and see them coming. And to them, it looks like the end of the road. On one side is the sea, and on the other, one of the world’s mightiest armies, to come and reclaim their property. And so, they think, “Well, this is it. This is how it ends. This is how we end. It’s either give up, or meet our maker.”

And that’s exactly what they try to do. They argue with Moses saying, “This is what you brought us out here for? To die? Isn’t slavery better than death?” It’s a very human reaction. Don’t judge them to harshly. Judging them is tantamount to judging the mirror. We humans have a tendency to react very pragmatically, very logically. We tell ourselves, if something doesn’t make sense then there must be a reason, and that reason probably spells doom! It’s simply a survival instinct. And it’s a hard instinct to fight.

But that’s exactly what Moses tells them to do. Fight that instinct. Our brains tell us to choose fight or flight. And God tells Moses, there’s a third option. An option that only God is privy to but it’s there nevertheless! This is not the end. This is not your end. And all they have to do, is shut up and sit still. Well, easier said than done God! Have you ever been backed into a corner, those times in your life when you feel stuck between a rock and a hard place?

I don’t know about you but I either come out swinging, or recoil into my turtle shell to wait out the danger. But standing my ground? Being still and waiting for an option that I can’t even fathom to come to light and save me? Mmm, no thanks. That sounds like ridiculousness. And then I’m reminded of these old stories, handed down to us by our Jewish siblings, to learn these hard lessons that they endured—to shut up, and be still—because this is not the end, this is not your end.

This story became a pivotal story for our Jewish siblings. With the foundation of that promise given to Abraham, this story became what defined them as not only a people, but defined their relationship with their God. As we will see in the coming weeks, they will have to endure much strife, nothing will come easy for them. And if they thought this Egyptian king was bad news, they hadn’t seen nothing yet. That is why, returning to this story, every year at Passover, and especially in the midst of each struggle, was so important to their survival—remembering, this is not the end, this is not our end.

Oddly enough, this story was just as important to American slaves. And I say odd because they clung to their master’s religion. You would think, that any religion that a cruel slaveholder followed, must be just as cruel. But somehow, they saw something in their Christian religion, and this story in particular, that their white American slavers clearly did not—hope. We are going to sing two slave songs today. The first one is O, Mary Don’t You Weep. The song draws from two different Bible stories, the Exodus and the raising of Lazarus.

Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha, and in the Gospel of John, he died and Jesus went to go visit them. Mary weeps, and Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise, that this is not the end, this is not his end. She thinks that Jesus is talking about the afterlife, because that would be the logical conclusion right? No, Jesus shows her another option, and raises Lazarus back to life. We sing this song at the Vigil of Easter, when we return to these old stories, as a reminder that new life and hope have been happening since the beginning of time, and can come out of nowhere.

The other slave song we will sing, is Wade in the Water. This song too was sung by slaves, and this one had a secret code in it. Harriet Tubman used this song to teach escaping slaves to travel off the paths, and wade through streams and rivers, so that their scent would be hidden from the dogs that their slave masters would sic after them. This song too uses imagery from both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Troubling the waters comes from the story of a healing pool from the Gospel of John. The sick would wait for the waters to move, to be troubled, and that would signal that an angel was flying over waiting to heal someone. Though quite mystical in nature, the story was filled with the hope of another way, an option to life that may not be obvious, hope that this was not the end, this was not their end.

I don’t think any of us here can really understand what slavery is like, but I imagine that hopelessness and despair are around every corner. And that I know that many of us in this room can relate to that, at some point in our lives. And if you can’t, I’m guessing you know someone who can. These stories, these songs, are ways that humans, over the centuries, in the midst of the worst of times, have held on to hope, have clung on to hope by the whites of the knuckles.

These stories and songs, have communicated to people—this is not the end, this is not your end. As dire as your circumstances my seem, as hopeless as that rock and hard place may feel, as evil as the world around us looks, please remember this—because of God’s promise, because of God’s presence, because of God’s power—repeat after me, this is not the end…this is not our end…thanks be to God…Amen.

This Is Us

Inspired by Genesis 39

Many pastors this morning are going to address sexual harassment with this story. It’s certainly a hot topic these days, and it’s a topic that’s worthy of a pastor’s time in their pulpits. However, I chose to go down a different path. Maybe we will talk about it in the Sunday school class for adults, or at the Wednesday evening Bible study, or maybe in some other sermon but not right now. What I would like to address today, is this seemingly simple question, “What does God’s presence in our lives look like?”

As it turns out, it’s not a simple question by any means but before we get into all that let’s first take a moment or two to find out how we got to this story in the Bible. We are only in the third week of our journey through the great stories of the Bible and we are already at that story of Joseph. For you Bible geeks out there, you know that means we’ve skipped a few stories.

Last week we had a story from Sarah and Abraham’s life, and so that means we skipped stories from Rebekah and Isaac’s life, Abraham’s son and wife, as well as stories from Rachel and Jacob, Abraham’s grandson and wife. So, as we’re going through the great stories of the Bible and you notice us skip one of your favorites, don’t fret, odds are it’ll come up in a future year’s readings. Remember this is a four-year cycle of readings and each Fall we will return to Genesis and work our way through the Bible once more with a new selection of readings.

So, how do we find ourselves at this story of Joseph in Egypt? Last week God called Abraham out of his family and homeland, to become immigrants in Canaan. God tells Abraham that his family line will end up being a blessing to the entire world. Abraham follows those orders, has a son they name Isaac, Isaac has a son they name Jacob, and Jacob has a huge family, 12 sons and one daughter!

As I said, there are a lot of stories between last weeks and this weeks, from the time God gave that promise to Abram, to Joseph getting thrown in prison. We don’t have time to recap them all for you now, but I can say this, this family, from Abraham to Joseph, did not have easy lives. They struggled throughout. Many of the stories that we skipped are stories of heartache, death, natural disasters, infertility, rape, famine, tribal warfare, you name it they went through it! But the one thing that was common throughout each generation of this family was…family drama!

Oh my goodness, this family fought like cats and dogs! They were brutal with each other! And the lying and deception within this family is off the charts! Now, I bring all this up for a reason but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Now, Joseph was one of those 12 sons of Jacob—the great-grandchildren of Abraham. And as is the case with many siblings, especially in this family, the sibling rivalry was like nothing you have ever seen.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the Joseph story arc, what you are about to hear is pretty awful. I mean, Joseph’s brothers were the worst! However, to be fair, Joseph was a spoiled brat! And this wasn’t all his fault either, his dad, Jacob, clearly favored him. The author states point-blank that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any of his other sons” and that it was visibly apparent to everyone, and as such, his brothers hated him for it! And when I say “hated”, I mean hated. So much so, that they end up stripping him of his clothes and throwing him down a dry well to die. But then they change their minds and sell their baby brother into slavery instead—which is where our story picks up and how Joseph found himself in Egypt.

His roller coaster of a life doesn’t end there though. He gets sold to Pharaoh’s chief officer and becomes the most important, powerful, and influential person in his master’s house. Though still a slave, things are looking up for Joseph! And just when he thought his luck had changed, bam, he gets thrown in jail, framed with a false accusation. And that’s where our story ends today, with Joseph sitting in a jail cell.

Now, he does find some success in jail, as much success as one can in jail. The commander there does give him lots of responsibility, but he’s still in jail! That’s where we stopped reading. And I found that odd at first. I mean, to be truthful, I found the selection of this part of the Joseph story to be odd. The entire Joseph arc covers the last fourteen chapters of Genesis! And there’s plenty of other stories in those chapters that I probably would have picked from Joseph’s life!

But this is the story that the creators of this lectionary chose and I began to wonder why. I mean, they didn’t even start at the beginning of the Joseph story, which I had to sum up for you in this sermon! So why this story? Well, I think it’s because there’s a truth within this story that has not only been important for this family up until now, but will be vital for God’s people in the stories that we will hear throughout these coming weeks. And that truth is this, this is what God’s presence looks like sometimes, like Joseph sitting in a jail cell, wondering, “How in the world did I get here?”

You remember how I said that Abraham’s family had struggles ever since he first left his homeland, and that those struggles had plagued every generation? Well, many of us would probably just call that “life”, right, one struggle after another? That may very well be a common thread in many of our lives, but what I think the author is really trying to drive home here, is that God is present in those struggles.

In this passage alone, the author states three times, “the Lord was with Joseph.” At one of the lowest points in Joseph’s life, maybe second only to sitting in the bottom of that dry well, God was there. God with Joseph when he was his dad’s favorite son, and God was with Joseph when his brothers threw him in that dry well to die. God was with Joseph when his brothers changed their mind and didn’t kill him, and God was with Joseph when they sold him into slavery. God was with Joseph when he rose to power in Potiphar’s house, and God was with Joseph when he threw him in jail. Are you noticing a pattern here?

God was with Joseph. No matter the predicament that Joseph found himself in, and no matter whose fault. God was with Joseph. And not because he was an angel—remember he was a spoiled brat at the beginning of this story, and I can’t really say he changed all that much at the end of his story, but you’ll have to read that for yourself. God was with Joseph, not because he deserved it, but because God made a promise to his great-grandfather many years ago. And God keeps God’s promises.

So, I love photographs. I get that from my Aunt Ann and my mom. They always made sure to capture every moment on film. I hated it as a kid, but I’m thankful for it now. Anyway, it’s not just my own family photos that I love. I love photographs in general. One of my favorite things to do when I visit people at home is ask about any photographs I see around their house. And if I’m really lucky, they will pull out an old photo album, remember those? And sit with me to look through them. And a common phrase I hear as we do that is, “This is us…” This is us at a ballgame. Or, this is us at our wedding. This is us fishing. This is us at the Grand Canyon. This is us. “Us” usually means family, or whomever is in the photo. This is us.

Isn’t it kinda funny how we have lots of photographs of the good times in our lives but very little, if any, of the really horrible, darker times in our lives? Remember how those old photo albums would say in large print on the cover “Photo Album”, as if we didn’t know what it was? Well, what they really should have said was “Good Times.” Because that’s what they really were right, page after page of good times captured on film.

Now, humor me for just a moment, and try to imagine what a photo album of “Bad Times” would look like. If you had a collection of bad times from your life, dark times, all captured on film, what would those photographs include for you? I don’t know about you but as I think about the various dark times of my own life, a common element in them is loneliness. Many times self-inflicted loneliness, because I often withdraw into myself during bad times. But regardless, many of the photos I’m thinking of, that would be in my Bad Times album, would include just me in the photos.

At least, that’s the way it would look to an outsider. But imagine actually sitting with someone and sharing your Bad Times album, I know, that sounds like a nightmare to me too, but just humor me. As you’re flipping through those pages, of all the bad times in your life, you could still say, even in the photos that only include you in them, “This is us…” Only this time, “us” is you and God.

This is us in the unemployment line when I lost my job. This is us crying in my bedroom after my husband died. This is us in therapy after my son attempted suicide. This is us being served divorce papers. This is us taking that last drink before getting sober. This is us. This is us. This is us. As painful as a Bad Times album might be to flip through, imagine how powerful it would be to hear that phrase over and over, this is us, as you remembered those bad times—and recognized God’s presence, with you, in all of them.

I really do believe that this is the major point that the author was trying to get across in this part of Joseph’s story. God was with Joseph in the good times and especially in the bad times. And not just Joseph, but his whole family. And not just his family but every family at that time. And just at that time but even now—with you and me. I think this truth is a thread that runs through every story in the Bible. In fact, if you think about it, the whole Bible is like a big Bad Times photo album.

Think about all the Bible characters that you know. They all went through some horrible times, the worst times! But in every story, in some way, the author shares how God was with them. It’s easy to put together Good Times photo album. But don’t forget the Bad Times album. That album can be just as powerful, even if it’s just in your mind’s eye, as you remember those bad times, saying to yourself, “This is us.” “This is us.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Power in Promise

Inspired by Genesis 12:1-9

Our Bible story for today from the twelfth chapter of Genesis is a pivotal one. For one, it marks a shift from some very fantastical stories to a more down to earth one—from stories with talking snakes and angel/human hybrid beings, yep those are in the Bible, to the ordinary, simple family of Sarai and Abram, who we will later come to know as Sarah and Abraham. Now don’t get me wrong, we will have our fair share of fantastical stories later on, like fire that doesn’t burn human flesh, or a talking donkey, yep, that’s in there too. But for now, we get a break from those kinds of stories, and focus in on this one family. Imagine a giant wide-angle lens that’s able to capture not just mountain vistas, not just the entire planet, but the whole of the cosmos, that’s where the Bible begins, only to rapidly zoom in on this one family.

But why this family? What was so special about this family, or for now, this couple? Sarai and Abram did not have any children, he was already seventy-five years old, and they hadn’t done anything of note thus far. They were just a typical Mesopotamian couple in what is modern day Iraq. Now contrast that with last week’s story of the Flood. In that story, Noah was chosen why? Because he was the most holy and righteous man in the world! The author just gushes over Noah and how amazing he was!

So, of course, Noah is the one that God chose to bless by saving his family from the flood. So, in a sense, Noah was rewarded for his good behavior. What I love about the story of Abram, is that he was chosen, not for his good behavior or his holiness, but out of God’s pure grace. And this becomes a pattern of God’s, choosing ordinary people and families for extraordinary purposes, all the way up to choosing the ordinary family of a carpenter from Nazareth, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

Another reason why this is such a pivotal story, and probably the most important reason is because of the promise found in it. Out of nowhere, God says to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.” The promise is threefold: there is a promise of land, a promise of children, and a promise of blessing for the entire planet through said children. And it is this threefold promise that the rest of the Bible is based.

For a visual, the promise found on this page, is the foundation for all the other writings found in this book. This promise is going to come up again and again throughout the Bible as a reminder. Sometimes it will be us who are the recipients of that reminding, and sometimes it will be God who gets the reminder. Which is why these old stories that we think we know so well are all the more important to return to as our foundation. Because, this promise of blessing to the entire planet that we read here, all the way back in the twelfth chapter of Genesis, is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, but again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves!

So, we’ve established that this is a pivotal story, and maybe the most foundational story in all of Hebrew scripture, and if that’s all that we took away from this that would be a lot. But I think we can get even more from this story, particularly something that is a little more useful for us in our day to day lives. So, I’d like to share something that stood out to me, that in all my previous readings I had just glossed over—which is the beauty of scripture isn’t it, no matter how many times you hear a story, you often hear something that you never heard before, or that just wasn’t important before. At least, that’s the effect scripture has had on me.

And with this reading of this story, it was the two altars at the end that stood out to me. You may have missed it, toward the end of our story the author writes that “the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I give this land to your descendants,” so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him. From there he traveled toward the mountains east of Bethel, and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and worshipped in the Lord’s name.”

The mention of an altar in the Bible is quite common, so common it’s easy to just skim right over them. More often than not, they were quite simple, often just a pile of stones, placed together, usually square in shape. They could be very ornate but usually looked more like the one pictured here, which was discovered in Israel. Small altars like this were made, not for sacrificial purposes, but to remember, to commemorate, to celebrate something that had happened.

And in this case, Abram is simply celebrating God’s appearance to him with that three-fold promise. Now, what strikes me about Abram doing this is, he had no idea if God was going to make good on that promise. It’s not like God was handing out a guarantee with each promise that said, “If you are not happy for any reason please contact me for a full refund.” No, and let’s not forget that Abram is already in a vulnerable position having just been asked to leave his family, his only home he’s known, his country even!

But none of that keeps Abram from commemorating, celebrating, God’s presence and promise. For Abram, that is enough for now. Whether or not God will come through is secondary for him. Abram is content to recognize the power in the seemingly simple act of promise, without the need to wait to see if it is kept. Now, this seems like a pretty super-human act of faith but, we are not only capable of this, but we do this too. Marriage is one example of this.

Think about it, we make a big fuss over weddings, spend lots of money, celebrate it ‘til we’ve run out of credit. And what exactly are we celebrating? A promise, a promise between two people, before their friends and family and God. But here’s the kicker, no one in that room knows if the couple is actually going to keep those promises! No one at a wedding, including the couple, can guarantee that those promises will be kept, and that all that money they spent was worth it. But that doesn’t stop us from celebrating it does it? Because there is power in a promise and it’s worth celebrating. That and people just like to throw weddings and then get drunk afterward but I like to think that there is power in promise!

Another way that we practice this is at every baptism. We stand around that font, the baptized, their family and friends, and we hear the promises of God as water is poured, and we make promises too. But just like at a wedding, no one in this room knows if any of these promises are going to be kept. We don’t know if the family will keep their promises, we don’t know if we as a congregation will keep our promises, we don’t know if the baptized adult or baby will keep or live into those promises, and to tell you the truth, we don’t know if God will keep God’s promises! That is where hope and faith come in.

If our baptisms came with a money-back guarantee, there’d be no need for faith. But that doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate each baptism right? We bring out our Sunday best, and white gown, and have a big white cake afterward! Why? Because there is power in a promise, and it’s worth celebrating. Like Abram of old, who was called out of his home, away from his family, to a different country, out of his comfort zone with nothing but a promise to guide him, we too are called out of our comfort zone, expected to risk much, with nothing but a promise to guide us. And like Abram, we don’t know if that promise will be kept. But also like Abram, we recognize that we don’t have to, to celebrate a promise just for what it is, a gift that gives us hope, and feeds our faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.