Sunday, July 27, 2014

God Blesses Jacob 3:45 by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

Jacob is an unlikely hero. In case you were not with us last week, let me just catch you up. Jacob is the twin brother of Esau, born second and grabbing onto Esau’s heel at birth, trying to steal Esau’s place as the first born. Their mother Rebekah favors Jacob, but only God knows why, because he was a conniving ornery little brother. Their father Isaac prefers the eldest son Esau because he is strong and a good hunter.
One day when Esau comes in hungry from the fields, Jacob, who has been in the kitchen cooking, (because he’s a Mama’s boy) tricks Esau into trading his birthright as the eldest son for some lentil soup. He takes advantage of Esau’s hunger.
Later, in a story we skipped over, Jacob dresses up like Esau, and goes to see their dying father who has really poor eyesight. He tricks father Isaac into giving him the deathbed blessing that should rightfully have gone again to the eldest son.
By this time, their mother, Rebekah, knows that the jig is up and Jacob had better hit the road so she suggests that he should go stay with her brother Laban in another country. She makes an excuse that she does not like the local girls and that he will find a more suitable wife in the country of Haran. As we come to our reading for today, Jacob is about 50 miles or so into his 400 mile journey (source:
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think much of Jacob by this point. He is not much of a brother, and not much of a son. He is selfish, self-serving; he’s a liar, and a cheat. But he is the one God seems to have chosen to carry this promise God made with Abraham and Sarah – to give descendants as many as the stars in the sky and to give land. This is not the guy I would choose to be the father of the chosen people.
Richard Pervo described Jacob as "an unperson in an unplace….an immoral and irreligious rogue,”  (New Proclamation Year A 2011).
         Barbara Brown Taylor says that Jacob "is on no vision quest: he has simply pushed his luck too far and has left town in a hurry. He is between times and places, in a limbo of his own making" ("Dreaming the Truth," Gospel Medicine). (quoted in It’s true, isn’t it? We don’t really feel sorry for Jacob. This is an example of the old cliche: “Jacob, you made this bed; now lie in it.”
He is like so many other people we know, or we have been, in a season of life when we are running away from something. You don’t have a clue what you are running to, only that you are on the move. Something has got to change. So you hope a change of scenery will help. A change of scenery alone rarely helps, by the way, because we take our problems and our life choices with us, and all that baggage with us. The problems are inside us. Jacob could not travel far enough to get away from what he had done. He could not run away from his conscience. He could certainly not get away from God.
So Jacob lays down to sleep, using a stone for a pillow. And he has this famous dream – the one from which we get that old spiritual, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder.” In his dream he sees this ladder going up to heaven, with angels going up and down. He is getting a vision of heaven. And God is standing next to him, and God says:
“I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; 14 and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed[c] in you and in your offspring. 15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
16 Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 17 And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
18 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. 19 He called that place Bethel;[d] but the name of the city was Luz at the first.
Jacob has an “Ah-ha” moment here. Perhaps we might even call it a turn-around moment. Kathryn Huey writes that he continues to be crafty and does not change completely but we do see some changes in his behavior. And “can’t the same thing be said of us, even after we feel that our lives have been transformed by grace?” (ibid).  Do you know people like this, who have a life-changing moment and their life turns around, but they keep backtracking to their old behaviors?
Jacob wakes up and suddenly he knows that God is in this place. Jacob did not make the place holy. He discovered its holiness. He woke up to the reality that his life was blessed. He was chosen to inherit the promise from his father and his grandfather. “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth.” “I am with you and I will keep you wherever you go and I will bring you back to this land.”
No wonder Jacob awoke and said, “This place is awesome and holy!” For a screw up like Jacob to get the message that he is still blessed and chosen by God? Well, that is truly awesome and holy.
This same message gets through to ordinary people every day. And that is how the world changes. When we discover God is right here with us. When we discover our holiness places and times when God is right here with us. Pastor Emily Heath told a story last week on the UCC devotional web site about just such a world changing turn around.
Emily C. Heath writes:

“One of my college mentors started his career as a parish minister in the Deep South, right around the time the Civil Rights movement was really heating up.

“One Sunday he preached a sermon in which he called for desegregation. Afterwards he was shaking hands on the way out of church when a man came up to him. "See that man over there?" he asked. ”He's the head of the local Klan, and he is not happy with you, pastor."

“Sometime after that, a call came in the middle of the night. The local Klan leader wanted the young pastor to come meet him at a roadside bar out in the country. …

“When the preacher sat down across from the Klansman, he was surprised at what happened next. The man told him that he knew he could no longer be the man he had been, and he knew he needed God's help. And so he asked the young preacher, "Would you pray for me?"

“And the preacher, looking around at the bar and the pool tables and the passed out patrons, said, "Here?"

“And the man said, "Preacher, don't you believe in God?"

“My friend learned that day that God is everywhere. Even where we least expect it. Even in a roadside dive. And even in the heart of a man who had made a lifetime of bad choices.

You see, holy and awesome places show up when we pay attention to God’s voice. God is everywhere. There are times in our lives when we feel like we need to run away like Jacob, or when we know we are on the wrong path like that Klansman.
Our choices may not be as obvious or horrible, but I know that we all have life choices from which we would like to run away. We wish we could go back in a time machine or have a do over.
Today, this is our good news: God gives us a do over. The promise that God made to Jacob is the same one God makes to us:
15 Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Whatever dream God has in mind for your life, God is going to be with you for the duration. Whatever has been a roadblock need not get in the way, because God is in this place and in this moment.  God is going to stay with us to fulfill those promises. How awesome is that? We are blessed. God is with us. God is in this place.  Thanks be to

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Jacob and Esau: Sibling Trickery by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

Today, I have a confession to make. There is this woman who attended seminary with me. And I was envious. Some days I am still envious of her life. We graduated at the same time. Over the years we have crossed paths. Now with Facebook it is easy to keep up with one another, as Facebook friends. 

I won’t say her name because this sermon is being recorded and I don’t want anyone to figure out who she is. But this is my confession. In seminary, she was someone I compared myself to her and I always put myself down by comparison. She was smarter, more interesting, more assertive, and more attractive. She just seemed to have it all together at a time in life when I did not feel so good about myself. To put it bluntly, she was in the cool crowd and I was just on the outside of that group looking in.

Have you ever felt like that? Like you are the outsider? My need to compare myself to this other woman did not end with seminary. Now when I read about the work she is doing in ministry, I am still comparing myself. When people celebrate her accomplishments on social media, that green monster of envy comes over me. I don’t want to compare myself to this person. I want to consider her a friend, and to be happy for her, but that competitive nature just comes out in me. I want to have what she has. 

Human beings just seem to have a natural way of comparing ourselves to one another. We have to compete. We have to know who is stronger, or smarter, or more beautiful. From the beginning of time we have created ways to determine who in each family and tribe will have more power and by default who will have less power. These stories we are reading in the Old Testament are filled with ancient accounts of human beings vying for power.  There is no story more filled with conflict and competition than the one of twin brothers: Jacob and Esau. 

I wonder as they were growing up if anyone told Jacob and Esau what pregnancy was like for their poor mother, and what God said to Rebekah. In my family, we tell our children about how when I was pregnant I was nauseated for the entire 9 months with each child. You better believe I hold that over their heads when they are complaining about doing something they don’t want to do. 

So I am thinking that it would have been a common conversation for Rebekah to say to her boys: Jacob and Esau, “Before you were even born, you two use to wrestle inside of me. It’s no wonder you fight now, because you were sparring even before you were born!” In fact as the story goes, Jacob, who was born second, was holding onto Esau’s heel as they came out of the womb. It was as if Jacob was fighting to have the spot of being first born. Because then, as now, being the oldest had its privileges. 

So before they were even born, Rebekah is praying to God and saying, “What is going on inside of me?” There were no ultrasounds in those days. Except for her size, she really could not have known there were two babies.  But as the story goes, God said to her: 

Two nations are in your womb,
    two peoples butting heads while still in your body.
One people will overpower the other,
    and the older will serve the younger.

The message from God was clear, that Jacob and Esau were destined to be in conflict. And even though tradition would demand that the older would receive the privilege of position: a double share of the family inheritance, meaning land and wealth, God told their mother that this was not to be. The usual order of things would be reversed. The older would serve the younger.

Their names represented this prophecy. Jacob’s name means “heel” – the one who kicks his way out, or “supplanter” the one who would displace his twin brother. Esau’s name means “hairy” and he came out with lots of hair. The name also connects to the place Edom. This is the country which became his home. There comes a point later in their family story where they part ways. Esau leaves the country of Israel and his people settle in Edom which is to the South and East in what is now Jordan. 

The conflict between these two is central to this story. It continues beyond this story through several chapter in Genesis. We see the conflict in the family as even the parents choose sides. Their father, Isaac, prefers Esau because he is a hunter and an outdoorsman. These are traits that many fathers would love in a son. Their mother, Rebekah, favors Jacob. He is described as a quiet man preferring life indoors among the tents. This would not have made Jacob seem strong by the values of the time. 

Now just to put this in context, remember where we have been the last couple of weeks. Jacob and Esau are the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. They are the grandsons of the promise. God promised Abraham and Sarah descendants as many as the stars in the sky; and God promised them land. God promised to be in relationship with them. So far, we don’t see many children. They only had one son: Isaac, and you will remember Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, like Sarah, was barren for a long time. According to this story they were married for 20 years before she got pregnant. That’s a long time to be barren. This promise of God has got to be feeling a bit shaky to these folks, no matter how strong their faith is.  But they are people of faith, so they are hanging in there.

Then along comes these two boys who are in constant conflict. And God tells them that God is going to turn the order of things upside down. The older will serve the younger.   God loves to turn things upside down.

The story then turns upon this funny little encounter between Jacob and Esau.  Esau comes in from the field.  He says he is starving. Jacob is cooking some lentil stew, called “Pottage.” In exchange Jacob asks for Esau’s rights as first born. Esau says: I’m going to starve to death anyway. Jacob makes him swear an oath  That’s it – that is how Esau gives up his rights as first born

What do we make of this story?
Lesson one: Jacob is like every annoying little brother you have ever known. But he is smart and he uses his wit to get what he wants. 

Lesson Two: Esau is an idiot. He is like every big brother who bullies his little brother and he probably got what he deserved. This is the point where we need to remember that this story [take Bible in hand] is written from the perspective of Jacob’s tribe, not Esau’s. Esau eventually goes off to live in another land. Our family story is the story of Jacob’s tribe and so the story is told from his perspective. Esau is not portrayed in a particularly good light.  Just something to keep in mind when you are reading scripture. 

Lesson Three: Even though this story shows us a great deal about human nature, then and now, the point is not about either brother – this is about God. God is up to something here. God is shaking up the traditional structures. God is  choosing the one they do not expect.   He is choosing Jacob as the great leader.

In this world, the first born is king. The hunter, the one with obvious physical strength is the one with the most value. Jacob has none of those things.  Jacob is, for his time, a loser.  God is siding with the one who appears weak – with the man who likes who stay inside and cook.  Not a person of value in those days. 

Writer Julia Claussen’s reminds us that self-understanding of Israel at this time, was that of “a tiny, powerless people,” living “in the midst of much stronger nations --a reality that became even more evident in the run-up to the exile with superpowers who were quite able to crush Israel without blinking.”

They saw themselves as powerless and so they valued those with physical strength such as Esau. For God to choose Jacob as the one who would carry on the promise would have been puzzling. But we will see that God will give Jacob many sons who will become the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel and we will finally see the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah. 

What we see in this story is God turning upside down the common sense values of the culture, the common sense of the time. This turning upside down is well spoken centuries later in the words of the Apostle Paul. He is speaking to new Christians in Corinth and he writes: “26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters:[g] not many of you were wise by human standards,[h] not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one[i] might boast in the presence of God.” (I Corinthians 1:26-29)

If God can choose Jacob, the young brother, who is no good at hunting, and who quite frankly takes advantage of his older brother’s hunger to cheat him, then God can choose us. 

We have a way of focusing on what we are not very good at. When I compare myself to that woman I knew in seminary and all the things she is doing that I am not doing, I am making myself into an outsider. But God took Jacob who was an outsider and made him a leader of a great nation. 

God can take each one of us and our imperfections in our little part of the world. Toledo is not the most exciting city, but it is our home. This is our home.  God has placed us here to use our gifts.

The woman I am comparing myself to? She probably has other people she is comparing herself to also? She probably has insecurities and regrets. She probably even feels like an outsider sometimes.  It’s the human condition.  

But God has dreams for each one of us, just like God had dreams for Jacob (and dreams for Esau, by the way, they are just not written in this story). God has hopes and desires for you, every one of you. According to some values in the world, you may be an outsider. You may feel like you don’t have enough of something, but to God you are enough. Remember God created the world and what did God said about the world?  It was good. You are part of that good creation. 

And so Jacob’s story can be our story. We don’t have to be in conflict and competition. Instead, we can trust that because God made us, we are enough. Amd we can live into God’s dream for us.   So I want to invite you into a ritual.  You can think about that person you compare yourself to.  Now, put them aside, but I want you to tell yourself “you are enough, live into God’s dream for you”.  If you can find someone to do this with you, stand with them and say this to each other.  Because we need to hear this as often as we can.  So, remember, you are enough and it’s time to live into God’s dream for you. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Isaac: Will God Keep God's Promise? By Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

This summer my husband Kurt and I have been binge watching an old science fiction TV show with our kids on Amazon Prime (think Netflix). If you don’t know what binge watching is, it’s when you pick out a TV show that was on for several seasons and you just watch all the episodes as fast as you can. The kids will watch several seasons in a weekend. We have taken to watching a couple of episodes every night and it has become our no-homework summer family evening activity – at least for July. 
The show is called Eureka. The setting is the secret town in the Northwest, filled with super smart scientists. They all work for the government developing new technologies. Crazy stuff we only dream of: time travel, two generations beyond human cloning, nanobots – these tiny robots that can do anything; shrink rays – you name it. Of course, in every episode, something goes wrong and the town is nearly destroyed. Colin Ferguson plays Jack Carter the town Sheriff, one of the few people in town with only an average intelligence.

By the end of just about every episode he has to do some death defying feat because some science experiment has gone terribly wrong. Sheriff Carter has to save the town by fighting against a force field to flip some switch on some device or he has to jump across molten radioactive lava in a pitch black cave that is filling up with sewer water and plug up a hole before the whole town is flooded with poison… whatever. You get the idea. 

Every week we think he is going to die. OR the whole town, or the plant is going to be destroyed. Of course, we know he is not going to die because he is the star of the show, (and after all, it’s not Game of Thrones) and yet he is a good actor so he has us on the edge of our seats, fists clenched, worried that this might be the time Jack Carter does not make it. 

This is how I feel every time I read the story of Abraham walking up the mountain with Isaac. And in fact, I am really mad at Abraham. I am, after all, a mother of a son. To think that a parent would ever consider listening to a message from God that says: “You must sacrifice your own child to show your faithfulness to me” is ludicrous to me. In fact, when a parent does such a thing in our society, we send them to a mental health facility, if not to prison. We do not believe that God tells people to kill their children in order to prove their faithfulness to God.

And yet, here we have this story in our sacred book. This is one of the hardest stories in our book. I thought about choosing another text and just skipping right over this one. This is what we call a text of terror.  

This text shows God as a child abuser. In seminary we learned that sometimes you don’t preach a text, you preach against a text, and this is one to preach against. 

As I consulted articles this week, I read one by a respected Old Testament scholar who urged pastors not to preach from this text. I wanted to follow his advice. But just last week I talked about how Abraham and Sarah are our ancestors in the faith.   And even though they were really old, God had blessed them with a child.  This sacred book begins with their story. These stories are our family stories. I feel compelled to try to find some bit of learning in this story for us. 

So, as hard as it might be, I invite you into this story with me. Theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about this story. His book is called Fear and Trembling. In his book he wrote several hypotheses about what might have been the back stories for this story. There is so much we just don’t know about this story. 

One of his ideas is one I like. He says that Abraham told Isaac: “It was not God’s idea that I kill you, it was my idea.” Because even though it was God who told him to do it, Abraham said he thought it would be better for Isaac to die mad at his father than to die angry with God. What an amazing idea, that Abraham would take the fall for God. That is how much Abraham loved God, at least according to one of Kierkegaard’s ideas. 

So as the story goes, Abraham walks up the mountain with Isaac and gives him the wood to carry for the offering. And Isaac says to his father: “Where is the sheep?” And Abraham says, “God will provide.” 

And when they get to the top of the mountain, Abraham builds the altar and puts the wood on it and then ties Isaac to it. There is nothing here about Isaac fighting or resisting or crying. We don’t know what happened between the two of them.

But then God says: “Stop. Don’t lay a hand on that child. You have been faithful in your willingness to sacrifice your child.” And then Abraham looks over and sees a ram which he and Isaac sacrifice. And then God reminds them of the promise “I’ll bless you—oh, how I’ll bless you! And I’ll make sure that your children flourish.”

Because remember God had made a promise to Abraham and Sarah in their old age that they would have children and grandchildren.

We thought that the story would end in despair but it ends in blessing. God’s promise of generations of children and grandchildren to inherit the land and to be in relationship with God – well, that promise continues, and is still in place.  

Like another episode of Eureka, just when we think all is lost the sheriff saves the day. The good people of the town live on to do their amazing work all in the name of science and technology. 

But there is that moment in each story, when all seems lost. The actors in the TV show convince us week after week that everything has gone wrong and there is no way out. In the story of Abraham and Isaac, the situation seems absolutely hopeless. Not only is the only child of the really old couple about to die, but our understanding of God as a loving God is about to be destroyed.  I am in despair as I read this story.

We can’t be sure what was in Abraham’s mind. We can’t even be sure whether or not this story is historical or if it was written to teach us about trust in God. There are so many unanswered questions. What was Isaac’s response? And what about Sarah? What did she have to say when they came back down the mountain, if they told her about it? Did this family ever speak of this event again or did Isaac and Abraham have a pact to put it behind them.

We do have to understand that animal sacrifice and even child sacrifice was a part of their culture in way that it is not a part of ours, and still that does not completely take away the horror of the story for us. 

But this is what I take from the story. In the end, the ram was provided. Another way out was provided. For this family, that put their trust in God’s promise completely, even when it looked as if the promise was about to be destroyed, there was a way. They looked over, and there it was: perhaps standing there all the time.  Abraham had to look up to see the ram there.  

How often are we in a situation when we don’t see a way forward, and then something happens: we close our eyes and open them again, a friend asks the right question to help us look at the situation differently, someone comes along to help, and suddenly what seemed insurmountable becomes possible? 

Last week, I talked with you about my call to plant this church. There came a point after we had gathered people together around a vision. Enough time had passed that it really seemed like it should be time to launch weekly worship. I talked with my coach about it. 

Before you launch weekly worship, there are certain ministry leaders you want to have in place with what we call a launch team before you launch weekly worship with a new church start. You need a band leader, children ministry, hospitality, facilities team, people to follow up with visitors, people to lead small groups and to plan outreach. You want some ministry to do with these folks beyond worship. 

I did not feel like I really had enough of the right people yet gathered in order to launch. My coach said: “Sometimes you just have launch with what you have.” So we had a meeting with the people we had, and we came up with a team. And apparently it worked because here we are five years later. 

At the time, the task seemed insurmountable to me. I thought there was no way possible to get The Village from a dream in my head to an actual worshipping congregation in a location that met at a certain time every week with real people there. I needed my coach to show me the way. I needed to trust God, to make what seemed impossible, possible.  

There are situations in life that challenge us. They make us question whether or not we are on the right track. Even when we are following what we believe is God’s deepest desire for our life, it can get hard. God never promised Abraham that life would be easy. God only promised that Abraham would eventually have many descendants and they would inherit the land and God made good on those promises.

So when you are living into God desire for you, there will be hard days. And there will be days when you will doubt, and question whether or not you are on the right path. Really? You may ask? Is this what I signed up for? Those are the times it is important to have friends around you who also love God because they can help you discern whether or not you are on the right path. They might also be the ones to point out to you something that God is trying to show you that will help guide you out of the particular mess you are in at that moment. 

Our task is to listen to God. The most important thing is to trust God, and to stay in relationship with God. God does indeed provide a way, when we look up and when we put our trust in God. Amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Abraham and Sarah: More Descendants than Stars in the Sky by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

I would imagine that more than once in your life you have looked up at the stars in the sky and marveled at how many there are. Because we live in the city with all the city lights, they are harder to see. I love the chance to go out into a more remote area, on a clear night, and just stare up into the heavens.

         On more than one occasion, Abraham, who was quite old and childless, was doing just this and got the message from God: “Abraham, your children and grandchildren will number more than the stars in the sky.” I can only imagine his astonishment at such a promise from God. Abraham was a man of deep faith, not one to doubt God. But such a proposition would have been hard for an old man to wrap his mind around.

We are his great great great grandchildren. Okay, I’m not saying I can trace all of our family trees all the way back to the Middle East, but we are part of Abraham and Sarah’s family because their family story is our story now.

I want to pause to say a word about that. The Christian Bible, which is our Holy book, has two parts. We call them the Old and New Testament or we can call them the Hebrew Testament and the Christian Testament. The Hebrew is written from the perspective of the Jewish people who know themselves to be God’s Chosen people. We will see that over and over again in this story: God tells them they are the chosen ones. When God chooses to come to earth in human form, God comes to the Jews, and sends Jesus to live as a Jew. This Holy book of ours is written from that perspective of those chosen people.

Now, we have a bigger picture of the world than they had in that tiny part of the world where this was written. We see that there are other religions that have many of the same values as Christianity. They also love God. They have their holy stories. They respect Jesus as a teacher but they find their way to God by another route. How do we make sense of that?

I believe God is big enough to create many routes for human beings to reach God. This is a big planet and a diverse planet, created by God, and why wouldn’t it follow that human beings of various cultures on different continents, in relation to God, might develop different religious practices?

For me, and presumably for you, we were born, most of us, into a predominately Christian culture. So the Judeo-Christian story, the one from the Old and New Testament, is our story. It works best for us. If other people find their way to God in another way, we respect that. And if other people are searching for God, we can introduce them to our way.  God is big enough and wise enough to create many routes to Him.  But everyone needs a story. Everyone needs an origin story as a way to connect to the family of God, and this is our story.

So, for a couple of months here, we are going to have some fun digging in to our family history, all the way back to our roots with the early mothers and fathers of our family tree beginning with Abraham and Sarah. They lived around the year 2000 BCE in Mesopotamia in a place called Haran.

Their story starts like this. God came to Abraham and said to him: “Leave your country, your family, and your father’s home for a land that I will show you.

2-3 I’ll make you a great nation
        and bless you.
    I’ll make you famous;
        you’ll be a blessing.
    I’ll bless those who bless you;
        those who curse you I’ll curse.
    All the families of the Earth
        will be blessed through you.”  Genesis 12:1-3

So Abraham took his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot and all his possessions. He left Haran and headed to a new home in Canaan. Along the way he got discouraged and that is when God had him look up and God said: “Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? Count your descendants! You’re going to have a big family, Abram!” Genesis 15:5

Soon we come upon the story that you heard today. It is a classic. Abraham and his people have set up their tents and are resting from their journey. Three travelers come along. As is the custom, Abraham offers them food. They come in and Sarah is just inside the tent cooking, but she can hear the men talking. The visitor says that he will return next year to see their baby. We are reminded, in case we had forgotten:

12 Abraham and Sarah were old by this time, very old. Sarah was far past the age for having babies. Sarah laughed within herself, “An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?”

Then we are told that one of the visitors is actually God.

13-14 God said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh saying, ‘Me? Have a baby? An old woman like me?’ Is anything too hard for God? I’ll be back about this time next year and Sarah will have a baby.”

Sarah comes in and God says: “Why did you laugh?” And she says: “Me? I was not laughing.”

The joke is on her because, of course she gets pregnant soon thereafter. They name the child Isaac which means “laughing one.”

So let’s go back and unpack this story a bit. The story sounds so simple when we read it, and know how it turns out. But it is far from simple.

Abraham and Sarah were old. They were nearing the end of their lives. And she was barren. Now, I think we all have some idea in our day of the pain that people experience when they want to have children and cannot. It is excruciating. But it was a different kind of pain in those days. Children were a sign of prosperity. They also took care of you and your land. You needed children so you could pass on your inheritance to them. Abraham did not want all of his wealth to go to his brother’s children. Barrenness in the story was also a symbol of hopelessness. Abraham and Sarah would have been hopeless for their future without children in a way that we don’t feel in our time.

But along comes God. And God offers a promise that was too good to be true: descendants numbering more than the stars in the sky. And land.  These people lived off the land, they were either farmers or herders. “I will give you land and people. You will be the father of a great nation. I have chosen you, Abraham.” Land was of great value to the people. And children mean that you could farm the land and raise animals. That meant prosperity. No more barrenness.

So when Abraham and Sarah listened to God the first time and picked up and left their home in Haran, on the promise of blessing, their act of trust was HUGE. Think about it. People hate change, right? People want to stay in what they know. The people know barrenness, so that is secure. People will stay in the misery they know. Theologian Walter Bruggemann writes of this story: “To stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope” (Walter Bruggemann, Genesis: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1982, p. 118). Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1982

Abraham and Sarah have a choice. They can live “for the promise” or live “against the promise” in the state of barrenness (ibid, p. 113). They choose to live into God’s promise for them, and that makes all the difference. They move to Canaan, which will be their home, and God blesses them with a son, Isaac. God fulfills God’s promise. Isaac and Rebecca are the parents of Jacob and Esau. Jacob and his wives become the parents of the twelve tribes of Israel. But I am getting ahead of myself.

What does this story of promise mean for us today?

Is there a place in your life where you feel stuck or unfruitful? I hesitate to use the metaphor of a “would be” mother who cannot get pregnant, because I know that can be a very real situation for some. But perhaps you can just imagine feeling like your life is passing you by and you are too old to do something that you had always dreamed of. Perhaps there is a situation where you just keep hitting a wall.

When I was the pastor of another church, before I felt called to plant The Village, I had no plans to leave that church. I thought God put me there to grow and develop that church for a long time. After about seven years there as pastor, I began to sense that the work was no longer fruitful. I tried everything I could think of but nothing was working. At the same time, I had been trained as a church planter. I was using the skills I learned as a church planter to do innovative ministry with that established church. I never really saw myself as someone who would plant a church from scratch. Honestly, that seemed too scary. The familiar, of the church I was in, seemed better to me, even though it was no longer fruitful. But I began to hear God speak to me clearly: “Cheri, you need to let go of what is familiar so that I can use you to do something new.” I was, quite frankly, terrified.

I did not know how to plant a church. There was no financial support for such a project. But the message from God got more and more clear. “Cheri, leave the familiar behind, and plant something new. I will show you the way.”  

Now I am not saying that God spoke to me like God spoke to Abraham. God did not say God would make a great nation. But God said that God would help me plant a church, and here we are.

Sometimes we just need to take an entirely new look at a situation. We need to look at something from 360 degrees. That’s what God came in and did for Abraham. Abraham and Sarah had long since given up on the idea that they would ever have children. Being without children had become their normal and God came in and said: “I will give you a new normal. I will change your life plan. Put your trust in me.”

I thought I was going to stay at that other church and keep trudging through, even though the ministry was no longer fruitful. Every church has a life cycle. They are all born and they will all die eventually. That is why we plant new ones. God showed me that it was time to step out and do this new thing that God had prepared me my whole life to do, but I had to let go of something in order to do it.

When Sarah heard she was going to have a baby, she laughed. But God said to her: Is anything too hard for God? God is the one who has the power and the wisdom to get us out of our stuck places and make us into something new at any age, at any place in life.

So what about you? What is God’s promise for you? And are you ready to live into it? If you are feeling stuck or unfruitful in this season of your life, what new direction is God trying to show you? Or maybe you are not really stuck. It does not have to be something big. It might just be a small course correction. Maybe God is simply trying to show you something you can do together to move into the wonderful life God desires for you: some change, some risk, something to leave behind, or something to try. The way to know what it is, is to listen to God. Pray. And in your prayer time, don’t just talk, listen. Ask God: what is your promise for me? And listen for what God has to say.


Homework – Go out one night and look at the stars, remember the promise to Abraham. Ask God what promise God wants to make to you.