A sermon given at Colonial Church on September 20, 2020. You can listen to the sermon below or you can watch the service on YouTube. You can also watch the Kids’ Sermon HERE .
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse. And in you, all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
So Abram went as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife, Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran, and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.
When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem to the Oak of Moreh. At that time, the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord who had appeared to him. From there, he moved on to the hill country on the east side of Bethel and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord, and Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
– Genesis 12:1-9
Good morning. Will you pray with me?
God of all history and of all time and all people, on this day as we gather, we want to center ourselves in you, in the story of your working, your invitations, and your love. God, indeed by your Spirit, might you breathe and meet us this day, that we might your people and that we indeed might be the church. For it’s in Christ’s name that we are.
Well, again, good morning. It’s so good to be with you. I’m Sara, one of the ministers here at Colonial Church. As you may have heard from Jeff last week, we’ve begun a series this fall in which we’re exploring what it means for us to “Be the Church,” to be a people who— gathered together in whatever form— center ourselves and our lives in love of God, the love of neighbor, and the love of one another.
As we move through our series this fall, we thought what a better way for us to explore what it means for us to deepen into being the church than to journey with God and the story of God’s people going all the way back to Genesis! So that is what we are going to do each week.
Last week then Jeff invited us into the series through that curtain that was torn in two, opening for us an encounter with Jesus so that we might be the church. And now we will turn to the great drama and story of God’s working in our midst throughout all of time, and indeed in this very moment by journeying through the Bible.
Today, we’ll begin with Genesis. Next week, we’ll move into Exodus. We’ll skip a few of the books, because we’re not going to do this sermon series for 66 weeks in a row, folks (just so you know)! Our hope and aim in journeying through the Bible as we seek to “Be the Church” is: 1) to get more deeply into the text of the Bible so that we might re-encounter the God who has been journeying with God’s people throughout all of time that we might be formed likewise in God’s image, and then; 2) for us, rooted in that place of deepening faith, to sit with the questions and to live the answers of what it means for us to be the church.
Of course, in this exploration of the Bible as we seek to “Be the Church,” it’s our hope, and mine in particular today as I bring us into Genesis, to give us some tools, some collective language, and some ways to get into the Bible and this story of God and God’s people that is told in the text.
Every week as we go through each of these books of the Bible, exploring what it means to “Be the Church,” we’re also going to be sharing with you some passages from that book of the Bible so that we can be reading along with one another and sitting with the text for the rest of the week. We’ll also have some questions for you to consider and if you have any interest in joining either in a small group either physically distant here at the church or virtually, we’re going to have some opportunities for you to gather with others to discuss the text, to wrestle with one another, and to pray together as we seek to Be the Church.
OK—enough preamble, right? So let’s delve in! Today we’re starting at the beginning, which quite aptly is what Genesis is named in the Hebrew Bible: “In the beginning…” because, indeed, this is the beginning of the Bible and the narrative about what happened in the beginning.
Genesis kicks off a five-book section which includes: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. We call these five books the Pentateuch, meaning “the five.” In the Jewish tradition, these five books are known as the Torah, meaning the instructions about what it means to be God’s people. The Torah aims to root the people in the story of God and God’s relationship to God’s people, reminding them, and reminding us, from whence we have come and of the God who since the beginning not only created and formed all life, but has also walked with us in the garden, the place to which God is always longing for us to return, that we might walk naked, unafraid, and unashamed with God and with one another.
These five books of the Torah start off with the creation of the heavens and the earth in Genesis and move forward to the precipice of the Promised Land at the end of Deuteronomy. The books are a compilation of varied oral traditions that God’s people told each other around fires, seated at tables, or out gathering sheep—stories about who YHWH was, who Elohim was in their lives, reminding each other of the stories of their ancestors and of the God that they sought to follow and serve; as we’re reminded of in Deuteronomy and the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one, and you shall worship God with all that you are.”
This is the story of a people of promise, a people who are called and invited to walk with God and one another, looking for God’s work and movement and redemption in our world, coming into deeper alignment with the God of all creation. These stories were compiled by editors to become the text that we now have which tells us truly the deep story of who God is. This oral tradition and editorial collection is why you’ll see things like at the beginning of Genesis there are two different accounts of creation, because the stories that the various communities in Israel would tell each other about who God is and was were told a bit differently, and when brought together they deepen the story and offer us a bigger picture of who God is and who God wanted to be in their midst.
Now, the book of Genesis is pretty short, a mere 50 chapters(!). This is why as a kid, whenever I would start reading my Bible and I had these good intentions to read book by book by book, each time I would start at Genesis 1 and then I’d get through all the way to Genesis 50, and I would keep reading, and I’d get to Exodus…I could keep going. Then I got to Leviticus. It got a little rough. Numbers was even rougher. Deuteronomy, if I could make it to Deuteronomy, I knew I was going to really make it, because Joshua came next, and that had some really good stories in it!
So today I want to also summarize a little bit of what’s going on in these 50 chapters as we consider what it means for us to “Be the Church” and live as people of promise. In the People’s Companion to the Bible, they give a really helpful summary of Genesis, which is the ultra-cliff notes version of how to read Genesis.
They divide the book of Genesis into two parts: Part I: Genesis 1-11. This is about creation and early humanity. Okay, fair enough, right? Creator God, early humanity…eleven chapters, done! Then we have Genesis 12-50, these are the stories of the ancestors. All right. Got it? 1-11: Creation, creator God, the earliest stories, and 12-50: the stories of the ancestors.
The People’s Companion to the Bible further summarizes the next four books of the Torah: Exodus is about liberation and then the revelation at Sinai, which again is repeated some more in Leviticus. Numbers is about how they’re in the wilderness and they’re wandering about trying to get to the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy, they re-covenant with God and they’re on the precipice of the Promised Land. There you go. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. That’s your ultra-cliff notes version. You are totally good to go now, right? Right.
As we read this text, it’s a good reminder to ourselves that this is the accounting of the story of God moving in the midst of God’s people. It’s grounding us then, too, in who this God is and how God shows up and wants to continue to show up in our world and in our lives. It is a powerful story recounting the ways in which God, since the very beginning, shows up with and through and to a human people.
One of the things I love about the Bible is that it isn’t a law book. It’s not some systematic theology text. No, it’s a story which brings us into the story of who God is where real people journeyed with God and had their lives transformed. What could be more relevant for our lives? For faith is not another systematic theology text, but it’s an invitation to join God in God’s story, to awaken to the way that God wants us to live, and to then live in relationship out of that place, and that truth of having God meet us in the story in our own lives.
So Genesis then is the story that begins with the God who creates, fashioning life out of chaos, the one who makes things of tov, goodness and beauty. All of creation, day and night, animals and humans, the stars and the moon, all of these things are fashioned. In these first five chapters of Genesis, we’re brought into this universal story of this God who has created.
Then as we come to chapter 6 through 11, we have the story about the recreation that happens when the world goes sideways, and there’s the flood and a promise that is made again to the people. And, as I noted earlier, in chapters 12 to 50 we have the stories of the ancestors: the stories of Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, of Isaac and Rebecca and Leah, of Jacob and Rachel and their sons, of Joseph and slavery that will then come.
Now, if you’re reading Genesis all of the way through, one of the things that you might struggle with as I did when I was younger is trying to figure out what’s descriptive in the story (just telling us what happened) and proscriptive (meaning it’s reflective of God’s agreement with what transpires). This is important to sort through because honestly, there’s some things in this text which to us, if you’re reading it, you’re like, “What is this?!” And rightly so. It’s normal to have questions and concerns about what is going on in the text as you read about a people who engaged in practices like polygamy and slavery, who forced enslaved women to bear children for them. What do we do with these sorts of texts as people who follow God?
I think as we read the text, it’s helpful to remember that this is the story of God journeying with a people who themselves lived in a particular time and a particular place, and to look for that thread and the way that God’s arc and narrative promise shows up again and again (that would be the proscriptive part, the rest, I’d argue is descriptive). Even though Abraham and Sarah forget the truth of the promise to which they are called and they use and abuse a woman who doesn’t have any rights in order to have a child, when she is an exile to the desert, God shows up and the first person to name God is this woman Hagar as God is the one who sees me.
We go into the story to open ourselves to the God who is not only journeying with people, but also inviting people to move more deeply into embodying God’s promise: which is for life, for freedom, for a garden reality for all people. This is the promise of Genesis. It’s a promise that says – “Yes! God created, the world’s messed up, but God isn’t done with all of us or with creation.” So we are invited to remember, to go back to the garden and get into alignment so that we can live from that place of walking with God and with one another and be a people of promise. This is God’s vision and God’s desire.
We then come to the text that was read for us this morning in Genesis 12, which I picked for today out of the whole of the 50 chapters because I figured you didn’t want me to preach on all 50 chapters directly, but also because this text is a central text in our understanding of what it means that Genesis is not only about creation and the creator God, but about the God who is the God of promise who invites us to live the promise. As you heard in Genesis 12, it opens up with God showing up to Abram and saying, “I need you to leave from your country and your kindred and go to this land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing.”
A couple of points that I want to uplift from this particular part of the passage. The first thing is this. Where does Genesis 12 fall in the Bible? It’s only 12 chapters into the story, right? There’s so much to come, but at this moment, in verse one when YHWH calls Abram, Abram doesn’t have any idea about the content of the promise. He has no assurance. He’s invited and asked by God, who shows up and says, “I need you to leave your land.” Unlike him, we have the benefit of getting to know more of the story, but he doesn’t. We’re the people who are the children and the heirs of the promise, but he doesn’t know us. I mean, as he looks up at the stars later in Genesis 15, he’s not like “Oh, that star will be Sara in Minnesota in the 21st century.”
Why am I highlighting this? Because I want us to consider that it means that we are likewise called to be a people who live in this part of the story, not knowing the rest of what will come, as a people who are invited to follow YWHH even though we don’t know how the story will end or if the promise will look the way we think the promise ought to look. For the point of the life of faith is to let ourselves be encountered by God on the journey and to be transformed in the following. We are invited to be a people of promise who live our lives saying yes to the call of YHWH even though we don’t know the rest of the story. This is what it means to be a people of promise.
The second thing that I want to highlight about Genesis 12 is that this blessing, the promise that God shows up and names to Abram, it isn’t just for him. It isn’t just for Sarai. No, indeed the promise is for everyone. This is where even with our Blessing Initiative, the reason it was thus named was on account of our desire to be a people who live out of the overflow of grace in our lives who, as we ourselves have known the goodness of what it means to journey with God, we live with our hands open in generosity because we know none of this was ever ours to control anyway. We are blessed; we know what it means is to be a people who are changed, transformed, and know the goodness of walking with God in the garden…and we then are to live from the overflow of that knowing. That is our invitation: to live from the place where we have known God’s showing up in our lives. That is the promise, a promise that is for all the people as we ourselves live and know that promise for ourselves.
You know, sometimes I think that we as people — I know for me at least — we can be very much like the folks here in the book of Genesis, where you have these stories of our lives and of what’s going on in the world, and you can get so mired in your own story or time that you sometimes lose sight of the larger picture and forget what the promise was about, that we cannot remember and we forget when we’re wandering around that we were intended and we are meant to walk in the garden.
And so as we are seeking to be the church, to be a people who live our lives connected to the God of the whole of all of the stories, we want to be a people of promise, a people who remind each other that God isn’t done with any of us yet, and that this blessing, that the goodness of a life lived without the trappings of ego and self-protection and all of these things is ours. Through the promise, we’re invited into freedom, to walk with God and one another as we were intended to and to be people who generously extend that promise and invitation and good news, as we live it with one another and with the world.
So my question for us today is: if you were going to put yourself in a Jeff 12, or a Suzanne 12, or Jessica 12, or a Sara 12 moment (not to be sacrilegious or anything) like what Abram is experiencing here in Genesis 12, what is God calling to you? What might God be saying to you now? What might God be saying to us? What does it mean for us to be a people who live this promise, to be the church, to live in such a way as to invite people and to invite ourselves to walk with God in the garden?
Sometimes this looks like the beautiful opportunity to play tag with a bunch of lovely kids with masks on, having just eaten and feeling sick to your stomach, running around in shoes that definitely aren’t designed to keep your 30 year older than the kids body able to chase them around a parking lot. Sometimes living this promise just means taking a breath and remembering to look up at the stars, acknowledging that the God of all creation is the God who knows all of these stars, and that each of us, and all of human history has been part of that promise. We’re invited to live that together.
Can we be people of that promise? Will you join me in living the promise?
The promise is the truth that is for you, and so might we live that promise, that we indeed might be a blessing, a place of life for all of the nations.
Let us be a people of promise, dear friends.
Will you pray with me?
God, we’re not always sure where we’re going, and sometimes when you show up and invite us, we’re afraid because we don’t know the rest of the story. God, I pray on this day that you would meet each of us and call out our names with the invitation to follow you; that we indeed might be a people of promise, that we might be the church living in the midst of your story, inviting people home to the garden.
God, we love you. We know ourselves as ones who are part of the beautiful sky that you have created full of wonderful stars. Breathe on us, O Christ, that we might be the church. It’s in your name that we pray.
 Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
 Curtiss Paul Deyoung, Wilda C Gafney, Leticia Guardiola-Saenz, George Tinker, and Frank M. Yamada, eds., People’s Companion to the Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).
 See: People’s Companion to the Bible.
 See: Genesis 16. I preached on this. See: Sara Wilhelm Garbers, “On Being a Bad Neighbor,” Colonial Church (November 24, 2019), access online: https://sarawg.com/2019/11/24/beingbadneighbors/.