A Conversation about Covenant: A Covenant of Faith

A Covenant of Faith

First Baptist Richmond, February 25, 2024

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face.

I thought today’s sermon was going to be a piece of cake. When I looked at the text a few weeks ago I thought, “Oh, it’s Abraham and Sarah! I know that story. If someone asked me to tell it while we were sitting around the campfire I could do it without even thinking about it. I’ve got this one.” I thought I would simply re-tell that story this morning and then do a little moralizing at the end, as in, “Here are three things we can learn from Abraham and Sarah.” I thought it was going to come together easily, effortlessly, and so I didn’t give it nearly as much thought as I usually do.

But on Friday morning I got into the Sermon-Writing Chair and started pounding it out, and that’s when I realized that I might have a problem. Because what I was writing looked almost exactly like something I had written before. And when I did a quick search to see when I had last preached on Abraham and Sarah I found that it was on March 5, 2023, less than a year ago. And when I dug a little deeper I found that I had preached this same text from Genesis 17 back in 2021. When I compared what I had written to those other sermons it looked almost identical and I thought, “I can’t do that. I can’t resort to an annual recital of the story of Sarah and Abraham! I need something new, something different. I mean, that’s what people are paying for, right? Novelty!”

So, I slept on it—hard—on Friday night, and when I woke up on Saturday morning I had some ideas. I thought that since we are having a conversation about covenant—which is, as you may recall, not only a promise but a sacred promise—I thought I might work through the story of Abraham and Sarah by focusing on those places in the text where God comes to them making promises, and that begins as early at Genesis, chapter 12. In the rough draft I wrote on Friday Abraham had walked out to the edge of his father’s farm, stepped up onto the bottom rail of the fence, and was looking out toward the horizon when he heard God say:

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 (Gen. 12:1-3).

And for whatever reason, that was the best news Abram could possibly hear. Something inside him jumped for joy and the very next day he started packing his belongings, loading up the wagon, gathering his flocks and herds, his manservants and maidservants, his wife and his nephew, and heading out toward the land that God would show him. I think it was the promise of a family more than anything else that did it, because as we learn in Genesis 11, Sarah was barren. She hadn’t been able to have any children. And so Abram cracked his whip and headed out toward the land of Canaan thinking of the property he would own and the babies he would bounce on his knee.

Only when he gets there he finds the land is already occupied (Gen. 12:6). He asks God about it and God says, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Gen. 12:7), which may explain the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the

Palestinians. The present day offspring of Abram insist that “God gave us this land” while the descendants of the ancient Canaanites say, “We were here first.” Abram does his best to live among them peaceably, and when there’s a famine in the land he goes down to Egypt for a while. But when they come back to Canaan Abram gives his nephew Lot first dibs on the land he would like to occupy. Lot picks the fertile land along the banks of the Jordan River, leaving Abram with everything else. This is the second time that God comes to Abram making promises, at the end of chapter 13, and this is what he says:

Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you (Gen. 13:14b-18).

And I’m sure Abram was happy to hear it, but he might not have been as overjoyed as he was before. He and Sarai had been on this adventure for months now and they still had nothing to show for it: only the promises of God. But Abram decided to stand on those promises. He pitched his tent at Hebron, under the oaks of Mamre, and there he built an altar to the Lord. But weeks went by, months, maybe even years with Abram camping on someone else’s land, still homeless and childless. He may have been on the verge of giving up when the Lord came to him the third time, at the beginning of chapter 15, and said:

‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my

heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’ (Gen. 15:1b-5).

And honestly, Abram might have gone either way at that point, but when he looked up at that night sky and saw all those stars up there, twinkling like the eyes of children and grandchildren yet to be born, Abram believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Centuries later the Apostle Paul would find great meaning in that moment. In today’s reading from Romans 4 he reminds the Gentiles that, just like them, Abram had never been circumcised, and, just like them, he had never kept the Law of Moses. It hadn’t even been given yet! But Abram believed God; he trusted his promises; and God reckoned his faith to him as righteousness, meaning simply that Abram’s faith—and faith alone—was enough to make him right with God. Years later Martin Luther, the great reformer, would insist that people didn’t need to buy indulgences from the Roman Catholic Church to save them from hell, and that the pope didn’t have the power to determine who was in and who was out. Luther would insist that it was faith and faith alone that made us right with God, as Paul had affirmed and Abram had learned by looking up at the night sky and trusting God, who reckoned it to him as righteousness.

That was a good night. Abram was full of faith. But years went by, more than before, and still Sarai hadn’t had a baby. In desperation she suggested that Abram sleep with Hagar, her Egyptian slave girl, and have a baby by her, and for whatever reason Abram agreed. Hagar conceived and gave birth to a little boy named Ishmael. And Abram may have decided that through Sarai’s plan God’s

promise had been fulfilled. He had become a father in spite of his circumstances, and maybe now God would make a great nation of Ishmael. If that’s what he was thinking, then this morning’s reading from Genesis 17 serves as a kind of correction:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, ‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; [which means something like, “the ancestor of a multitude of nations”]. ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her’ (Gen. 17:1-5, 15-16).

Now, this was the fourth time God had come to Abram telling him that he and Sarai were going to have a baby, and while he had responded at first with joy, and then with determination, and then with faith, this time he responded with laughter. The author of Genesis writes:

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘O that Ishmael might live in your sight!’ God said, ‘No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year (Gen. 17:17-21).

And what could Abraham do but get up off the ground, brush the dirt from his knees, and go on believing.

In Genesis, chapter 18, we are told that Abraham looked up from the shade of his tent flap and saw three strangers approaching. He leaped up and ran to offer them hospitality (pretty spry for a man of his age). In less time than you would believe he had washed their feet and Sarah had cooked a meal and those three strangers were sitting in the shade enjoying it. One of them (who turned out to be the Lord) said, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” And Abraham said, “She’s there in the tent.” And the Lord said:

‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied it, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. But the Lord said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh’ (Genesis 18:10-15).

If you have been keeping count, this is the fifth time the Lord has promised Abraham and Sarah that they are going to have a baby, and on the basis of that alone you could decide that God is like a senile old grandfather, who says to his two-year-old grandson, “Someday, I’m going to buy you a bicycle.” And then, when his grandson turns ten, “Someday I’m going to buy you a bicycle.” And then, when the boy is in his twenties, “Someday I’m going to buy you a bicycle.” And then, when he turns fifty, “Someday I’m going to buy you a bicycle.” That is, you

could decide that God is a God who makes promises but never keeps them, until you get to Genesis 21 and read this: “The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him” (Genesis 21:1-2).

And that is a straight-up miracle.

The alternative to hearing this story and deciding that God is like a senile old grandfather is to hear this story and decide that God is a god who keeps coming to his people, and keeps reminding them of his promises, because he doesn’t want them to forget. Think about it: if you were inventing a religion, wouldn’t you invent one in which people come to god asking him for favors? Isn’t that the way most primitive religions work? Isn’t that how it was for Abraham’s neighbors, the Canaanites, who begged Ba’al, the storm god, to send them rain so their crops would grow? Instead, Abraham’s God comes to him, saying, “One of these days you’re going to be holding a baby in your arms—your own son—who will be the child of the promise I made to you all those years ago,” and all Abraham has to do is believe it, and keep on believing it, no matter how long it takes and no matter how ludicrous it seems. “Do you see all those stars in the sky?” God asked. “One of these days, your descendants will be as numerous as those.” And even though it seemed incredible Abraham believed it, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Imagine what he might do for you.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

A Conversation about Covenant: A Covenant in Water

A Covenant in Water

First Baptist Richmond, February 18, 2024

Genesis 9:8-17

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

Today we begin a conversation about covenant that will continue through the Season of Lent. It might help to begin with a definition. When I taught a fifth and sixth grade Sunday school class at one of my former churches I would often ask my students if they knew what a covenant was. “A covenant is a promise,” they would say, in unison (those kids had been well taught). “Just any kind of promise?” I would ask. “No,” they would answer: “a special kind of promise.” “Can you give me an example?” I would ask. “Like a wedding,” they would answer.

And they would be right.

In Old Testament times if one person wanted to make a solemn promise to another he would do so by “cutting a covenant,” and I use the word cutting quite literally. He would slaughter an animal—perhaps a sheep or a goat—cut the carcass in half, and then lay that bloody offering before the other person, saying, “May the Lord do so to me and more if I do not keep my promise to you.” Now, that’s the kind of visual aid that will stick with you. If you ever thought about breaking your promise to that other person all you would have to do is remember the two, bloody halves of that animal’s carcass to convince you that promise-keeping was a good idea. In fact, it’s almost a shame that we don’t do that sort of thing with our modern-day covenants. The marriage covenant, for instance. Don’t

you think it would be memorable if, somewhere during the ceremony, the father of the bride put a live chicken up on a chopping block, lopped off its head, and said to the groom, “That’s what I’m going to do to you if you ever break my little girl’s heart!” I think the divorce rate around the world might begin to drop. As I said, it’s a visual aid that sticks with you.

But remember that in the original covenant-making ceremony no one said, “That’s what I’m going to do to you if you break this promise,” but instead, “May the Lord do so to me, and more, if I ever break this promise.” That’s an important distinction. You weren’t threatening someone else with death when you did it, you were wishing it on yourself. That’s how committed you were to keeping the promise. Seen in this way the covenant is not a mandatory, but a voluntary, thing; it’s not a shotgun wedding where the father of the bride forces some young man to marry his daughter, but a wonder of love in which two people gladly make promises to each other through the expression of their vows. “I, John, take you, Mary, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, as long as we both shall live.” Can you hear it? “I, John.” It’s a personal responsibility. “Take you, Mary.” It’s a voluntary commitment. “To be my lawfully wedded wife.” It’s a solemn and binding covenant, and yet, these days, it is a covenant that is too often broken.

I don’t like to assign blame in those situations. It takes two people to make a marriage and it probably takes two people to break one. But I do think of it as a tragedy rather than a sin; more like a car crash than a murder. Neither of those two people wanted the marriage to end in divorce when they stood at the altar. They didn’t think it would or they wouldn’t have said those vows. But it did, and

now here they are, recovering from the crash and wondering how to go on. I am so thankful that this church offers a divorce recovery workshop, because when you pull people from the wreckage of a broken marriage they often can’t remember how to tie their own shoelaces; they need some help.

But over time and with the assistance of programs like that one they get better, they get stronger. Eventually they might even think about getting married again. Whenever I counsel with premarital couples where at least one person has been divorced I ask them what they have learned from that experience that might make them better prepared for this one. They say it in different ways, but they seem to agree that, without having to sacrifice a single chicken, most marriages could be made stronger if both partners simply kept the promises they made on their wedding day. Think about a marriage in which each partner really had and held the other, when things were good and when they were not, when there was money and when there wasn’t, when they were sick and when they were healthy. Think about a marriage in which each partner really spent some time loving and cherishing the other, every day, as long as they both should live. It would be a wonderful marriage, wouldn’t it? But a marriage like that is made only by free and mutual covenant-keeping. Push too hard from either side, make too many demands, and the whole thing might very well collapse.

During the Season of Lent we are going to look at several examples of biblical covenants beginning with God’s covenant with Noah. The story of Noah and the ark is a wonderful story, but it is no children’s story. It begins with the passage I quoted in today’s Preparation for Worship statement, from The Message, in which Eugene Peterson paraphrases Genesis 6:5-8 by writing: “God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—

evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart. God said, ‘I’ll get rid of my ruined creation, make a clean sweep: people, animals, snakes and bugs, birds—the works. I’m sorry I made them.’” This is why I say it’s no children’s story. Can you imagine a parent looking on a child and thinking, “I’m sorry I ever had you?” Can you imagine how wicked that child would have to be, how broken-hearted that parent would have to be, to even think such a thing? But that’s where God was. When he looked on his children he could see that “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. The Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” He decided to blot out every living thing he had created.


And there it is, what I sometimes call “the divine conjunction,” that little word but. God decided to blot out every living thing on the face of the earth but Noah. “Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord. He was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God.” Noah gave God hope that human beings could be, at their best, just what he had dreamed of in the first place. And so he decided to do away with everyone else and start a new human family with this one.

Now, this may be a good time to remind you that the Bible was written by people. Yes, they were divinely inspired, but they were also limited by human understanding, and at the time this story was written human understanding was extremely limited. People believed that the earth was like a flat plate, with a glass bowl turned upside-down on top of it. They believed that there was water under the plate and also over the bowl. When it rained they believed that God had

opened the windows of heaven, and when they saw rivers and lakes they imagined the water was coming up from underneath the plate. In those long ago days there was a story of something that had happened even longer ago, the story of a great flood, when God had opened the windows of heaven and the floodgates of the deep until the whole world was like a snow globe full of water. You can find that stories in other ancient writings that sound so much like the story of Noah and his ark that you almost have to believe something happened.

Here’s one theory: what if the Black Sea, whose waves wash up against the shores of modern-day Turkey, was once the Black Valley?i What if people lived in that valley, and farmed in that valley? And what if one day, when they least expected it, the Mediterranean Sea broke through the thin barrier we now call the Bosporus Strait and flooded that valley? It would have been catastrophic. Cataclysmic. And from the perspective of anyone who lived there it would appear that the whole world had been flooded. The Black Sea is slightly larger than the state of California. Imagine that California suddenly fell into the Pacific Ocean. What would people say about that? How would they remember it years later? How many TV preachers would claim that it was God’s judgment on “Godless Hollywood,” or something like that?

The author of Genesis tells us something almost exactly like that, that this great flood, which wiped out everyone and everything, was God’s judgment on human wickedness. But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. Noah was warned in advance that this flood was coming. We don’t know if God spoke to him in a dream, or a vision, but sometimes, if you are listening for the voice of God, you can hear it. Noah may have heard God whispering on the evening breeze that a flood was coming, and that he would need to be ready. So Noah and his three

sons built an ark, and when they got it finished they loaded onto it every animal on the farm. There are children’s books that show giraffes and elephants and zebras lined up to get on the boat, two by two. That’s entirely possible, but in my imagination I see Noah and his sons pushing cows and goats and sheep and chickens up the ramp, and not having an easy time of it.

And do you think the neighbors made fun of them? I’m sure they did. But when it started raining and didn’t let up, when the waters of the Mediterranean began to rise above their usual levels until the Bosporus Strait broke open like a mud dam and the waters of the Mediterranean began pouring into the Black Valley, who had the last laugh? Noah and his family—riding high above the floodwaters in this crazy, homemade boat he called an ark. I don’t know how long it took for the waters to recede and for the ark to come to rest on Mount Ararat, in modern day Turkey, but the author of Genesis says it took a long time. When Noah and his family got out of the boat they must have kissed the muddy ground. And the next time it rained they must have been terrified, thinking, “Here we go again!” But God made a covenant with Noah, and again we don’t know how he made it, but we do know that when the sun began to shine through those raindrops, and when Noah saw the brilliant rainbow that followed, God made it clear to him:

“Never again.”

“Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the

earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”

It helps to remember that when Genesis was written, the bow was an instrument of warfare. For God to say that he was hanging up his bow was like saying he was laying down his sword and shield, that for his part he was determined to study war no more, at least not against humans. He knew them now. He knew they were sinners, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And yet he was determined to love them anyway. He was willing to make that solemn promise.

John Hayes says that “most Old Testament covenants have two basic elements: the promissory oath or conditional self-curse, and the contents or stipulations. Parties solemnly promise something concerning their future relationships,” just as they do at a wedding. But “the covenant in Genesis 9:8-17 is dramatically distinctive in several ways: 1) it is made between God and all future generations, and not just with Israel; 2) it is made not only with human beings but also with all creatures of the earth; its scope is thus cosmic and universal; and 3) most dramatic of all, only one party to the agreement—God—speaks at all. No response on the part of Noah and his sons is called for or given, not even their acknowledgment of acceptance. The covenant with Noah, then, is an act of a free and gracious God in behalf of a world that did not have to ask for it or earn it or even respond to it.”ii

Whatever we might make of this story, of its truthfulness or historicity, what the author of Genesis wants us to believe is that when we see a rainbow in the sky it is the light of the world shining through the tears of a broken-hearted God who

has learned to love sinners like us, so that he can say to us in words of solemn promise,

“Never again.”

—Jim Somerville © 2024

“Hide and Seek”

Do you remember playing hide and seek. It was always one of those games you could play with no equipment and in almost any place. You could play with just two people if you wanted. One person had to be It and everyone else hid. But you always seemed to have Those kids. You know what I mean. You have that one kid who picks the absolute hardest place to hide, like in the trunk of a moving car, determined no one will find them. And then you have the kid who hides behind a small bush with half their body exposed thinking no one will find them. All these hide and seek memories reminded me of a book called Hide and Seek. I want to read an exerpt.

“Come boys, what shall we do? Let’s play hide and seek,” suggested Fred. “Oh yes! That will be fun for all of us. Who will shut his eyes? Fred, will you shut your eyes?” asked Roy. “Yes, I’ll shut my eyes while you all go and hide,” replied Fred. Then Fred stood by the tree and shut his eyes, and the other boys ran off to hide. Pretty soon Fred shouted, “Boys, are you all hidden? Well, here I go. One, two, three, here I come!” Fred started to look for the hidden boys. He spotted Andrew hiding in a box. “Ha! I found you, Andrew. You are in that box!” shouted Fred.

Obviously, Andrew was one of “those” kids.

In our Scripture this morning, Abraham is called upon by God to accept a very difficult task. In verse one, God simply calls Abraham and Abraham responds, “Here I Am”. He did not try to hide or run when God called. He just turned and said, “Here I Am”.  God then goes on to lay out a task so difficult, so un-thinkable, asking Abraham to sacrifice his only son as an offering to God. From what we read, Abraham does not argue with God, try to resist in any way, or even question God’s command. He simply obeys.

Who knows what is going through his mind. If it had been me I would have reminded God that this was the son through whom many descendants were supposed to emerge according to his earlier promise. Kind of hard to accomplish if I do what you are asking. But Abraham, he gathered the materials needed, called on his son to go with him to perform a sacrifice, and set out to the place God had shown him. Issac, his son, asked him where was the ram they were going to sacrifice and Abraham simply replied, God will provide. It soon occurred to Issac that God did indeed provide and he was the provision. But you notice in the text that Issac did not question, did not hide, did not fight his father, but simply obeyed. His words were simply, “Here I am”. And then, after Abraham had tied up Issac and placed him on the altar he had made and was ready to kill him out of obedience to God, the angel of the Lord shouted Abraham’s name and Abraham again responded “Here I Am”, though probably not as calmly as the first time. The angel told Abraham that God honored his obedience and therefore he would not have to sacrifice his son but could instead use the ram that had suddenly appeared in a tangle of bushes nearby. Both Abraham, and certainly Issac, were relieved at this change of direction but you have to honor their response to God’s call… “Here I Am”.

Throughout the Old Testament God calls people like Moses, Jacob, Samuel, David and others and their response is the Hebrew word “hinnay-knee” or “here I am”. Even in the NT, God calls Mary to be the mother of Jesus and her response is, “Here I Am”, what is it you want me to do? And the greatest responder to a difficult task was Jesus himself when he said in the Garden of Gethsemane, facing great suffering and death, and where he could have said, No to God, responded with the words, “not my will but yours be done” or in other words, “Here I am”

‘Here I am’ denotes a physical presence, it says I am here just as I am, nothing false or fake, open to the present situation. “Here I am” is the attitude of the servant, the willing person. Available…reporting for duty… your word is my command…at your service…how may I serve you today?

What is the opposite of “here I am?” Let’s look again in Genesis to the very first call of God in the Garden of Eden where God calls out for Adam and Eve. They have sinned against God by disobeying God and as God calls for them they try to hide from Him. Kind of a Biblical hide-and-seek. There was no “here I am” but instead, there was a “I really hope He can’t find me”. Finally, when they do emerge from their misguided hiding place, they are ashamed for what they have done and have to confess.

Another example of running from God’s call is Jonah, God called Jonah to go to the people of Nineveh and tell them about God and His love so that they might repent and come to know him. But Jonah didn’t think they deserved God’s presence. He was prejudiced against the people of Nineveh so he refused God’s calling and ran from it. For those of you not familiar with the story, Jonah, despite his efforts of evasion, finally gave in to the call and went to Nineveh, though he was still not happy about it. God’s purpose was fulfilled, Nineveh responded positively, and Jonah left mad and disgruntled. Both his initial reaction and his ending response to God’s calling reflected a lack of faith in God and a love for people.

Even Moses tried to weasel out of God’s calling by offering multiple excuses as to why He could not fulfill God’s calling of leading the Israelite people out of slavery.

I wonder how often we play hide-and-seek from God’s calling. How often do we believe we have good reasons which clear us from the responsibility of that calling? How often do we avoid God’s call by offering excuses as to why we are not the one who should be called, but that maybe it’s better for someone else to do so.

In contrast to these examples, of course, is Abraham, who simply responds, “Here I Am”, “How may I serve you” “Speak Lord, your servant is listening”.

Some people believe that only ministers are called, however, each of us has a calling, maybe several of them. You see, each day God calls us to hear his voice and respond appropriately. His call may be one to just listen for direction in response to a problem, it may be one to go to someone who is in need, it may be one to address a larger problem that maybe we cannot resolve but we need to pay attention to and do our small part.

The question is do we respond to that call with a “here I am” or do we respond as Adam and Eve, Jonah, and Moses did when called, by hiding behind our fears, our schedules, our prejudices, our complacency, our selfishness, or our excuses. Oh, we could come up with hundreds of excuses to hide behind and most of us are good at it, but the fact is, when God lays a call upon us, He does so for a reason.  Maybe, we are the one with resources, or influence, or the opportunity. Maybe the call is for our benefit and not just the supposed benefactor of our positive action.

Story of the miraculous touchdown pass to Dwight during the reign of doom for the luckless green team of the Siler City little league football. Well, let’s look at that a little more closely. When Dwight yelled, “Here I am”, there were three things important to note.

First of all, Dwight had to be willing to accept the task. He had to be willing to play the game and participate in the task he was given. When God calls us, He only ask that we show up. He doesn’t ask anything other than a willingness to participate.

Second, Dwight had to be where he was supposed to be. When he said, Here I am, he had to be where he needed to be. If he had been behind me or over on the bench, or had let a defender keep him covered, he wouldn’t have been much use. With God, to receive His power and presence we must be in a right relationship with the Lord. We cannot let any obstacles, such as unforgiven sin, or unresolved spiritual issues, prevent us from being where God needs us to be mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.

Finally, Dwight had to be willing to complete the task. If he had caught the pass and then just laid down or had run the wrong way, the whole touchdown would have never happened. He had to be willing to turn and run for the goal. With God, once we have said “Here I am” and we have received the call, then we must be willing to run with it. The way before us might be difficult, it might be scary, it might even be fraught with numerous obstacles, but if it is God’s intention for us to complete the call, whatever that call may be, He will provide a way.

When our response to God is “Here I Am”, we display a confidence and faith in the presence and power of God. Whether we are

Facing a spiritual fight, “Here I Am, bring it on”

Facing a crisis, “Here I Am”

Facing a time of indecision, “Here I Am”

Feeling lost or hopeless, “Here I Am”

Feeling scared out of your wits, “Here I Am”

Or facing a call to serve God or others, “Here I Am”

Decisions, Decisions: “Can You Trust God’s Promises?”

First Baptist Richmond, March 5, 2023

The Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 12:1-4a

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.”

Today’s Old Testament lesson is the Call of Abraham from Genesis 12.  I love this story, if only because it’s the beginning of a saga that will go on for the next 38 chapters: one that will include God’s covenant with Abraham; the birth of his son, Isaac; Isaac’s near sacrifice on the mountain; the rivalry between Jacob and Esau; Esau’s stolen blessing; Jacob’s love affair with Rachel; Joseph and his coat of many colors, and many more.  But none of them would have happened if Abraham hadn’t said yes to God.  So, let’s take a closer look at that story.

It begins in the previous chapter, where we learn that Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.  It’s only a hunch, but I have a feeling that Haran, the youngest of the three, was kind of a wild buck.  He fathered a son named Lot (apparently out of wedlock) and died while he was still a young man (probably doing something stupid).  Rumor has it that his last words were, “Hey, y’all; watch this!”  Nahor and Abram were a little more respectable.  Nahor married a nice girl named Milcah and Abram married Sarai, who was beautiful, but, as it turns out, barren.  She and Abram may have taken Lot in because they couldn’t have any children of their own. 

It was about that time that Terah decided to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and go up and around the Fertile Crescent to the Land of Canaan.  Abram and Sarai went with him and took Lot along.  But for some reason they stopped before they got to Canaan.  Maybe it was because Terah was getting old, or maybe it was because they found a place too beautiful to leave behind.  I can imagine Terah saying to Abram, “I believe this is it.  I believe I’ve found the place where I’m going to live out the rest of my days.”  They settled there, and Terah named it Haran, in memory of his deceased son.

It was a good place, and from all outward appearances Abram had it made.  He was living on his father’s farm with his wife, Sarai, and a nephew who was like a son to him.  His father was still in good health and as long as he was alive Abram would never have to worry about where his next meal would come from.  But one night the Lord whispered to him in his sleep, “Go, 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.”

I read that passage to the church staff last Tuesday and asked them to listen for how many times the word bless or blessing is found.  “Five,” they said, counting carefully.  God is planning to bless Abram so that he can be a blessing; it’s as simple as that.  And then I told them that’s part of my daily prayer: that I would be “a conduit of God’s love and a channel of God’s blessing.”  I said I sometimes picture rain falling onto the roof of a house, collecting in the gutter, flowing through the downspout, and gushing out at the bottom.  That’s what I want to be where God’s blessing is concerned.  But I also told them I’m not always very good at that.  Steve Blanchard said, “You might have too many leaves in your gutter.”  We laughed, but he was right.  I’ve got a lot of other things going on in my life; the blessings don’t always flow through me in the way that they should.  And maybe that’s why God picked Abraham.  Maybe his life was wonderfully uncluttered.  He seems to be kind of a simple person, doesn’t he?  A downspout through whom God’s blessings can flow without obstruction. 

Still, when God told him to go from his father’s house he must have had to think about it.  I’ve thought about it, and what I think it came down to for Abraham was a choice between trust and security.  There was the security of living on his father’s farm and never having to worry about where the next meal was coming from, but there was also this invitation from God to step out on faith, to trust him, and in return God said he would bless him, and make his name great, and make of him a great nation. 

Decisions, decisions. 

Have you ever been there?  Have you ever considered a job opportunity in another state?  Has anyone ever asked you to marry them, with all the upheaval that entails?  Have you ever thought about quitting your job and going into business for yourself?  Have you ever had to weigh the risks and rewards? 

I was 23 years old when I got married.  I was working as a graphic designer at a little studio on Newtown Pike, just outside of Lexington, Kentucky.  My boss was a good man, the son of an Episcopal priest, and he was good to me.  He had taken me on even though he wasn’t completely sure he could afford me.  I tried to reassure him that he hadn’t made a mistake by doing the best work I could and sharing all my best ideas.  And I had ideas.  This was back in 1984 and most of the work we did was by hand.  We designed logos and did illustrations and laid out magazine ads.  But one day I stopped in at a new store in Lexington called “Apple,” where they sold personal computers, and they had one with a screen that displayed different fonts, in different sizes.  I had never seen anything like that before.  I came back to the studio and told my boss I had seen the future of graphic design.  He chuckled and went back to work on a beautiful pen and ink drawing that no computer could replicate. 

And neither could I. 

So, I began to think differently about the future.  I began to dream up a five-year plan where I would have my own business and use computers to do graphic design (I know that sounds crazy).  And then one day I was at the courthouse in the little town where I lived, running an errand for my boss, and just out of curiosity I asked the clerk how much a business license cost.  “Ten dollars,” she said.  “Ten dollars!?”  That sounded like a deal.  I just happened to have a ten dollar bill in my wallet and before I really knew what I was doing I had bought a business license for my new graphic design studio.  But this was a small town.  When I came to work the next day my boss said, “Jim, I’m going to have to let you go.”  He said, “I found out you bought a business license at the courthouse while you were running an errand for me.  If you want to start your own business go ahead and do it.  No man can serve two masters.”  And then he handed me a cardboard box with all my personal belongings in it and a check for two weeks’ salary. 

That’s how quickly life can change.  That’s how quickly you can move from the security of a steady job to the insecurity of an unknown future.  I didn’t know what I was going to tell Christy when I got back to our little apartment above the drugstore, when I climbed those stairs with my pitiful cardboard box.  We had been married only a little over a year.  She had a part-time job but I was the breadwinner and here I was, wondering if we would have any bread the next month.  I had a business license and a few skills as a graphic designer, but I didn’t have any clients yet and wasn’t sure how to get them.  Would I be able to provide for my young wife, or not?  It was a very scary feeling. 

I think Abraham must have had some of those same feelings when the Lord called him.  As I said, he had a lot of security where he was.  But now here was the Lord telling him to go away from all of that, from his country, his kindred, his father’s house, to a land that only the Lord knew anything about.  So much uncertainty.  So much insecurity.  And yet so much promise.  So much possibility.  Suppose that, just like me, Abraham had been feeling a little restless.  Suppose that he had been waiting for an opportunity to make a life for himself.  What if that was the reason the Lord came to him in the first place, because he knew that for Abraham the sweetest word he could hear was the word go?

That’s what my boss said to me, and in that moment it didn’t sound sweet at all.  I had wanted to go into business for myself but not then.  I wasn’t ready then.  I had a whole lot of things to figure out first.  But when I got fired I lost that luxury: the luxury of time.  I had to figure things out and I had to figure them out immediately.  I called a man in our church who ran an advertising agency and he said, “Yeah, I have a few, small freelance jobs I could probably send your way.”  “Thank you,” I said, as if he had just saved my life, because in some ways he had.  I ended up doing a good bit of work for him and making more money than I had before.

But here’s the difference between Abraham and me.  I hadn’t trusted myself enough to step out on faith, at least not at that point.  My boss had to push me out of the nest.  But Abraham trusted God enough to do it on his own, to put his things in a cardboard box and follow God down the driveway not knowing if he would turn right or left when he got to the end of it.  He trusted God, and that’s why we are still telling his story. 

I won’t say that I have seen the future of preaching, but in the last few months I’ve been introduced to something called “ChatGPT.”  Have you heard of it?  It’s a computer program powered by artificial intelligence where you type in your request and it comes up with a response.  It’s so good it’s making English teachers nervous.  They’re afraid their students will ask it to write a 20-page term paper on Romeo and Juliet and they won’t be able to tell the difference between actual and artificial intelligence.  So, when I was working on this sermon I asked ChatGPT to tell me the difference between trust and security, and it did a good job.  But then I refined my request by asking it to compare trust in God with the security of a good job, and here’s the result that came back:

“Trust in God” and the security of a good job are two different concepts that can provide individuals with different forms of reassurance and confidence.

“Trust in God” typically refers to a belief in a higher power that guides and protects individuals through life. For some people, trusting in God can provide a sense of comfort and security, knowing that they are not alone and that there is a greater purpose and plan for their life. This type of trust is often associated with faith and religious beliefs.

The security of a good job, on the other hand, refers to having a steady income and employment that provides financial stability and reduces the risk of economic hardship. A good job can provide individuals with a sense of security and peace of mind, knowing that they have a reliable source of income and the ability to support themselves and their families.

While “trust in God” and the security of a good job are different concepts, they can be interconnected. Some people may find comfort in their faith while facing job insecurity or financial difficulties, while others may attribute their success in their career to their faith and trust in God’s guidance and protection.

Ultimately, both “trust in God” and the security of a good job are important for individuals to feel secure and confident in their lives. The extent to which an individual relies on one or the other may depend on their personal values, beliefs, and experiences.”

Well, there you have it: an explanation of the difference between trust and security written by an artificial intelligence program in the year 2023.  And then you have Abraham, somewhere in the Second Millennium, BC, gathering up all his belongings, his flocks and his herds, his manservants and maidservants, his wife and his nephew, and setting out toward a land that the Lord had promised to show him.  He didn’t have a computer to consult.  He didn’t have a GPS.  He was stepping out on faith, trusting God to guide his steps, to bring him at last to the land that he had promised.  Was he nervous?  Excited?  Probably both, and yet if we could have interviewed him in that moment I think he would have said that he was starting out on the greatest adventure of his life, and that he couldn’t wait to see how things turned out. 

That was true for me.  Getting fired from my job was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  It forced me to stop trusting in myself and start trusting in God.  It freed me up to consider options I might never have considered.  In the fall of that year I headed off to seminary and began a journey in ministry that continues to this day.  It’s been a blessing—a huge blessing.  I only hope that some of the rain that’s fallen on my roof has collected in the gutter, flowed through the downspout, and gushed out the bottom in a way that blesses others because I think that’s why God does it: I think God blesses us so we can bless others.

Just as he blessed Abraham.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

Decisions, Decisions: “Will You Give In?”

First Baptist Richmond, February 26, 2023

The First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Welcome to the First Sunday in Lent, and to the beginning of a sermon series called, “Decisions, Decisions.”[i]  In my notes to the worship planning team I wrote, “Each of the Old Testament lessons [in this season] presents us with a choice, a fork in the road, a need to decide. So much of life is like that, isn’t it? But few decisions are as important as the ones these texts demand. If we can learn to make these, the rest should be easy.” And so, with a little fear and trembling, let us turn from the well-thumbed pages of the New Testament to the first few pages of the Old Testament, where we find an explosion of creative activity. 

For some time now I have believed that Genesis 1 could function as a call to worship for the entire Bible.  It’s very poetic.  It has the kind of rhythm and structure that lends itself to such a thing.  God says, “Let there be light,” and then there is light, and God sees that it is good.  So, maybe you could help me.  I’ll be the leader and do the hard part, but when I give you the signal you say, “And God saw that it was good.”  Got it?  Here we go:

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Then God said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light.”

And God saw that it was good.” 

But that was only the first day.

Then God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters, and it was so.  God called the dome Sky.” 

And God saw that it was good.” 

That was the second day.

Then God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.”  And it was so.  God called the land earth and the waters he called seas.  He caused a profusion of vegetation to spring forth from the earth; plants yielding seed and fruit trees of every kind.

And God saw that it was good.”

That was the third day.

Then God said, “Let there be lights in the sky to separate the day from the night!” And so God made the sun and the moon and the stars to keep them company,

And God saw that it was good.”

That was the fourth day.

Then God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.”  And it was so.  And God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and that’s what they did. 

And God saw that it was good.” 

That was the fifth day.

Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
            in the image of God he created them;
            male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

And God saw that it was good.”

Only this time the Bible says, “It was very good.”  That was the sixth day, and on the seventh day God rested. 

It makes a pretty good call to worship, doesn’t it?  It’s poetic.  But in chapter 2 the poet steps off the stage and the storyteller takes his place, and his version of creation is a little different.  He says, “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up, the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man stood up, a living being.  And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” 

I often say that Jesus was working to bring heaven to earth, but he seems to have gotten the idea from his Father, who took that big, empty field described at the beginning of chapter 2 and turned it into the Garden of Eden, into Paradise, into Heaven on Earth.  And he put the man that he had made smack-dab in the middle of it, and gave him the responsibility of tending it and keeping it.  Not a bad job, right?  Keeper of Paradise?  And the Lord said, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

And so, apparently, the man worked in the garden, and ate of its fruit, and in so many ways it was heaven on earth.  But in one way it was not.  The Lord said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  And so, out of the ground, the Lord formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and he brought them to the man to name them, and whatever the man called them, that was their name.  But there wasn’t found among them a suitable helper for the man, so the Lord caused the man to fall into a deep sleep, and while he was sleeping the Lord took a rib from his side, and fashioned it into a woman, and brought her to the man.  And when he woke up from his sleep and saw her he was delighted and said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.  I will call her woman, because she was taken out of man.”  It is for this reason, the storyteller explains, that a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves unto his wife and the two become one flesh.  And the man and his wife were naked, and they were not ashamed.

And then the storyteller steps off the stage and the preacher takes his place.  He begins chapter 3 by saying, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.”  And let me just point out that this serpent is not the Devil.  The text never says that.  It simply says that he is one of the wild animals that the Lord God made.  But it does say that he is crafty.  He is a sneaky snake.  And in this part of the story he slithers along a branch and says to the woman, “Did God say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”  She said, “No, we can eat from every tree in the garden.  Well, except one.  We can’t eat from the tree in the middle of the garden.  God told us that if we eat from that tree, or even touch it, we will surely die.”  But the serpent said, “You won’t die!  For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 

Decisions, decisions.

For years now I have believed that the tree in question was not an apple tree, but a fig tree, because I used to have one in my yard in North Carolina, and when the fruit was ripe I could not resist the temptation.  The figs were soft, and plump, and warm, and sweet.  But there is no fruit so tempting as the idea that you could be like God.  To be fair to the serpent, he didn’t say that the woman would be like God in every way.  He only said she would be like God in her capacity for knowing good and evil, but I’m not sure she even heard that part.  She had been able to resist temptation as long as it was only a fruit tree.  There were plenty of those in the Garden.  But when she heard that its fruit would make her like God she took another look.  She began to see that tree in a whole new way.  

It’s the same for us.  None of us wants to be “the Lord God Almighty”; that’s too much responsibility.  But we do want to be the god of our own lives.  We don’t want anyone else telling us what to do.  Some theologians call this event in the Garden “Original Sin.”  I don’t know how original it is.  I often tell people that if it hadn’t been Eve it would have been me.  It’s not especially original but it is perennial; it comes around again and again; this temptation to be the god of our own lives, to call the shots and suffer the consequences, whatever they may be.  But often those consequences are disastrous.  How many stories do we have to hear, how many movies do we have to see, about someone who tried to do it their way and ended up in a body cast, or worse?  We human beings are not good at this.  We don’t make wise choices.  Often we don’t even seem to have our own best interests at heart. 

So, turn with me to the pages of the New Testament for a different and better model.  Turn with me to Matthew 4:1-11 where Jesus is, in fact, being tempted by the Devil.  He has been fasting in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights.  He is famished.  And that’s when the Tempter comes to him and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  Which sounds like a really good idea.  If you were famished, and you had the power to turn hot, smooth, desert stones into warm, crusty, loaves of bread, wouldn’t you do it?  But here’s the difference between Jesus and most of us: Jesus doesn’t even pause to consider that option.  Believing that God and God alone has his best interests at heart Jesus simply obeys the word of the Lord.  Quoting from the Book of Deuteronomy he says to the Devil, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 

Meanwhile, back in the Garden, what some theologians refer to as “the Fall” began to take place almost in slow motion.  Listen to the verbs: convinced by the serpent that she would not die the woman looked at the tree; she saw that it was a delight to the eyes, and that it was to be desired to make one wise; she took of its fruit and ate, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.  And what the serpent had said turned out to be entirely true: in the moment they ate of the fruit they knew the difference between good and evil, because up until that moment they had never done an evil thing, but afterward they had.  Their eyes were opened, and they saw that they were naked, and for the first time in their lives they were ashamed. 

Do you know how it is when you are tempted to do something, and you struggle against it for a while but finally give in to the temptation and do it?  Whatever it is, when it’s over, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?  Aren’t you filled with remorse?  Can’t you see that it was so not worth it?  I think that’s how this man and this woman must have felt, still wiping the juice of forbidden fruit from their chins, when they saw themselves as they really were.  It wasn’t their nakedness that was the problem, it was them.  They wanted to cover themselves up.  But no matter how many fig leaves they used they couldn’t get away from God.  When he came to the Garden in the cool of the evening they hid in the shadows, hoping he wouldn’t find them. 

Things were so different than they had been in those earlier, innocent days, when God would come to the Garden, and call their names, and they would come running, delighted to hear his voice, eager to see him.  Again, those of you who have had some experience with sin know what I’m talking about.  When you do that thing your mother told you not to do it affects your relationship with her.  Only the day before she had been your best friend, and you had been making cookies together in the kitchen.  Now you hide in your room, wretched, hoping she won’t knock on the door.  Is there any way out of that mess?  Well, yes, and that is to not get into it in the first place. 

Think about it like this: there is a time when are able to make a decision, when you still have the power to do so.  But there is a time when you lose that power, when the temptation becomes so strong that giving in feels almost inevitable.  “Might as well get it over with,” you think.  But the way to resist temptation is to not walk down that street in the first place.  I don’t know what it is you might be trying to resist, but if you’ve had any experience with it you know: giving in doesn’t make you feel better, it makes you feel worse.  So, while you can still make a decision, make it.  When you’re still feeling strong enough to walk away, do it.  Save yourself from the shame of giving in, so that when God calls your name in the Garden,

You can run out to meet him.

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] Suggested by my friend Amy K. Butler, former Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City and still a member of the annual sermon planning retreat we call “Preacher Camp.”