The name Sarah, or its previous iteration of Sarai, appears more frequently in the Bible than that of any other woman, 55 times in the Old Testament and 4 times in the New according to the womanist Hebrew Bible scholar Wil Gafney. Granted, the list of women with names in the Bible is a pretty short one, but this points to the significance of Sarah in the story of God’s people.
Despite her importance in the narrative and her role as the matriarch of the people of Israel, I know I tend to only think of her as a supporting player in the stories of others – in the wanderings of Abraham, in the abuse and exile of Hagar and Ishmael, in the birth of Isaac.
But in today’s reading from Genesis God points to Sarah by name as being blessed by God (twice in fact, God repeats the words “I will bless her” two times) and that “she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Of course this proclamation is not spoken directly to Sarahm but to her husband Abraham, and I wonder how much he might have told her about his conversation with God. After all, Abraham does not have a good track record of treating her well or protecting her. Abraham is her husband, but also her brother, and he switches between those roles throughout the narrative depending on what best suits him and protects him. This happens most famously in the chapters before this one, as Abram and Sarai travel through Egypt and Abram travels as Sarai’s brother and gives her, traffics her in the word of one Biblical commentator, to Pharaoh in order to secure his own safety and wealth.
Interestingly, at the conclusion of that part of the story, when Pharoah realizes he has slept with Abram’s wife, it is God who is furious and punishes Pharoah (the text says that God afflicted him with ‘great plagues’) and not Abram himself. God seems to be more aware and present to Sarai’s trauma than her husband.
Another source of Sarah’s pain, I might suggest, comes from being unable to bear children. During this time and this culture, being childless would be one of the worst shames for a woman, who was (at least in the Bible) always considered the one to blame….the metaphor being a barren field rather than unfruitful seed. But in today’s reading God announces that Sarah and Abraham, despite their very advanced age and inability thus far to have children, will indeed bear a son and this son will be the sign of God’s covenant and promise and hope.
God has articulated this covenant three times before to Abraham, but this is the first time God names Sarah in God’s promise. Right after the passage we heard this morning, Abraham suggests that God might consider Ishmael – his child with Hagar – as heir instead. Abraham sees a child being born by Sarah as a ridiculous impossibility given their age and Abraham tries to point God toward a more realistic and achievable plan.
But God names Sarah. As in their journey through Egypt, God is there for Sarah even when Abraham is not. In Egypt God saw Sarah’s pain even when her husband did not, God stays in relationship with Sarah even when her husband offers God an easier alternative, God promises life to Sarah even after she has suffered so much pain even at the hands of her own husband.
This is not just a story of the way God stays in relationship with Sarah through pain and trauma, but the story of how God stayed in relationship with the people of Judah during a violent and traumatic time in their history. (and with all of us). One scholar suggests that we might read the Book of Genesis as ‘survival literature”, written by the people of Judah in the time of the violence and trauma of the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC. Many of the stories of the Book of Genesis, including the ones of Sarah and Abraham, were likely written during this period, known as the “Babylonian Captivity”, when the center of Jewish life and worship was destroyed by the Chaldeans led by Nebuchadnezzar, the monarchy was killed, and many were deported to live in exile in Babylon.
Through these stories, through characters like Sarah, the Jewish people tried to make sense of what was happening to them and where God was in the aftermath of the unimaginable. God meets Sarah in the midst of her trauma and abuse – of being childless and married to her brother and trafficked to Pharaoh – and renames her and reiterates God’s promise to HER – that life will be created in HER body, that she will be the mother of a new nation. God does not take away her pain or her past but meets her in it and creates the possibilities of new meaning and new life from that pain and loss.
I, for one, need to hear these stories right now, in this time and in this Lent. One year ago today, this very day, the first case of Covid was announced in Oregon and recently we have passed the unimaginable number of 500,000 deaths. There has been a renewed reckoning with the violence done to black and brown bodies through the systems of white supremacy and the state. And many of us, I know, have our own stories of particular grief and loss throughout this year.
Yet, just as God was with Sarah, God is with us, offering a horizon of hope. These stories were written millenia ago to help our ancestors of the faith make sense of a hard time. I think they invite us to similarly tell our stories, to share our pain, with each other and with God, so that we too might see how God is with us and is calling to us by name. Last Wednesday, I had the privilege to help lead the first in our Lenten series from grief to joy, 28 people came together to learn about lament and to name their own particular laments in this time. It was a holy time and a holy space
I think by telling our stories of pain and grief, by listening to the stories of others, we meet God in a powerful way. God met Sarah in the most painful part of her story, in her childness and in her marriage to Abraham, and offered a relationship and the possibility of new life. God did not take away the pain of her past but rather offered a new way to make sense of it through relationship with God.
The first hymn we heard this morning was “The God of Abraham Praise” and it is one of my favorite hymns, but I do think we have too long given short shrift to Sarah….a complicated and brave and really human character. God named Sarah, God was with Sarah in her pain and trauma, God made an impossible promise to her and God was with her when that promise was fulfilled. So yes, let us praise the God of Abraham, but let us also praise the God of Leah, the God of Rebekah, the God of, Hagar and the God of Sarah and the God of all those whose stories of survival and hope speak to us still. Let us praise the God who was there with them and is here with us now and will always be with us forever.
Life begins in water.
Life begins in the dark.
This is true biologically. Our lives all begin in the water and darkness of our mother’s bodies. We are water creatures first, floating with eyes sealed shut as our bodies are knit together cell by cell, being prepared for the first sharp intake of breath that is our very first act on this earth.
Life begins in water.
Life begins in the dark.
This is true biblically. The first creation story in Genesis describes darkness over the face of the deep, with God’s first creative act the sharp exhale of breath which inspires and inspirits cosmos.
Today’s Gospel begins in darkness. We are not accustomed to encountering Jesus in the dark, especially in the Gospel of John in which, from the very first verses of the prologue, Jesus as the very essence of God is described as the light of life, a light which the darkness would not overcome.
But Nicodemus arrives in the dark. Certainly there may be practical reasons why Nicodemus seeks out Jesus in the night. He is a prominent and well-respected leader and perhaps he does not want to be associated with this radical teacher who just created chaos in the temple, upending tables and chasing people with whips.
Maybe, and I like this more generous reading of one scholar, Nicodemus is a dedicated and diligent scholar and teacher who took seriously the rule of his community to study always, even in the darkness of night as others slept
And because this is the Gospel of John and the author never met a metaphor he did not like, the darkness might symbolize Nicodemus’ lack of understanding, his confusion about who and what Jesus is.
But honestly, it is hard to understand why Nicodemus is there that night. And maybe he does not know himself. Something called Nicodemus out in that night, maybe an itch, a sense that this man, this strange shaggy man from Galilee has something to offer him, a well-respected teacher. Maybe Nicodemus had heard or seen firsthand this Jesus: seen a dove alight on his shoulder or was a wedding guest at Cana and had sipped an extraordinary vintage and marvelled at the story of where it had come from.
I suspect even Nicodemus did not know why he came. He opens the conversation with a statement not a question, and does not even seem to be speaking for himself. “We know you are a teacher who has come from God” he says. I wonder if he is afraid to ask what is really on his heart. Afraid to own his own wonderings.
Nicodemus does not ask a question but Jesus seems to sense his yearning. And there is a wildness and poetry to Jesus’ responses here, like he has been waiting to start sharing about how everyone is invited to experience the kingdom of heaven. “Amen” he says, “no one can see the kingdom of heaven without being born from above.”
But Nicodemus does not follow, he can not keep up. He responds to the poetry and metaphor of Jesus with literalness and fact. And I get it, I really do, I understand Nicodemus’ dogged earnestness is trying to translate Jesus’ words into something he can grasp….into the physical experience of literally being born again.
And also, to be honest, there is something so radical in Jesus’ language that it is no wonder Nicodemus does not follow….eventually he throws his hands up with the response “How can this be?” when Jesus continues to double down on this image of birth as an explanation of how we come to have life in the Kingdom and life in God.
Because what Jesus is doing, quite remarkably, is painting an explicitly feminine image of God. Jesus does not correct Nicodemus for responding with the language of birth and wombs, but only corrects the literalness with which he takes Jesus. The metaphor still stands….that being born into the kingdom means being born of water of water and spirit of God just as we are born of water and breath of a woman.
So no wonder Nicodemus did not get it. I mean, given his cultural, social, and religious location and gender…why would he? And, when he responds “How can this be?” perhaps it is out of confusion and frustration, or perhaps it is out of comprehension and disbelief. Perhaps, at some level, he gets what Jesus is saying but it is so radical, so beyond his imaginings, all he can say is “How can this be?”. How can it be that being born into the kingdom, that being born as a child of God, can be at all like being born of a woman?
And while certainly I am employing a 21st century feminist lens to this reading, there are echoes of Jesus’ language in the Hebrew scriptures with Wisdom personified as female in the Book of Proverbs and images of God giving birth to creation in the Books of Deuteronomy and Job. In Deuteronomy God rebukes Israel saying “You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
This birth language not only points to a feminine image of God, but an earthy one as well. John’s Gospel is often labeled as the most ‘spiritual’ Gospel, and certainly the author of this Fourth Gospel often describes Jesus as if he is already half-way back up to heaven.
But I would suggest that what the Gospel writer might be trying to do here, what Jesus might be trying to do, is to knit together the heavenly and the earthly, the spirit and flesh, and suggest that it is in our very earthiness, in these very bodies, that we encounter God. Like we are born of through water and woman we are born through Spirit and God.
When our son Seth was born it seemed he never stopped crying. While he was born full-term, it always seemed to us that the harshness of this world was too much for him and he could have used a couple of extra months in the womb before he came into the world.
But in the world he was and he was none too happy about it. The best way I found to comfort him and end his tears and screams was to take him into the bathroom and turn out all the lights and turn the tap of the bathtub on full blast. Somehow the combination of darkness and the sound of water was familiar to him, reminded him of where he came from and there he found peace.
Maybe that is what Jesus was doing in today’s Gospel, trying to remind Nicodemus where he came from, from the womb of God and to get him to feel that in his heart and in his body, not just try to reason it out with his mind. Jesus is calling Nicodemus, calling all of us, to encounter God in the physicality of this world, of our bodies.
And maybe that is why God gave God’s only son, to paraphrase John 3:16, not so that Jesus could atone for our sins and guarantee a place for us in the afterlife but rather so that we could physically encounter God in flesh and bone and learn that what is Spirit and what is flesh is inextricably knit together.
I think Nicodemus learns something of this. We encounter him two more times in the Gospel of John. A few chapters from now Nicodemus, in the light of the day and in front of his fellow leaders, defends Jesus and calls for a fair trial for him, a trial he never has.
And finally we encounter Nicodemus in the most unexpected of places, the foot of the cross. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, take Jesus’ body down from the cross. The Gospel tells us that Nicodemus brings 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. I imagine them, together, washing Jesus’ body so tenderly with water
Life begins in water.
and then burying him in the darkness of the tomb.
Life begins in the dark.
It feels a little like Christmas to me right now.
Maybe it’s the candles. Maybe it is the story we heard from Luke this morning, this story of the baby Jesus. Because we really only encounter baby Jesus at Christmastime.
We even have on white stoles and there is white on the altar. It is a feast day and we hear this wonderful story of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.
And one of the reasons I love that we are celebrating the presentation, Candlemas, on this Sunday (and as I mentioned in the parish hall this feast day always falls on February 2 but rarely on a Sunday) is because we get to encounter the baby Jesus again, outside of Christmas. And we get to hear a story that we do not often get to hear together in this place.
And this makes sense because most of the stories we have of Jesus, most of the stories in the Gospels, are of his ministry. Most of the stories begin when he is about 30 and he is baptized and he is out preaching and teaching and healing and liberating.
We do not have many stories of Jesus as a baby, or as a child, at least not in our canon, the scriptures as we received them. There are other stories written about Jesus as a child that we do not accept as canonical but that are really great stories. Stories of Jesus being quite a handful as a young person. One of my favorite stories is of Jesus as a 4 or 5 year old, who went out to play in the mud, and who fashioned with his hands out of mud these little birds and he brought them to life and they flew off into the sky.
And I think, because we only spend time with an adult Jesus we can default to seeing him as a kind of social justice warrior type, or that is a trap we can fall into. That Jesus is important because of these things he does and that Jesus is important because of these things he says. But today’s story reminds us that Jesus is important because of who Jesus was and who Jesus is. Jesus is the Christ, the messiah.
And Simeon had been waiting for the messiah, for a long time it seems.
Simeon was tired.
Simeon was old.
He’d had enough of this life, it seems.
But he held on to a promise whispered to him in a dream, perhaps. Whispered to him as a prayer. Whispered to him by the Holy Spirit which, today’s passage from Luke tells us, ‘rested on him.’
What a beautiful turn of phrase, right? The Holy Spirit ‘rested on him.’ I imagine the Holy Spirit like a cat curled up in his lap, like an infant sprawled out and snoring on his chest, like a prayer shawl gathered around his shoulders keeping you warm and safe.
And that day had come it seems. No angels proclaimed this baby Jesus, no heavenly chorus pointing this way like we saw in the earlier part of Luke in the account of baby Jesus. Just a whisper and a nudge, perhaps. So Simeon moved his ancient, stiff, aching bones and arrived at the Temple, perhaps as he did every day, to look for the one who was promised to him in a whisper.
I wonder what turned Simeon’s head that day. Because, honestly, there was not much to look at, in this little family weaving their way through the crowds in the Temple of Jerusalem. Just another devout Jewish mother presenting herself for ritual purification, 40 days after giving birth. Just another devout Jewish family ritually pledging their first born son, like Hannah did with Samuel, to the Temple in thanksgiving and praise to God. There was nothing noteworthy about this family, they were poor (the text tells us that by describing their offering, 2 pigeons, the least expensive, most basic offering allowed) and from the country, likely overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the Temple that day.
But something caught Simeon’s eye, something about this unremarkable family, and he picked that baby up and he began to sing. This is one of the church’s most treasured pieces of scripture, this song of Simeon’s, also known as the “Nunc Dimmitis” which is the Latin translation of the beginning of this song, “now you dismiss” your servant in peace.
And he sang. He sang in joy. And I also wonder if he sang in surprise because I am not sure this is what he expected to find. I wonder if this is what Simeon expected to see, what Simeon thought God’s promise might look like, this Messiah he had staved off death to see. I wonder if Simeon had expected to see a king, or at least a show of wealth or power or strength. And this makes a whole lot of sense, given the kind of messiah a devout Jew would have been looking for in the 1st Century, someone who would have returned exiled Jews to their land in Israel, who would have ended poverty, war, disease, and empire, and who heralded the resurrection of the dead. I suspect he did not expect to see an infant, or at least this kind of infant, one from a poor and unremarkable family.
And I wonder if he is singing out of joy, and out of surprise. A lot of people seem surprised in this text. The Gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph were ‘astonished’ by what they heard from Simeon that day, which is weird because they have heard the same thing from Gabriel and shepherds and wise men all proclaiming their son Messiah.
But they were astonished. And maybe they are surprised because of what Simeon goes on to say next after he sang his song. He starts to prophesy. And this prophecy, it is hard. It tells of people rising and falling, of Jesus being opposed, of people’s inner most thoughts being revealed, and of a sword piercing the soul of Mary. I am not sure that is what Mary expected to hear.
I think sometimes God does not show up like we expect, and sometimes when God does show up God brings hard truths to us, and so we turn our head the other way, we close our eyes, so we do not notice God, do not notice Jesus. So instead we think God is not showing up at all.
Since coming to Grace I have spent some time with the youth on Friday evenings. The rhythm of the evening is often the same: we gather, we laugh, we eat, we check in about the highs and lows of our weeks, and we also share if we have had any ‘God sightings.’ When have we seen God in our lives this week?
There has been great conversation about what this expression, God sighting, actually means. Does it mean we are stopped in our tracks and hear a heavenly chorus above our heads like the shepherds in the fields did earlier in the Gospel of Luke and the world starts to glow and we realize yes, yes, this is God?
And maybe some of y’all have had that experience, and if you have I totally want to to hear that story, but we have shared that God sightings are often much quieter than that, much more fleeting, more ordinary than that. They are, as the theologian Frederick Buechner described, more as if an angel beats their wings over our head and we say “Wow, I wonder where I got the courage to do that?” or “God, what a gorgeous day to be alive.”
The young people in youth group share God sightings like that, and man are they wonderful. Their God sightings include having a realization that their dog is getting older and may die soon and feeling sad about that but knowing deep in their hearts that everything is going to be ok. Their God sightings include realizing that someone they follow on social media because they are funny and dark is also a human being who just lost a parent and they feel sad about that. Their God sightings include someone being kind to them in class or realizing their parents might be having a hard time. Their God sightings include a really, really, really good burrito.
This kind of God sighting requires us to slow down, to notice the little things in our lives, This is kind of God sighting requires close attention, requires patience. And I think there is something interesting that in today’s Gospel and these stories of the youth that the people who are most tuned in to these kind of God sightings are people at the first part and the latter part of their lives. I think there is some awareness about being those ages, maybe it is about going a little slower, maybe at those ages we just spend more time thinking about what this life is about and what God is all about..
But I think we are all capable of those kind of God sightings, if we slow down, if we look around us, we start to notice that God is everywhere my friends.
One of the things that I love about this story of the Presentation is that Jesus holds the baby Jesus, brings the baby Jesus close to him, rests the baby Jesus on him as the Holy Spirit rested on him and then he begins to sing.
I think that tells us something. I think that tells us that we have to gather God close to us, that we have to lean in, we have to pick God up with our very arms and rest God on ourselves in order to encounter God sometimes.
And so, my friends, my invitation to you this morning is to slow down, to notice, to gather Christ in your arms and pull Christ close to your heart. And to sing.
I was baptized when I was 4 or 5 and dressed in a scratchy dress and tight shoes. I stood at the front of an Episcopal congregation along with my younger brother and sister. The priest went to baptize us and screwed up my name….he transposed my middle name with my sister’s. This might have been a quickly forgotten incident had I not, some time later, decided to share this funny story with a friend at a sleepover. When I finished talking she looked at my with concern and said “You know what that means don’t you?” “No” I replied, “What?”. “It means you are not going to be able to get into heaven, because God is not going to know your name.”
I was also ‘baptized’ in seminary. I use air quotes around the word baptism because this was not my baptism, that happened when I was little. But water and oil were poured on me one June day in the courtyard of our CDSP in Berkeley. It was part of what is affectionately known as the ‘magic hands’ class in seminary, where we learn the sacramental acts we called to perform as ordained people. My friend, David, was assigned the rite of baptism and he asked me if I would be willing to be baptized by him. I immediately said yes, he is one of my dearest friends.
One of the gifts of this class was the freedom our instructor gave to just try things out…to go for it, as it were. So my friend David decided to baptize me with, um, generous abandon. As I knelt down in front of him he took huge bowlfuls of water and dumped them over my head three times, so much water I was gasping for breath a little and completely soaked through. Then took a bottle of olive oil and began pouring it over my head. I smelled like a caesar salad and it took about 3 days of washing my hair with dish soap to get all the oil out.
Baptism is one of what are called the two ‘great sacraments’ in the church, the other being the Eucharist. These are considered the primary sacraments because they were modeled by Christ in the scriptures and given to the Church. When we are participating in baptism and communion we are participating in the very acts which Jesus himself initiated over 2,000 years ago.
Which all sounds pretty straightforward, Jesus did it and now we do too, but the history of the sacrament of baptism is a complicated one indeed. Ritual immersion was a part of the Judaism that Jesus was raised in, as an act of purification that could be participated whenever necessary. John the Baptizer (and the Jewish sect called the Essenes, of which he may have been a part) took this practice but shifted it and made it less about a ritual purification and about metanoia, repentance.
Amongst early followers of Christ, in the first couple of centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus, baptism continued to be a sacrament marking the entrance of one into the faith. But the theology of baptism remained fraught. In the 4th century deathbed baptism was a fairly common practice as people were afraid that they might sin again after the washing away of their sins they received in baptism. In fact, Constantine himself was baptized this way. And as families began to have their children baptized, the theology of original sin, that all humans are born sinners, was clearly articulated by Augustine as a rationale for the practice of infant baptizing.
During the Reformation even more visions and theologies of baptism began to flourish. Many reacted against the practice of infant baptism by arguiung that there is little scriptural warrant for the practice and instead a believer’s baptism, requiring someone to be of an age where they can articulate their beliefs and understand the sacrament they are participating in, became the norm in some denominations.
Baptism is a big thing. And all the controversy, all the passion around how and why and when one should be baptized is all because it is important …it is transformative…it is a holy and sacred act.
And this is clear in today’s Gospel. There is a lot going on in these few short verses from Matthew that tell us what is happening is very important. This is the first time we hear Jesus speak in the Gospel of Matthew. This is Jesus’ first act before beginning his ministry. This scene of Jesus being baptized is one of only two in the Gospel of Matthew in which the heavens open and God’s voice is heard (the other being the Transfiguration which occurs right before he turns toward Jerusalem and certain death). And this incarnated, physical manifestation of the Holy Spirit, described as being ‘like a dove’ is unique and appears in all four of the Gospels only during Jesus’ baptism.
Something big is going on here, bigger than the forgiveness of sins because what would Jesus need forgiving of anyway? And also, given that all these things are happening in this scene (the dove, the voice, the heavens opening up), it seems to me that the text is trying to tell us that something more is happening than just forgiveness.
When we consider this scene of Jesus’ baptism, perhaps we might look at it as offering us a vision of a new way of looking at baptism beyond a simple washing away of sin; in the story of me being baptized with the wrong name, what my childhood friend articulated is a theological view of baptism that is pretty common I think: that baptism is a gateway to salvation, that through baptism we become beloved of God.
But today’s Gospel story points to something else I think. I think it suggests that rather than being primarily about forgiveness, baptism is primarily about relationship. It is about our relationship with God and our relationship with the Church and our relationship with each other. This scene in Matthew seems organized around the concept of relationship; this is the ONLY time in the Gospels that all three members of the Trinity are present together. God is naming and claiming Jesus in baptism through the Holy Spirit and God is naming and claiming us baptism too.
And God’s claim on us flows from an abundant, powerful and overflowing love that surrounds us and cascades over us in the way the way the water hit my head and made me catch my breath that afternoon in seminary when David poured bowlfuls of water over my head in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I know this was not a ‘proper’ baptism, David was not ordained and I had already been baptized, but the way that water shook me and the feel of the oil cascading down my face were absolutely a sign of God’s abundant love. As one commentator suggested, God does not forgive us to make us beloved, we are already beloved so God forgives us. In baptism God claims us as God’s own.
In a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows. For those of us who have been baptized, it is a chance to once again remember what it means to be claimed God’s Beloved in the waters of Baptism. For those who have not been baptized, it is a window into what this baptism thing is all about.
And one of the things I appreciate about our Baptismal vows is that they are framed as a covenant. And that language is intentional. A covenant is about relationship. In our baptism God welcomes us as God’s beloved child and we respond by sharing meals and prayers, by resisting evil, by proclaiming the Good News we have found in Christ, by loving our neighbors as ourselves, and by recognizing the dignity of every human being and working for justice and peace in a world that desperately needs it.
God spoke to Jesus that day when he was baptized in the River Jordan and named Jesus Beloved in front of all who were gathered there.
Just as God spoke to Jesus through the sacrament of baptism, so God speaks to us through the sacraments we share here in this place.
God speaks to us through wine.
God speaks to us through bread.
God speaks to us through oil.
God speaks to us through water.
God speaks to us and says “You are my child, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”