Genesis 11:27 – 12:9

Romans 4: 13-25 (excerpted)

Felicity Wright

June 5, 2005



Now Sarai was barren.  Perhaps you’re curious why I chose that title.  It’s there in verse 30 of chapter 11 of Genesis:  “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.”  Even if you have a sense of where I’m headed, I doubt that you fully recognize the power of that short verse. 


Short sentences are powerful ones; think of John 11:35 “Jesus wept.”  This one: “now Sarai was barren; she had no child” is fully as significant, as laden with emotion, as “Jesus wept.”  It signals a dramatic – and I mean a really dramatic – change.  Jesus wept when he got to Lazarus too late to cure him.  And what followed was the beginning of the end – or might it have been the end of the beginning? – for Jesus.  Because Jesus’ raising of Lazarus caused  the authorities to look for ways to bring him down.  Perhaps “Jesus wept” because the crucifixion would soon follow.  “Now Sarai was barren.”  Something dramatic and unexpected is about to happen.  It’s transition time.


Later, we’ll understand its importance.  Later, God will change their names from Abram (which means father) to Abraham (father of a great multitude) and Sarai (meaning princess) to Sarah (mother of a multitude).  But right now, Abram is a father-in-waiting and Sarai is the princess without progeny.   And it’s been going on like this for decades, so we figure they will go to their graves childless, leaving what they have to their nephew Lot. 


Sarai is barren.  The future holds nothing.  The Biblical litany of the generations after Noah – all those names of who begat whom – have come down to Abram and Sarai.  And Sarai is barren.  It’s a dead end.


We’ve known for almost a year that Chris and Dave Rider would be moving to Oregon in early June.  We tried to avoid it – like all bad news, we thought it might go away of its own accord if we didn’t pay it any mind.  And some of us have known for a few months that Bill and Abbie Laurie were exploring retirement communities, some of which were out of the area. 


But we weren’t prepared for this.  We weren’t prepared for the anguish, the emptiness, the – do I say it – barrenness – of having the Riders and the Lauries leave on the same day.  We weren’t prepared for the hurt of losing friends who mean so much.  The Lauries and Riders are icons in the church – when you say the words “Arlington Community Church,” folks automatically think “Oh yes, Chris and Dave Rider, and Bill and Abbie Laurie.”  Yes, there are plenty of other “icons” that people think of, but the Riders and the Lauries have always been among those stalwarts who represented us to the community.  People connect them with this church the way people connect the Revolutionary War with George Washington, or the Civil War with Abraham Lincoln.  We’re talking about people who are institutions, who represent in a small way what we are in a big way.   And now, they’re leaving us.  Will we ever be made whole again?


And it’s not over.  In the near future – after a wonderful ordination service that is now in the planning stages – Michelle Webber will take Jerri Lane and Mark and head off to Los Altos, to serve a church there.  The chortle of the toddler – or at least of that toddler, whom we’ve known since before she was born – will no longer be heard in the land.  And soon the Mays will be heading to Santa Barbara.  And the Odlins are building a new home in the mountains.  And Bob Williams, a member for 49 years, died last week. 


Now Sarai was barren…


This passage about the commissioning (or call) of Abram is one of the most powerful stories in the Hebrew Bible, and deservedly so.  It may be more significant than Noah’s flood and it is certainly more important than the tower of Babel.  Understandably, people focus more on call of Abram than the impotence (hear that: impotence, not importance) of Sarai.  She was impotent, she was useless.  She was not important.


Stepping back, let’s look at the bigger picture.  Until this passage, the Bible told of the history of humanity.  We heard about the beginnings of human history, including the explanation of God’s curse against humanity.  That curse began with the Garden of Eden, continued with Cain’s murder of Abel, progressed through Noah’s flood, and culminated in the story of the tower of Babel.  God’s curse made sense, for people had shown themselves to be stupid, selfish, and senseless.  So, after the wonderful creation stories, we get an assortment of sad dramas about human weakness and divine anger.


Until now.  Until the call of Abram.  This call to Abram to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you” is a major turning point in the Bible.  We transition from history of curse to the history of blessing, specifically the history of God’s blessing on the people of Israel. 


But it doesn’t make any sense!  At least, with the history of God’s curse, we understood why – human arrogance, greed, stupidity.  But there’s no precedence for God’s blessing on Abram.  Sure, Abram seems to be a nice guy, but at the outset, all we know is that he was Terah’s son and that his wife Sarai was barren.  That’s it.  There might have been hundreds or thousands of other folks just like Abram, but, for some God-only-knows reason, God chose Abram. 


And Abram didn’t say, “Huh?” Abram said, “Yes.” 

He didn’t say “No way.”  He said, “Yes.” 

He didn’t say, “Give me a sign.”  He said, “Yes.”


The curious thing is that God’s call and God’s promise are the same thing.  They are like yin and yang, or an interwoven double helix.  You don’t get the one without the other.  God called Abram to go forth – perhaps a thousand miles of walking through dangerous territory, at the same time that God promised a multitude of heirs.   But this so-called promise came without explanation, without justification, and without assurance.   Would any of us say “yes” to God under such circumstances?


All three of the monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – consider Abram as their father in faith, and it all begins with this passage.  First, “the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred…” and then, a few verses later, the simple explanation, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…”  Along the way – with his nephew Lot and his wife Sarai – they built altars to God and invoked the name of the Lord.”  In doing so, Abram was saying to God that “You are in control,” or, to use more familiar terms, “Hallowed be they name” and “Thy will be done.”


Here’s the key: God’s promise came first.  Abram had done nothing to deserve it.  Abram wasn’t a good man; he wasn’t a bad man.  But once the promise came, Abram concurred.  


But it wasn’t just like saying “OK,” it was saying “I will radically change my life in order to honor my God.”   Hear this, please.  Abram essentially said: “I will radically change my life in order to honor my God.”


Yes, God’s promise was offered, but it might have been ignored or rejected.   God’s promise required Abram’s radical turning away – technically repentance – from the path of his own choosing to the new path of God’s choosing.  How many people might have continued on their own paths and walked away from God?  Most of us, I fear.


It is not for nothing that Abram is called the father of our faith and the archetypical disciple.  This is because Abram was on pilgrimage – a pilgrimage of faith – a pilgrimage of promise.  A pilgrimage that intertwined Abram’s faith with God’s promise. 


Not unlike Chris and Dave Rider and Bill and Abbie Laurie.  They are pilgrims to a new land – one that is not entirely of their choosing, because it takes them from some of their family and some of their loved ones (namely us).   They’re headed to new locations where there are other loved ones, but it is not an easy or carefree move.  They are sad.  We are sad.  They feel called by God to leave this place and travel to a new place, and they are saying “Yes” because they hear God’s voice and can see the promise of the new land.  But they are still leaving the places of comfort and satisfaction.  They are sad.  We are sad. 


Now Sarai was barren.  She was sad. 

Abram was childless.  He was sad.


Sure, we feel sadness for the Riders and the Lauries as they travel to parts north and east, but mostly we feel sad for ourselves.   We feel barren.  We worry about the future of this church.   Like Sarai, we’re inclined to feel old, and tired, and barren.   There’s no life left in us.  How can we possible give birth to anything new?


But listen up, my friends; hear the words from Genesis and hear the awe in St. Paul words as he recounts the power of Abram’s faith.  It’s OK to feel old, tired, and barren.  In fact, that’s they key.  Barrenness is the fertile ground for the promise.  Consider all of the barren women in the Bible – in addition to Sarai, Rebecca, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth were also barren – at first.  So much of the life force of God begins with a woman who is barren.  God’s promise is not the first step.  No, it is barrenness that becomes the arena for God’s life-giving action. This stony soil becomes the bedrock for God’s good news.  It happens over and over again.


So hear the story of salvation in 35 words:


  1. Sarai was barren. 
  2. God came to Abram with an unbelievable challenge-promise. 
  3. Abram said “yes” and set the standard for discipleship in three separate faiths. 
  4. God was happy and God’s people prospered.


Barrenness, my friends, is the fertile ground upon which the seeds of faith spread into bloom.  All of us – the Riders, the Lauries, and the members of this church – are being asked to follow God into uncertain and unfamiliar places.  We are being asked to follow the call into disquieting places, wilderness places.   Yes, it will test our faith and our resources. 


But, remember this: God made of Abram and Sarai a great nation, with multitudes upon multitudes.  God spoke and Abram followed.  God spoke and a great nation was born.  And now, my friends, as we grieve the loss of dear friends, let us never forget that God is still speaking.  The promise is out there, waiting for our acceptance.  God is still speaking, honoring our barrenness and calling for us to venture into the wilderness to a new promised land. 


The trick is faith.  That’s all that God asks, and it’s all that Abram delivered.  That is all that God is asking of the Riders and the Lauries, as they go to spread the good news of Jesus in foreign lands, and it is all that God is asking of us.


Let us, like Abram, say “yes,” remembering that, in God’s lexicon, barrenness is not the last word; it is the first word.