Sunday, February 17, 2008

Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

… and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

God invited Abraham on a journey. Abram, as he was known at this point in the story, was the son of Terah. Terah was an offspring of Shem who was a son of Noah. Generations lived between Noah and Abram, but the genealogy shows us the ongoing and growing relationship between God and His people. Abram married Sarai, but Sarai was barren. Terah took his entire family from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan, but in Haran Terah decided to stay. Terah was willing to move from his homeland, but he was not willing to go beyond the borders of comfort. The people of Haran lived the same lives as Terah and worshipped the same gods.

God’s invitation to Abram required more than a brief journey to a similar place. God told Abram to leave his country, his people and his father’s household. He was not just called to go on a journey, but to give up everything he knew and loved. He was called to go to an unknown place, to face an unknown people for a promise from an unknown God.

The people in Abram’s world worshipped idols. The idols were gods carved out of stone or wood. The people sought the blessings of the gods. They hoped the gods would appreciate their worship and give them everything they needed to survive. It was a hope with no basis in the truth; there was no relationship between these idols and the people who served them. They were gods that never talked back, no matter how hard the faithful prayed. The people never knew what the gods would do. They had no assurance that their worship would bring blessings and they assumed that catastrophe was the angry response of their gods to some transgression, often unidentifiable. It was a frightening and superstitious way of living because they never knew what might set off the wrath of the gods or when they might strike.

Despite the difficulties of pagan worship, it was the life in which Terah and Abram lived. It was what they knew. The unknown is far more frightening than the life to which we have become accustomed. Abram had little against which to measure the words of this God. Perhaps he’d heard stories of the great flood and the man named Noah who heard the voice of God commanding him to build a boat. Perhaps he was familiar with the idea of the God we’ve come to know, but He was not yet part of the language of religion. The world was a small place and the gods were small gods.

The LORD invited Abram on a journey. Despite the difficulty of this calling, the uncertainty and the ridiculousness of the promise, Abram obeyed. He left his country, his people and his father’s house to follow the voice of an unknown God calling him into an unknown world. He began his journey with his wife, his nephew and his entire household. He took everything with him. It was a permanent journey. It was not a pilgrimage into the wilderness to discover his identity. It was the beginning of a new nation. The nation would be set apart for a purpose; they would be blessed to be a blessing.

It could not have been an easy journey. They did not have cars, six lane highways or service areas every few miles where the travelers could find rest and refreshment. The sun beat harshly on their bodies by day and the cool of the light brought other dangers. They were vulnerable, but Abram trusted the voice that he heard and he went forth in faith. Though the psalm for today had not yet been written, we can imagine Abram singing a similar song along his journey.

The psalm is the song of a pilgrim. Pilgrimages were difficult. The pilgrims in David’s day would have also had to travel on foot. There were few hotel rooms available along the path. The roads were dangerous. Thieves and murderers waited around every bend for the perfect victim. The heat of the day and the cold of the night made for difficult travel. No gas stations with mini-marts were set up along the way to offer a cool drink or a restroom. The wilderness is filled with wild animals. Stinging insects and hungry predators provided yet another danger to the traveler.

It is no wonder that the pilgrims sought some comfort in their faith in God. He was not far; He was watching them along the way. It is silly, but as I was reading this psalm, I was reminded of the children’s Christmas song, “Santa Claus is coming to town.” The song begins, “You better watch out. You better not cry, better not pout I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.” This image of an old guy in a bright red fur suit is meant to keep children on their best behavior so that they won’t miss out on the gifts that Santa might bring. Only the good little children will get presents under the tree on Christmas morning, so he watches every moment to see if the children are good or bad.

Some people have a similar image of God. I just finished an historical fiction novel that is written from the perspective of a warrior in Saxon England who, though his mother was a Christian, decided to worship the gods of the Danes. He saw Christianity as a religion of rules, the Lord as a god whose purpose is to punish wrongdoers. The type of Christianity practiced in his day probably made the Lord look like that kind of god. The same is true today in many churches. Our God is not about love in the pink hearts and syrupy emotions of Valentine’s Day, but He is about love. The kind of love He gives is found in mercy and forgiveness. There is room for the rules, but there is even more room for grace.

It is made even more difficult when we consider stories like the one found in Numbers 21 which is referenced in today’s Gospel lesson. Moses was leading the Israelites through the wilderness, but the people grew impatient. They were wandering in circles. They were far from the life they had known in Egypt and did not seem to be getting anywhere. They began to complain. “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.” God answered their complaints by sending venomous snakes among them. Many died from their bites. I suppose it is stories like this that make some people dislike the Old Testament. What sort of loving God would do such a thing?

The people had turned away from God, no longer trusting the work He was doing in their life. They doubted His faithfulness; they spoke against Him in their complaints. They despised God’s grace. The attack of the snakes helped them to see the error of their ways. Snakes bit and they repented. They went to Moses and confessed their sin.

The people needed to look to God again, to be reminded of His grace. So, God commanded Moses to create a bronze snake to lift high in the camp. All who looked upon that snake were saved. The very thing that was killing them was the sign of their salvation. God so loved the Israelites that He sent that snake to be lifted among them, so that all who believed and looked toward it would be saved. Sound familiar? God could have simply sent the snakes away. He could have killed the snakes. He could have made them unable to bit or the poison to be useless. He gave them a sign of His grace so that they would look toward it—Him—and be saved.

It is so easy to preach on that one timeless verse in this Gospel lesson. John 3:16 is recognized the world over. Anyone who has ever seen a football game on television has seen signs raised above the crowds beseeching people to believe in God. Even if they can’t quote the verse word-for-word, they know what it says. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish but have eternal life.” I’ve known pastors who have inserted this verse into many of their sermons even when it is not part of the lessons for the day because it means so much to them.

It is a favorite passage because it shows both the Gospel and our response. God loves and if we believe, we will not die. It is easier when we have some control over our life. We would rather stay in a world we understand worshipping small gods than leave our comfort zone to follow the voice of an unknown God.

However, John 3:16 is just part of the story. John continues, “For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.” We like to think of God in terms of love, and love He is. However, love does not save us. Love is the reason why we are saved, but it is not our salvation. Forgiveness saves us. We also like to think in terms of our response, but God’s grace is not determined by our faith. God’s plan is not “believe or die.” He means to save the world.

God forgives. God forgives because He loves, but love is not the foundation of our faith. We are saved by God’s mercy, by His forgiveness. Nicodemus went to Jesus in darkness, seeking answers to the questions of his heart. There was something about Jesus, but Nicodemus was afraid. What did it all mean? What was He saying? Nicodemus was a teacher. He was responsible for the spiritual lives of the people, yet he could not understand what Jesus was saying. Nicodemus understood the Law. He understood the things he could grasp and the things that he could do.

It is easier to respond to God’s word than it is to accept His grace. How can we be certain? The Israelites got tired, scared, and hungry and then they began to doubt. During our own wilderness journeys we also get tired, scared and hungry. We complain. We doubt. We look away from God and try to make our own way. But God has given us His Son, lifted on a pole, so that we can see our sin and remember His grace. There, on the cross that seems to defy love, we see God’s forgiveness and our salvation.

Paul reminds us about more of Abraham’s story. In Genesis 15, God answered Abram’s concerns with a promise. Abram was afraid that he would never have any offspring to inherit his estate. He was already making plans to give it to a servant. God said, “Look now toward heaven, and number the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.” It was an amazing promise, especially since Abram and Sarai were well beyond child-bearing years and Sarai was barren. Yet, Abram believed the LORD, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

Imagine what it must have been like for Abram that night when God promised him offspring that would outnumber the stars. It might not seem so amazing as we go out and look at the night sky polluted with the lights of our cities. We see only a few dozen stars when we look up at night. Abraham, however, was in the wilderness, thousands of years before electricity and far from the modern light pollution that has hidden the stars from our vision. The sky he saw had so many stars that it would have been impossible for him to count.

The righteousness of Abram was not an indication of good works or right living because there not yet the Law. He was righteous because he was living in a right relationship with God, dwelling in His presence. His faith was not in the promise but in the LORD who made the promise. The promise itself was ridiculous, but God is faithful. So, Abraham had faith in God; he had faith in the presence of God. Abraham did not see the fulfillment of the promise. He did see the seed—the birth of a son. In that son he saw the promise of more, but his faith was in God.

I wonder how often Abraham doubted the promise he received in Genesis 15? Abraham did try to take matters into his own hands, seeking a child through Sarah’s maidservant Hagar. Sarah laughed when the LORD said to Abraham that she would bear a child. Did Abraham also wonder at the ridiculousness of that statement? Yet, through it all, Abraham lived in the presence of God, and that is righteousness

The confidence with which Abram entered into his journey required seeing the world through the eyes of faith. The gods of his day were given a great deal of power—everything was credited to them. Famine or flood meant that the people had not done the works required of them by the gods. Trust in God gives us assurance that those gods have no power over our lives. On hearing God’s voice, Abram saw things differently and he left his old life to follow God into something new. Paul writes, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness.” He was not blessed because he was doing the right things or because he was obeying the right laws. Abram was blessed because he believed God and followed His voice. The God of Abraham, the same God we worship today, brought a nation out of one man who walked in faith.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God promised to bless Abram and his descendents and to curse their enemies. How we love to live in such a promise. It is the same message found in today’s Psalm—God will protect you from all harm. Yet, the promise does not end with the person to whom it was given. God added, “…and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” Abraham was blessed to be a blessing. Israel was blessed to be a blessing. We are blessed to be a blessing.

This is radically different than the worldly view by which we live. We look at our life, with all the good things we have and we think, “I worked hard for all this.” We do work hard at our jobs and perhaps we deserve to have the nice house and the car parked in our driveway. Yet, the voice of God calls us to look at these things with a new vision, through eyes of faith. How different would our life be if we woke up every morning and said, “God, everything I have is yours, lead me to use it for your glory.” Instead we wake up grumbling that we have to go to work to earn the money to maintain the lifestyle we have created for ourselves and we do not see the opportunities that God presents to us daily to live in faith.

Those opportunities might include journeying into the unknown. As a military wife I know what it is like to have to pick up my life and move it across the world. I have to admit that there have been assignments that I did not want to take, places I did not want to go. I have often wondered what purpose God could intend for that time and place and I’ve left wondering if I even accomplished the work He has sent me to do. I confess that there were times when I failed or refused, thinking that the task was pointless—why should I bother?

But Jesus calls us to look at the world through the eyes of faith. We have been blessed to be a blessing and so we go forth in faith to share God’s kingdom with the world. We may see our neighbors as Nicodemus, doubtful and confused, but Jesus sees them differently. He knows there is a seed to be watered or a spark to be fanned and He sends us out to make that faith grow. We may never see the fulfillment of our work. Abraham certainly didn’t. His ancestors did not inherit the land promised to Abraham until four hundred years after Abraham died, yet he continued to walk in faith. The scriptures are not clear about what happened to Nicodemus, we don’t know the end of his story. The same is true about many of the people that cross our path. With our worldly eyes we see unbelievers who don’t care about God. They may even challenge our faith with their questions and their doubts. Yet, when we continue to dwell in God’s presence, He gives us the eyes to see with faith and we may just see that seed or spark that needs only to be nurtured by the Gospel and the grace of God in our lives to grow into real faith.

We have been blessed to be a blessing and called to look at the world in a new way. We need not worry that this journey is dangerous – for God is with us in it. He will keep our going out and coming in from this time on forevermore.

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