Sunday, February 20, 2005

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

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

It would be very easy to write several sermons based just on the Gospel lesson for this day. It reads almost like a list of the most important things Jesus ever said.

“Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

“That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

“The wind bloweth where it will, and thou hearest the voice thereof, but knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

“We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and ye receive not our witness.”

“And no one hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man, who is in heaven.”

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth may in him have eternal life.”

“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.”

“For God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world; but that the world should be saved through him.”

Each one of these statements has a powerful message for us today and for us particularly in this season of Lent. They speak of transformation, renewal, the deeper things of God, the witness of Christ in the world and faith. Each one brings to mind a message that could easily make a sermon for this coming Sunday. Unfortunately, we don’t have a month of Sundays to expound upon this text, so we either need to focus on the story or we need to find the message that is woven in the midst of all our texts for today.

We begin the readings with the Old Testament story of Abraham, who is still called Abram at this point in the story. He is living with his family – his father, wife, nephew and all that they had. It was probably a comfortable life for that age.

The book of Acts tells us, “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said unto him, Get thee out of thy land, and from thy kindred, and come into the land which I shall show thee.” (Acts 7:2-3, ASV) We read in Genesis that Abraham’s father Terah set out with Abram to go to Canaan, but they settled in Haran. The move may have been precipitated by the call from God, but Terah refused to go beyond his comfort zone. He stopped short of the journey by settling in a place where he could continue to live according to the ways of his fathers, a place that worshipped the same god – a moon god.

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

Worship in Abram’s world was filled with idol worship, gods that could be carved out of stone and wood. They sought the blessings of the gods, hoped that they would appreciate their worship and give them everything they needed to survive. It was a hope that had no basis in truth; there was no relationship between these idols and the people who served them. It could be 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.

They were gods that never talked back, no matter how hard the faithful prayed. I imagine it was somewhat shocking to poor Abram to suddenly hear that voice. Yet, despite the difficulty of this calling and any uncertainty about the identity of the voice, Abram obeyed. He left his country, his people and his father’s house to follow a calling into an unknown world.

He began his journey with his wife, his nephew and their entire household, which included servants, possessions and livestock. It was a permanent journey. It was not just some pilgrimage into the wilderness to discover his identity; it was the beginning of a whole new nation. This nation would be set apart for a purpose, 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 they could find rest and refreshment. The sun beat harshly on their bodies by day and the cool of the night brought its own dangers. Thieves, wild animals and a lack of water was constantly a risk. They were vulnerable but Abram had heard a voice he trusted and he was going to follow the voice despite the dangers.

The psalmist understood the fears of the journey and the assurance found in God’s grace. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: From whence shall my help come? My help cometh from Jehovah, Who made heaven and earth.” His question is answered with the assurance that God will keep his going out and coming in from this time on forevermore. Such a promise would give anyone the confidence to go forth into the unknown. Somehow Abram must have had such assurance, a seed of faith or a flicker of the Spirit. He could journey forward with confidence if he knew that the God who was leading him into the unknown could guard and protect him through every difficulty.

The psalmist writes, “The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.” If we consider the world which Abram left behind, we can see that this is an even greater promise than just protection from the heat of the day or the cool of the night. The gods 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. Yet, trust in God gives us the assurance that those gods have no power over our lives.

The confidence with which Abram entered into his journey required seeing the world through the eyes of faith. Abraham 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. Abraham was made the father of many nations by the one in whom He believed – as Paul writes, “even God, who giveth life to the dead, and calleth the things that are not, as though they were.” The God of Abraham, the God in whom we too believe, brought a nation out of one man who walked in faith.

As we turn back to the Gospel narrative about Nicodemus, we can see that there must have been a similar seed of faith or flicker of the Spirit in the heart of this Pharisee. It is easy for us to get caught up in seeing the negative aspects of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus. He came at night, he questioned Jesus’ words. Yet, Nicodemus did not come asking questions or testing Jesus, he came because he had seen something that he wanted to understand.

Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him.” This is a confession of faith, however shallow it might be. There is something there in Nicodemus’ heart and he went on a journey – a frightful pilgrimage because he was going into the unknown – to find out more. In the end, this journey leads people into a new life, a life of faith.

Though I have always seen Jesus’ answer as a challenge to his assertion, I realized as I read this passage yesterday that Jesus confirms Nicodemus’ confession of faith. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus has seen the kingdom of God, even though at this point he does not fully understand what it means. Even in the later stories of Nicodemus, we do not see someone who is passionate about his faith, but Nicodemus is quietly faithful in the trial against his Lord and as he helped put Jesus into the tomb.

The conversation continues as Jesus tries to explain the deeper things of God. He tells Nicodemus about new birth and about the anointing of the Spirit of God, but he can’t seem to see these things through his eyes that have been conditioned by his religious understanding and the culture in which he lives. To him, birth happens once and righteousness comes from the law. He knows Jesus has come from God but he can’t understand the deeper purposes of His life and His future death. Jesus points to the cross in this passage, telling this Pharisee that He would be lifted up in death to bring life for those who believe. It is no wonder that Nicodemus was confused; this was a very radical revelation for the Jews.

The Jews may not have worshipped the gods of their neighbors, but they had created a different kind of god in their religious life. To them, the Law was the road to righteousness and the thought that eternal life could come simply by faith went against their entire understanding of God. They saw God through the eyes of the world and Jesus came to show them the world through they eyes of faith. They rested on their ancestry as children of Abraham, yet they did not truly understand the promise in which they were living.

How easy it is to look at the promise found in today’s Old Testament lesson and yet miss the most important part of the message. God promised to bless Abraham and his descendents and to curse their enemies, how we love to live in such a promise. It is the same message in the Psalm for today – 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 the 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 a truly radical change in the way we see things in our world today. 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, put in many hours at the office, perhaps we deserve to have the nice house and the car based on our productivity. Yet, this message of faith 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 also have to admit that there are times I have refused, thinking that the task was useless – that person does not want to hear what I have to say or take what I have to give, 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 what happened to him beyond the words given in the scriptures. So, too, are many of the people that cross our path. With our worldly eyes we see unbelievers who don’t care about God, they may even seem to be challenging to our faith with their questions and their doubts. Yet, when we look with the eyes of faith, we may see that there is a 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. Thanks be to god.

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