Sunday, March 8, 2020,

Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-9
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-8, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Yahweh will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time forward, and forever more.

I went camping with my Girl Scout troop when I was a teenager. We went to a camp in a state park a few hours from our home. It was a nice park with amazing waterfalls and exhausting hikes. Our camp was at the top of the mountain, near the beginning of the string of waterfalls. We had some rain that weekend, rain that nearly washed our tents down the mountain. But the rain passed and we were able to do our hike the next day. That night we were exhausted from the climb back up the hill and the lack of sleep the night before. However, we could not help but stop and stare at the sky. We were amazed; it was so full of stars that it was difficult to distinguish between the stars and it was impossible to count them. As city girls, we were not used to seeing so many stars.

We returned home and the sky never looked the same. Like the girl in the movie, I wondered if the stars were still there. They were; they were the same stars that Abraham saw that night so long ago when God promised him more offspring than he could count in Genesis 15. I understood this promise much better after my night on the mountain. There would have been so many stars that it would have been impossible for him to count.

It was an amazing promise, especially since Abraham and Sarah were well beyond child-bearing years. Abraham believed the LORD, and it was credited to him as righteousness. That righteousness was not an indication of good works or right living; the Law of Moses had not yet been written. 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, though he did see the seed in the birth of his son. In that son he saw the promise of more, but his faith was always in God.

Todayís Old Testament lesson shows Abrahamís faith long before the promise in Chapter 15. He was still called Abram, still lived under the faith of his forefathers. The LORD God Almighty was unknown to him and his family.

Abram lived with his extended family in Mesopotamia; he had great wealth with servants, flocks, and many material possessions. He worshipped the local gods with the rest of his family and friends. Life was pretty good for Abram. One day the LORD spoke to Abram, which must have been a very strange experience for him. The gods they worshipped had no voice, no form except that which were created by human hands. This strange voice told Abram to leave his home and go to an unknown land. The voice promised Abram many blessings: he would become a great nation and be blessed, his name would be great and he would be a blessing, all those who bless him will be blessed and those who curse him would be cursed. The greatest promise reached far beyond Abram himself: the entire world would be blessed through him.

We also see Abrahamís faith when God sent him to the altar of sacrifice with his son Isaac. Isaac was the seed of the fulfillment of the promise, the first of a long line of offspring that would be beyond number. Yet, Abraham obediently took Isaac, knowing that God would provide the sacrifice. God had provided the son, He would provide whatever was needed to fulfill the promise.

These amazing stories show us a man who believed and trusted God, but Abrahamís faith began and His life was changed when he believed that strange voice that came to him out of the blue. Would you decide to leave everything you know behind to follow God into the unknown?

Abram was seventy-five years old, childless except for his brotherís son for whom Abram took responsibility when his brother died. He was married, but his wife was assumed barren since she had not borne him any children. He had a life in the land where he lived and though the scriptures do not tell us, he was probably not unhappy with his circumstances. Yet, he listened to the voice and obeyed the call.

This was certainly not an easy trip. Abram, Sarai and Lot traveled many miles with a large contingent of people, animals, and things. He did not pack a small bag and set out alone into this adventure, but took all that he had with him, praising God every step of the way. He knew nothing of the voice that spoke to him and he would not see the fulfillment of all the promises. That is faith. His faith is credited to him as righteousness.

We like to believe that we would do so, especially those of us who have been actively living our faith for a long time. Yet, I suspect most of us would be a bit more like Nicodemus.

We hear about Nicodemus three times in the book of John. Todayís Gospel lesson is the first. In the second story, which is found in John 7, the chief priests and the Pharisees were concerned about the way Jesus was speaking in the Temple. They sent officers to arrest Him. Some believed His words and others rejected them. Even the officers were divided. They went back to the chief priests and Pharisees without Him and when questioned said, ďNo man ever spoke like this man!Ē The leaders wondered if the officers had even been led astray. Nicodemus stepped up and said, ďDoes our law judge a man, unless it first hears from him personally and knows what he does?Ē They called Nicodemus foolish. ďAre you also from Galilee? Search, and see that no prophet has arisen out of Galilee.Ē

Nicodemus did not confess faith in Jesus. He didnít even claim to believe Him. He did, however, act as an advocate. It isnít fair to condemn a man on the word of witnesses alone. He simply wanted the leaders to hear Jesus and judge for themselves.

Finally, Nicodemus made one last appearance. In John 19, after Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathaea sought permission to take down the body and have it entombed. Nicodemus also went and took a large amount of myrrh and aloes for preparing the body.

Each time Nicodemus is mentioned, John notes that this was the man who first went to Jesus at night. Had Nicodemus found the light? Did he believe? Did he ever truly confess his faith in Jesus? He never does so in words, but he seems to do so in action. We are left wondering about his faith. In time, Nicodemus was made a saint. There is an apocryphal gospel attributed to him. It is likely that he believed, but we canít know for sure without a public confession.

There was a time when this distinction became very important. Things were difficult for Christians in the middle ages. There were times, particularly in English history, when the dominant Church switched between Catholic and Protestant for many years. Unfortunately, those who followed ďthe other religionĒ (whichever it might be) often risked severe punishment. Many martyrs were made in those days. At the time, a disparaging term came into use, thought to have been introduced by John Calvin. It was the term ďNicodemiteĒ which referred to someone who is suspected of misrepresenting their actual religious beliefs by exhibiting false appearances and concealing true beliefs. Calvin considered a lack of public confession and act of duplicity; he originally used the word referred to hidden Protestants in a Catholic environment, but it was later used in opposite cases.

So, are you a Nicodemite? Are you one who believes but you would rather not take the risk by making too public a confession of your faith? Do you seek Jesus in the dark, or perhaps on Sunday morning, but keep Him hidden from the rest of your life? Do you quietly serve Jesus in the background while never really being seen as an active, faithful disciple? I think many of us can say ďYesĒ to these questions. Perhaps you are as troubled by them as I am. Do I really have to wear my faith on my sleeve to be a faithful Christian?

There are certainly those who are more than willing to make a public confession. Anyone who has ever seen a football game on television has seen signs saying ďJohn 3:16Ē raised above the crowds beseeching people to believe in God; this timeless verse is recognized the world over. Even if they canít quote the verse word-for-word, non-Christians know what the sign means. It is the foundation of our faith. ďFor God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.Ē This is a favorite verse of many Christians.

This is a favorite passage because it shows both Godís gospel and manís response. God loves and if we believe, we will not die. Yet, John 3:16 should not be taken without verse 17. ďFor God didnít send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.Ē We like to think of God in terms of love, and love He is. However, it is not love that saves us. Love is the reason why we are saved, but it is not our salvation. Forgiveness saves us.

In Numbers 21, 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. ďWhy have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, there is no water, and our soul loathes this disgusting food!Ē 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 Godís 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. Could it really have been that easy? They were wandering through the desert, a desert undoubtedly filled with poisonous creatures. The people probably saw them constantly, but the creatures did not attack. When they complained, God lifted His hand of protection from their presence. The snakes that were held at bay by Godís grace were free to do what they do naturally. The people needed to look to God again, to seek His grace.

God commanded Moses to create a bronze snake to lift high in the camp. All who looked upon that snake were saved. 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 venom to be non-poisonous. He gave them a sign of His grace so that they would look toward it and be saved.

God forgives. God forgives because He loves, but love is not the foundation of our faith. We are saved by Godís 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 Godís 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 Godís forgiveness and our salvation.

It is an odd time of year to think about it, but this psalm reminded me of a childrenís Christmas song. You know the one, ďYou better watch out. You better not cry, better not pout I'm telling you why. Santa Claus is coming to town.Ē We have this image of an old guy in a bright red furry costume watching our every move. His purpose is to find out if we are being bad or good. Only the good little children will get presents under the tree on Christmas morning, so he has to know at every moment if those children are good or bad.

I suppose some people have a similar image of God. There are many non-Christians, and even a few Christians, who see Christianity as a religion of rules and the Lord as a god whose purpose is to punish wrongdoers. Some types of Christianity throughout history have made Him seem that way. Our God is not about love in the pink hearts and syrupy emotions of Valentineís 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.

When I read through todayís psalm, I was reminded of that creepy image of Santa Claus watching every movement of all the children. But the psalm is really the song of a pilgrim. Pilgrimages were difficult. Iíve taken enough road trips to know how much trouble you can expect along the road. Iíve had to deal with blown tires, construction, traffic jams, being lost, horrible hotels, dirty restrooms. I could go on. Sometimes it is necessary to drive long distances in one day to get to the destination. No matter how exhausted and frustrated we might become, our journeys are always much easier than it was for the pilgrims in times past.

The pilgrims in Davidís day would have 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 wildlife; 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. He cared, not like Santa who looks for obedience to laws, but because He always wants the best for His people of faith.

Paul tells us that we donít receive the gracious gifts of God because we deserve them. We canít trust enough, believe enough, work enough to deserve Godís blessing. We donít deserve heaven. We donít deserve the gifts that God gives. If we deserved these things, if we have done something to earn them, then they arenít gifts. But we receive heaven and Godís blessings because He has offered them to us and we believe Him. Thatís righteousness; we arenít righteous because weíve done something or because we are somebody who deserves what God has given. We are righteous because we trust in God and believe what He has said.

Jesus never said weíd be blessed for our works. We are blessed because of faith. Abraham was given an incredible promise, one that is beyond anything we might expect. He was promised that his name would be great and that his offspring would become a great nation. To see the fulfillment of this promise, Abram had to leave everything he knew and loved behind and trust in Godís Word. He did not deserve what would come. As a matter of fact, he did not even see the fulfillment himself. But his offspring did. They received the promise because God is faithful. And we receive the same promise because God is faithful.

Godís promises were misunderstood by Jesusí time. Instead of trusting in God, the people trusted in their own righteousness. They believed that they deserved the blessings they received from God. They boasted of their relationship with God based on who they were and what they did. They believed that they were right with God because they could point to a blood relationship with Abraham, but they lost touch with the reality of Godís grace.

Nicodemus knew there was something to what Jesus was preaching, but he didnít understand it. He knew Jesus came from God, but he didnít have the heart connection. His faith was still in himself, his family ties and his position. He confessed faith in Jesus, but Jesus knew that it was not complete, that it was upside down and backwards thinking.

Jesus answered his confession, ďMost certainly, I tell you, unless one is born anew, he canít see Godís Kingdom.Ē Jesus was talking about faith. He was telling Nicodemus that faith had nothing to do with the ties that bind us to the earth. You have to be born again, in heart and in spirit.

The conversation continued as Jesus tried to explain the deeper things of God. He told Nicodemus about new birth and about the anointing of the Spirit of God, but he couldnít see these things beyond the thinking that had been conditioned by his religious and cultural point of view. To him, birth happens once and righteousness comes from the law. He knew Jesus came from God but he couldnít understand the deeper purposes of His life and His future death. Jesus pointed 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.

It is still a radical revelation for many people. We still believe that weíll get the blessing of God based on our works, our attitude, and our qualifications. When we say, ďShe (or he) deserves to be blessed,Ē we are thinking from the same frame of reference as those Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. We speak of our loved ones deserving heaven because we know they lived good lives and done the right things. We pray for our neighbors to be blessed because they are good people who have done rightly. We thank God for graciously rewarding our good works but do not understand that we are seeing Godís grace from the wrong point of view. God doesnít bless us because we have been a blessing. We are blessed so that weíll be a blessing to others.

God didnít send Jesus because we deserve to be saved; the reality is quite the contrary. God gave us Jesus because He loves us. Because weíve been blessed by the saving grace of Christís blood, we have also been given to the world so that others will know Him and be saved. It is tempting to think that we deserve heaven, especially if we have done something extraordinary. But Jesus is calling us to look at it differently. We have been promised eternity in heaven not because we deserve it but so that weíll live lives of thanksgiving and praise to God, blessing others with acts that come from faith. We get to go to heaven because we trust in Godís word and His promises, faithfully living in the reality of His faithfulness.

God invited Abram on a journey to a place he did know. He would never see the fulfillment of the promises, but he trusted God and went on that journey in faith. God may not be calling us to go to a new nation or leave behind everything we know and love, but He is inviting us on a journey of faith, too. We donít know where the road will lead. We donít know who we will meet. We donít even know what weíll be expected to do. But we can travel with Him, trusting that He knows and that weíll end up in the Promised Land, just as He has promised. In faith we join in a journey with Abraham and share in his righteousness.

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. Our God does not watch us like Santa Claus watching to see what we will do wrong. He watches because He loves us. He will keep our going out and coming in from this time on forevermore.

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