12 March 2017 Trinity, Monroe
Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This second Sunday in Lent we have not one but two examples of faith to consider. We have Abraham and we have Nicodemus, two very different people with two very different ways of relating to the Holy One. I wonder what we can learn from these two? But first let’s get some background information. It’s important to know just a bit more about the passage we read from Genesis. You see, our reading today holds a pivotal point in the Book of Genesis, marking a transition both in the type of literature and in the theological direction of the work. Genesis, beginning with the first chapter and continuing through the eleventh chapter, holds what is known as primeval history. That being said, let me offer a caution. I am not talking about Genesis as history in the sense that a well-researched book about the Civil War is considered history today. This is not literal history. Our concept of history as holding facts that tell us what happened dates back only to the eighteenth century while all the Biblical books are much older than that. Genesis, as are all the historical books in the Bible, is history in an older sense of the word. It is sacred history. Genesis is true in that it tells us important truths about God, about humanity, and about how God and humankind relate. So, the first eleven books of Genesis hold our sacred primeval history, in them we learn that God alone creates all that is. In addition, we hear a clear history of human sin. Sin, according to Genesis, is a part of every human life. But things change at the beginning of chapter twelve. Now we have the very beginning of the history of salvation and right off we can see that salvation begins with God’s initiative and promise.
Without any explanation at all, our Creator calls Abraham, and tells him to leave all that is familiar, all that is known, all that is safe, and start out for a strange place. Destination unknown, as it were. Further, Abraham is to do this based entirely on the Holy Ones promise of a “great name”, land, and children. Two things are important at this beginning point in salvation history.
First the call of Abraham is an act of grace, offered out of God’s freedom. Abraham was not chosen because of his response to any law of God because no law has yet been given. If we were to read just a little further in Genesis we next hear that the promise given is both for the good of all people and so that all people can call on Abraham’s name in pronouncing blessings. One thing is very sure here, the history of God and humankind in relationship has a clear direction.
Our sacred history is the story of salvation given to us freely by God. But did you notice?
Abraham’s faith is very much understated. Nowhere in our text does Abraham say a single word.
We, who hear the story all these years later, know for sure that God will indeed make good on the promise, Abraham, with his wife Sarah, will set out on a journey but it will not lead to a permanent home. Still, we also know that Sarah will bear a child to carry the blessing forward and that Abraham and Sarah’s descendants will indeed inhabit the promised land. As for Abraham, all we have is this: “So Abraham went, as the Lord told him.” We have that clear reminder of what it means to be a faithful servant of God. And we have the reminder that this, too, is good news. God plans to work salvation, in the midst of human history, beginning with Abraham who is willing to start out on a journey full of unknowns, based on nothing more than a promise. But, recall, I said we have two examples of faith today. What about Nicodemus, what does he show us? Again, it is a familiar story for most of us. Let me repeat myself. This story may or may not represent factual history but it most certainly represents sacred history, faith history. The point of the whole passage is to tell us something very important about God.
Nicodemus you remember, came to Jesus at night. What are we to make of it? Back in those days people simply didn’t travel about by night. It was dangerous. There were no street lights and people who were out and about were generally up to no good. We don’t know, can’t know, for sure what motivated Nicodemus, though I suspect some question burned within him, something about Jesus called to him. It is worth remembering that the author of John is a master of symbolic language. When we hear that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night we can understand that this interaction is full of mystery and misunderstanding. And Nicodemus’ misunderstanding is clear. Jesus intends to say that life with God comes by birth “from above”, from God. Nicodemus hears that he needs to be born again. Poor Nicodemus, in the original language there is one word with two meanings. Of course, Nicodemus is a Pharisee. In his mind salvation comes by doing the law, living into God’s commands for right living. The thing about Nicodemus is that he shows us a faith that is unclear even while based on observable signs. But, of course, there is more. When Jesus speaks early in the passage the word translated as “you” is in the singular while later in the passage that “you is plural. You all we might say. This simple conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus is the occasion for Jesus to tell all of us that life with God is not something to be calculated or achieved or even safely based on a set of provable signs. Life, and salvation, are gifts freely given by God. Just exactly like that call to Abraham was given before Abraham did anything at all to deserve God’s promise. So too we are given the gift of salvation because that is what our creating God wants for us. It is what the Holy One has always wanted for us. We haven’t earned salvation. We can’t earn salvation. That gift of salvation is all about the nature of God. The Holy one who creates us moment by moment, who calls us to live more fully into God’s-self day by day, and who fills us full up with the Holy Spirit when we least expect it, does so simply out of love. Did you hear it in the collect? We began, “Oh God, whose glory is always to have mercy”. And we heard it most plainly and inescapably put in that reading from the Gospel According to John. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” There are no limits on the love of God. There is no before and after in God love. There is just that great love and our response to it. “for God so loved the world…” All we can do is trust it, accept it, and follow where God leads us. Amen