NRSV GENESIS 12:1-4
12 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.
NRSV JOHN 3:1-17
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17“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.”
When I was in my mid 20’s I made plans for a big trip. Well, it was big for that time. I was only going as far as Colorado. I have since made much longer trips but at the time that was a big undertaking for me.
I had flown over the country a couple of years before for my brother’s wedding – my first time to the other side of the continent. While in flight I looked out the window and saw the mighty Rocky Mountains and decided right there that I would stock up my resources for a trip to see them up close and personal.
While planning with the now archaic method of a Rand McNally map I decided that I didn’t want to take the interstate system all the way out. I really wanted to see a part of the country I had never seen before. So after getting to the Mississippi by the conventional, four-lane route, I took off on some side roads through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado.
It probably took me a little longer to go that way but I have always been glad I did. I saw things I would not have been able to see otherwise. There was a feeling that I would probably never come this way again so I might as well be open to everything I saw.
There was no divine call in all of this. I didn’t hear God tell me, “Leave your native South Carolina and go to a place I will show you.” I just went out there because I wanted to see the mountains and take in everything along the way. And I wasn’t planning on moving out there, although the beauty of the mountains was enticing.
But that trip opened up for me an appreciation of our country and the incredible beauty that lies even in the most remote of places. It also taught me that God is everywhere; in a gas station in Enid, Oklahoma; in a McDonald’s in Garden City, Kansas; every place has the potential for grace to pop up and surprise us. But you have to be open to it. Because it might just pass you by.
I know that part of my fascination with the trip – besides the mountains – is that I really love to travel. It started with my mother piling my brother and sister and I in her Chevy II and driving all over the South in the early 60’s to visit family, mostly in the Carolinas and Georgia. But going to a new place has always had a special fascination for me; this time a year ago Sue and I took a chance and went exotic, traveling to the other side of the world to visit the Seychelles off the coast of Africa. It was daring, and there were times when I wondered why we were doing this. But it was great to see different people and take in the culture of the place.
I know that is not for everyone. Some folks just like to stay put and not go anywhere. There are some people for whom a long road trip is a venture to Richmond, and still others who don’t want to go that far. It’s not that they are not curious or adventurous; they just like things the way they are at home and would just as soon stay there.
But the Biblical narrative is of a God who is on the move. Just take a look at the way things move in the Bible: Jacob runs away from home, then comes back; Joseph takes a forced trip to Egypt; the people of Israel are delivered from slavery in Egypt and called back to the promised land; there is the exile to a not very desirable place but then a return trip back home. And then there is Jesus, who has no place to lay his head, wandering all over Galilee with his disciples, who then take his good news to Rome, India and literally everywhere else.
It all starts at the beginning. Maybe not right at the first verses of Genesis, but that opening book doesn’t go very far when God speaks to Abram. The old patriarch has already done some traveling, from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran. But God is not about to let him stay put. God says, “Go; leave everything – everything you have known and grown familiar with, everyone you enjoy being around, leave all of this and go to a place I will show you.”
But that’s not all. God promises that Abram – whose name will eventually be changed to Abraham, which means “father of many nations” – that his name will be great and he will have all these wonderful blessings. But it is the last one that rings out, the one that all of Abraham’s children since then have had a hard time remembering to follow and live out: “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
In the season of Lent some folks like to dwell on original sin, that no matter how hard we try we will always mess up. But that’s not the way God made us. God made us to be an original blessing.
We don’t know why God picked Abram for all of this. All we know is that God called him; a free, unmerited call, out of the blue, or more properly out of grace. And Abram followed; he packed up everything and led his family on a journey which we, his children, are still on. Because this is not a journey to a particular place. This is a journey to be a particular kind of people. A people who are not out for personal gain or popularity; but to be a blessing to the nations.
Abram picked up everything and left, but our old friend Nicodemus from the third chapter of John was just very comfortable where he was, thank you very much. He came to see Jesus in the middle of the night, probably because he didn’t want anyone to notice that he was engaging in a theological discussion with this country preacher who had just upset the moneychanger’s tables in the Temple. For someone of the establishment to reach out to an obviously tempestuous rabble rouser was a stretch, to say the least.
But he went; he took the chance of reaching out to Jesus because he sees God at work in all of this. And yet Jesus does not lead him on a predictable path; Jesus does not give him ten steps to an effective and faithful life. Jesus just tells him that he must be born again, and people ever since have been scratching their heads and arguing about what that means.
Maybe it’s because we are still in the dark with Nicodemus. Just be born again, just do this or do that, just speak in strange tongues, just serve on a committee, just don’t get into trouble. No less than Nicodemus do we want our relationship with God to be based on a comfortable, familiar pattern based on a quid-pro-quo model; God, if we do this, of course God you will do that. We just want measurable, sustainable goals to track our faithful development.
We even have a verse to keep us focused: John 3:16. The verse we memorized in Sunday School years ago, the verse that we see advertised in sports events and speeches, the verse that even non-Christians know by heart.
But maybe we know it too well. Maybe our familiarity keeps it from being a verse in which we let God’s Spirit blow with an expansive understanding. We like to keep it so that we can keep others out. I remember when I was being prepared for my ordination exam before the Presbytery of Pittsburgh years ago, a minister charged with guiding me through the process made sure I heard his take on this verse – not the emphasis on God saving the world, but on limiting that to “whosoever believeth in him,” and of course we in the church will be the ones who will decide who those “whosoevers” are and who they are not.
But is that all there is to listening to the call of God; to restricting the fresh winds of the Spirit in our lives to blow only to those of our approval? Or to lead us in new directions of love and faith, to all kinds of places and all kinds of people, and all kinds of ministry?
“For God so loved the world…” The world that we were called from Abraham to now and beyond to bless.
Maybe what we most need to hear are the words of the next verse: “…God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” God’s call to us is to keep moving, keep traveling and not lock out our options; not lock out anyone who might be the word of God for us, the presence of Christ for us, the winds of the Spirit for us. Each person and each experience in life has the potential to teach us what it means to be born in the Spirit, but not if we stay in places of darkness or fear or certainty.
We have to keep moving. And by that I do not mean that we have to travel to Richmond or Denver or Kuala Lumpur. You can travel with Jesus by staying at home, but you travel with Jesus by letting the winds of the Spirit blow freely and wildly in your life – by changing your mind, by seeing people with more love, by letting your actions by led by hope and not despair.
To believe in Jesus is not just to say, yeah, I know Jesus lived. It is to trust Jesus. That is so easy to say, but so hard to hear in a world where the fear of the coronavirus is rampant. What’s going to happen if we have to be quarantined, if our lives are restricted? Can we trust God to know that in Christ our lives are only restricted by love and grace, which is to be shown to all, to the contaminated and to the clean?
Debi Thomas wrote recently, “What does it mean to believe in Jesus? To hold onto him? To trust him with my life? For Nicodemus, it meant starting anew, letting go of all he thought he understood about the life of faith. It meant being ‘born again,’ becoming a newborn, vulnerable, hungry, and ready to receive reality in a brand new way. It meant coming out of the darkness and risking the light. None of this could be reduced to an altar call or a litmus test. The work of trusting Jesus was mind-bending, soul-altering work – it was hard, and it took time, and it involved setbacks, fears and disappointments. No wonder Nicodemus walked away baffled that first night. Jesus was calling him to so much more than rote recitation of the sinner’s prayer; he was calling him to fall in love, and stay in love. Why is belief important to God? Because love is important to God. To believe is to be-love.”
We are all on a journey. It is a journey through Lent, but it goes way beyond that. It is a journey to trust the Spirit of God to blow in our levs, and to give us what we most need at any moment: a word of comfort, a thought that challenges us to new life, a peace that passes all understanding. It is a journey into a new life. And it begins – again – when we trust God with germs, sins, brokenness, and everything else that threatens. It trusts that God will give us what we need to continue on our journeys. Amen.