Moving into the unknown

a sermon on Genesis 12:1-9 and John 3:1-17

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e’ve just heard two stories read aloud that might be characterized as calling stories, or perhaps more accurately, challenge stories that speak of promise and new possibility. They’re good stories to read early in the season of Lent, as in different ways they both speak to the challenge of stepping out into a transitional space, needing to trust that it is all heading somewhere, and that this “somewhere” is the only place you really need to be. Yet as we all know, it can be awfully tempting to just stay put in the safety of the familiar—the known, the habitual, the routine—rather than risk the unknowns of this alternate “somewhere.” People will stay in jobs that they hate, in relationships that are abusive, in addictive patterns that are soul-destroying, because the idea of movement or change is just too frightening. Remember, it was not long after the Hebrew slaves were liberated from their Egyptian slave-masters that they began to talk nostalgically about how they had food and security in Egypt, whereas in following Moses out to the wilderness they had only the unknown. What made it even worse was that the God who had liberated them would not be reduced to a carved image or even named with a decently divine name. The unknown.

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The first story we read is actually set several hundred years prior to the story of Moses and the Hebrew slaves. It is a story of the origins of that people, and it begins with a calling:

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. 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. 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.’

To this point, the only thing we have been told about Abram and his wife Sarai—later renamed as Abraham and Sarah—is that they are unable to have children, which makes this calling all the more peculiar. “Get up and go. Leave behind the familiarities of your home country and your extended family. I will show you a new home (but not yet…), and from your line I will form a new people.”

It is impossible to know what might have been going on in the hearts and minds of Abram and Sarai. They’re no longer young enough to think that children might still be even possible, which also means that they’re not really of the age to be setting out on a road trip with no known destination. Maybe they’re feeling they’ve got nothing to lose, that there’s nothing holding them in Haran. Maybe it is a little tough to live in a community where everyone else in your extended family system has children and grandchildren, and it looks like you’re going to die childless. Maybe their experience of God’s call was just too strong to resist. Maybe it was some combination of all of these things, and more besides. They uproot everything, pack up their belongings, and set out accompanied by their nephew Lot and their servants. Yes, servants. These are not poor folks, but rather well established tribal people, with some fairly serious resources at hand, which makes their willingness to step out into the unknown all the more striking. After all, the more settled and secure you are in your life, the harder it can be to even contemplate following such an open challenge as “go… I will show you… but just go.”

And it is not because these two are so saintly or holy either. As the story unfolds, they turn out to be rather complicated people, as likely to slip or stumble as any one of us here. But doesn’t that tell us something about the way our God chooses to work in this world?

Now, contrast what is going on in the episode we read from the Gospel according to John. Here we are introduced to a Pharisee named Nicodemus, characterized as “a leader of the Jews.” “He came to Jesus by night,” John tells us, “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.’” He came by night, presumably so that none of his colleagues would ever know that he was speaking privately with this Jesus character. Sufficiently intrigued to want to know more, yet nervous about soiling his reputation as a leader of a more respectable way of believing in God. Nicodemus comes with his rehearsed speech all ready to go—‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…”—but rabbi Jesus is not particularly interested. “Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.’” “Born from above,” or “born again,” or “born anew;” the Greek word anāothen is open to all of these translations. Nicodemus, though, latches on to “born again,” and seems to hear it as if he hasn’t the slightest idea of how symbolic or metaphorical language works.

Well, if Nicodemus is going to be that kind of a literalist, Jesus certainly isn’t. Through the seventeen verses we read, he works quite freely with imagery, challenging Nicodemus to open his imagination and think differently about who he is and what he thinks he knows. For Nicodemus, being “born again” has a good deal to do with being challenged to see and hear and think differently. It means letting go of the religious system that had apparently served him fairly well over the years, and to start all over again with a new way of understanding what God is doing. There is no question that for Nicodemus, a rebirth would have to be an intellectual move, because as an educated and scholarly Pharisee that was the world he inhabited. But it couldn’t be merely an intellectual move, which is why Jesus speaks so powerfully of the continuing work of the Spirit of God, which “blows where it chooses.” If Nicodemus is going to be transformed, he will have to make that intellectual move—he’ll have to make his decision that he can risk letting go of the system he thought was sufficient—and place himself at the mercy of the unpredictable Spirit. Who knows where that might take him?

“Get up, leave behind the familiar, and go,” is what God says to Abram and Sarai. “Go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go,” is what Moses is told. “Follow me,” are the words spoken by Jesus to the fishermen on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, while “come down from that tree, I’m going to dine at your house today” is what he says to Zacchaeus. “Sell all you have, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow me” are the words spoken to the young ruler. There is no formula, and no set template. The words spoken into the lives of these people—and in different ways into our own lives—are the words we most need to hear. Without question each does require a kind of decision: do I unsettle the familiar and risk this? And chances are pretty good that again and again over the course of trying to follow as disciples, we’ll be faced with other challenges and decisions.

But that is actually good news. Really good news. Because the challenge and the decisions mean movement, and movement means we’re less likely to get stuck in the patterns and habits and spaces that are keeping us from being what we were created to be.

Hear these two stories in this second week of Lent as an invitation to open yourself to whatever challenge might be facing you on the near horizon. And when it comes, and something is unsettling, don’t back down simply out of a sense that you don’t want to be unsettled. Because this unsettling God of ours sometimes does the greatest work precisely by uprooting us and making us think and walk and be differently.

Amen.

Jamie Howison

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