Sermon from Sunday 12th March
Our readings today introduce us to two characters who both, in different ways, might be said have arrived, to have “made it” in life. Yet we discover that they were both characters who both decided that they needed to move on. I suppose we all “move on” at times. I don’t just mean physically moving to a new house or a new job, but moving on in other ways; the people we are and the way we live. When I was young I used to be scared of the dark, but I’m not now, I’ve moved on. I used to hope it would be sunny at the weekends so I could go out and play, but there are different things that I hope for now. My dream in life used to be to become a great footballer, well actually that hasn’t changed, that’s still what I dream of.
I’m sure we can all look back at things that used to excite us, or things that used to worry us, and we can see that we have moved on from that now. We don’t remain the same throughout all our days. We develop, we learn, we change, we move on. Well Abraham certainly moved on. If you read the whole story of his journey you can trace the actual physical journey he took, and what you discover that it was a long and wayward path. If God was guiding him then it would appear he should be looking for a new navigator. But the real journey that he was being led on was not about getting from A to B. It was a journey of discovery through all the lessons he would learn along the way. He faced some genuine problems on the route, like finding himself in the middle of a famine. He also faced not a few difficulties brought on by his own mistakes; like the time he was worried that Egyptian soldiers might kill him because they wanted his wife, so he told them she was his sister and let them have her in exchange for food and cattle. He had a family break up with his nephew, and some dodgy times with his wife, particularly when she became jealous of his “other woman”. But by the end it all - Abraham knew a lot more about himself, and a lot more about what it means to trust God. He could have lived out his latter years in comfort and peace, but he had a heart that was open to new adventures. If he was not, there was so much he would never have discovered, there was a level of faith he could never have come near to. We may not be called to the kind of uncertain adventure that Abraham set out on, but we are surely called to be people on the move, people who learn and grow and develop and discover God as we go. That’s the kind of journey we are all on - a journey of discovery; discovering more about ourselves, discovering more about God.
Nicodemus too was on a journey of discovery, and like Abraham had to be willing to leave some things behind. For him it was not about land and familiar surroundings, but the comfort and certainties of his religious assumptions. Nicodemus could not have had more religion. He could have quoted a hundred and one things you had to believe, and two hundred and one things you had to do, in order to be a good religious person. After years of work and study he had it all sorted in his head. Then he sees Jesus, alive with faith and so clearly in touch with God. Jesus, not talking about religion, or rules, but about life, and where God is in the middle of it all, about freedom, and peace, and it all seems so urgent and so real.
Nicodemus cannot help but be drawn towards him. Perhaps he hopes to find a little more wisdom to add to his already impressive stock. And what does Jesus tell him? Effectively he says: Forget it pal, what you need, is to start all over again. It’s not about anything you can do, it’s all about what God can do. It’s all about God’s love and learning to trust it. You need to leave everything you think you know and start all over again. Being born again – if we can see past all the modern connotations of phrase, might sound like a tremendous prospect if your experience from first birth has been of rejection and failure. But if you are proud of your status and your learning and your position in life, the notion of having to start all over again is about as attractive as a parking ticket. Yet that was what Jesus encouraged his learned friend to do.
The stories of Jesus words to Nicodemus and God’s call of Abraham both challenge us. Both men were asked to give up the things they had built their lives on, and to start again – to do something new. For one that meant physical things – place and people. For one it meant religious things – rules and certainty. Both were invited to leave the past behind, to trust, to have faith, to move forward. Both were invited to make a new start, which would be based on what God might do, rather than they had built up. Which is a challenging thought for us to contemplate. We who, in the eyes of many, have all the physical comforts we are likely to need. We who may well feel that we have the business of religion pretty well sorted out in our minds. These are stories that might well stop us in our well-worn tracks, and encourage us to ask questions of ourselves; about where we are heading, and what we are doing, and who or what we put our faith in, and what are the belief systems that drive us.
These stories offer us plenty of food for thought in that sense. Yet more than that – they offer us a reminder of our humility in the great scheme of things. It was God who called Abraham to new possibilities. It was Jesus who spoke to Nicodemus of new possibilities. Neither of our central characters are recorded as having earned the right to such things. In fact they are not even the central characters, for the real mover in these readings is the one who works invisibly to create the dream of a new nation; to create the opportunity for rebirth. All that Abraham had to contribute was faith. A crucial ingredient – but only a response to the greater thing that was being done for him. We are reminded of something that is too obvious to need saying, but something that we so easily forget; that the almighty one does not need us – or depend on us, but that he chooses us – and sometimes when we least expect it. We sense ourselves called, renewed. We feel ourselves challenged, provoked. We are given vision and drawn towards new possibilities.
We may not be called to the kind of uncertain adventure that Abraham set out on, or to make the radical discoveries that Nicodemus was led into, but we are surely called to be people on the move, people who learn and grow and develop and discover God as we go. That’s the kind of journey we are all on - a journey of discovery. Such a journey can have its moments of excitement, and its disturbing elements. We might not always like what we discover about ourselves, and we might find that God is not really what we had always imagined him to be. But once we have started on such a journey it is hard to turn back, because we will always want to know what might lie around the next corner, over the next ridge, beyond the next hill.
I say we are all on such a journey, but that is not necessarily true. For once we have at some level, in some way, glimpsed the possibilities of God, tasted the promise and sampled the presence, there is surely an eternal restlessness in our souls, that will not let us settle for anything less than all that the creator has in store for us. As we continue on our path towards Easter, following the one who gave up everything out of trust for the one he called father, let’s continue to live with the challenging thoughts, and the tantalising promise.