Lent 2 A
The Reverend Phil Tierney
March 16, 2014
When I was a kid, Big Brother Bob Emory used to say, “You never outgrow your need for milk.” Well you never outgrow your need for spiritual growth.
When she was just about 80 years-old my mom came to live with us until she died 15 years later, just about a year ago. It was a major decision for her, and she had declined the offer to join us for several years. Change doesn’t always come easy to us. Sometimes it takes pressure to make a major change.
Isaac Newton claimed that everything continues in a state of rest unless it’s compelled to change by forces impressed upon it. In fact, he enshrined that notion in his First Law of Motion, I doubt that physicists still considered that to be accurate, but I do know that most people resist making changes until forces prompt us to change, whether those forces are external pressures or internal drives.
In my mom’s case it was both. She and my grandmother had lived together on Cape Cod for about twenty-five years. When my grandmother died, mom had a comfortable home and a network of friends. But what with friends dying or moving away, gradually over the next several years, mom’s social network had all but vanished. And so by the time she turned 80 she felt the need to make some changes. Would she continue to live in Cape Cod on her own or move in with us? She felt pressures, both in her circumstances and within herself. Her friends were gone. She was feeling lonely. Her physical strength was declining. And so she finally decided to take us up on our offer, and make the change to join us. That involved a new beginning for her. Changes and new beginnings can be foreboding for many of us – especially as we get older.
Now, you may have noticed that the central characters in today’s readings were presented with opportunities for change and with decisions on whether to make new beginnings or not. As it happened, both of them were older men. God made Abram an offer he couldn’t seem to refuse and Jesus made Nicodemus an offer he couldn’t seem to grasp. Both men were invited to make a new start.
Let’s consider Abram, first. To Abram God said, “(I want you to) Go from your country and your people and your father’s house to a land that I will show you (when you get there).” God was inviting – that’s the word – inviting Abram to turn his back on most everything and everyone he knew and to venture forth on an unfamiliar journey to an unknown destination. It meant starting over. It meant starting new. It meant losing most of the familiar components of his life. It meant giving up a certain amount of control and power over his destiny. That’s what it means to venture into the unknown – unknown people, places, languages, customs and experiences. It meant, in effect, leaping into the unknown – like some bungee jumper or skydiver. Let me tell you that if you’re going to bungee jump you’d better be able to trust the cord. And if you’re going to sky dive you’d better be able to trust the parachute. If, like Abram, you’re going to start all over again at age 75 – you’d better be able to trust the One you perceive to be inviting you to do it. That’s not a prospect that many of us would find particularly inviting regardless of our age.
It’s hard to know what it was like for Abram. I mean the story from Genesis doesn’t say. It simply says that God spoke to Abram. Did the idea come in the form of a dream or a voice or an apparition or an idea or just a feeling? And how did Abram know it was really God?
When I was called to ordained ministry my sense of invitation came in the form of the so-called still small voice. I was praying and I heard a voice in my head. It was like when I talked to myself, but sounded different. The voice said, “I want you to minister.” It was just that. And afterward my immediate thought was “that’s God.” But my very next thought was “then again you might be crazy.” And so I spent the next years several years – of college and seminary – testing it out. Was that what it was like for Abram? Did it take years to process? Who knows! But we do know that he was a lot older than I was.
If the invitation was from God, it doesn’t seem to me that God made Abram a particularly sensitive offer, at first. Of course, God tends to look at our lives different from the way we do. Contrary to popular opinion, our immediate comfort level is not always God’s highest priority. At least it mustn’t have been when it came to Abram. Sometimes, I do believe that God enjoys pushing us beyond our comfort levels and introducing us to new situations beyond our control. I suppose that’s because He wants us to surrender ourselves more fully to His leadership. That’s what the phrase, the kingdom of God, meant – people voluntarily surrendering themselves to God so that He’d be our guide instead of only ourselves. As far as that goes, ultimately, our sense of control over life is pretty much of an illusion, anyway.
Whatever prompted Abram to accept God’s invitation to start over, it didn’t hurt that he thought that God was the one making the offer, but listen to what else the reading mentioned. “(The Lord said to Abram) I’ll make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Now, that had to be more tempting than just leaving everything behind to follow a vague calling from God. Who wouldn’t find greatness, implied prosperity, respect, fame, a potentially positive impact upon humanity, and God’s blessing, at least somewhat appealing – especially for someone of seasoned years? For many of us the time seems to come when we look back and ask ourselves, “What have I accomplished with my life?” We come to a point in life at which we’re more concerned with what we leave behind us rather than what we have. Perhaps Abram had reached that point.
The fact that Abram trusted God and followed God blindly is what made him the greatest hero of the Hebrew faith community and an example of faith to Jews, Christians, and Muslims throughout the centuries. Notice two things though. First, Abram’s faith had tangible consequences. It was an active faith, not simply passive belief. He put faith into action as he sensed God’s lead. His willingness to do that time and time again was what made him the hero of faith that he’s been. Life with God for people of faith is like a dance – one in which God leads. Second, Abram may not have had completely altruistic motives for his willingness to follow God’s lead, at least not initially. Those incidental allusions that God made to greatness and blessing may well have provided Abram with incentive to put his faith in God into action.
God calls us to live our faith, to put our faith into action, to be heroic in our willingness to surrender control over our lives to God, to follow His lead in the dance of life. God is also keenly aware of our mixed motives in doing so and does not hold our less noble ones against us. God meets us where we are – as we are. Then, gradually, teaches us how to follow His lead in life – to let go and to let God increasingly become master of our lives and of our destiny.
As far as I can tell Nicodemus was far more cautious than Abram seemed to be. Of course, he was trained to be careful. We’re told that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader of the Jewish people – a member of that august group called the Sanhedrin – the council of 70 elders who controlled the religious and moral lives of the Jewish people at that time. He knew the Jewish faith and the biblical laws cold. He knew all the right people. He knew politics and how to navigate his way through the crosscurrents of religious-political turmoil. Nicodemus was a man who knew things and knew how to control things as well as himself. He was a controlled man
I’m sure that’s why Nicodemus went to visit Jesus at night. Under the cover of darkness he’d have been less likely to have been seen. After all Jesus was persona non grata among the members of the Sanhedrin. Unlike Abram, he wasn’t exactly eager to risk what he had – his position, people’s respect, his influence, and control – merely to explore what God might have to say through Jesus. Yes, I think that Nicodemus was a cautious man as well as a man who knew things. His high regard for knowing was the only thing that seems to have prompted him to risk being seen with Jesus that night. It’s not surprising, then, that he should begin his interview by saying this to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God, because no one could do the miracles you do apart from God.” Nicodemus came in secret to let Jesus know what he knew. I guess he wanted to be on God’s side, but didn’t want to jeopardize what he’d made of his life in the process. Unlike Abram, he was risk averse.
Especially in John’s Gospel Jesus had the unpleasant habit of pinpointing the central issues of a person’s need for spiritual growth. That’s why he responded so curiously to Nicodemus when he said, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” In other words, you can’t know what God’s up to unless you give yourself to God by surrendering to God’s Spirit, and that might just mean starting all over again. How disconcerting was that to one who prided himself on knowing things about God and keeping things under control for God!
In terms of spiritual dynamics one of the greatest tactics of resistance to God, one of the most effective spiritual counterfeits, is to gather information about things having to do with God and to try to control things according to one’s own religious sensibilities. That’s the stuff of witch-hunts and crusades and inquisitions. Don’t get me wrong. Nicodemus wasn’t a bad guy. He simply wanted to add more information about God to the life that he’d already carefully constructed for God. That’s not so bad, is it? It’s just that God doesn’t prefer to work that way. Jesus taught that God wants us to grant Him the building permit for our lives and that building permit is meant to be renewed daily. It gives God permission to decide what needs to be done in us, with us and through us. It gives God permission to decide when, where, and how to build our lives.
That’s the point of these stories of old men invited to change. It’s also the point of Lent. Lent provides us with the opportunity to ask ourselves what parts of our lives need God’s greater receptivity and guidance. It’s something to ponder, throughout this season. What changes does God invite us to make at this point in our lives?