Genesis 12:1-4; John 3:1-17
A Sermon for Pilgrim United Church of Christ, Durham
It’s written matter of factly in our scripture passage this morning:
“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,”
as though God and Abram were having a conversation. If they were, we aren’t privy to it. The chapter starts with God talking and gives us no background or context. If we back up into Chapter 11, we learn about Abram’s family tree, that he was originally from Ur (which is modern day Iraq), and that Terah, his father, had actually set out from there for Canaan, but only made it as far as Haran before he settled down to live out his two hundred years. We don’t know why.
Abram had been in Haran a hundred and twenty-five years or so when God spoke to him about moving on. He was settled and secure. God offered him promises and unsettledness – pack up everything, leave your family and friends and the land you know as home – for a reason: “and I will make you a blessing.”
Nicodemus was a settled man as well. He was a religious leader, which meant he both power and money. He heard Jesus speaking and came to find him to ask more questions, I think, but began with a statement instead:
“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus’ response – also in a matter of fact tone — seems to indicate that he wasn’t interested in some sort of esoteric theological discussion. He wanted to make it personal:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus got to hear the phrase “born again” before it was road weary and politically laden. He took it at face value, wondering how he could climb back into his mother’s womb and come back once more as a bouncing baby boy. The image is not a sentimental one, but a painful, messy, even bloody image. How could something as visceral as childbirth be repeated? And why would you want to do that?
After listening to Ginger’s sermon last week on the temptations of Jesus, I told her I thought they could all be summed up in one phrase: I matter most. The Tempter was trying to get Jesus to live as though he mattered most. From that perspective, these two stories could be summed up in an opposite way: God matters most. God is where things start and finish, God is the Alpha and Omega, the First and Last Word.
The other thing that struck me was something I remembered from a New Testament class many years ago. The temptations were not a one time thing for Jesus. Deciding whether to feed people to gain allegiance, or to use the miracles as a way to gain popularity, or to see the world as belonging to him were things Jesus had to stare down everyday. Our stories today are no different.
Abram left Haran and made it all the way to Canaan. He even built an altar at Bethel. Then a famine came and he and Sarai were forced to go to Egypt to find food. The man who had trusted God on the first part of the journey lost his nerve. As they got close, Abram told his wife he was afraid, when the Egyptians saw how beautiful she was, that they would kill him and take her to be with the Pharoah. His plan was to say they were brother and sister. Abram made himself safer, but he didn’t prove himself more faithful in what he did to himself and his wife.
I don’t mean to be too hard on the guy. Maybe he thought the journey to Canaan would be a one time thing: he would unpack at Bethel and then he would get to live two hundred years in the same place. He had hardly taken the saddlebags off the camels when it was time to go again.
Nicodemus shows up two more times in the gospels. In one scene, he asks a rather innocuous question as the other Pharisees are plotting to kill Jesus. Then he shows up at the tomb with oil and spices to pour on Jesus’ body. Perhaps the thought of outing himself as a “born again believer” was too much.
The sentence closest to the heart of our denomination over the last few years I, “God is still speaking.” Those are dangerous words. If God is still speaking – and saying the kind of things Abram and Nicodemus heard — then the Bible is not an expanded version of Life’s Little Instruction Book or Robert Fulghum’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. God’s words to us are incendiary, and intentionally so. If we listen, ours are also. When the children lead us in prayer each week, here’s what we say:
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The trip from Iraq to Israel was less complicated in Abram’s day and Nicodemus didn’t have to contend with globalization and climate change and a world as large as the one we know. So will we ever get to settle in the Promised Land or be born once and for all?
The short answer is no.
If birth is our working metaphor, then it is God’s womb we climb into over and over, and with each birth we see another way we are called to be the people of God, whether it’s figuring out how to respond to Darfur or Kenya, or how to meet the needs of the poor and homeless in our city and our nation, or how to hold our government accountable when they torture and abuse people, or how to handle our finances as a church so that we are faithful and generous stewards of what we have been given, or how to deal ethically in our business practices, or how to live with honesty and integrity as a church community. We are called to be born again and again and again, each time a fuller incarnation of the God who gives birth to us over and over and over.
John 3:16 is the first verse I memorized as a child. It begins, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son . . .” Not only is God still speaking, but God is still so loving the world that God continues to live in a constant state of labor, giving birth to us, the children of God, again and again, that we might be a blessing so the world may know how deeply that love runs. Amen.