While the Catholic lectionary featured the Transfiguration Gospel today, other denominations heard this morning the account of Abraham’s call from Genesis and the intriguing conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The Nicodemus account belongs with the other great Gospel stories for Lent such as the Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus. Here is my sermon text on the two readings of today:
GENESIS 12:1-4, JOHN 3:1—17
Today’s reading from Genesis tells the story of the call of Abraham to go from his country, his kin, and the house of his father to the land that God would show him. I admit I have a special affinity with this text. This was the first Scripture reading at my wedding, a wedding that took place in the Netherlands. Marrying a Canadian farmer meant that I was leaving my country, my kin, my language, and went to the land that God showed me – the Canadian prairies! (Jim of course left the comfort of a bachelor’s life!). I was probably just as foolish as Abraham was to believe that God called me to this land.
I’ve often wondered what Sarah thought of it all – after all, she too left behind all that was familiar to her in order to follow a husband who claimed to hear God calling him. I was too young and foolish to know the uncertainties and challenges awaiting me in a prairie farming life that was totally new. My parents did all the worrying for me at that time, probably sharing Sarah’s rolling eyes about her wandering Abraham when I followed my prairie farmer to the other side of “the pond.”
Of course there are many today who are forced to leave behind their country, their kin, and all that is familiar; not because God calls them, but because violence and war are forcing them – that is quite a different reason to pull up stakes. There is a huge difference in freely choosing to change a significant course in life and being forced to do so because of circumstances beyond our control.
Abraham’s call was unique, but there are elements in that story that apply to each of our own lives, even if we have never physically changed countries. And as I was pondering Abraham’s call alongside the story of Nicodemus in today’s Gospel, I began to see a few connections between the two. I will come back to that.
Now Nicodemus is a secret admirer of Jesus. He can’t help but be affected by Jesus’ teaching and healing. But he’s worried about showing that too publicly, so he comes to talk to Jesus at night. And then this unusual conversation happens about being “born again,” being “born of the spirit.” When Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must all be born anew, Nicodemus is confused, and he takes Jesus’ words literally – how can we get back into our mother’s womb? And so Jesus then contrasts life in the flesh with life in the Spirit. But what really is that difference?
Our Evangelical sisters and brothers have made this Scripture text the foundation for their understanding of discipleship. In Evangelical circles you only become a Christian when you have been “born again.” For them this refers to a precise moment in our life when we consciously and wholeheartedly accepted Jesus in our heart as Lord and Saviour.
But is that the only way to understand Jesus’ words to Nicodemus? When I hear the words “life in the flesh” I think of all the ways we allow ourselves to be consumed by the anxieties, challenges and uncertainties of this world. And there is plenty to be anxious about in our world: if we allow those anxieties to rule the day, we could easily find ourselves on the brink of total despair, given the suffering and crises and atrocities that take place every day, whether big and on a world-scale, or small in our own backyards.
So what if a “life in the spirit” might refer to a deeper way of “seeing” and “hearing” and “living” much in the way God/Jesus sees and hears and lives? What if life in the spirit is another term for the ability to find deeper meaning, purpose and mission in events and relationships, experiences and encounters? The ability to see God’s hand in all that happens, not in a doomsday way, but in a redeeming and meaningful way? Remember the last verse in today’s Gospel: God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)
But seeing the world, ourselves, events through God’s eyes and ears and heart – as Jesus did – is not our default position. It requires giving up familiar patterns and ways and habits; it means giving up well-traveled road maps … to be free to go to the proverbial new Spirit-filled land that God will show us without knowing how and where and when. After all, the Spirit blows where it wills … said Jesus …
And here’s a connection with Abraham. I really wonder if we as a universal church family are challenged to pull up stakes from all that has been near and dear to our Christian hearts, in order to go into the new places God will show us. In many ways there are major break-down underway in both the church and the world. Old and familiar structures are crumbling, institutions are distrusted, authority of all kinds is betrayed and questioned. The various ways we’ve organized life-reality no longer hold, no longer express meaning and value.
We are challenged to chart a new course, to risk a new journey, like Abraham, without knowing where and how. While it’s easy to see the break-down in these developments, it’s much harder to see that at the same time there is a breakthrough that is occurring. To notice the breakthrough requires seeing ‘in the spirit.’ Breaking through the crumbling chaos is emerging a deeper universal yearning for equality and communion, for collaboration and unity, for wholeness and mutuality, for intuitive knowing and love.
There is no doubt that this shift is painful, but it can also be good news! It can hide promises of a hopeful future for our Church and our world, provided we as a family of faith can lean into the winds of change, much like Abraham and Sarah were asked to do.
As a natural part of evolutionary change, the massive changes sweeping through all levels of collective living and knowing right now in no way negates or undervalues what went before. Nor is there reason to fear the massive movements of change swirling around us. Everything is in flux, but we need not fear. We only need to recognize the movement, step into the flow, and be carried by it. Indeed, all creation is groaning in one great act of giving birth. The Spirit of God still hovers over the chaos and blows where it wills.
And we as a human species are challenged to show our resilience, just like prairie grass that can go a long time without water. The roots of prairie grass are extraordinarily deep. Prairie grass actually enriches the land. It produced the fertile soil of the Great Plains. Its deep roots aerate the soil and decompose into rich, productive earth. And so this Lent we can ask ourselves: how deep are my roots sunk into Jesus?
Ironically, a healthy prairie needs a regular burning. It needs the heat of the fire and the clearing away of the grass itself to bring the nutrients from the deep roots to the surface, supporting new growth. There are trees whose seeds cannot germinate without a forest fire. The intense heat cracks open the seed to allow it to grow. Perhaps with us, too, there are deep parts of ourselves activated only when more shallow layers are stripped away by the fires of diminishment and failure. We are pruned and purified in the dark and painful nights of life, when we find ourselves crawling to Jesus in prayer. Much like the burning of the prairie draws energy from the roots upward and outward, prayer can draw up from within us deeper trust, inner freedom and fruitful action. Prayer can be the seedbed of a new future. Through it, God shapes and strengthens us for what is needed now.
So when we consider the current decline through eyes that see “in the spirit” rather than “in the flesh” maybe our churches are experiencing a prairie grass fire, in order to burn away the excess baggage of history and the counter-witness of our divisions, both of which have obscured the life-giving and liberating Gospel message of Jesus. To look upon our current reality with the imagination of a poet, an artist or a mystic illustrates what Jesus means with the need to be born of the spirit.
When we can “see” in the notion of a prairie grass fire a metaphor for the current social, religious and cultural break-downs and then recognize the breakthrough that could well be happening at the same time, then we are living and seeing “in the spirit.” Living “in the spirit” helps us when someone claims, “I do not believe in God,” and we can calmly reply, “That’s okay, God still believes in you.”
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above. 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.”
This declaration – that the Spirit blows where it will – can give us tremendous trust and freedom when we feel at a loss about how to respond to the challenges and opportunities of our age. Abraham and Sarah experienced the Spirit leading them without knowing where and how and when. In this Lenten season we need to be here for one another to trust that God’s spirit is still hovering over chaos and will lead us to the land that is prepared for us. AMEN
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