03/05/23 – Two Faith Journeys

TWO FAITH JOURNEYS

March 5. 2023
2nd Sunday in Lent
Gen.12:1-4a; Ps. 121; Rom. 4:1-17; John 3:1-17
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

If you follow a Holy Lent, your faith journey will take you through some rough terrain. Modeled after Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness after his baptism and before he launches his traveling ministry, we are directed in our scripture readings during Lent to wrestle with our own faith in preparation for the surprising and mysterious conclusion of Jesus’ journey from the wilderness to the cross to the Resurrection. Today we read about two men, one from Genesis and one from the Gospel of John, who was engaged in faith journeys. Their stories highlight the human struggle to develop a closer relationship with God.

Abraham is considered the father of faith in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Abraham’s name appears close to 50 times in the New Testament, most extensively in the book of Hebrews where he is presented as a model of faith. Rather than call Abraham a model of faith, I consider Abraham to be more of a portrait of a human being on a faith journey. In our epistle reading, Paul makes it clear that God was the initiator of Abraham’s journey through the Middle East. The Bible doesn’t tell us that Abraham had done anything that merited the honor and blessing God bestowed upon him and his family. In fact, Abraham’s family were idol worshipers, so Abraham did not even know the one Ancient Jews called Yahweh, the one true God. We are given little information other than the location of their original family home in Ur, a bustling city by the Euphrates River at the site of what is now Baghdad. And we know that the son of Terah, known first as Abram, moved with his father and the rest of the clan to Haran where Abram received his call from God. Oh, and his family appeared to have a genetic predisposition to longevity. According to Jewish History, Terah lived to be 205. Abraham was 75 when he began on the journey God had sent him. (1) One is never too old to receive a call from God!

Abraham’s faith journey followed his physical journey through the Middle East. Yes, Abraham accepted his call to go to an unknown land; but like us, Abraham did experience doubt at times along the way. On several occasions, he decided that he would be better off taking matters into his own hands rather than trusting God. Twice, he feared for his life at the hands of foreign rulers and denied that Sarah was his wife, thus endangering her life and honor when he offers her as a mistress to these men. But God intervened for Sarah’s benefit, and Abraham continued to be safe and prosperous in his new, nomadic life.

When the promise of a son does not occur in Abraham’s expected time frame, God assured him that the promise would be fulfilled, but Abraham demanded a sign. To dispel his fears, God made a covenant with Abraham using the ancient ritual prescribed when two people entered into an agreement. With animals cut into two halves, “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between” these pieces and the covenant was sealed. God reiterated his promise to Abraham that he would be given a son, land and blessings through his numerous descendants. God demanded nothing from Abraham.

When his wife, Sarah, complained that God’s promise of a son with her had yet to be fulfilled, Abraham bowed to her demand that he impregnate a young servant girl, Hagar, to obtain his heir. Later, after the promise of a son was fulfilled with Isaac, Sarah became jealous of the servant girl’s son and sent her and the child, Ishmael, into the desert to die. But God came to their rescue, thereby redeeming Abraham’s lack of faith and Sarah’s merciless deed. Furthermore, God promised that Ishmael would have many descendants, which would become a great nation. Muslims claim their inheritance from Abraham through Ismael.

God calls, God saves, God blesses.

So, contrary to the popular depiction of Abraham as one who was an unshakeable model of trust in God’s call and promises, he did not always exhibit blind faith in God. Would God want us to have blind faith or obedience? No, the bible insists that God wants us to freely choose to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds or else our faith will not bring us closer in a relationship and our commitment would be based only on fear or lack of imagination.

The story of Abraham can be seen as an allegory of a people’s conversion from the gods they created to the one God that is the Creator. Following God’s directive, Abraham traveled from Ur, through various stops, to the land God promised his descendants, then to Egypt and back again to Canaan. Abraham’s travels can also be viewed as an allegory for our own faith journey. God keeps speaking to Abraham along the way, assuring him that God’s promise of descendants and land will be fulfilled. Abraham stayed for a time in the Promised Land, but he never owned it. At the end of his long and blessed life, he only owned his own burial plot. God never broke the covenant with Abraham and his descendants, even beyond Abraham’s grave.

Now let’s turn to another story of a faith journey. In John, the gospel writer tells the story of Nicodemus, a faithful Jewish leader, who was drawn to Jesus. Though many of his fellow Jewish leaders considered Jesus delusional or even dangerous, Nicodemus wanted to learn more about this man who preached about the kingdom of God and performed healing miracles. Without an explicit call from God mentioned, the work of the Holy Spirit is implied. Like Abraham, Nicodemus is cautious. He visits Jesus in the dark of night to avoid conflict with either the Roman authorities or Jewish leaders.

Like Abraham, Nicodemus was challenged to leave the comfort and security of his confidence that he had fulfilled all the requirements of faithfulness to God by following the Law. As a member of the powerful Sanhedrin, he knew the rules to be followed but lacked the kind of relationship with God that he had begun to suspect he needed. Nicodemus had heard about the miracles Jesus had performed and concluded Jesus had a special relationship with God that gave him the powers he displayed. He had heard about Jesus’ preaching and teaching on the Law (Torah) and the writings of the Prophets that gave new insight. Nicodemus was impressed and/or bewildered by this man who overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, a standard practice based on temple rules, and accused them of exploiting the poor in the name of God. This is the scene just prior to Nicodemus’ first encounter with Jesus. We can identify with Nicodemus, who believes in God and seeks to know the will of God, but who is also afraid to be changed by God.

Although Nicodemus was drawn to learn more about Jesus, he was afraid to be seen with him, so he came to him in the night. He did not want to jeopardize his power and prestige in the community. Yet, his coming at all indicated he had taken the first baby step into new life. Humility is vital to learning. If you already know all the answers, no one can teach you anything. Nicodemus, like Abraham, needed to leave what he knew to see the great revelation Jesus was offering. And so it is that the Lenten season invites us to humble ourselves so we may learn about ourselves and the life Christ calls us to live. Nicodemus’ knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures prepared him to ask important questions that would lead to greater understanding.

When Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” he was making a play on words to challenge Nicodemus. The Greek word, translated as “again” in our bibles, can also be translated as “above” or “again.” John uses this type of play on words several times, with Jesus countering a literal use of a word with a theological usage. If translated as “from above,” then Jesus is referring to God. Nicodemus could only understand the literal meaning and so thought Jesus was telling him he must return to the womb and come out again. Like Nicodemus, we are challenged by Jesus to leave the safe secure womb of a compartmentalized faith.

Jesus further indicates that he is not speaking literally or concretely when he tells Nicodemus: “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The Greek word translated as “spirit” here is “pneuma,” which can also be translated as breath, as it is used in the Genesis creation story of God breathing over the waters to create, to give birth to, the world. In his letters to the Roman churches, Paul taught the congregations that we cannot achieve faith but only accept it as a gift from God, we cannot “birth” ourselves. To be transformed we need to “be birthed.” The concept of needing to be saved by our own declaration to earn a place in heaven contradicts the biblical witness of Christ and the Apostle Paul. To boast of our being “born again” as a badge of salvation making us more “special” than others in God’s eyes displays a lack of humility and understanding that is needed to be a blessing to all of God’s children. A self-proclaimed religious superiority that condemns other children of God is immature at best and at its worst drives people away from learning about Christ and the kingdom of God.

John 3:16  16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” is a bible verse that has been used as a kind of Christian triumph and a judgmental wedge between Christians, which Paul denounced in his letters to the early church. Ironically this verse occurs in a story about a man who was skeptical of Jesus, only gradually becomes more open to his message, and does not become a Christian according to John’s gospel. The verse following changes the interpretation of v. 3:16 alone. John 3:17 clarifies 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Thus, being “born from above” describes a more expansive answer to the question another learned Jewish leader asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbor?”

As God did with Abraham, Jesus pushed Nicodemus to a new land, the kingdom of God. Jesus continually pushes us to see that God sends new life from above and new perspectives to interrupt our old habits. This is the process Jesus describes as the path toward salvation. God sent Jesus so the world might be saved through him, through his message of love and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God he initiates. Following Jesus requires a radical departure from complacency, which sustains injustice; norms that oppress and enslave; empty traditions that replace true commitment; false pride that denies God’s power and authority; and prejudices that maintain ignorance and separate us from God’s children, our brothers, and sisters.

Nicodemus’ faith journey did not end with that initial nocturnal visit. As he does frequently in the gospel, John uses light and dark imagery as the background for Nicodemus’ progression in his faith journey. We read about him again when he defends Jesus’ right to teach against the accusations of a fellow Pharisee. (John 7:50-52) Then at the end of Jesus’ time in the world, Nicodemus comes to Jesus again, during the day, on Good Friday when he helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus’ body for burial (John 19: 39-42)Nicodemus bathes his body and rubs it with expensive perfumes and spices. Notice how Nicodemus moves from the smaller circle of Jesus’ followers to a gathering of all the Jews in Jerusalem, to the crowd of Jews and Gentiles at Calvary. Nicodemus keeps his eye on Jesus, moves toward him, and eventually get close enough to touch him. Although both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic church have declared Nicodemus a saint, the bible doesn’t tell us if Nicodemus ever became a Christ-follower, only that he assisted in a courageous, generous act of compassion at Christ’s death.

Both men, Abraham and Nicodemus, were led by God, step by step, further along in their faith journey. Both experienced obstacles and both had questions and doubts, but Paul declared our faith is not an achievement based upon our good works or even perfect obedience, but a gift by the grace of God. As the psalmist declared: 2My  help comes from the Lord.”

Abraham and Nicodemus were chosen to play different roles in God’s salvation history, yet each moved the world in the direction of God’s kingdom. During this season of Lent may we, like Abraham and Nicodemus, leave what is known, but not fruitful for the kingdom of God, and venture to where God calls us to be – the place where our blessings bless others. Our invitation to Christ’s table is the visible sign that God is with us on our faith journey. Here Christ calls us, saves us, and blesses us.

 

Amen. May it be so!

Altein,Yehuda. Who Was Terah? Jewish History Biographies In Brief. Chabod.org.https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4529921/jewish/Who-Was-Terah.htm

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2023, All Rights Reserved
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