Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5; 13-17; John 3:1-17
When you hear the word “unpredictable”, what comes to your mind? For many of us today it might be health concerns around the rapidly spreading Coronavirus. Or perhaps it is something else related to the virus. Like the stock market’s conniptions just now.
Or it might be that some other thing is going on in your life right now that eclipses current events. Life is unpredictable in so many ways. Each of us has had, or will have, things that turn our lives upside down.
When something unpredictable takes over your life, what is your default? Is it paralysis, action, or something in between? Our response may be either physical or spiritual. Or both.
The fundamental theme of Lent is that we begin our spiritual journey in death and move toward new creation. Paralysis is akin to death. In comparison, everything else is movement. Abram, Paul, and Nicodemus all moved in a new direction despite their unpredictable circumstances.
In Genesis 12 Abram heard God’s directive to leave his home in Haran with Sarai and his nephew Lot. We know nothing about Abram’s faith at this point.
Before Abram, Israel’s stories relate successive cycles of alienation from the ways of God. Cain and Abel and their bitterness. The days of Noah, when the earth was judged by God to be full of violence. Rising human arrogance over the tower of Babel ending, again, in God’s judgement.
In this prehistory all humanity related to God, but none of them knew God’s name and Israel did not yet exist in any ethnic or national form.
Now God speaks to Abram personally, presumably for the first time, and calls him to go further on to the land of Canaan. Abram is a neutral subject, neither good not bad. He had migrated with his father Terah and others from Ur to Haran. Then his father died. Probably Abram believed as his father believed. Because they lived in Ur, we assume that they worshipped many gods.
Jewish teaching known as midrashexplores Abram further. Midrash is a form of literature that fills in unknown things like character and motivation of our ancestors in faith. It makes them into people to whom we can better relate. Midrashimabout Abram suppose that his family did worship the ancient near eastern gods. Terah’s trade was making idols and selling them. First in Ur and later in Haran.
In a well-known story, Abram, left in charge of the idol business one day, humorously staged a destructive conflict among the idols. Terah, upon returning to the shop, demanded to know what happened. Abram claimed that a large idol smashed others to take their grain offerings.
Terah told his son it was a ridiculous tale because the idols weren’t alive. Abram caught his father in a logical flaw: Why worship the lifeless work of your own hands?
In this and other stories, Abram shines. With impeccable logic and remarkable spiritual insight he recognized that idol worship was an empty and meaningless pursuit. It becomes evident that Abram was searching for a better faith. In Genesis 12 Abram meets God as a relational being who looks to bless and protect him, and to walk with him in life.
This is what Abram taught his children, and his children’s children learned from them. God is fundamentally relational.God blesses so that humankind can also become a source of blessing.
Perhaps because of his father’s death, Abram chose movement in a new direction. At the age of seventy-five he embraces unpredictability. He does not know what lies ahead. All he has is God’s promise of blessing. And on the strength of this alone, he goes. This movement is physical and spiritual. He is on a journey to the New Creation.
Paul’s encounter with God also led him in the direction of an unpredictable life. He’d previously found comfort in living by the letter of God’s Law. But his unexpected meeting with the risen Lord Jesus led to discomforting new insights about his spiritual state.
Paul had become hard, violent even, in the name of his faith. Awakening to this, he became a follower of Jesus. Paul began to learn how to trust God rather than to idolize law.
In doing so, Paul lost everything of his former life. Which was a lot. But in return he felt God’s blessing. He gained back all the life he lost, and far more. That same blessing was the foundation of Abraham’s faith. Paul took his message on the road. Have faith in God who gives life…even to the dead! Moving on physically and spiritually, Paul chose the journey to the New Creation for himself, and he urged others to follow.
Nicodemus came by night. He had a lot to lose by being seen with Jesus. But his questions suggest that he wanted to know God more deeply; as more than just a giver of the Law. He was drawn to the teacher Jesus. Nicodemus wanted to believe that Jesus was sent by God. Perhaps what held him back was uncertainty about his future as a follower of Jesus.
We know John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.Jesus invited Nicodemus to know God primarily as a relational being whose first intention is always to give blessing. So John 3:17 is important too: Indeed, God did not sent the Son into the world to condemn the world, but order that the world might be saved through him.
In this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus we finally come full circle. It’s the faith of Abraham all over again. A faith that anticipates God’ blessing, that makes us a new creation, and sends us out to bless others.
Nicodemus eventually chose this faith and it moved him to a whole new relationship with God. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, came in the light of day to remove Jesus’s lifeless body from the cross. They tenderly buried Jesus in the garden tomb, never expecting that God’s new creation would be revealed to them at dawn three days after. Can this be our journey too?
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.