Thoughts on Genesis 12:1-4a and John 3:1-17
Adapted from a sermon preached March 8, 2020
Last week we read stories of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and Jesus in the wilderness. These are stories that speak to the value of settling in, establishing roots in a certain place, with certain people.
But this week we hear God’s instructions to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
And we hear Jesus telling Nicodemus that he must be “born from above”—he must enter into a new life.
So which is it? Do we root ourselves in one place or go to “the land that God will show us?” Do we hold fast to our established identity or seek to be born anew? This tension pops up over and over again in the Bible.
So perhaps it’s not an either/or proposition. Perhaps, as is so common and so frustrating in this life of faith, it is both/and. God calls us to stability and rootedness—to be sure. And God calls us to newness of life.
As Abraham and Sarah leave Haran for Canaan, the stability of their relationship with God becomes ever more important. They must hold onto their faith in the Holy One as they travel through places where people believe in many gods; as they face the difficulties of being foreigners in a strange land; as they struggle in their own relationship and the disappointment of their infertility.
God calls them to a different geographical place, while also calling them to settle in and remain committed to their relationship with each other and their relationships with God.
With Nicodemus, even as Jesus calls him to be born anew, Jesus talks about the scriptures, the stories of faith in which they are both rooted. All Jesus has to say to Nicodemus is “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness” and Nicodemus knows exactly what he is talking about. (See Numbers 23:1-9) Because Jesus and Nicodemus are grounded in the same faith story, Nicodemus is able to understand that Jesus is offering salvation.
Yes, Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to renew his faith, but that faith is still rooted in the sacred story they share.
So, we have the rootedness in the Garden and the call of Abraham and Sarah to go to a new land. Jesus’ unswerving identity in the wilderness and his call for Nicodemus to be born anew. . . . Does God call us to stability or to transformation?
A friend shared some thoughts with me this week from the Catholic writer Henri Nouwen’s book Following Jesus. Nouwen explains two very different unfaithful ways of life: One is to not do much of anything—to sit around, watch tv, play on your phone, and just generally not put forth much effort or take much of anything too seriously; the second is, seemingly, the opposite—to keep busy with all of the things, with event after meeting after program until we fall exhausted into bed at night.
Nouwen says that both of these ways of being in life prevent us from truly following Jesus. If we are doing nothing we are, obviously, not doing those things to which God calls us. But if we are doing all the things, we are not giving attention to God so we can listen and hear what exactly it is we are called to do.
It is not about a balance of rest and work, but about arranging our lives in such a way that we can hear the call of God and respond faithfully.
It is not about a balance of stability and transformation, but about being deeply rooted enough in God—the word of God, the love of God—that we have the wisdom and energy and courage to allow transformation to occur.
Regarding Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus that he must be born anew, a few commentaries I read emphasized that it is the mother, not the baby, who does the hard work of birth. Likewise, it is God, not us, who does the hard work of re-birthing us. And that is true. But the one being born has to cooperate; they have to be willing and brave, trusting and adventurous.
Where do we plant our feet? How do we respond to God’s call? It’s not always easy to know. Sometimes we think we have a firm footing when we really don’t. Sometimes the voice of God gets all mixed up in our heads—and our hearts—with the voices of the world, and our own voices.
The truth is, we will get it wrong. Abraham and Sarah got it wrong plenty of times. For example, when Abraham told the king Sarah was his sister instead of his wife. And when Sarah beat her servant Hagar.
Nicodemus got it wrong. He is interested in Jesus, but he’s not willing to risk his reputation to learn from Jesus—which is why he goes to Jesus at night. And why he kind of speaks up—but not really—when his fellow Pharisees pressure the police to arrest Jesus. I learned this week that in the 16th Century, John Calvin had a particular name for those people who sympathized with the Protestant reformation but refused to be publicly identified with it: Nicodemites.
Just like our predecessors in the faith, we will not always know where to put down roots and when to venture out. We may not always listen well to the voice of God or have the courage to live into God’s call even when we do hear the divine voice. We will not always follow Jesus well.
Still, when we think of Abraham and Sarah, and Hagar, we usually think first not of their mistakes, but of their faith—of how they said “yes” and walked with God to an unknown land; this is the part of Abraham’s story lifted up by the writer of Hebrews.
And when the earliest Christians thought about Nicodemus, I doubt they envisioned him skulking around, embarrassed to be seen with Jesus. I imagine their strongest memory of Nicodemus was him arriving after the crucifixion to claim and anoint Jesus’ body with spices for the burial.
Like Abraham and Sarah, like Nicodemus, we won’t always get it right. But also like them, if we sink our roots deep in our faith, and if we’re willing to listen to the voice of God—to sit down and have a conversation with Jesus—no matter how disorienting it might be, then I think we will get it right enough. I think we will be able to hold on to what is most important. And I think that we will be able to at least move toward the new life God has for us.