'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. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.'
'There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“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.
“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.”'
--John 3: 1-17
If there is one word that you would use to describe being in a relationship with God, what would it be? My word? Risky. Maybe not what you were expecting, huh? Perhaps that’s because we tend to think that being in relationship with God means that everything will be easy, that we won’t have problems anymore, but that’s not what we see play out in the stories of Scripture, is it? Instead, we see stories of men and women who courageously—some might even say, foolishly—follow an unpredictable and at times reckless God into a relationship and on a journey that literally transforms their lives. That sounds pretty risky to me, especially in the cases of the two people we meet in our Scriptures this week—Abram and Nicodemus.
An Eastern icon of the Holy Patriarch Abraham (Abram)
This story in Genesis 12 is the first time we meet Abram, whose name means ‘exalted ancestor.’ We find him living in a land called Ur, which is inhabited by the Chaldeans, with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot. Abram’s father Terrah has just died, and it’s at this point that God speaks to Abram and tells him to take his wife and nephew and set out for the land of Canaan, and from there, God promises, Abram’s name will be great, and from him all the peoples of earth will be blessed. Without any mention of trepidation on his part, Abram goes, listens to God and sets out for this new home. Eventually God will give him a new name—Abraham—which means ‘ancestor of multitudes’—and he will, to this day, be regarded as the father of the world’s three great religions associated with his God: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
An Eastern icon of (Saint) Nicodemus, who is venerated in the Orthodox and Roman traditions.
Contrast the story of Abram, then, with that of Nicodemus in our reading from the Gospel of John. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law, and he has seen and heard of the signs that Jesus has performed—including turning water to wine, feeding thousands, and even his antics turning over tables in the Temple. Nicodemus is intrigued by Jesus, and under the cover of darkness goes to meet him. He is stunned by some of the things Jesus says—such as the ever-complicated line “You must be born from above.” He wants to understand, but there is an apprehension there, something that holds him back. His position as a Pharisee is a comfortable one, no risk involved at all. But these things Jesus is talking about? This freedom from being defined solely by one’s relationship to God through the Law? All of this talk about Spirit and inner transformation? This is complex, scary stuff, and clearly more than a little risky, as Nicodemus will never again speak with Jesus after this nighttime encounter.
Nicodemus, one might think, embodies an alternative version of Abram, one who has not yet left his family’s homeland and who demonstrates little inclination to do so. This person’s comprehension of God’s initiative in his life is rather simplistic, as he can’t see past his own experiences up to this moment to understand how God could do something new in him. In the Genesis reading God invites Abram to embark on an adventure of trust, while Jesus invites Nicodemus to be open to the rush of God’s holy and life-giving Spirit in such a manner that his very being will be reborn. Whereas Abram accepts the risk, Nicodemus does not. It’s just too scary.
During the early days of the Protestant Reformation there was a group in Germany called the Nicodemites, who were Christians that sympathized with the reformers but were unwilling to publicly identify with them for fear of the ramifications they faced from the church hierarchy. Our own Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, author of the first Book of Common Prayer, was a suspected Nicodemite. Such a position of complacency, or clinging to the status quo, rarely leads to growth. As Walter Brueggemann puts it in his commentary on Abram’s story in Genesis: “to stay in safety is to remain barren, but to leave in risk is to have hope.” The catalyst for leaving this state of complacency is faith.
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and renowned Nicodemite.
We’re not talking about mere amazement at miracles or rational conclusions drawn from irrefutable evidence wen we talk about faith. There’s no risk involved in that. No, the kind of faith that drove Abram to leave his home, and the kind of faith that Jesus invites Nicodemus to consider, is an openness to the uncontrollable wind of God, an embracing of the mysterious newness of God. This does not come from an external force—the word Jesus uses is flesh; that is, the material world. This is Spirit territory we’re in! We do not control it. We do not initiate it. God does. Our journey of transformation begins with faith. Our faith begins with God, who has already placed faith in each of us from the moment we were spoken into existence. This was the promise made to us, and brothers and sisters we need always to remember that the promise-maker is also the promise-keeper! When we remember that, when we remember that God’s faith in us has never wavered and that God’s promise of loving us through our brokenness has always and will always be kept, then we can start moving. Even a little. We can start to be more than we ever thought we could be.
Abram’s migration that begins in today’s Genesis reading is a model for the movement of any person from despair to hope, from oldness to newness, from death to life. Abram’s journey leads to transformation—he literally gets a new name—and so does every other journey that begins in faith. Even Nicodemus. No, he will never again speak with Jesus, but when all is said and done, he will be there at the foot of the cross. The one who came to Jesus under the cover of darkness will be standing in the Palestinian sun on a Friday afternoon, when he will bear witness to Jesus being lifted up and prepare his body for burial. Even Nicodemus manages to take a risk for his faith and move, even a little.
Statues at a church in Vienna, showing Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimithea caring for the body of Jesus.
So much about this season of Lent is risky. On Ash Wednesday we were invited to recall our sins and wretchedness, which always runs the risk of us sinking into pits of self-deprecation and despair. In last week's blog post my wife Kristen invited us to reconsider the story of the Fall, of that original sin of Adam and Eve, and how we ourselves have been caught in this endless cycle of shame and judgment. It’s risky to do this kind of hard self-examination, and truth be told, it would be easier to stay in the dark, to not budge from our places of comfort. Do we really want to be exposed by the light, especially the Light of the world? Surely, the condemnation will be too great. But condemnation is not the judgment of God but the judgment we bring on ourselves when we forget our belovedness and hide our brokenness from God and one another, like Adam and Eve with their fig leaf clothes. We remember John 3: 16 all the time, but let’s not forget John 3: 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.”
The journey beyond condemnation is the journey of Lent, a journey that begins with the faith God has already placed in us. It’s a journey not unlike Abram or Nicodemus, but it is one that is unique to each of us. It’s not easy—I suspect Jesus uses the term “being born from above” to remind us that a lot of time and energy and pain and even risk go into a birth, so why should faith be any different? We CAN move, brothers and sisters. Even a little. We can be more than we thought we could if we take a risk and let that rushing wind, that Spirit of God, permeate our whole beings. This season let us take the time to ponder the choice that is before us, the same choice that Abram and Nicodemus faced: do we remain comfortable or do we risk everything for the sake of being in relationship with and being transformed by this loving, liberating, and life-giving God?