Second Sunday in Lent
Sermon preached by The Reverend Charles Royden
We have two magnificent passages today the first from Genesis reminds us of Abraham. Perhaps 4,000 years ago, Abraham believed that God was leading him to go on a journey.
"Leave your country," God told Abraham.
"Leave your people and your family.
Leave all that you hold dear and familiar.
Go to the land I will show you."
We are then told
"So Abraham left, as the Lord had told him."
I wonder if you think that Abraham actually heard that voice out loud in his head and thought , ‘that must be God speaking’.
Personally I doubt it. I suspect that Abraham probably had a gut feeling, then anguished over what he should he do and after much soul searching eventually made a decision hoping for the best. There is no doubt that Abraham in doing as he did, changed history for ever.
Please don’t think that I am in any way trying to downgrade what Abraham did. Quite the reverse. I am saying that as Abraham tried to be faithful to his God he went through the same conflicting ‘should I, shouldn’t I' that we all experience. It might seem as if it is more by luck than anything else, but we who seek to trust in God know differently. We know that somehow out of our desperate attempts to understand the mind of God, somehow God is leading us all the time, we not where. And that is faith, trusting in God and taking a chance.
Abraham set out in faith, not knowing where he was going, or even why he was going, except that he hoped it was the right thing to do. Lot’s of things must have told him not to do what he was doing
1. It was a move from the known to the unknown, leaving behind friends.
2. It was doing something which placed in him in a vulnerable place, outside of his comfort zone.
3. He was leaving behind security and facing an unpredictable future.
Nevertheless he acted in a committed fashion and found that in that act of faith he was blessed.
That call which Abraham received, is repeated day in and day out to all of us. God challenges us to move beyond that which we know and which gives us security. I believe that few people ever have God’s guidance in unmistakeable words or images. We struggle to capture the words which God wants us to hear. Rather like desperately trying to tune in a lousy radio where the hiss and distortion obscure the words. Those who hear God’s voice, guiding them with clarity, or see in images the path laid out clearly before them, are most usually, albeit perhaps not always, mad or misguided and they should most surely be regarded with extreme caution.
In spite of this lack of clarity, nevertheless God does call us, lead us, encourage us to move, just like Abraham. We might be led in all sorts of new ways, to new challenges, to new ideas, to leave behind our prejudices, our small mindedness or our childish views. It takes courage to move away from our known places but we too have God’s promises of blessing as we do.
In Lent we sometimes give things up, chocolate or alcohol. These can be symbols of the life journey upon which we are called, a move from doing things our own way, the familiar way, the safe way. A journey in which we seek to extinguish a bit of the noise and glimpse a path along a different way.
And then we come to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel.
Nicodemus is often maligned, the religious leader who comes to Jesus at night because he is ashamed, or afraid. A man struggling to understand what Jesus was all about and even when he hears the words straight from the mouth of Jesus struggles to understand them. But Nicodemus is like all of us, we all struggle to make sense of what God’s words mean to us.
To be fair to Nicodemus he appears on two more occasions In chapter 7:45-52, we find him risking rejection by defending Jesus. By chapter 19: 39-42 Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus, bringing an extravagantly exaggerated 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint his beloved body. Nicodemus travels falteringly along the path of faith which we all tread.
I am emphasising this morning the lack of black and white clarity which I believe characterises God’s guidance and our decision making. Perhaps this is because I have never seen God’s pattern written large in neon lights. Perhaps also because even those who have been led by God into amazing adventures have only really understood God’s guiding hand and their stuttering obedience - when looking back. Only then do the pieces of the jigsaw begin to make sense. How much easier it would have been for Abraham looking back to speak of God’s prompting him to leave Ur.
Hence you will understand that I am not a great fan of the phrase ‘Born Again’, It conjuors up too many over zealous images. Not that zeal is a bad thing, but sometimes excessive enthusiasm can appear ill judged and flakey. Like the chap Rollen Frederick Stewart who used to get the best seats at sports events and hold up the sign reading ‘John 3:16.’ He would wear a rainbow-colored afro-style wig and was known as Rainbow Man. As a born again Christians he was obsessed with spreading this message. He was eventually arrested in 1992 and is serving three consecutive life sentences in prison on kidnapping charges.
Not that everybody who calls themselves ‘born again’ is fickle. Just as long as it leaves room for those of us who think we are on a journey, rather than having arrived. The word which Jesus used can be translated ‘born again’ it can also be translated ‘born from above’. Perhaps that is a better expression. It is not a past event but a process, a pilgrimage in which we try to discern the voice of God leading us along by his Holy Spirit.
Why would we do this? Why would we want to be in this process of change and movement? The clue is in the wonderful words which finish off this passage.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’
We are part of this messed up world, and all that we can do is to wonder at the God who has so much more for us. Christ died so that God could reconcile the world to him. Please understand these words,
God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
It is not to condemn us that our Lord bids us follow him , but to save us. He wants to save us, not because he regards us as miserable worms, but because he loves us and wants the very best for us!
As Christians we will never be much good at telling people of God’s love unless we learn to love them as God loves them. God loves people, not just the ones who go to church and call themselves Christians, he loves them all. Indeed he loves all of his creation - the word used is KOSMOS which is about as inclusive as you can get.
Jesus showed us this love, that is why his message was so compassionate, that is why he loved and forgave even those who killed him. There is a bit of us which is like Jonah, we don’t really want the people to repent. Jonah was resentful and thought people should be punished. The people of Niineveh repented and spoiled the whole thing. Jonah was not happy when the people repented, God’s mercy had ruined the wrath which he had waited for. He was looking forward to the wholesale destruction. Much of what passes for Christian theology is aggressively like Jonah
So where does God want you to be? God called Abraham, but he calls every one of us and wants us to be prepared at times to leave the secure and known and explore new territory, engage with new thoughts.
Jesus wants us to be born ‘from above’ This is about being changed, moved along. Being a follower of Jesus means that every day we try in small ways to make the presence of Jesus more visible in our troubled world which he loves so very much that he left the throne of heaven bring about its salvation