Readings for Second Sunday in Lent February 17, 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Lent 2 Textweek

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

We continue our Lenten journey. The path that leads us to Easter and beyond and once again we have the readings to give us orientation - think of the readings as a compass or as reference points that enable us to check out our journey through Lent and so also to check out our life direction. As we encounter reference points in life, no matter what they are and life is full of reference points, and usually as we encounter them you get this fleeting thought that whips past the eyes of distraction, otherwise called a niggle, and it’s a thought that always and forever frames one of those niggling questions: ‘what is life’s purpose, and what is my purpose in life? Markers along life’s journey will often provide us with clues. Two recent markers that were given substantial voice in the media, Sorry Day and Valentine’s Day; what did these markers identify? What have they in common? What they have in common and what they both celebrate is hope in the present for the future; hope in the present for the future. They’re markers that enable us to then look within: where am I engaged in hope in the present for the future?

Abram, Nicodemus have got that same future orientation: they too identify an activity in the present as an activity that is formative of the future. And as part of holy scripture, what we find in the readings today is that they illustrate process rather than event. Quite often in life the signposts and the markers that we look at and we look for are event-based, but each of those markers, each of those reference points, are also or can also be seen from the perspective of process. Lent is a liturgical reminder for us to reflect on the process of life, rather than the event of life, and it’s probably why we have the wilderness as the backdrop in which to do it, so that we can reflect on our being rather than on our doing. If we can take ourselves out of our world, out of the events that have all stacked up to take us through life and get in touch with the world that we inhabit that is beyond those events, that is the process of becoming and the process of generating tomorrow, then we are reflecting in that wilderness of Lent, looking to purpose, to place, rather than to activity. Of course we come up with an interesting conundrum: do we give shape to the events of our life or do the events of our life give shape to us? Both I’m sure are true, and so again we’re left with a question of balance. An interesting Lent reflection is to see how you hold that balance: do you give shape to the events of life or do the events of life give shape to you? How are those two held in balance?

The signpost that we have today in Genesis is of Abram and Sarah being called, called ‘to go from your country, to go from your kindred and to go from your father’s house’, and if we watch the unfolding of the story, if we read beyond that call, we can see that the call was an event that led to other events. But there’s a life process being illustrated in that little bit of text that we have today: called from your country, called from your kindred and called from your father's house to go. The process that’s being illustrated is the movement into adulthood; it is the looking beyond our own self-interest, it is the seeing beyond our border security and in that is the recognition that we are one with all; we are not confined, nor are we defined by family, by clan or by nation, but we are one with all. It’s an amazing movement to get, it’s a different order of worldview. One of the Lent readings for this week, which on the surface is completely unrelated to what we’re doing today, because this is a reading about baptism. ‘Jesus’ consciousness of sin coincides with his sense of total solidarity with all humanity. “I am a human being and I consider myself no alien to anything human,”, even sin. For us, humanity begins at - and in some cases never goes far beyond - the level of self-absorbed individualism. The frontiers between self and nonself are rigidly defined and systematically policed. It takes a lifetime of growth for us to begin to breach these borders and to feel at limited communion with others. Jesus of Nazareth’s self-awareness was always and necessarily an awareness of self-in-relation - fundamentally with the Father in the Spirit, but, as a consequence of the Incarnation, also inclusive of all humanity.’

Today we hear Abram is called out-of, out of that sense of my world into a sense of a whole world of which I am a part. And for Abraham, as for us, it is a movement of letting go, of putting our faith into a future that can only unfold once the movement is initiated. Therefore it’s an unknown future, which would explain why we all hold on dearly to the present. And then we can glimpse, but if I hold onto the present, am I not inhibiting the unfolding of tomorrow, am I not inhibiting the creative work of the Divine? If we contemplate Abram’s story, we might picture ourselves involved in the same activity and as we do that, as we contemplate what would it be like to leave my family, to my father’s house, my whole heritage, my country, what would that be like, then up will come the questions of fear and trust. These questions then shape our identity.

What if we go a bit further and contemplate the very being of Abram. Then what we find is, having encountered fear and trust, we then encounter faith and the reading from Paul that we get today seeks to look at that very encounter: faith in relation to the activity of life, faith and works, our being and our doing. Another conundrum, another place to wrestle in the wilderness, because surely we can all come up with examples of doing the right thing but from the wrong place. What about doing the wrong thing from the right place? Probably not as easy to come up with examples. Faith holds a key somewhere to the process of moving into the unknown. Now having got to this point, sitting down reading the Bible, writing, I had coffee on the table and a cigarette in my hand and I realised that something immensely important was unfolding, but I felt like it was going to go in so many different directions and I realised that as we read these scriptures, these stories, as we engage them our life does, inwardly we can follow these paths. The story of Abraham is not a story of an ancestor of mine, it’s not a story in the past, it was there, it was my story sitting at that table. And I thought at that point, this is going to take hours to preach on. How can we begin to unfold our story in relation to the divine story just in few minutes on a Sunday morning? So I thought I’ll leave it, I actually can’t do it. What I want to do though is to impart to you the encouragement and the excitement of doing a little bit more. Take the story home, do the same, light a cigarette, even if you don’t smoke; for those that are fearful of smoking and think it’s wrong, light an incense stick; don’t do it in fresh air with all your health-conscious stuff on, don’t do that. Get a little bit dirty with it, be real, sit with the story and ask, where am I in it? What is this story, where is the Abraham in me?

And I thought that what I might do then is to very quickly have a look at trying to underline it as we look at he Gospel, the Nicodemus stuff, because if we look into the place of Nicodemus, then surely we will find ourselves, we can see ourselves and see that we are again participants, participants in the Gospel narrative. Nicodemus came by night, - my goodness, he’s like us, he too was in the dark, and he was afraid of being seen. Nicodemus approaches Christ in the dark because he doesn’t want to be called a loony Christian like most of us – I actually do not want to walk through Fremantle and have people think that I’m one of those people that goes to church, I don’t want that, because I’m not like that and I don’t want to be like that. Nicodemus shows an amazing misunderstanding of baptism, a misunderstanding that the church has actually ritualised and turned into an event. Guy’s going to be baptised next week; he’s lucky that he’s here because we’re not going to do the misunderstanding bit, we are not going to give him an event that guarantees him heaven. Baptism – poor Nicodemus, he’ll get there in the end like us, he will get there: baptism is not an event that’s outcome-based. There’ll be no tick in the box at the end of the service saying, ‘Got him, another one, one more Anglican, one more for heaven’, and yet that’s what the church says; no wonder Nicodemus can’t understand baptism. Baptism is a process, it’s a process.

Nicodemus can’t understand birthing. He can’t understand that birthing is creation and again is more than a one-off event. Like our culture - our culture sees birth as the production of a product, rather than the unfolding of every tomorrow in every today. Every moment births the next. Jesus, when Nicodemus comes to him then looks to the scriptures, to enlighten and to be enlightened. He recalls Moses the law-giver, and how Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. This is where we really do have to stop because this will take hours. Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness: all we need to hold there is the question, is this our wildness and is this the serpent from the garden of Eden? Now there’s plenty there to take home and wrestle with. As we wrestle with it, as we wrestle with the question of our life process, just hold onto the closing words of the Gospel: The divine came to abide with us, the divine came to abide with us, not to condemn, but in order we might live, in order we might live. As we seek our purpose in life I think we need to know that, that the divine is incarnate, enfleshed with us that we might live.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris