getting up and going out

a sermon, based on Genesis 12.1-4 and John 3.1-17, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017

God calls Abraham and Sarah[1] to “Go from your country, your family, your home to a land I will show you. I will make you a great nation.”

What a promise! Abraham and Sarah are of seasoned years, content with their life, comfortable in their land. And with no children, it is impossible to become “a great nation”; to be father and mother of countless generations. Nevertheless they get up and go out, according to a latter first century Christian writer, “not knowing where (they were) going.”[2]

Abram's Counsel to Sarai (1898-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902)

What commitment! What courage! And, considering what happened afterward, what madness! Abraham was nearly one-hundred years of age and Sarah, ninety, before a child, Isaac, was born;[3] preceded by a prophetic angelic announcement, which, utterly unbelievable, made Sarah burst into incredulous, riotous laughter.[4] When Isaac came of age, God called Abraham to kill his son, which, as a test that Abraham passed without having to fulfill the deed,[5] would have been tantamount to Abraham and Sarah, already forsaking their past, relinquishing their future!

God calls Abraham and Sarah to “leave (their) country.” They didn’t and couldn’t know what was to come. Nevertheless, they got up and went.

Nicodemus is a “a leader of the Jews”, a Pharisee , a living, breathing authority on God’s Law, its interpretation and application, a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest governing body of ancient Judaism.

He, like Abraham and Sarah, gets up and goes out. Unlike Abraham and Sarah, Nicodemus knows where he is going. He seeks Jesus, who, it has been reported, at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, miraculously turned water into wine,[6] and then in Jerusalem, audaciously drove merchants and money changers from the Temple, declaring their rapacious commerce a violation of God’s will.[7] Nicodemus, looking for this wonder-worker Jesus, goes out “by night.”

Why? Perhaps Nicodemus, mindful of his role as a guardian of the faith and a guide for the faithful, wants to know whether Jesus is real or fake. Or perhaps Nicodemus dares not to be seen for fear of ridicule, even rebuke by his fellow Pharisees for falling for the Jesus-hype. Or perhaps John the evangelist, who uses darkness and light to symbolize the state of one’s soul, is saying something about Nicodemus. That there’s an itch, a vexing question, immune to ready answer or quick resolve, that Nicodemus, despite the great reach of his intellect and wisdom, can’t scratch.

Nicodemus finds Jesus. Cautious, he tries flattery: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher from God.” Jesus replies with a cryptic word about rebirth. Nicodemus can’t imagine how this can be. Jesus then speaks of Spirit, like wind, coming and going, blowing where it will.

Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Reflecting on Jesus’ words, we may think of the spiritual life; the life lived of, in, and with God. Or the spirit of life; that awareness that one has life and that recognition of why one has been born; that sense of the truth, the purpose of one’s life. Either way, God or life, it’s the sort of thing not easily known or readily understood that can keep us up at night vexed by unanswerable questions, calling us to get up and go out, metaphorically or literally, not knowing where we are going.

Will we embark on that journey? If so, blessedly, we have Abraham, Sarah, and Nicodemus as biblical models of those who take that journey in search of their truth about who and why they are. They are biblical mentors whose stories remind and warn us that this journey is no once-in-a-lifetime, short, risk-free trip on a sunlit trail just around the corner within the boundaries of a familiar land, but rather often is a continuous, long perilous trek on a shadowy path over alien terrain far from home.

Even more, they tell us that honest ignorance, more than haughty knowledge is the common condition of being on this journey and sometimes what we know or think we know won’t, can’t help us.

Still more, they tell us that this journey is necessary. That this journey not taken is a discovery about ourselves unmade. That on this journey, our faith, our confidence and conviction, will be stirred and shaken. That we must be courageous, for frequently we will be afraid. That this journey of getting up and going out often not knowing where we are going is as important as where we find ourselves at journey’s end.

It is Lent. For us, as Christians, Jesus is our model and mentor. He journeys to Jerusalem toward his truth about who and why he is. His story confirms everything that Abraham, Sarah, and Nicodemus have told us.

Jesus calls us to follow him. Will we?

 

Illustrations:

Abram’s Counsel to Sarai (1898-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902). When I study this painting, especially Sarai’s countenance and posture, it strikes me that she is not wholly convinced about following God’s call to “Go from your country, your family, your home to a land I will show you. I will make you a great nation.”

Interview between Jesus and Nicodemus (Entretien de Jésus et de Nicodème) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Note: At the beginning of the Abraham-Sarah story, their given names are Abram and Sarai, which God later will change, signifying a new status (see Genesis 17.5, 15: [God said] “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham for I have made you’re the ancestor of a multitude of nations…As for Sarai…Sarah shall be her name.”) However, in preaching, for the sake of clarity, consistency, and less confusion for the congregation, I use Abraham and Sarah.

[2] Hebrews 11.8

[3] See Genesis 21.1-3.

[4] See Genesis 18.1-12.

[5] See Genesis 22.1-18.

[6] See John 2.1-11

[7] See John 2.13-17

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3 thoughts on “getting up and going out

  1. Thank you Paul! I’ve always had great role models in my life and I’d follow them to the ends of the earth. I’ve often wondered when reading this story over the years what I’d have done had I been tapped on the shoulder and told to go out on this journey and I had no idea where I’d be going. It’s such a scary proposition. I’m a planner, so I’d have wanted to plan out my route and know who I’d be meeting with when I “arrived”. Sarah and Abraham certainly didn’t have that, but thankfully Nicodemus did.

    The most resonating part of your sermon for me is how Jesus phrases Spirit “coming and going blowing where it will”. I don’t know if you know, but the second presentation I’ll be giving tomorrow is called “Lifting the Spirit of the Caregiver”. I can share it with you when I see you next. This sermon helps me to inspire the caregivers even more because I do talk about faith a bit, but mostly I talk about going where the tasks take us. Caregiving is one of the most rewarding and challenging jobs there is, and you never know where the journey will lead you. BUT you go anyway because typically you love the person you’re caring for (or love your job if you’re a paid caregiver). With faith we discover so much about ourselves on life’s journey and on the caregiver’s journey. Caregiving “stirs and shakes us”, but with courage we keep going….. I’m grateful for you, because with Jesus you’re one of my role models and mentors. I know how many people consider me a mentor, but I need support too. My love of Jesus keeps me going along this journey that I have no idea where it will lead, BUT I do know I’ll be on it until my death. My spirit is high, but given my losses over the 11 years as I’ve cared for my mom, I sometimes feel alone on the journey. Tomorrow there will be more than 600 people listening to two of my presentations and I’m glad I have a great sermon to reflect on before it’s my turn to speak. I’ll let you know if I lift the Spirit of the audience, but you’ve prepared me well!

    My thanks and love!

    Loretta

    Liked by 1 person

    • As ALWAYS, happy to be of whatever (any!) help to you, Loretta.

      I love your reflection on my sermon text in relation to your presentations tomorrow. How timely, then, was this sermon for you AND your reflections for me as I continue to ruminate on this life-business of journeying!

      Do well tomorrow. Know that I’ll be thinking of you – as I always do!

      Love you

      Liked by 1 person

      • This sermon was more than timely! Really needed it! Been pretty weepy today, because Tim would already have the amazing schedule for tomorrow down to a science!! LOL But they have assigned people to help me, which is awesome! Thanks for thinking of me, I’ll definitely be reviewing your sermon before I head to the arena tomorrow. Love you too!

        Liked by 1 person

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