Monday, March 17, 2014

Leave what you know. Live what you don't.

1Now 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. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I 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.”
4So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him.

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He 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.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus 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?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The 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.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11“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. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16“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.
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.”

Do you like to live life on the edge? Do you like to do things that are difficult and not worry about what will happen if you fail? Or would you rather to play it safe and go with what you know? The question that faces us in the Abraham and Nicodemus stories is one we face each day. Are we going to step out in faith or hold back in fear?

 At first glance it might look like Abraham and Nicodemus don’t have much in common. Abraham is the venerated father of the faith. Nicodemus is a Pharisee who sneaks to see Jesus at night. God gives Abraham step-by-step instructions and Jesus speaks to Nicodemus in metaphors. Abraham is obedient and Nicodemus is hesitant. What they share is common to so many of the great Bible stories. Both Abraham and Nicodemus are being called to leave what they know and live something they don’t. 

We admire Abraham because he lives into his unknown future obediently. Sure, he and his wife Sarah laugh at God’s plan to make them the father and mother of a great nation that will bless the world, but they pretty much do as God commands. They leave their homeland, set off for a land that they’ve never seen. Later in Genesis, Abraham even goes as far as lifting a knife to sacrifice his only son because God told him to. Abraham is our model of obedience. He's obedient to the future to which God calls him.

Nicodemus on the other hand is our example of hesitation. He comes to Jesus alone, full of questions. He’s a Pharisee and obedient to his deep religious training and indoctrination. In other words, Nicodemus is obedient to his past. He seems to want to follow Jesus but he's too attached to who he is and what he already believes. Add to that the fact that  Jesus is vague and symbolic. He tells Nicodemus he has to be born again.

Today we know what born again means. But put yourself in Nicodemus’ place. He was the first person to hear that phrase. I can imagine him scratching his head. Born again? He knows Jesus works miracles but what kind of miracle or sign is this born again stuff? Jesus can make blind people see and disabled people walk. It may very well be possible for him to do a miracle that makes it possible for a person to be born again. But how? Why?

Everything God said to Abraham was literal. Do this, do that, go here, go there. Later he promises to give Abraham and Sarah a child. God was telling Abraham that he and Sarah would have a baby—the two of them—with their grey hair, missing teeth and bodies that ache a little more each morning.  And so it happened. They had that baby the literal, old-fashioned way.

As a Jewish leader, Nicodemus knows the Abraham story of the birth of his nation. He knows that God worked in the lives of Abraham and Sarah quite literally. Is it any wonder that that is where his mind went when Jesus says born again? He asks: How can any one be born after growing old? Do they go back to their mother’s womb or what?

No Jesus says, the literal is flesh, I’m talking about spirit.  Jesus is not being literal. He’s talking about re-birth by water and spirit. He’s talking about making a new life out of an old one. Live into the future not out of the past. A baby doesn't have a past. People who are born again separate themselves from their past.

Both these literal and metaphorical stories show us God is working in the world. Taken together they show us that God changes things tangibly and intangibly. God changes both how we feel and what we do. God influences our emotions and our actions.  It’s faith in action.

Following God means we leave our places of past comforts. We leave the homes of our fathers. We leave our temples.  We go to wherever it is God is calling us. Like Abraham, we may not know where it is. Like Nicodemus, we may not know exactly how it happens. But, both of these stories show us that we are to leave what we know--our past--and live something we don’t--our future.

For those of use who like live into the illusion that we are in control, living into God's call can be a real challenge. Most of us like to have some idea of what our day will bring or where our life will be going. We live by the calendar and the clock. We have a one-year and a five-year plan. We build our present on our past. 

Imagine how Abraham’s story might play out in your life. You've got your calendar out with meetings and to-do lists and God comes to you and says, Get in the car and go. I’d like to use you to bless some people today. Don’t worry. Just start driving. I’ll tell you when to turn and let you know when you get there. Oh, and pack up your stuff because you are not coming back. 

Hello panic.  I know that I don’t even like to let my GPS guide me step by step. The first thing I do after punching in the address is to look at the map and the step-by-step list so that I can understand the big picture, but that’s not how the God Positioning System works. So often we don’t have a clue what will transpire, we are just expected to go.  Abraham was good at that.

Nicodemus wasn't so bad at it. He took the first step, stepping away from a faith that emphasized God in the Temple and Israel as a chosen people to find God out in the world. Nicodemus went looking for proof and had to be content with all that spiritual stuff about being born again and water and not knowing where the wind is heading next.

While Nicodemus often gets a bad rap for coming to Jesus at night, maybe even in secret, if we read on in the book of John we see that this is his first step. Later, he argues for Jesus to the religious elite and brings anointing spices for Jesus’ dead body. Abraham dropped everything and followed at once. Nicodemus followed little by little.

Truth be told, more of us are probably more like Nicodemus than Abraham. We don’t walk away from what we know easily—whether it’s our hymns, our calendars or our families. We change slowly. We investigate, ask questions and take baby steps—if we are willing to step out all.  We live in constant tension. Our fear holds us back while our faith calls us forward. We are afraid of what might happen if we maintain the stats quo. We are afraid of what will happen if we change.

What would our lives look like is we didn’t fear what comes next? If we didn’t fear poverty, being an outcast or even death? What if we could trust that it is God calling us into that scary future? What if we could be content not knowing where the wind comes from and where it goes?

map link
Just yesterday I talked with a woman who shared her retirement story. On of the first things she was put a tent in her car and set off driving west--alone. 

"If the car in front of me turned right, I turned left. This was before cell phones so of course I'd have to stop and look at my map and figure out where I was." She ended up Yellowstone to work in the gift shop for the busy season before returning home. I admired her confidence and bravery. She is a thoughtful woman of deep faith. I have no doubt that she blessed the people she met along the way. 

Stepping out in faith is God’s call to Abraham and Nicodemus and it’s God’s call to us today. Leave what you know. Live into what you don’t. Trust that God is already there. Don’t hold back because your calendar is written in ink. Don’t hold back because you can't control what you don't know. Even if you flame out and fail in a big way, you are still loved by God. 

Have faith to step out in courage knowing that God is there with you. God is present not just in what we know, but also in what we don’t. God is there ahead of us, preparing the way, calling us forward. God is with us on the journey and God is behind us cleaning up the mess that we are likely to make.  

You may recall the famous words of St. Patrick’s breastplate—so appropriate for today:

“Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.”
If you know the story of St. Patrick or any of the saints for that matter, you know that they had difficult lives.  They went to the margins—some suffered terrible illnesses, others cared for those with illness, some worked with the poor.  When he was 16, Patrick was kidnapped and taken from his home in Britain and held captive as a slave in Ireland. Eventually he returned home. After converting to Christianity, he returned to the place of his slavery and captivity and ministered there. St. Patrick walked into and through his fear, leaving it behind. His writing shows us that he could do it because he believed that Christ was with him and around him, making him stronger.

That’s true today. God is with us wherever we happen to be. God is at our center and God is calling us to the future. God is calling us to leave what we know and live what we don’t. It’s not easy, but with Christ within and around us, with Christ in front of us and behind we can go to that future—those unknown places. We can leave our fear behind. You may choose to go all at once like Abraham or one step at a time like Nicodemus. But take a deep breath and go, trusting that God is there waiting for you.  

No comments:

Post a Comment