Genesis 12:1-4a, John 3:1-17
For the most part God is full of surprises—apparently absent when we seek him, actively prodding our conscience when we would prefer to be left alone, illusive when we pursue him and then strangely popping up when we least expect. The Judeo-Christian story as well as the individual stories of most of us includes the tantalizing and sometimes frustrating fact that God is an inconsistent experience. Because of that, catching God in a consistency is a rare thing to be prized. Finding something that God does and says repeatedly in every life is unique. The lessons for this morning point to just such a rarity. I can tell you up front that no matter where you are in life, no matter what is going on—good or not so good—these lessons are God’s message for you. Come with me and let’s look at this rare consistency of God.
The first lesson tells of God’s invitation to Abraham given back when he was still known as Abram. It marks the very beginning of our faith story. The background is that Abram had settled in Haran, in the place we now call Iraq. Life was good. He had inherited a little, earned a lot, was well married. He was on top of his game: no red flags in his annual checkup; stock portfolio coming back; a modest choice of wines in the basement; and he did the crossword puzzle in ink. The Lord came to this happy man and said to him, “Come with me to a land I will show you.” There were no details about the land or the journey, just that stark, open ended invitation. Our faith tradition begins with the words: Abram went. Abram accepted God’s invitation and set out for the kind of newness that is life itself.
That brief little scene is played out over and over in our faith and in our lives because in the Kingdom of God there are no stopping places. Every moment is a beginning. Every point, no matter how satisfying or painful, is a point of departure. ‘Come with me to a land I will show you’ is God’s consistent invitation. It is whispered to babies in the womb just before contractions begin and it is echoed to the anxiously waiting parents. It is the invitation upon which the Baptismal service is based. It is inside of every romantic heart discovering a beloved and it is the promise behind every vow in marriage and ordination. It is the word given to every repentant sinner. Our confidence in it is the reason we can pronounce absolution so readily. It is the last word heard by the dying and the reason the Burial Office reads as it does. Soon God will say it to the people of Japan and Libya, not inviting them to move them to China or Egypt but to call them to newly live in the reality being forged around them. It is exactly what God is saying to you right now.
To see how the invitation works, consider at the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus’ famous meeting with the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nicodemus is good at being who he is. He is a successful first century Jew, a member of the Sanhedrin, roughly the equivalent of the State Legislature. Like Abram he was on top of his game: no red flags in his annual checkup,; stock portfolio coming back; a modest choice of wines; crossword in ink.
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. He wanted to talk to Jesus but that conversation was across the barricades. Jesus as controversial and Nicodemus was committed to being non-controversial. He is like a Keith Olberman person going to a Glenn Beck speech or vice versa. He was confident enough to have intellectual curiosity and to act on it but it was a cautious curiosity. He did not want his friends to see him there.
“How do you do what you do?” asked Nicodemus. Jesus, as he so often does, ignored his question and turned the tables. I am not going to tell you what I do, said Jesus, I am going to tell you what you need to do which is ‘Come with me to a land I will show you.’ Specifically, where you are now is a beginning point, a place of new birth. Nicodemus, for whom the conversation was not working out as he planned, did what we all do. He tried to get God’s newness to fit into our established mindsets. “Birth? You mean with my mother? She won’t be pleased with this!”
Nicodemus was saying I like my life. How can I be more spiritual and still keep my old ways? How can I grow without really changing? How can I tithe and keep my current expenses? How can I be better without living differently? How can I change the result of my life without changing my way of life? How can that be?
Jesus told him bluntly that it can’t. There are no stopping places in the Kingdom of God. Not even good places with no red flags, solid portfolios, a modest choice of wines and inky crossword puzzles. Life is bigger than we imagine. Its purposes are deeper, its meanings wider, its possibilities richer, its joys more complete. You have to leave here to get there, let of this to grasp that. And getting on with it, Jesus was telling Nicodemus, is not a matter of calculation. It is a matter of life itself. He said, I make this offer so that you will not perish but will have life itself.
Unfortunately there is no record of what Nicodemus did with Jesus’ invitation. John says that during Holy Week the Pharisee made a brief and totally ineffective protest about Jesus’ treatment. From that it is hard to tell if he, like Abram, went or like so many others stayed put.
There is no record about Nicodemus. There is no record about you and me yet either, no way to say for sure if you or I will accept Gods invitation or not. One thing we do know for certain is that the invitation is before us because it is a consistency of God’s. It is there brand new every day of our lives. God says it to everybody. If you are in a troubled place, God is calling you to take His strong arm and step out. If you are in a secure place, God is calling you to keep moving. If you are in a scary place, God is asking you not to stop there. If you are in the place you have always dreamed of being, God is calling you to look at a whole new set of dreams.
Did you see the photo on the front page of Friday’s Post, the Japanese man weeping in the snow over the rubble that killed and buried his mother? What the photo did not show was the patient gentle hand of the Lord extended to him. Nor could the photo convey the words being spoken: Come with me to a land I will show you. And did you see the picture below it, the man teaching in an elementary school? The story did not say it but like every priest and preacher in the world he was speaking on God’s behalf, inviting those children to step out into the world that God is ready to show them. And have you looked around you this morning, up there, over there, around there? Have you listened to the Word around you? More importantly, have you heard the voice within you? It is saying what God consistently says: Come with me to a land I will show you. How we respond is a matter of life…