Sunday, 20 March 2011

Lent 2A sermon: 'A Tale of Two Journeys'

Too woolly by half... c'est la vie!!

Texts: Gen. 12: 1-9;  John 3: 1-17

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Two journeys:
One made in the light of day;
The other made in the silence of the night.
One made through the barren wastes and oases, with family and friends – companions on the way – [and some rather noisy sheep]
The other made through a breathless maze of city streets,
a solitary shadow slinking through the dark.

Two journeys:
One journey made at the behest of the God who spoke and said to Abram:
Leave your own country,
Leave your kin.
I’ll show you another country
I’ll make of you a great nation.
In that place, and as you journey,
You will be a blessing to others.

The other journey?
Nicodemus, the Pharisee:
driven by his own needs,
his own questions,
his particular assumptions,
and theological viewpoint...
searching, seeking,
and in the dark on so many levels.

Two journeys:
Yet with strangely similar parallels –
People travelling to places they had never been,
whether geographically, intellectually, or spiritually.
Both journeys requiring openness,
the readiness to embrace newness:
new frontiers of place,
of heart,
of mind and of soul.
Both journeys requiring a degree of risk:
Of having to leave some things behind –
a comfortable settled life,
people, places,
positions of power, attitudes.
Both journeys that had at their heart an encounter with God:
the God of Abram,
and God made flesh –
the God who speaks,
and the Living Word, Jesus.

Two journeys.
Two very different conversations.
Two very different mindsets.
But both filled with the potential of transformation,
both filled with possibilities...
and both filled with faith:
Abram was perhaps the more obvious – he seems to get the better press –
as he responded willingly to God’s call to embrace an unknown future –
packing up the tents and launching out
just at that time in his life when he could have been enjoying the benefits of his bus pass,
or relaxing in the jacuzzi in the oasis
and talking about days gone by.
But instead of looking back to the past,
And, having passed the prime of his life,
instead, he looked to the future and walked towards it.

But Nicodemus, too, was a man of faith –
doubt does not mean lack of faith.
A blogging friend, and inspiration, Jan Richardson, writes:
I'm intrigued by Nicodemus,
and by how intrigued he is by Jesus.
I love the wonderful detail that John includes about Nicodemus in chapter 19,
... Joseph of Arimathea tends the body of Jesus...
"Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds."
And then Nicodemus and Joseph together wrap Jesus' body with the spices and linen cloth and place his body in a tomb.
We don't know a ... lot about Nicodemus, but this strikes me as a wondrous glimpse into the effect that his night-time conversation with Jesus had on him.’

Somewhere, deep within Nicodemus, in amongst the doubts and questions, was a hope,
a faith that this rabbi, Jesus, would have the answers to the questions in his heart. 
Even though he chose to meet with Jesus in a clandestine way,
meet him he did.
And had he been discovered, he may very well have lost his position,
his status as a leader and a teacher of the Jews,
as a person who was respected. 
And yet, he risked it all and made a journey to Jesus.

In doing so,
Nicodemus, cautious, hesitant and afraid, acknowledged that God appeared to ‘be’ with Jesus, and talked of signs and wonders...
And was then rebuked quite soundly by Jesus the Teacher,
and told that he really didn’t understand.

In the rebuke,
and in the ensuing conversation,
Nicodemus was to get a lesson in the wideness of faith that he didn’t quite bargain for. 

We so easily get caught up in John 3, verse 16, that we can overlook verse 17 –
‘It was not to judge the world that God sent his Son into the world, but that through him the world might be saved.’
And in the Greek, it not only means to save or rescue, but also means to heal, and to preserve.
And this for the entire world... not just the people Nicodemus perhaps had assumed. 

A tale of two journeys:
journeys about new birth, new creation, new life,
new relationship with God...
the gift of a fresh start.
And perhaps, in this season of Lent,
not two journeys,
but a tale of three:
for we also are a journeying people,
responding to God’s call in our lives.
Sometimes, we hear God’s call and respond like Abram –
even though we might be comfortable where we are, we may nod to ourselves, smile, and respond freely, willingly...
and jump into the next part of the journey,
and in the process, surprise not only those around us, who might think we’re utterly mad,
but perhaps surprise ourselves as well.

At other times as we walk with God,
we may be like Nicodemus –
questioning, fearful, hesitant...
yet even in the midst of the doubts,
still respond to God’s call, as we wrestle and fight and pray.
As Abram and Nicodemus responded to God, and were challenged to think beyond their own personal boundaries –
or, if you like, to think outside of the box –
we too are challenged in the way we respond to God’s call.
How do we journey?
Who do we journey with?
Who are we afraid to journey with?...
Whose company do we refuse and
who do we try to prevent from undertaking the journey with us?

There’s an old hymn I’ve been thinking of recently, which says:
‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in his justice,
Which is more than liberty...’

As God’s called people
We are called not only to journey with God,
And not only to journey with those who are like us –
or indeed, who like us and who we like.
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy which compels us to widen our own boundaries,
to open the boxes,
to question our assumptions about who fits in
and who does not.

The season of Lent gives us time and space, as we journey to the Cross and beyond it, to the Resurrection, to reflect upon the way in which we respond to God’s calling – both as individuals, but also as the gathered community of God’s people here in [parish in the 'burgh].

We step into a future without compass or map, called to take risks,
called to new levels of trust and reliance on God.
Instead of exclusionary parochialism –
a version of ‘this is a local church for local people’ –
instead of defining people out of the community "according to our own tastes and predispositions" [Eugene Peterson]
God calls us to a universal and inclusive embrace of everyone and
"all peoples on earth."

We are called to be the community of the fresh start,
the second, the third, the fourth,
the infinite chance:
to demonstrate the healing, saving, wideness of God’s mercy.
‘The purpose of Lent is not to dwell on suffering,
or to spend 40 days bewailing
our manifold sins and wickedness
for the sake of feeling our pain. 
Lent is about engaging in the ongoing process
of renewal, regeneration, and new birth,
it is about encouraging us to trust, and to risk,
going forth and being sent out with the promise of new life.’  [Angela Askew]

And back to another verse from the hymn mentioned earlier:
‘For the love of God is broader
Than the grasp of human mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.’

The God who spoke to Abram and asked him to go,
to leave his kin
and his country
and who said that Abram would be a blessing to others
is the same God that we worship.
As we journey with God through Lent and beyond,
may we respond to God’s call,
the call to trust God’s creative,
transforming power in our lives,
the call that urges,
entices us into an unknown future,
a future that is filled with new possibilities.
And may we, like Abram, be a blessing:
a blessing to one another -
those we know
And those we do not.
May we be a blessing –
as we share the good news of
God’s healing, restoring grace to the world....

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