Genesis 12:1-4a 12Now 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. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
1I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
2My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 4What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. … 13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
John 3:1-17 3Now 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.
Good morning, St. Matthew!
We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray.
Holy Loving God – You have blessed us with a gift with which we struggle; the gift of free will. Although we holler and shout that we feel bullied by the laws of commandments of faith, it remains our choice and our decision if we will actually follow those laws. And when we really realise that freedom, it is terrifying. We find ourselves staring into the void of the wee hours of the night and wondering if we have made the right decisions, will make the right decisions and whether we can ever realio trulio know or sure that ANY decision we have EVER made was the right decision. Into these empty hours comes your love and grace – if we will but lift our hearts to receive it. Help us Holy Spirit to lean into asking the hard questions and being quiet enough to listen to the answers you provide. Send us the faith to pray, to ask and trust that we will be heard and answered.
In your holy name we pray. Amen.
This Lent we are following the theme of Dust and Glory. We are dust and to dust we shall return – but because of God’s love and grace, we are given the chance to lay down our past choices and be transformed into creations of God’s glory. Throughout the coming weeks, we are exploring and meditating on this theme. And so we continue our journey.
How many of us have had that 3am wake up, when your brain seems to hand you a worry or concern that absolutely will NOT let you fall back asleep? I certainly have – and 500 years ago, the Holy Spirit seems to have been particularly active in the life of the church. The story of Martin Luther begins with his restless soul that could not reconcile what he was reading in Scripture with what he was being taught in the church. His wrestling falls into just the right moment of history and the Reformation is born. Central to that historical change is Luther’s conviction that the world as he knew it had to change or be changed so that the word of God could be preached aright.
And guess what? Then, just as now, the church culture really, really didn’t want to change! So the more Luther pushed, the more the structures doubled down. We in the Lutheran church like to talk about the day in 1517 that Luther nailed his 95 Theses concerning the mistaken practice of indulgences to the church door in Wittenberg – but the truly crushing moment for him came in 1521 at the ecclesiastical trial in the city of Worms. The entire might of the papacy was brought to bear on this renegade monk. They told Luther in no uncertain terms that if he continued in his proclamation, he would be excommunicated. Today we might not shake and quake at this threat but then it literally meant you were condemned to hell, as ONLY the church could get you in with God. And too it meant that you were now a free target; having a condemned soul meant anybody could kill you and it wouldn’t matter. You simply ceased to be a child of God. In the old 1950s movie about Luther, the actor caught perfectly the terror of that moment. His face falls, and he simply can’t speak. We do know that Luther asked for the night to consider his answer. That night must have been literally filled with crashing fear and a million what ifs. Yet the next morning, as Luther came to address the gathered power of Rome, he stated; You cannot show me where in Scripture that I am wrong. So. Here I stand. I can do no other.
Fifty years later, another renegade monk was in trouble with the Roman Catholic Church. In Spain, a monk called St. John of the Cross had become affiliated with St. Teresa of Avila. Both of them believed that the church religious needed to become more strict in their practice; that they needed to get back to basics with daily prayer and discipline. But here’s the irony – in demanding that the church be more strict, they were defying the church! And you might guess that the church was not in the mood to be defied! The Roman church was fighting the growing Reformation with all its might and dissenters – even faithful dissenters – were not welcome! If you are a Monty Python fan, there is the joke here: “no-one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” but John gets swept up in it. His imprisonment is described as follows;
He was jailed in a monastery where he was kept under a brutal regime that included public lashings before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell measuring barely 10 feet by 6 feet. … He had no change of clothing and a penitential diet of water, bread and scraps of salt fish.
It is during this time that John writes his famous poem called the Dark Night of The Soul, in which he talks about a vision in which Christ comes to him in the midst of all his troubles – his dark night of the soul – and sustains him, as he asks the questions that dissolve the world he has known into the world that is coming to be. In our day and time, we have come to see all sensual language as sexual language, but in his poem, John is lifting up the tender loving care that God extends to him in Christ as he is brought into God’s revealed vision of what life truly is. John writes of the night as “happy’ because it will drive him to Jesus:
In that happy night,
In secret, seen of none,
Seeing nought myself,
Without other light or guide
Save that which in my heart was burning.
In the encounter with Jesus, he is comforted, challenged and restored. His language is full of God’s caresses and kisses, and then he concludes:
I continued in oblivion lost,
My head was resting on my love;
Lost to all things and myself,
And, amid the lilies forgotten,
Threw all my cares away.
His poem is an amazing testimony as to how God meets us in our need and offers the love and grace that will sustain us in the journey. For the Christian, that grace is manifested in Jesus. We come to Jesus full of doubts, fears and questions. And we are not turned away.
That trusting gracefilled faith that we confess, however, does not start with the God revealed in the New Testament. It is called the New Testament because it is the fulfilment of the Old Testament. I have said repeatedly that the Jewish faith stands just fine on its own, but Christianity must look back to our Jewish roots to understand the promises made manifest in Christ. And this morning we have several good examples of that Sankofa understanding – of looking back to see how we carry the past into the future.
The lessons for today all contain the reality of a hard journey. Abram and Sarai answer the call – not knowing they will become their new selves, Abraham and Sarah. They will have to make a long and mistake filled journey to fulfil the destiny that God is calling them to live out. And they cannot know in the midst of those missteps, mistakes and misjudgements that it will truly come right. Yet they are willing to take that path because they trust the one who is calling them. Paul reminds the Roman faithful that what made Abram and Sarai into Abraham and Sarah is the faith to meet God on that arduous path. We don’t get to sidestep the hard questions and the difficult journey, but we are assured that God will be with us on that walk, that no matter how much we will have to lay down of what we have known – God will meet us with so much more!
Like Luther, like John of the Cross, Nicodemus is questioning whether or not the faith that he has received is the faith that is being revealed in front of him. And like Luther, Like John – these are dangerous questions to ask! The times are turbulent and troubled. Jesus has stirred things up by his proclamation – but there is no way to fault him! His words and actions are faithful – no matter how Nicodemus turns them over, he cannot find the flaw. Yet all of the people Nicodemus works with, respects, trusts – all of his fellow priests on the Sanhedrin are dismissing and plotting against this man. The contradiction pokes him, prods him, provokes him until finally he gets up in the middle of the night to seek Jesus out and ask.
And what happens? Jesus doesn’t tell Nicodemus to get lost. He doesn’t assume that Nicodemus has come to trap him or ridicule him. He doesn’t dismiss Nicodemus saying either it’s the wrong time to ask, or meet him with caution or sarcasm; Jesus meets Nicodemus as a genuine seeker, and he talks with him, challenges him, and ultimately offers him such a complete assurance that generations after him will call John 3:16-17 the entire gospel in two verses! Nicodemus’ world of law and custom dissolves in the face of God’s love and grace. This will literally remake Nicodemus; he will, like Luther centuries later, choose to make his stand in this new world. While he cannot stop the crucifixion, he will advocate for Jesus to receive his full rights under the law that Sanhedrin bring against him. Think about what that took! There are folks literally screaming for this man’s blood – and ALL the authorities are on board with this official lynching. But the man that came to Jesus in the night has been transformed by that adversity into a man who can make the choice to say “Here I stand – I can do no other.”
In the journeys of faith, we are all called to acknowledge that we have to lean into God’s love and grace – even if we cannot see or even understand the whole path or where it will lead. Those questions that wake us up at 3am and ask us to look at and examine and question if what we always thought was right actually is right – are in fact terrifying! It’s stupid to try and say that we can walk that path of faith without making mistakes, missteps or misjudgements. We are, in the language of faith, in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. But perfectly following the letter of the law isn’t what saves us! What saves us is Jesus! Trusting that he is the fulfilment of all those Old Testament promises, allowing the Holy Spirit to make your map – that is faith. Listen to the words that Jesus gave Nicodemus – words that changed him and allowed him to walk through his struggle and come out the other side as a disciple of Jesus, because in laying aside all that he knew, he met God’s son.
For God so loved the world that God gave their 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.
When those questions about what is real and what matters and how do I choose – come at 3am – and they will! – will you look to the law and the shoulds and the existing human structures and authorities to lead you? Or will you lean into the Holy Spirit to guide you? Will you trust that Jesus will meet you in the void of the wee hours? That God will bring you to the place, where despite your grey hair and barren body, you will be blessed with new life? That in that faith you can look at all that stands against you and proclaim – Here I stand; I can do no other?
We are dust and to dust we shall return – but because of God’s love and grace, we are given the grace to lay down our past choices and be transformed into creations of God’s glory. Let’s make the choice to live into our glory!