|Today’s scripture readings:
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther allegedly posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and sparked a revolution within the Western Christian church. And during this 500th anniversary, we have been invited to revisit our Lutheran roots, examine them anew, and ask what Martin Luther’s great insights mean to us today as 21st-century Christians.
On Wednesday nights during Lent, we are re-reading Luther’s Small Catechism, asking, “What does this mean, today?” If you missed last week, you’re more than welcome to check it out this week. More information about that is in your bulletin announcements. Last Wednesday we had a discussion on Luther’s explanation of the Ten Commandments. One of the things that struck me this time around is how Luther puts the First Commandment at the very center of things. The First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” What does this mean? Luther says that, according to this First Commandment, “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” Luther says more in his Large Catechism. He says some people believe they have all they need when they have a lot of money or possessions, or when they have great skill or wield great power, when they are held in high esteem by others, or when they have influential friends. All of these are false idols, Luther says. We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.
I remember hearing someone say once that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. The opposite of faith is when we think we already have all the answers and we don’t need to bother with anything outside of ourselves, when we believe we don’t need to leave any room for ambiguity or mystery. The opposite of faith is trusting in ourselves rather than in God.
Today’s lessons give us two characters who provide interesting case studies in faith. The first and second lessons tell us about Abram, who you probably remember went on to be renamed Abraham. The scriptures hold him up as the very model of faithfulness. In today’s first lesson, God appears to Abraham when he’s already an old man. He and his wife Sarah have been unable to bear children. You would think at this point in their lives that Abraham and Sarah would have come to terms with their childlessness, and that they’d be putting their names on the waiting list at the local senior living facility—you know, someplace with wider doorways and the option to move into assisted living when the time comes. But instead, God calls to Abraham, and says, “Abraham! Leave where you are now and go where I’ll tell you to go.” And without asking any questions, without hesitation, Abraham and Sarah set out. It’s almost absurd, and I think that’s the point: The kind of faith Abraham and Sarah exhibit is absurd. This is a story of plain and simple obedience to God—to put it in Luther’s words, a story of fearing, loving, and trusting God above all else.
Contrast that with the story of Nicodemus from today’s gospel lesson. Nicodemus is a successful and self-confident man. He is well-studied and knows his stuff. He plays a leadership role in his community; he’s a Pharisee, one of the religious authorities. He’s curious about Jesus, so he makes an appointment to see him. But he’s not ready to go public with his curiosity; he’d rather his colleagues didn’t know he’s dabbling outside the mainstream, established religion of the day. So he makes the appointment in the middle of the night. That way the meeting with Jesus can happen in secret. He goes to Jesus because he’s pretty sure Jesus has answers—and Nicodemus is the type who likes to have all the answers. The problem is, Jesus’ answers only make Nicodemus more confused. “Wait just a minute,” Nicodemus says. “I have to be born again? How is that even possible?” His final words in today’s lesson are, “How can this be?” It seems those who approach Jesus looking for certainty are left scratching their heads.
Just a couple verses before this story, Jesus calls his first disciples. Like Nicodemus, these first disciples have heard about Jesus, and they too have some questions. “Where are you staying?” one of them asks. “Come and see,” is Jesus’ reply. Upon hearing where Jesus is from, another would-be disciple asks, mockingly, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” His friend replies, “Come and see.” The amazing thing is that each of these seekers accepts that “come and see” invitation. They don’t really know where it will take them or what lies ahead. They have far more questions than answers. But they hear the call: “Come and see.” And thus begins their journey with Jesus. But Nicodemus? He just wants the answers. He’s not looking for a journey whose destination is unknown.
I want to be more like Abraham, or like these first disciples of Jesus—one who hears the call and immediately follows. But I’m usually more like Nicodemus. Most of the time, I’m willing to accept the call to follow Jesus, but only if it’s safe. Only if I can see exactly where it will take me. Only if it passes my cost-benefit analysis. Only if it fits with my own plans for the future.
The truth is, I don’t think there really are that many Abrahams in the world. Actually, Abraham himself isn’t even a perfect model of faith. A bit later in Genesis we will learn that even though God had promised to make of Abraham and Sarah a “great nation” of countless descendants, Abraham doesn’t trust that Sarah, who is already a old woman, will ever be able to conceive. So he takes matters into his own hands and has a child by Sarah’s servant, Hagar. Eventually, at the age of 90, Sarah does conceive a child, Isaac, who becomes the heir of the promise.
God seems to understand that imperfect, unfaithful people are all there is to work with. God doesn’t give up on Abraham, even when he mistrusts the promise of a child. And God doesn’t give up on Nicodemus, either. In fact, Nicodemus will show up two more times in the Gospel of John. In chapter 7, when his fellow Pharisees are becoming more and more furious with Jesus and want to see him arrested, Nicodemus defends Jesus and argues for a fair trial. And in chapter 19, after Jesus has been put to death, Nicodemus joins up with Joseph of Arimathea, and together they prepare Jesus’ body for burial and place him in the tomb. For Abraham, for Nicodemus—and I would guess for all of us—faith is a murky, ambiguous effort. It’s a winding road with peaks and valleys, moments when we’re learning to trust, and others when we give in to doubt.
I love what Rainer Maria Rilke writes in his book Letters to a Young Poet. He says: “I would like to beg you… to have patience with everything that is unsolved in your heart and to try to cherish the questions themselves like closed rooms and like books written in a very strange tongue. Do not search now for the answers, which cannot be given you because you could not live with them. It is a matter of living everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.”
God extends a standing invitation: “Come and see.” Come along for the ride. It’s not the destination that matters; what matters is the journey. We become people of faith on the way; we live into faith. God will continue to call us, like Abraham and Sarah, from places of safety and security to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden. God will continue to call us, like Nicodemus, out of our desire for certainty into the unknown. God will call us—to journey, to struggle, to find ourselves born anew.
Stephen Cook, “On Beyond,” on Day1, accessed March 11, 2017, http://day1.org/7715-stephen_cook_on_beyond.
Mary Halvorson, “Preaching Helps: Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017,” in Currents in Theology and Mission, January 2017, accessed March 11, 2017, http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/52/76.
Deborah J. Kapp, “John 3:1-17: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Karoline M. Lewis, “John 3:1-17: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, quoted by Mary Halvorson.