A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
March 12, 2017
(Genesis 12:1-4a; Ps 121; Romans 4:1-5 & 13-17; John 3:1-17)
God is the great initiator. Both Abram and Nicodemus hear and respond to the voice of God.
God is also the great sustainer. Our psalm insists – repeatedly – that YHWH is our ‘keeper’.
God is also the great finisher. Jesus’ invitation is that we might embrace the gift of ‘eternal life’.
We so easily hear today’s passage from Genesis as the story of Abram – and, of course, Abram is a key character. The patriarch, however, is far from being the main player. In fact, his is a relatively minor role. Everything in this story, until the very end, amounts to the action of God.
God calls: ‘Go from your country…to the land I will show you’
God promises: ‘I will make you a great nation…’; ‘I will bless you and make your name great’; ‘I will bless those who bless you..’; ‘…him who dishonours you, I will curse…’.
Only after God has called and promised does Abram do anything. Even then is seems rather minor and indeed, understated: ‘So Abram went…’. A less than dramatic start for the one Paul calls ‘…heir of the world…’.
Importantly, however, it is a faithful start. All Abram does is listen to God’s call and promise. Trust the God who speaks. Obey God’s call.
Romans 4 is what we call Jewish Midrash. Paul’s telling of the story of Abram’s obedience functions as a test-case for the core statement of the gospel he proclaims. Just before our reading Paul makes a big claim: ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works’ (Romans 3:28). In our reading Paul uses the story of Abram to back-up his claim. Abram’s story is an example of one who was saved by his trust in God.
Paul has not simply chosen any random character here. Abram’s story is of great significance for this pharisee-of-pharisees whom God called to take the gospel to the nations beyond his own Jewish culture.
Abram heard God’s call and promise centuries before God gave the Jewish law to Moses. He trusted God’s call and promise before he took on the sign of circumcision. It was this trust in God, this faith, that ‘justified’ or saved Abram. God’s declaration of ‘righteousness’ over this elder of both circumcised and uncircumcised could never be based on the the legal code. As Genesis declares, ‘Abram believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’.
And Paul, in today’s passage, really only insists that nothing has changed!
The account of Nicodemus’ coming to Jesus by night holds strong similarities to the experience of Abram. This leader of the Pharisees at some stage sees the ‘signs’ that Jesus is doing. It inspires him to seek a private, even secret, conversation with Jesus. Perhaps he fears his peers. Perhaps his faith needs to know more.
Nicodemus, as he comes, demonstrates faith. He seems not to even realise this until Jesus points it out to him: ‘…unless one is born again (or born from above) he cannot see the kingdom of God’. This statement responds to the leader’s confession that in Jesus’ miracles he sees that ‘God is with him’.
This ‘seeing’ is a God-initiated gift from above. Although Nicodemus clearly does not understand all that God is doing, the Spirit (or wind / breath) of God has ‘blown’ him in the direction of this conversation. God quietly called. Nicodemus trusted enough to come.
Faith bought Nicodemus to the feet of Jesus.
There is something vital that we see in both the faith of Abram and the faith of Nicodemus. Neither of them hold to an ‘invisible’ faith. In both cases the trust inspired by God’s call draws them to obedience. Abram ‘goes’. Nicodemus ‘comes’.
It seems to me that Paul’s message of salvation by faith apart from works was prone to misunderstanding even in his own time. You will remember from the New Testament letter of James the insistence that ‘faith without works is dead’. There too Genesis 15:6 is quoted ‘Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness’.
James does not hold to a salvation by work’s gospel. Rather he insists that faith can not be seen apart from the work it inspires: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” Both today’s heroes demonstrate this reality. Abram’s faith caused him to ‘go’. Nicodemus’ faith caused him to ‘come’.
Perhaps today’s conclusion is best left to the New Testament’s most famous words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It is, of course, a call for your trust in Jesus and his Easter work. It is my simple prayer that this Jesus-inspired faith will truly come alive – to the point that it can be ‘seen’ – as we prepare together to hear again the account of God’s giving of his precious son for us.