Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17
I have to say: Our Old Testament reading today kind of drives me crazy. More specifically, it kind of makes me feel inadequate. This is the first time we meet one of the central figures of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions – Abram, eventually to be renamed Abraham. This account we heard today sounds like it just comes out of nowhere, and that’s nearly true. The verses before it simply introduce Abram and his wife, Sarai, as part of Abram’s extended family living in what’s now southern Iraq. Abram’s father takes his household on the road, intending to move them to Canaan, which is modern Israel and Palestine. But they only go part of the way, hiking up the Fertile Crescent and settling in what’s now southern Turkey. That’s where we pick up the short reading we heard this morning, when God spoke to Abram and said, “Go from your father’s country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…” (Genesis 12:1-2). That’s pretty much all Abram got. But based on this simple call, “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” (12:4)
Now, from this story, we know nothing about what kind of a person Abram was. But I’m pretty sure he wasn’t much like me, maybe not much like you, either. Whatever else might have been true about him, Abram was willing – willing to walk into the darkness with his eyes wide open. I can only imagine how much grief he must have gotten from his family and the workers in his household. “You’ve got to be kidding, Abram. God has told you to leave everything you know and wander to a foreign land? Really? You don’t even know the destination God has in mind.” Abram is rightly held up as the Scriptural exemplar of trust, staking his life on God’s direction. I know I don’t measure up to that.
But then we have the Gospel reading, the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night for a conversation as deep as conversations get. Nicodemus … now here’s someone I can identify with. He’s a religious elder, a Pharisee, a teacher, a leader of the people – someone who’s supposed to have his stuff together. Nicodemus is the man with all the answers. But this night, Nicodemus is the man with all the questions. He comes to Jesus secretly and addresses him as “Rabbi,” teacher. He knows about Jesus’ signs; he understands that Jesus is channeling God’s power. But how? What’s going on here? Jesus tells him no one can see God’s kingdom without being born anew, born from above; and Nicodemus wants to know, “What does that mean? How can you be born a second time?” Well, Jesus waxes poetic about being born of both matter and spirit; he says the wind blows where it will without you knowing where it comes from or where it’s going, but still it happens. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8) – as if that explains anything. And Nicodemus is just as much in the dark as he was before: “How can these things be?” (John 3:9) It’s tough to be the man with all the answers when all you’ve got is questions.
But the night is a good time for questions like this. I don’t know about you, but I find myself lying awake in the wee small hours sometimes, trying to hear a voice that doesn’t seem to have much to say. I can name a few times when God has given me wonderfully direct messages, promising to stand by me and guide me if I’ll take a journey sort of like Abram’s. That does happen – but it’s the 1 percent of prayer. The other 99 percent is asking questions in the dark; and, if you’re blessed enough to get an answer, chances are it doesn’t make much sense. But chances are even greater, in any given moment, that there’s no response at all. And that’s scary. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Learning to Walk in the Dark, darkness is frightening because it forces us to admit that we’re simply not in control. And it’s all the more frightening when we can’t sense God’s presence in it either. As she puts it, “One of the hardest things to decide during a dark night is whether to surrender or resist. The choice often comes down to what you believe about God and how God acts, which means that every dark night of the soul involves wrestling with belief.”1
Ahhh, there it is … the question that lies beneath all the others, the question we face in the dark but rarely ask out loud. Does God exist? Is God really there? When I pray, am I just having a nice conversation with myself? Plenty of people, past and present, would say that’s exactly what I’m doing. Skeptical people sometimes look at people of faith and wonder, “How in the world could you really buy into a relationship with an invisible friend?” That’s not the question Nicodemus raises with Jesus, but I think Nicodemus has much in common with our skeptical hearts. Like Nicodemus, our skeptical hearts actually want nothing more than to believe in something deeply. The interrogation Nicodemus gives Jesus comes from longing, not a desire to play “gotcha.” Nicodemus wants to believe, and he’s looking to Jesus to help him understand: “How can these things be?” Jesus’ own mother, Mary, asked the same question of the angel who told her she would be the mother of God. “How can this be?” asks the skeptic today who sees his marriage failing, and who sees children across town going hungry, and who sees women trafficked as slaves on American highways, and who sees thousands of God’s children warehoused in prisons, and who feels under siege by bitterness and intolerance both inside and outside our nation. And our own skeptical hearts join the chorus: “How can you believe your invisible friend is really there?”
In a few days, our friend Fr. Marcus will be walking in Abram’s footsteps. Today is his last Sunday with us, after three and a half years as part of this parish family. It’s fitting that we’re in this sermon series as he concludes his time with us, because Fr. Marcus has asked questions we likely wouldn’t have considered otherwise, questions we tend to leave in the dark. He’s also built relationships with newcomers, and prayed with kids on ski slopes, and told holy stories in Children’s Chapel, and retrained himself from swinging incense every Sunday of the year. Now, Fr. Marcus is heeding God’s call to the frozen north, a distant land far from his “country and [his] kindred and [his] father’s house.” Unlike Abram, at least Marcus has an address; but he doesn’t really know much of anything about what life will be like in this new land that God will show him. And still he goes, with our blessing and into the blessing God has in store – both for him and through him for the people God loves.
But you know, Fr. Marcus isn’t the only one walking in Abram’s footsteps. So is Mtr. Anne. Later this summer, she will journey on sabbatical and return to us a different role. Another one walking in Abram’s footsteps is the priest whom God will bring here to minister with younger adults, families, and the community around us. This summer, God willing, he or she will come into this parish family, having left another land and kindred behind. And honestly, so am I walking in Abram’s footsteps. A church’s life is always changing, right out from under you it sometimes seems; and this summer, we’ll be taking down HJ’s and putting a newer, more efficient building in its place to support ministries we’re now building and continuing to grow.
The truth is, we’re all Abram’s children. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, much less the years to come. We spend our days planning for that which we imagine but cannot see. Eighteen years ago, I went to seminary with a little savings in my pocket and a pretty decent plan: My wife, Ann, would work full time to support us and our two little kids. But I left seminary with a wife who’d nearly died of lupus and was disabled and on chemotherapy. Oh, yeah, we also left with a mountain of debt. Nice work by that invisible friend, I hear the skeptic say.
Here’s the thing: I know God is there. Ann is healthier now than she’s ever been since the fall she nearly died. That mountain of debt is a thing of the past. I find myself in this beautiful place with you beautiful and broken people, striving to hear and follow God’s call together as best we can. Many of us could tell a story like that. So here’s how I came to know that God is there: Because after asking all the questions, after stumbling in the dark, after feeling sorry for myself, after demanding to know the destination – at the end of it all, I took the risk to trust.
When we hear that story of Abram setting out for an unknown land, and when St. Paul writes about Abram’s faith, we’re not hearing about someone who just believes something. The answers that come in the dark are not verifications of intellectual propositions. The final answer that comes in the dark is to trust – to make the choice to stake our hope and our lives on “the assurance of things not seen,” as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it (11:1). We begin as Nicodemus, interrogating Jesus to make sense of God’s ways. We stand there with Nicodemus, trying to fit vast truth into our intellectual boxes. We hear Jesus mumbling mystery; and with Nicodemus, we cry in the dark, “How can these things be?!” (John 3:9).
But you know, at the end of John’s Gospel, Nicodemus comes to Jesus again. This time, he’s not asking questions. This time, he’s putting his own life on the line in the darkest moment of them all, as Jesus’ dead body is taken down from the cross. Nicodemus shows up, with Joseph of Arimathea, to take the body away for burial, despite the risk that the Romans might kill him, too. And to prepare the body, Nicodemus brings with him “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39) – tremendously more ointment and burial spice than he needs to do the job. Now, maybe Nicodemus was just trying to ensure that his failed leader’s body didn’t stink. But I choose a different interpretation. I see Nicodemus investing everything he’s got in something even less reliable than an invisible friend. I see Nicodemus investing all his trust in the man lying dead before him and the divine Spirit that will blow through that body three days later. For, as the apostle Paul writes, God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17).
On the world’s terms, this is no way to live. But for Abram, for Marcus, for Anne, for our next priest, for me, for you – it’s the only way to live. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life.”2 So, to Fr. Marcus, and to Mtr. Anne, and to all of us who invest our hearts in whispers we hear in the shadows, let me say: Keep staking your life on the presence and power of the living God – the God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” For glorious things await us as we walk in the dark.
1. Taylor, Barbara Brown. Learning to Walk in the Dark (p. 135). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
2. Taylor, (p. 55). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.