Archive for March, 2011

Bold Blessings

Monday, March 21st, 2011

Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17; Psalm 121

How much risk are you willing to assume? This is the question financial advisers always ask, to help you make investment and pension decisions. Do you want to invest in nice, safe investments with low risk and even lower returns? Or high-risk stocks that which can make your rich or ruin you?

Of course money isn’t the only thing we risk in daily life. We take our lives in our hands walking across the street, driving in a car, or flying in an airplane. When we fall in love, we take a chance that the object of our desire won’t return our love, and we risk a broken heart.

Life is full of risk. So despite the fear that risk-taking causes, we usually forges ahead—like the old expression, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Living without risk is not really living.

Although new risks like nuclear power and global warming make modern life seem overwhelmingly dangerous, life has always been full of risk. Both of the stories we have heard today are about taking risks so that we can receive and give blessings.

God’s call to Abram was dramatic and bold: “Go from your country, and your kindred and your father’s house, for a country which I will show you.” The three-fold repetition emphasizes what an important move this is for Abram.

Go from your country: It takes a lot of courage to pack up and move to a foreign country, particularly on the basis of God’s call. You’ve got to doubt your hearing—is this really what I’m supposed to do? “Are you sure, God? You said what??”

In the ancient world, going off on your own was much more dangerous than it is today. There were no social service agencies or police to help you, embassies to check in with, or ways to be evacuated like we’ve seen on the news lately. Abram and Sarai probably had to learn a new language, and how to survive in a strange land.

Go from your kindred: Abram must leave his extended family, but it’s not only the joy and comfort of living near relatives that he is giving up. Families and kin provided a means of making a living as well as support in the ancient world.

Go from your father’s house: Abram, as elder son, would have been expected to stay home and care for his aging parents.
To leave before his father’s last illness, death and blessing would have been unheard of. Abram leaves with his integrity intact because his parents have already died.

And there’s one thing more—did you notice Abram’s age when he left? 75! Imagine moving to a new country and learning a new language at that age. Abram and Sarai left comfort, familiarity and security behind because God said “Go!”—not for a promise of riches or even a better life, but because God promised to bless them with descendants. Not only that, the whole world would be blessed through them.

Today’s gospel reading is also about blessing and risk. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to Jesus in the secrecy of night to check him out.

As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have been somewhat rigid and focused on strict adherence to rules. That’s how his particular group of lay leaders attempted to make sense of the chaotic world they lived in. As a prominent leader in the Jewish community, in territory occupied by the Romans, he was probably afraid to be seen with Jesus the rabble-rouser. Or at least, that is how the author of the gospel of John tells the story.

We know that this gospel was written down well after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. Judaism was trying to redefine itself, in the absence of the Temple system. Christianity was also trying to define itself, to discover whether it was a Jewish renewal movement, or a whole new religion. It was common for Christians to worship together separately, but still participate in the synagogue as Jews. But eventually, they had to choose—and Christians were forced out of the synagogue, giving up family, friends and business contacts.

In their talk, Nicodemus focuses on Jesus’ miracles, the signs and healings that to him spell divinity. But Jesus’ grace is not so much turning water into wine and other signs, although they are important, but the gift of sacrificial love. Jesus poured himself out for all, not just a few. Through Jesus, God reached out to embrace and bless the whole world:

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. John 3:16.

The famous John 3:16! You may have seen the citation displayed at sports games and on license plates and bumper stickers. It’s probably the most quoted Bible verse in the New Testament.

I like the version of it found in The Message:

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

John 3:17, in the New Revised Standard Version, tells us that God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but to save it. Yet John 3:16 is commonly used in a judging, condemning way by some. If people don’t believe in Jesus in just the same way that these people do, then they are considered “unsaved,” and condemned to hell.

But love, to me, is clearly the focus of the sentence. “For God so loved the world!”… God did not want to condemn the world, but to save it! God is clearly the actor here; yet the usual interpretation is focused on something that WE have to do to be saved.

That interpretation perhaps comes from Jesus’ remark, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” The word translated “again” can also mean “from above.”

Whichever way you translate it, I don’t think Jesus meant to focus on our acts or a rigid set of beliefs. He describes being born of the Spirit, which like the wind blows where and how it chooses. There is nothing rigid or prescribed about it.

Just like the wind that rushes here and there, the Holy Spirit sweeps through our lives, bringing fresh air, new perspectives, and change. God always finds new ways to bless us, and calls us in new and challenging ways for us to be a blessing for the whole world.

Like Nicodemus, we often find ourselves saying, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus doesn’t want to give up his comfort in the law, or his security in his religious practices, or his sense of control, and we don’t either. But God calls.

Jesus asks Nicodemus to open himself up to the transforming and uncontrollable leading of the Spirit; just as God called Abram and Sarai; just as God wants to stretch us and open us to new things. As we are changed and blessed, it is our call to bless others; even, the whole world.

After their talk, Nicodemus disappeared back into the night; we don’t hear of him again until after Jesus’ death, when he helps to bury him. Evidently, what Jesus set in front of him was too frightening. God’s call may seem challenging to us, too.

You may not feel that God or the Universe has ever spoken to you, or perhaps that has occurred. You may have received some special knowledge, or heard significant words from a friend, and put it down to intuition instead of divine communication. Each of us has different experience and a different vocabulary to describe those experiences.

But how ever you may feel about the nature of God and how or even if divine consciousness works in the world, I think two things are crystal clear in scripture. God loves the world and wants to bless it; and God calls all who will listen, to be instruments of that blessing.

There will be speed bumps; perhaps even road blocks—but we can get by them. We may feel inadequate as individuals and as a small church without a lot of money, but God’s strength and comfort is always available to us through the Spirit and through other people. As the Beatles song goes, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

We can step out boldly to be a blessing because we know God is watching over us, just like the mountains mark the horizon, as it says in Psalm 121. Every time you see the foothills and mountains around you in Charlottesville, remember this: God loves you, and will bless the whole world through you; God’s strength surrounds and helps you. Thanks be to God! Amen.