Stepping Out (in Faith)

“Stepping Out (in Faith)”

Gen 12-5 God-calls-abram

John 3:1-17, Genesis 12:1-4 – March 8, 2020

Is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life?

Faith is complicated, for many reasons. Sometimes, people can have a lot of faith in someone or something. Other times, those same people can choke up, or get scared or anxious. And, sometimes, those same people can step out in faith, taking big chances—or opportunities.

We have two stories of faith this morning. Miss Eileen read them to us. The first is the calling of Abram by the Lord, and the second is the nighttime visit of Nicodemus to the Rabbi Jesus. In both of these we see faith, and the need for faith.

I ask again: is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life?

We look first at Abram, in Genesis chapter 12. He was living in a big city called Ur, and at this point he probably did not know very much about the Lord, the God who made heaven and earth. Abram was fairly well off, with flocks and herds and other resources. In other words, a man of substance. Similar to someone in the upper middle class here in the Chicago area. Can’t you see a well-off executive, or business owner, or entrepreneur, getting acquainted with the Lord for the first time? That is the situation for Abram here.

We have a different type of man in Nicodemus, presented to us in John chapter 3. Nicodemus was a renowned teacher in Israel and a member of the religious council in Jerusalem. (Probably what we would call a full professor of bible and theology at one of the leading universities today.) He was curious and intrigued enough to visit this new upstart Rabbi Jesus, to have a one-on-one conversation with Him.

Abram had a one-on-one with the Lord, too. The Lord of heaven and earth had a command for Abram: “Go.” Go out from your comfortable house and stable place of living, Abram. Go into the wilderness, and I won’t even tell you where your destination is. Just, go, Abram. Go because I tell you to go.

In Nicodemus’s one-on-one conversation with Jesus, the set-up was a little different. We see Nicodemus—the well-respected, senior teacher of Israel—coming to the young upstart Rabbi by night. Sneaking away to see Jesus, because it probably would not be good for his reputation. Imagine, a highly-placed, scholarly professor, actually having a conversation with this young guy with the wild and crazy ideas? Sure, this Jesus is a Rabbi, and He is knowledgeable about the Bible, but, some of His ideas are way out there. Yet, as we see from reading John chapter 3, Jesus has just as much authority as the Lord of heaven and earth.

We see Abram and his reaction to the Lord. When the Lord says, “Go!” Abram packs up his bags and tents and flocks and herds, and his wife Sarai and nephew Lot, and does just that.

We hear much more of the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. We hear the marvelous words of John 3:16-17, which is part of Jesus’s response to Nicodemus. We do not find out much about the response of Nicodemus—at least, not yet.

In the children’s time today, I talked about Abram and how much faith he had. Abram went when the Lord told him to go. And, Abram did not even know where he was going to end up. He had faith in God. Isn’t this another way of explaining faith? Faith is more than what Abram thought. Faith is what Abram did and where he went. Faith is believing God.

Is faith an important part of your life? Your everyday life? Is faith more than just what you think? Is faith what you do and where you go? Just like Abram?

Nicodemus is a little bit different from Abram. Abram actually stepped out in faith. The Lord told him to go, and he went. But, Nicodemus was more cautious. Isn’t it difficult to jump in with both feet? Or, step out, the way Abram did? Nicodemus didn’t want other people knowing about him going to see this young Rabbi Jesus.

Sure, we might know lots of things about Jesus. We might think Jesus was right about a lot of stuff He said, too. Jesus even did a whole lot of miracles! At least, people said He did. Or, do we sneak around and visit Jesus by night, under cover of darkness, just like Nicodemus? Are we willing to stick our necks out and tell everyone we are Christians, in broad daylight? Or, are we afraid people might make fun of us for believing some of that stuff about Jesus, including that part about the resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven?

Sure, Abram shows us what it means to believe the Lord, and to act on that belief. Faith is having our Godly sandals on, and stepping out. Faith is what we do and where we go.

But, before we criticize Nicodemus for not having “enough faith,” this is not the end of his story in the Gospel of John. No, we see him again, twice. In John chapter 7, Nicodemus came to Jesus’s defense when the religious authorities tried to defame Jesus. And again, in John chapter 19 after the crucifixion, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimathea with burying Jesus.

We see Nicodemus as he steps out in faith, listens to Jesus’s words, and watches Jesus’s actions. In his everyday life, faith becomes what Nicodemus does and where he goes.

It’s true that having faith can be a challenge to you and to me. We are not necessarily people of great faith. As commentator Karoline Lewis states, “Believing for the characters in the Fourth Gospel is a verb. And as a verb, believing is subject to all of the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the indecisiveness of being human.” [1]

Did you hear? Yes, it is only human to be unsure. And, yes, believing—even in God—is something that is a journey. A stepping-out-in-faith journey like that of Abram, in Genesis 12, even a hesitant, journey-by-night, like that of Nicodemus, starting in John 3 and continuing throughout the Gospel of John.

For over 100 years, starting in 1859, the Sunday School Times was published. This was a Christian family magazine. Features, articles and vignettes were all included in this publication, including the following:

“There was once a good woman who was well-known among her circle [of friends] for her simple faith and her great calmness in the midst of many trials. Another woman, living at a distance, hearing of her, said, “I must go and see that woman, and learn the secret of her calm, happy life.” She went, and, accosting the woman, said, “Are you the woman with the great faith?” “No,” was the answer, “I am not the woman with the great faith, but I am the woman with the little faith in the great God.” [2]

We believe that God can love us and forgive us, even when we mess up. How can such things be? Because we believe in a great God.

Is faith an important part of your everyday life? We may not be giants of faith, like Abram. We can still step out, in our uncertainty and our hesitancy. We might just be stepping out at night, under cover of darkness, as we strive to have more faith, like Nicodemus.

We might have little faith, but we believe in our great God. And, that’s enough. Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=43

Commentary, John 3:1-17 (Lent 2A), Karoline Lewis, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2008.

[2] http://www.moreillustrations.com/Illustrations/faith%208.html (Sunday School Times)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Faith, Birth from Above

John 3:1-17 – March 12, 2017

Jesus and Nicodemus, JesusMAFA

“Faith, Birth from Above”

Got faith? Really, do you have faith in anything? Perhaps, faith in electricity, to keep the lights and appliances working in our houses. What about faith in our doctors, or in the medical profession in general? Some people would say “yes” and others “not so much.” How about faith in the Chicago sports teams? That kind of faith is getting more and more difficult to keep up.

What about in our Scripture readings today? We have already heard about Abraham, and how he had faith in his God. In each reading, we have a person in our list of faith recipients. A person who tried to have faith and trust in someone or something outside of themselves.

Let’s take a closer look at Abraham’s situation. Reading from Genesis 12: “Now 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.” Everything the Lord was saying sounded strange and unfamiliar. God did not even name the country where Abram was supposed to go.

Turning to John 3, Eileen and I acted out the encounter Nicodemus had with the Rabbi Jesus; let’s remind ourselves of that situation. “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He 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.”

Nicodemus was trying to have faith in someone or something, but faltering. That sounds a lot like us. Don’t we hesitate and falter sometimes, when trying to have faith?

“Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus 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?”

This is a real puzzle for Nicodemus.  Added to that, Nicodemus had heard Jesus a number of times, thought He was right about a lot of things, but still was cautious.  Put yourself in Nicodemus’s situation. How would you like to be a big-shot teacher of Israel, well known not only among the common people, but also with his colleagues among the Pharisees? He brought his questions to Jesus at night when no one would see him and maybe make fun of him. [1]

Perhaps we are in a similar position, too, where some of us here are cautious or hesitant about finding out more about Jesus. For sure we are in the same boat as Abram: we don’t know quite where we are going, or where this new land really is.

This whole trusting-Jesus-business requires some faith.

Another way of looking at this is that we need to find a new perspective, too, like the Apostle Paul said about Abram in Romans, our New Testament reading today.

Leaving everything familiar to begin a new life? Going to an unknown land, you don’t even know where it is, or how far away? Look, Abram is not coming back. This is certainly no there-and-back-again journey. This is no pilgrimage, either.

I was fascinated to learn some things from one of the commentators. “On a pilgrimage, one sets out to a new place or a holy place to learn something and return where one came from with some new insight for living back home. Abram’s is to be a permanent relocation, something far more like the experience of the millions since Abram who have immigrated to other countries, including the vast majority of the population of the current United States or at least their ancestors.” [2]

I know some of you here are familiar with computers. You might even know how to “reset” or “restart” your computer with a CTRL-ALT-DEL move on a Microsoft Windows®-based computer. Maybe that was what Nicodemus really wanted to do. (It does get frustrating, being uncertain and unsure, not knowing where on earth we are going!) Let’s look at the situation from Jesus’s point of view. Jesus wanted to bring Nicodemus into a whole new world. He started talking about a new birth, or birth from above.

A sermon website I go to from time to time had a superb illustration. (I’m sorry, but I don’t know the name of the anonymous pastor.) “When I was a country pastor trying to get directions to a farm that I had never been to before, if the directions were complicated, the directions sometimes began with “you can’t get there from here.” It was their way of saying that starting from a different place would make the trip easier. Sometimes the best spiritual advice is like that — in order to get to life in the kingdom/reign of God, we have to start from a new place, a reborn place in our lives; and that we can’t get there (to the kingdom) from here (our life of sin apart from God). Nicodemus has trouble thinking that you can start from a new place, that you can’t take along all the history and baggage of the past — “how can these things be?” (vs. 9)” [3]

In computer terms, it is almost as if Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to “reboot” — that he can’t run his program any more because there are too many error messages flashing in his life. We need, and God is ready to supply, an entirely different operating system.

Too true! Jesus offered the cautious Nicodemus more than a new perspective. It’s a new birth, and whole new world. And, how is he able to reach it? By faith, that’s how.

When God called Abraham, Abraham left everything he knew to move to a place that had not been named.  That is brave and bold.  That takes faith.

All that faith business is centuries in the past. Nicodemus lived when Jesus lived, and Abram lived a lot of centuries before that. What does all that have to do with today? With modern life, and with us here at St. Luke’s Church? Don’t we hesitate and falter sometimes, when trying to have faith? Today, Jesus would tell us the exact same thing.

Some people treat our relationship with God as something we earn by what we do, by “being good” or at least “not being bad” on the basis of some checklist of good or bad behavior. Have we reduced a life of discipleship to Jesus to morality and status instead of actual faithfulness to trust Him and follow where he leads every day? [4]

When we gather together our courage and go to see Jesus under the cover of darkness—like Nicodemus—He welcomes us. He enters into a relationship with us. We are in the same boat as Abram: we don’t know quite where we are going, or where this new land really is.

What about when we get to the end of that lifelong journey, and cross the River Jordan? There will be a welcoming party when we arrive in the Promised Land, for sure!

My original question at the beginning of the sermon: got faith? This whole trusting-Jesus-business requires some faith. The best part is that Jesus will help us. He understands our difficulties. He is patient, and will walk with us as we journey towards that new land. He’ll be right by our side in the valley of the shadow. Step by step, we strive to have faith in God.

What a Savior. What a Friend we have in Jesus. Amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/02/year-second-sunday-in-lent-march-16-2014.html 

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/second-sunday-in-lent4#bow

[3] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htmhttp://javacasa.com/resources/dps_form_results/jon3_1.htm

[4] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/second-sunday-in-lent4#bow

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

(Thanks so much to the good folks at UMC Discipleship.org! I am following their Lenten series. Their online Lenten sermon notes and worship helps are invaluable.)