I begin today with a familiar quote from Hebrews 1, verse 1:
1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
During the season of Lent, we need glimpses of what is to come -a little sunshine to tell us Spring is on the way, a budding flower, a sprout of green: we need reassurance that Easter is coming, even when we are in the gloom of winter, the knowledge that Spring will come encourages us to continue, to persevere even in the bleakest hours, days, weeks of Lent.
1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Today we are looking at two men in our biblical narrative who approached FAITH differently: Abraham, our forefather and the renowned Father of three major religious movements; and Nicodemus, a Pharisee.
In our story from the Hebrew Bible, we are introduced to the descendants of Terah: and here we see Abrahm’s family: the family of his birth: His father Terah, his brothers Nahr and Haran and his nephew Lot. Terah’s family lived in Ur of the Chaldeans. Now, Ur is the name of their hometown, a city located in modern-day Iraq and it was inhabited by the Chaldeans from 850BCE. (1) And this family travelled into the land of Canaan, but they settled in Haran. (Okay, wasn’t the third son named Haran and now the place is named Haran? I know it’s confusing…) And there, in the place outside of Canaan named Haran, God called to Abram to a very different life, a life of risk and faith:
Genesis 12: 1-4a
1 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. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.” 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
- God said “Go” and he went. At 75 yrs. Old.
- Go from your country.
- Go from your kindred (family).
- Go from everyone and everything you know.
When God called, Abram went. He just did it. That’s an amazing reaction to a call – no questioning, no “where am I going?” No questioning or doubt or “well, maybe I can postpone this a bit….” God told him what to do and Abrahm followed! This is our example of the kind of FAITH we are encouraged to have. When God tells you to do something, you don’t ask questions. You don’t hesitate. You put aside your own plans and your own fears and your own selfish motivations and you just DO IT!
I wish having faith was always that black and white, and I celebrate when it occurs that clearly. But having faith in a complicated world, in a world governed by skepticism and fear and mistrust, is less black and white than Abrahm’s response. Responding to God by FAITH, in my experience, is much more grey….
More often, I encounter the kind of questioning and doubt we find in the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a leader and a Pharisee and:
• Represents the Religious authorities who did not accept Jesus
• Represents those whose faith was inadequate
• Represents those who may have known who Jesus was, but wouldn’t confess it openly for fear of persecution.
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born (from above) anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God. ”
The Greek wordAnothen is translated as “again”, “anew” or more recent “from above”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
So here we see the misunderstanding language can create. Jesus says “born anothen” meaning “born anew” and Nicodemus hears “born again.” Unless one is born AGAIN, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
- Isn’t one BIRTH enough?
This was the way the Jews were part of the community – through birth, through ancestral heritage. This heritage connected them to their forefathers and foremothers and the Covenant God had with Israel. Remember the promise given to Abraham: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
- What about one’s birth order and the status gained through birth order?
Birth was important, birth order, family heritage, who was connected to whom: think about the genealogy we read in Genesis, or the lists of names in Matthew and Luke, or all those people who “begat” other people. Doesn’t that mean anything?
Nicodemus understand Jesus’ proposition to be a nullification of all that Jewish tradition and history and all the promises made to the generations after Abraham. So he asks, how can one be born again?
Jesus understands and explains this word to not born again, but born ANEW. In verse 5, he explains that unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus hears “water” – and thinks “amniotic fluid”: the water that breaks when baby is born. But being born from the spirit is different from the physical processes of birth and Jesus tries to explain.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew. ‘ 8 The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can this be?”
And Nicodemus asks a valid question: “How can this be?” He just doesn’t understand. It’s a difficult concept for him and for many of us.
After this dialogue is finished, Nicodemus fades back into the darkness … and Jesus goes into a monologue. But the story of Nicodemus doesn’t end there.
Nicodemus reappears in John, Chapter 7:45-52, as the Pharisees are considering what to do about this radical teacher named Jesus:
45 Finally the temple guards went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked them, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” 4 6“No one ever spoke the way this man does,” the guards declared. 47 “You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retorted. 48 “Has any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law-there is a curse on them.”
50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51“Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing? ”
52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.”
So here he is again, among the Pharisees and defending Jesus, stepping into a conversation concerning the charges against Jesus, the talk that Jesus had deceiving the “mob … ” And Nicodemus, although still one of the Pharisees, risking everything in this statement. We are witness to the small steps in his faith development.
THEN he appears again at the end of the story, after the crucifixion of Jesus
John, Chapter 19:39-42
38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
AHA! So, is he a full-disciple? We don’t know, but we can assume what John is trying to show us … that Nicodemus, the Pharisee who asked about being “born again” by the end of Jesus’ life has been born ANEW.
Nicodemus is changed, transformed, not in a single moment, not in a flash of supernatural evidence, but over a period of time. Gradually Nicodemus goes from hiding in the shadows to living in the light.
Faith is more that blind belief. Faith is acknowledging the difficulties in believing, and risking it anyway. Faith is learning over a lifetime, taking small steps to trust in God’s continual presence, until eventually we get it.
May we who profess our Faith in God continue to trust that )d is with us, no matter the journey we’re on.
May we who are still on the road toward a stronger faith understand that faith comes in small steps, in our questioning, in our struggles.
May we who are followers of Christ, take the risks that Faith requires, and may we all live into a faith worthy of our faithful God.