Preacher Revd Neil Summers
All the characters mentioned in today’s readings were people who – to use the cliché – had to think ‘outside the box’. First, Abraham hears the news from God that he will become the ancestor of a great nation; the Hebrews’ nomadic wanderings will come to an end and they will become a blessing to all the families of the earth. And so, the Abram saga begins with the words, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…’ It is a call to a new life, but Abraham has to leave the world of his own ancestors, break the ties of kinship, and follow wherever this takes him, into new relationships and new territory.
It is no wonder that this aspect of the story impressed St. Paul over a thousand years later. In becoming a Christian missionary, apostle, and church planter, Saul the Pharisee had made a radical break with his culture and the faith of his ancestors, and had entered into a new relationship with God, founded on God’s promise of new life in Jesus. Paul also entered into a new life of ceaseless travelling around the eastern Mediterranean. Perhaps he saw in the saga of Abraham and Sarah another connection to his own life. They had set out into an unknown future with no map; they had to ‘think outside the box’ – and so did Paul. He recognized that God’s promises of new life in Jesus broke through the limitations of the piety he had grown up with. For example, he – to some consternation, no doubt – advanced the theory that God’s promise and covenant were for women as well as men, for slaves as well as those born free and, most crucially, for Gentiles as well as Jews. Abraham and Paul were both called to trust not only in what they had received from their ancestors, but in new ways of thinking and living revealed to them in their new relationship with this insistent and demanding God. They broke with their experiences of the past and moved into an unmapped future, to become new and contemporary ‘people of God’s promise.’
In John’s Gospel today we find Nicodemus, a devout member of the Temple leadership in
Jerusalem, questioning Jesus about God, the promise-maker. There’s no need to suppose that Nicodemus was unwilling to make the move into an unmapped future for new life, though he certainly seems to balk at the language Jesus uses – as might we! For Jesus says that those who want to enter into this relationship with God have to be ‘born again’, a mysterious and quite intimidating notion. What does it mean, or imply? John’s language here echoes that of Paul when he says that if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a ‘new creation.’ New birth, new life, new creation: these images of entering into a new relationship imply that God’s promise for new life entails God’s gift of a fresh start, freed from the limitations of the past in order to enter a new relationship with God through the power of the always-present Holy Spirit.
Lest you should think all this applies only to biblical characters, this is the point at which the promises of God touch our own lives, perhaps especially in Lent. Lent is a time for engaging with the new terriotory Jesus offers more deeply, risking new levels of trust, a bit like Jesus in the wilderness. As I mentioned last week, there can sometimes be a rather unhealthy tendency to revel in misery, negativity and even self-loathing at this time of the year. But the purpose of Lent is surely not to dwell on suffering, or to spend forty days bewailing ‘our manifold sins and wickedness’ (BCP), just for the ultimately self-indulgent purpose of ‘feeling our pain.’ Lent is about preparing ourselves afresh for this ongoing process of renewal, regeneration, and new birth. It is about encouraging us to struggle and wrestle, certainly, but also to trust, as we take the risks involved in leaving some things behind and being sent out with the promise of new life. It is no coincidence that, in our hemisphere at least, Lent is closely associated with spring, the season of new life.
Lent may require us to ‘think outside the box’ of traditional Christian piety and religiosity as we do this – just as Abraham and Paul had to break with their past. That didn’t mean that the past had been a waste of time, or that it should be forgotten. But it did mean a willingness not to let the past dominate the present or the future. To stay in the past, to insist that the past was always better, to refuse to look at the reality of the present – risky, uncomfortable and challenging as that may be – is to put ourselves at risk of becoming fossils and, at its most extreme, could lead to seeing the dynamic Divine Spirit go ahead of us and leave us behind. When the ancient authors of the Book of Genesis told the story of Abraham, they were at the same time inscribing new place names, creating a new social geography, on the territories of their migrations in company with this God. To respond to God’s promise for new life means we have to be ready to redraw and rename the places on our journey.
I wonder whether at this point in the 21st century, God may well be inviting us to rethink how we ‘do church’ in light of the contexts, cultures and social geographies of today. When Saul the Pharisee became Paul the Apostle – as we know him – he brought new words, new images, and new community structures into being – ‘calling into existence things which do not exist’, to use his own words, by trustfully following Jesus into new life. Lent is for listening to that call in our own lives. In the words of an old hymn no longer in our modern hymnals, ‘new occasions teach new duties, and time makes ancient good uncouth.’ Strong words; they are not about rubbishing the past, but they are about embracing the future. Lent is for careful thinking about how to step into the as yet unmapped future for the church, about renaming the places on our journey, as we seek to trust the vision of new life in Christ. In the light of the challenges to the relevance of the church in an often indifferent, even hostile context, it seems the Lenten call may be to identify the breaks with the past that we need to make in order to respond to the promises – the sending forth – of God’s story in the present and in the future.
Someone once shrewdly remarked that living by religion and living by faith are not the same thing. Living by religion is not necessarily an easy thing, but it can seem almost a doddle when faced with the challenge of living by faith. Living by faith calls us away from personal comfort zones and familiar ground into God’s unknown and, yes, risky territory. Perhaps the most important promise, however, is that we don’t go there alone, for God travels into that territory with us. Indeed, as Scripture implies, God goes constantly before us, and promises to meet us there.