SERMON 12 MARCH 2017
Long, long ago, before there were cities, when the earth was full of empty, unknown spaces, the people carried their homes with them, their tents, their belongings, their children and their old ones. They tended their flocks and found watering places. Sometimes they found good, safe places to stay and they settled. Then their lives could develop a different rhythm.
Accustomed as they were to living close to the earth and to the elements – sun, wind, rain, storm and fire, they knew the power of the Almighty. Their stories told of a great flood that had covered the whole earth, and of how their people had survived through the faith of one man who had listened to God. They knew too, the stories of how, later, the people had grown proud and tried to build a high tower to reach to heaven, but how God had destroyed it and scattered the people making them speak in different languages so that now they were different and strange.
Long, long ago, the people feared the power of the Almighty and knew that they must listen to him. But often they forgot, because now they were comfortable. Then the voice of God spoke once more to Abram, unsettling him, telling him he must move, leave the place where his tribe had settled, and go somewhere else. Quite where that was Abram was not told. But God said that he would bless Abram and make his name great. God would be on Abram’s side. So Abram, his wife Sarai and nephew Lot packed up their tent and all their possessions and took their servants and livestock and set off.
God had called them on and they knew they had to go, because God didn’t just promise blessing. Their whole future seemed to lie within this. They entrusted themselves to this. They became pilgrim people, and their story became the foundation for everything that happened after for their people, the nation they became, as God had promised. They knew it was not an easy story. They recounted pain and hardship, but always, ultimately God’s presence and God’s blessing. So, ever after, the Israelites remembered the faith of Abram and were proud to be his descendants.
Setting out into the unknown, uprooting oneself, these have been the elements of many a good story. Maybe there is something deep within the human psyche about the call of the wild, the lure of that challenge that still speaks to many people today. Is that why people set off to climb mountain peaks or to sail the oceans alone? Is it that spiritual heartbeat that resonates in the wilderness places? There is something about peeling off the layers of civilization, the often unnecessary burdens that obscure the elemental foundations of being. Maybe that is why many people nowadays set off on pilgrimages, to the desert heart of Australia, to Santiago di Compostela, to Iona, to name just three.
We here may not be about to set off into the wild, but we here are part of the Uniting Church whose identity is named as being “A pilgrim people”, people “on the way”. To be a pilgrim is to be called into awareness of that call of the elemental God that is always nudging us on. It is about listening to the voice that says “I am your God and you are my people” and to hear the Christ who says “Follow me”. The voice that promises blessing. The God who, after all, IS blessing, IS love, IS mercy, and so much more.
There is a wildness to all this that is fundamental, scary and full of hopefulness. Which is why we look to Jesus who lived in this way and who, we say, is the pattern for our own living. Our life of faith always point us to him. Our deep human searching turns to him because we find, as we look, that his being resonates with our own yearning and our need.
There was a man, a learned man, who sought after wisdom and truth. His faith nudged him on, and he found himself facing questions and directions that were hard to deal with. We know his name. Nicodemus. A good man, who would, later, remind the powerful people around him that they could not just charge the man Jesus, whose fate they were debating, without first hearing him. Nicodemus was a man who, later still, would be there after the execution and bring spices to prepare Jesus body for burial. But now he came, under cover of darkness because it was not easy for him to be there. He came because he wanted to find out more, nudged on, no doubt, by the searching spirit within him.
And so there is this wonderful glimpse of the interaction between these two men. In true rabbinical style, statements are made that clarify the argument. “No-one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone we born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
Here the rational arguments break down. “How can this be?” Nicodemus asks, because he is still seeking to understand. He knows Jesus is not talking literally. What is here now is mystery. And it is here that things have too often gone astray. We are being asked to be attentive to the Spirit, that wild Spirit that blows where it wills. That wild Spirit that calls to the obscured, elemental parts of our being and says “I am God and you are mine. Come and be part of me.” We cannot pin this down, though too often people have tried, making this rebirth, this being born again into something concrete and we can choose and do, rather than accept in awe. How un-mysterious this can become. There was an elderly woman, years ago, who used to stand outside St Mary’s theological college in St Andrews in Scotland, holding up a notice and accosting people with the question “Have you been saved. Are you born again?” The Principal of the college one day just responded, “Well, I am damned if I’m not”.
Being “born” is more actually translated as being conceived. I read this recently, addressing the thinking that being born again is something we do: “(saying that) underestimates the power of the Spirit in conceiving a new humanity in Christ and falls short of acknowledging that God is doing something with me and his creation that originates in his own life of love, shared between Father and Son, in the power of the Spirit.” Being born again, and again, in the Spirit, is about being opened up to that relationship within God that draws us in to be part of that ever weaving connectedness. We become connected to the whole of God’s creation. There is a vital, key, unifying thing, not a corralling into a safe place with others who are similarly saved from damnation.
Nicodemus is being led into a whole vast new understanding of God as Father and Mother, Son and Spirit, a whole new conception. No doubt he went away again into the dawning light of a new day and realised how much had been now conceived and would grow in him by the grace of the Holy Spirit. For John, writing this, his account comes to the climax in those cherished words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
There was mystery for Abram and Sarai as they heard the call to go, to set out into the promise of blessing. There is always mystery around where the Spirit leads and, in Lent, we open ourselves up to that listening and leading. We do so, knowing that woven deep into the fabric of our being, undergirding all the struggles and apparent senselessness, there is an unbreakable thread of God’s elemental Spirit. So we can look to Jesus and, without knowing the answers, follow as pilgrims on his Way. So we open ourselves to finding ourselves being refashioned, always, through the life of the Spirit.
Because this is mystery and we cannot and should not pin it down, the things of the Spirit are more often approached through poetry and music. So, in conclusion, here is a poem by Malcolm Guite:
In the beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes for us His glory,
And makes us each other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.