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Sunday, March 12, 2017

Unseen, Untrodden, Unknown

God has called us to step forward in faith, not knowing what is ahead, and so we do, trusting God is always with us, even if the road ahead is unknown and frightening.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
   The Second Sunday in Lent, year A
   Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

Imagine that first night on the road.

Out in the wilds, in tents, with temporary corrals for the animals, what were Abraham and Sarah thinking? Why did we leave our city home to go . . . where? How did Abram talk me into this? Did I really hear God’s voice?

Were they frightened? Excited? Probably both. Nicodemus, too, as he stepped out of the shadows edging the street and came to Jesus’ door: What if another Pharisee sees me? Why am I here? The others say he’s a blasphemer, but I sense something. Should I knock?

Abraham and Sarah. Nicodemus. Hearing the voice of God, they stepped out in faith. They followed its leading. But it had to be as terrifying as it was exhilarating.

Faith was no easier for them than it is for us. Their stepping forward in faith was just as frightening as any step we take. But we have the gift of their story, their testimony. If we sit with them in that critical night of their first steps, we can find light for our own paths ahead.

We find the beginning of light in Jesus’ redirection of Nicodemus.

Nicodemus wants to talk about whether Jesus is from God. But Jesus wants to talk about new birth. Birth from above. Birth in water and the Holy Spirit.

The gift is that Jesus calls this a birth, not an ending. The Spirit gives us birth in baptism’s water, but she doesn’t reveal everything that is to come. Birth is beginning.

We don’t remember our physical birth. We entered the world with nothing but future, nothing but potential. Our present was living, breathing, eating, sleeping. Others cared for us, cleaned us, fed us. Everything we would become was yet to come.

So Jesus says our life of faith begins: in baptism the Spirit bears us into newness of life, as Christ ourselves, anointed ones. What we will be, where we’ll go, what we’ll do as Christ, is unknown.

Just as it was that night for Abraham and Sarah. For Nicodemus.

When Eric Milner-White, dean of King’s College at Cambridge, wanted a prayer reflecting Abraham’s faith that night on the road, he focused on the unknown Abraham faced.

He wrote, “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.” [1]

That’s our faith. Born into new life in Christ, even if some of us have years living into our baptism by now and some only months, the future is still unseen, untrodden, unknown.

What do these faithful ones today tell us that gives us hope and encouragement, instead of fear?

They listened to God’s voice.

Abraham’s task was hard: in his world no one believed there was only one God, unseen, all-creating. People didn’t hear their many gods speak to them. But somehow Abraham heard God’s voice, and listened. And credit to Sarah, who didn’t hear herself. Her faith was to trust Abraham.

Nicodemus is more like us: he had Jesus, the Son of God, to seek out and hear. We sometimes romanticize how great it would be to hear God’s voice directly like Abraham or Noah. But we forget that in Christ Jesus we see the face of the Triune God, and in Christ’s words from the Scriptures and given into our hearts through the Spirit, we can hear God ourselves.

So here is our first task: are we listening to God’s Word speak, and discerning what it means for our path? They heard things that challenged them to leave what was comfortable and go into what was unfamiliar. But they trusted they were hearing God’s true voice.

So first we open our ears.

Then they took a step.

They not only heard challenging words from God, they acted on them. Abraham and Sarah became the parents of a great nation, models of faith. Nicodemus moved from secret discipleship to openly declaring his faithfulness at Jesus’ death, claiming his body for burial.

They weren’t perfect. They made mistakes along the way. They had no idea where the path was leading them. But they took that one step. They did this one day at a time. They started a venture they could not see the end of, headed down paths they’d never walked before, and faced dangers they couldn’t predict. All of that could have crushed their faithfulness at the start. But they didn’t focus on that. They took one step.

So can we. When we hear God call us to follow, to become Christ, we can start with the first step. The first night on the road, fearful and excited. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

And they stepped forward because they trusted they weren’t alone.

Jesus says the Spirit goes with us, unseen, but always there. Nicodemus eventually trusted he wasn’t alone, trusted in the God whose love for the cosmos sent Jesus into the world to save it, not judge it.
Abraham and Sarah were told to go “to a place that I will show you.” God promised to go with them and guide them.

We are never sent down the path of faith alone. “God will not let your foot be moved, neither will the one who watches over you fall asleep,” we sang with the psalmist this morning. Our help comes from the One who made the heavens and the earth, we sang. We look to the one who “justifies the ungodly,” Paul told us today, so we know even in our failure we aren’t abandoned on the road.

With the faith God gives us, we can trust, as we pray, that God’s hand is leading us and God’s love supporting us. These faithful forebears aren’t heroes. They’re like us. Ordinary people, wanting to know where God is, listening for God, and stepping out in faith, trusting they are walking with God.

When we join them in that night of their first steps, we find companions.

Each of us individually hears challenges from God to who we are, that pull us into places God would have us grow and change. We each are drawn to become something new and unknown and perhaps frightening to us, for the sake of God’s love that fills us.

And we have these same experiences together, as community. We listen here not just for ourselves alone, but for ourselves together, as Christ’s body. Together we will see new paths of following Christ open up before us that we can’t predict, that seem a little scary.

But we share this journey with Abraham and Sarah, with Nicodemus, with each other. We help each other listen for God’s voice and hear. In our fear, we encourage each other to take the individual steps each of us is called to take as we become Christ, and the larger steps together we are called to take.

It’s like being born; the future is unknown. But it’s being born from above, Jesus says, from the love of the Triune God for the universe that caused God to come and be one of us, be lifted up on the cross for the sake of all people, so no one will perish. That’s where we’re born from, and that’s where our paths of faithfulness ultimately return.

So we go forward in faith, not knowing where we go, but only that God’s hand is leading us and God’s love supporting us. That’s enough for today’s step.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

[1] Daily Prayer, ed. Eric Milner-White, G.W. Briggs; Oxford University Press, 1941; p. 14 (with modernized language from various sources)

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