The Second Sunday in Lent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Genesis 12:1; John 3:1-17

“Go,” said the Lord to Abraham. It was the first word addressed to the man who would become the father of Israel–the man through whom God called the people of Israel–and it set the pattern of God’s word to all people of faith.

What is thought to be the earliest creedal statement in the Bible declares, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” (Dt 26:5). Believers are people on the move, always changing their addresses, figuratively or literally, as a part of their ongoing drama with God.

In other words, faith is not something we get fixed, settled, nailed down for all times. Faith is discovered in the journey. And that is both the problem and the promise with biblical faith. It always calls us forward, into new and unexplored territory, bringing new possibilities where none existed before. That is a prospect which is exciting, but which is also risky.

Abraham’s call to go to a new land occurred in a context of barrenness. Usually, Genesis 12:1–“Go from your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”– is understood to be a pivotal turning point from the prehistory to the story of Israel. But we need to remember that Abraham’s call comes in the context of barrenness, and therefore, to his mind, hopelessness. Sarah was unable to conceive a child. And with no children, Abraham and Sarah were the end of the line.

The long genealogies that make up Genesis 10 and 11 and that lead up to Abraham really seem to lead nowhere. The family who descended from Noah to Nimrod to Canaan to Shem to Shelah to Reu to Terah to Abraham has played out its future and has nowhere to go (except to vanish into oblivion).

But then God breaks into this futureless context with the greatest announcement in Israel’s history: “Go . . . to the land that I will show you. 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. God’s word is promise-bearing and life-giving. And Abraham’s response is faithfulness.

Paul, in this morning’s epistle, praises Abraham for his faith in a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Out of no people, God was creating a people to bear his promises and fulfill his purposes.

Abraham couldn’t have discovered the trustworthiness of God if he had not gone when the Lord said, “Go.” You can’t follow God without moving and you can’t move without leaving some things behind.

Abraham left his country, his kin, his father’s house. To move with God means to make choices to leave certain things behind. Certain options will be closed off if we respond to God’s call. Some of Jesus’ disciples were asked to leave their families, or their work, or their wealth, or sin, or even their grief over the dead. Jesus’ entire ministry was on the move and he expected his disciples to be ready to go with him.

Some people start the journey thinking faith can be an “add-on,” something to enhance life, perhaps an extra resource to help out along the way. But faith is not simply extra baggage we can add on while leaving everything else about us the same.

To follow God in obedience involves turning away from certain things, leaving behind some old attitudes, values, and behaviors, even discarding those ideas we have nailed down and fixed about God—and the people of God. The first movement of faith is response to the command “Go from,” –“Come, follow.” But the toughest movement to make is not physical but attitudinal.

And, for Christians, maybe the hardest movement to make in spiritual life is to give up our image of Jesus—that Jesus we’ve “created” by who we think he is and want him to be for the greater vision of who he really is.

Mary and Martha, the sisters of dead Lazarus, had to give up their image of Jesus as healer only to discover he was the resurrection and the life. Nicodemus had to give up his vision of Jesus as rabbi to discover he was the Son of God. The disciples had to give up their ideas of Jesus as Messiah to see him as the suffering servant at their feet.

So, the point of following God is not to arrive at a place we choose but at the place God chooses for us to be. The point is to follow and to know that we find our identity in who it is that we follow, wherever that may lead.

Abraham had a destination but what was ultimately significant was that it was God’s destination. He went where God led him.

The call to go is risky because we don’t know precisely where the Lord will be leading us. It’s a new land but what that land looks like, we haven’t yet seen. It’s a new thing God is doing, but what that new thing is we don’t yet know; and we don’t know if we will like that new thing & that new land that God has in mind for us.

But we may just have to learn to live more comfortably with that uncertainty as we contemplate the future of the church, and the future of our lives, if we stay the course God has set for us.

What we can’t do (if we are faithful) is to retreat to the past and try to nail down the church to what and how it used to be. That what is, is enough. That there’s no need to move forward or do more or risk anything, including ourselves. That might be what we’d all like to do and the easy thing to do—to stay in the old house, in our old country, in the old homeland with our “kindred,” the place with which we’re familiar and comfortable—but if we do, if we’re content to just sit still, afraid and unwilling to move, we’ll miss the blessing God has for us, and we’ll miss the future God has for us.

People of faith are people on the move, in mission, going forward. We answer the call to go, and discover where God is leading us along the way. That creates a certain messiness and uncleanliness in the church, sometimes, as we struggle over the new possibilities God sets before us, and the personal and corporate responsibilities we are called to. Strange, uncomfortable lands will have to be traversed.

But if we are to be faithful to God’s will rather than our own, and to seeking out God’s promise, truly, for all those who belong to God, rather than our own desire to keep things as they’ve always been, then we have to take the risk, accept the guaranteed cost and sacrifice that comes with following God’s way. We have to look and be sure that our way is God’s way. & If it is, & if we will follow, then God promises that great blessings will come.

So “Go, from” . . . “Come, follow.” Take the risks, move into God’s future, but don’t necessarily expect to have any more clarity about where you are going than Abraham did. Abraham responded to God’s call on faith, in a promise. We must be willing to do the same. And the promise is that when we trust and obey, God will bring possibilities where none existed before.

Faith is a journey, and Lent focuses on a journey in which all other journeys of faith find their place. Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and moved toward the cross, but also toward resurrection. It is a sacrificial movement toward finding a blessing, a home, a place, an identity in God’s kingdom and in God’s plan and purpose.

And Jesus’ journey is our journey too. We are all of us, if we accept the call, heading for Jerusalem—toward a palm parade, a last supper, a cross on a hill, a tomb, and, thanks be to God, Easter.

In our journey of faith, where we’re always on the move, in a world where God can’t be boxed in or “nailed down” (at least not for long), we’re headed toward a new home—Grace Cathedral is headed for a new home—where blessings are abundant and promises are sure, “–in the presence of the God who gives life…and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Amen.