Genesis 12:1-4a | Psalm 121 | Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 | John 3:1-17
Sarai is 65 years old – 65 – when God calls her and her husband Abram to leave their home in Haran. They’ve built a life there. They buried their father, Terah (yes, Abram and Sarai had the same father), there. He’s got a nice plot in the church cemetery. Maybe Abram, Sarai, and Lot have all bought their plots next to Terah’s. Surely they’ve planned to stay there. 75 and 65 might not be that old in the book of Genesis, but they aren’t necessarily spring chickens.
Genesis 13:2 tells us that they’re very wealthy. The time for adventure has come and gone. They’ve worked hard, built a life for themselves, and now it’s time to enjoy that life. Maybe take more half-days, maybe let the kids start to take over the family business.
Only that’s the problem: Sarai is barren, and they have no children. Despite the life they’ve built, despite their comfort and wealth, Haran is a barren place for Sarai and Abram. She has seen her dream of motherhood wither as the years have passed. She has probably come to accept it. It gnaws at her, but she has made peace with inability to have a child.
But then God calls her and her husband to leave it all behind – to leave the comfort and security of home to travel to a new place. Calling a 75 and a 65 year old to pack up, leave everything they know, and travel into the unknown with no one but God to guide them is absurd enough, but God doesn’t stop there. God tells them that they will become a great nation, which implies having children.
The biggest shock is not that God calls Abram and Sarai to leave their home, it’s that God asks them to believe in the impossible. Packing up and moving, while out of the ordinary, is far from a miracle. People pack up and move all the time at all ages for all kinds of reasons. But a 65 year old, barren woman having a child and mothering a great nation in a “promised land” that they’ve never seen before is a whole other ballgame.
This is not a journey into another land, this is a journey into hope.
God’s call is not a demand, but a promise.
But Sarai and her husband Abram must make a choice. Will they live into this promise – this hope – or will reality hold them back?
Can you imagine the conversation she must have had with her husband, her partner, as they prepared to leave. I can just see them, the night before they were scheduled to leave. It’s 2:00 AM and they’re still packing. Clothes are strewn across the bed, and Sarai breaks down. “I just can’t do it. I’ve tried for 50 years. Year after year, month after month, I got my hopes up, and year after year, month after month, my heart was broken. I want to believe, but I just can’t anymore. It’s too scary. I can’t take the disappointment.”
But deep down inside her, even as she said these words, she also felt something growing, something filling her chest. Despite her best efforts, despite all the fear in her heart, hope was winning out. Hope that God could do the impossible, hope that God could be trusted. And so she believed. Most likely without knowing how or why, she told Abram she was on board, she finished packing, and in the morning they set out for that land that’s very name said it all: the “Promised Land”. A land defined not by geology or geography, but by the promise of God.
Some of us, perhaps, are in a barren place. We’ve built a life around ourselves, we are relatively comfortable, but it’s a life characterized by safety more than flourishing. We’ve traded in dreams for reality, hope for cynicism. Because hope is too risky.
And this is really really understandable. I know that there are good reasons to be hesitant. Perhaps God has failed to show up a time or two for some of us. We thought we could trust God, and it seems like God left us out to dry. And now despite wanting to hope, we’re skeptical. Like Sarai, we feel like we just can’t do it anymore. It’s easier to stay in Haran, where there is a certain barrenness, a lack of hope and promise and presence, but there is safety. Our heart won’t be broken if we don’t open it up.
Others of us have become too educated. The stories from Scripture are just that: stories. They have good lessons, but when the rubber meets the road it’s hard to believe that God’s really doing anything in the world. Sure, the idea of Jesus doing a “new” thing sounds good. Believing in a God of resurrection and restoration gives us a kind of theological backing to the values we hold, but, in the end, we don’t actually believe God is working. It’s all up to us. To put our hope in God is naïve. We are on our own.
I have personally felt both of these feelings. At times it’s very hard to look at the world, or at our own lives, and really believe that God is active.
The Apostle Paul paints a picture of the resurrected Christ doing restorative work in the world through the Holy Spirit, and the life of faith takes place “in” him. Paul repeatedly uses this phrase “in Christ.” The idea ultimately being one of participation. Christ is working in the world and we get to join God in this work because we are “in Christ.”
But when we look around that, at times, seems hard to believe.
Are we partnering with God, or are we out here on our own?
If God’s working, why is the world in such bad shape? The environment is deteriorating at the hands of humans, the vulnerable continue to be exploited, the rich keep getting richer. If Jesus is God’s rescue plan, it doesn’t seem to be working.
Nicodemus, when he visits Jesus, is perhaps having similar feelings. He has grown up in the Jewish tradition, become educated, and now is an esteemed leader. And yet, Rome continues to occupy Jerusalem. It’s been roughly 400 years since the last prophetic book, Malachi was written.
So Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees have started to doubt whether God’s really working.
Like Sarai losing faith in God’s promise and coming up with her own plan: have Abram father a child with her slave Hagar, the Pharisees have begun to take matters into their own hands: go through the motions of holiness, play the game, but don’t rock the boat. Maintain. Don’t expect God to actually show up and do anything. Get comfortable in Haran. Learn to live a barren existence, one void of the living God.
But when Jesus arrives on the scene, Nicodemus and his buddies begin to realize that perhaps God is working. He says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (v. 2). Nicodemus sees that God is present and active and moving in Jesus.
But he’s still hesitant. He can’t quite bring himself to believe it. Really? Really? So he visits Jesus under the cover of night. Like the darkness outside, doubt still shrouds Nicodemus’ heart.
Jesus, as is his tradition, doesn’t mince words. His message to Nicodemus is virtually the same as God’s to Abram and Sarai: “Go.”
Just as Abram and Sarai had to leave Haran to enter the promised land, so Nicodemus has to leave the comfy world he has built for himself in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. His prestige, his position, his education, his wealth won’t mean anything. He’ll have to enter this new place – this kingdom of God – like a newborn baby: totally helpless, totally dependent upon the Spirit of God. The Spirit of God that is like a wind blowing here and there.
Jesus tells him, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v. 8).
When I was 13, I finished my final year at Highland Christian Academy, the small school run by my church, McCall Baptist Church. To celebrate, our 7th grade class went on a field trip to Victoria B.C. One of my clearest memories was from the ferry ride, I believe, from Port Angeles, WA to Victoria. We started out sitting inside, at the front of the ship. It was kind of awkward and quiet in there, with people talking in quiet voices. A group of us decided to go outside, even though it was raining and the waves were choppy. When we stepped outside, we were hit by wind that was so strong it pushed us back. I’d never experience wind so strong. We stood out on the deck for a while, feeling enlivened by the brisk, strong wind that pushed so hard against us. At times, it felt like the wind was going to pick us up and carry us away. At times it felt like our feet left the ground.
Jesus says that that’s what the Holy Spirit is like. The Spirit wants to grab us, to sweep us up in the movement of God, to birth us like a loving mother into a new world, the kingdom of God. But we have to let the Spirit lift us. We have to let our feet leave the ground.
So long as Nicodemus keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground, so long as he resists hope, he will be unable to recognize God’s movement in the world. Jesus (and to a lesser extent his followers) has entered this new kingdom, the one characterized by hope, so he can see it everywhere. He can see the Spirit moving, feel the presence of God in every place, but Nicodemus can’t yet. Jesus says to him, “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (vv. 11-12).
There’s a disconnect between Jesus and Nicodemus, they are sitting side by side, but they’re living in different worlds. Jesus is living in what he calls the “heavenly” realm while Nicodemus still lives in the “earthly” realm. Jesus is being pushed and pulled by the Spirit, driven by the hand of God. Nicodemus is living in a world void of the Spirit, a world where religious talk is just that: talk.
Soren Kierkegaard said:
“…no one becomes a believer by hearing about Christianity, by reading about it, by thinking about it…while Christ was living, no one became a believer by seeing him once in a while or by going and staring at him all day long…The proof does not precede but follows; it exists in and with the life that follows Christ. Once you have ventured [to follow Christ], you are at odds with the life of this world. You come into collision with it, and because of this you will gradually be brought into such tension that you will then be able to become certain of what Christ taught. You will begin to understand that you cannot endure this world without having recourse to Christ.”
Kierkegaard says, as Jesus said to Nicodemus and God said to Abram, you cannot know until you’ve stepped out in faith. You have to let the wind that is the Holy Spirit catch you up. You have to let your feet leave the ground.
Nicodemus wants to incorporate whatever Jesus has into the life he’s built without leaving that life behind. He wants to stay in Haran and get the blessing, but Jesus says the blessing is found in the journey.
Our new website says that we are a church that’s journeying deeper into the love and knowledge of God. Like Sarai and Abram, we have said that we’re willing to leave the familiar. Our hope has overcome our fear.
The thing about a journey is that you don’t always know where you’re going, you don’t know who you’ll meet, and you don’t know what will happen. So, like Jesus traveling into the wilderness last week, this is a journey into the unknown.
When we look at Jesus and his disciples, and we look at Sarai and Abram, we see that these journeys are not just metaphorical or intellectual, they are literal. They really moved. God said, “Go!” and they went. As Kierkegaard said, one doesn’t follow Jesus by thinking about him, one follows through action, and only after the action does the proof of his presence come. The hope I’m speaking of is not a hope that sits back and waits for something to magically happen. It’s a hope that sees all the pain in the world, in our own lives, and refuses to let it have the last word.
Kierkegaard said that following Jesus will put us at odds with the world. The hope of God collides with the hopelessness of the world. It’s a hope that believes in restoration even though we see destruction all around us. It’s a hope that believes in life even though death is everywhere. It’s a hope born from above that refuses to yield to the despair it so often sees on the ground. It believes in another reality – the reality of God, the kingdom of God.
But hope can be a cop out if it’s misunderstood. Karl Marx famously said religion is the opiate of the masses. Hope must always be rooted in reality, not abstracted from it.
In our Sunday school lesson today the interview was with Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza, who is a queer Latin@ scholar and theologian. The interviewer asked them where they saw signs of resurrection, or we could say signs of hope, and Dr. Henderson-Espinoza said, “You know, I think too often Christians, and especially white folks are too quick to move to resurrection. My people live in Holy Saturday, in death. My people are constantly living in the Good Friday moment of being crucified by the economic system, by the racial system, by the justice system, by so many systems. We live in Holy Saturday. We live in that place of not knowing if there’s going to be a resurrection.” But they went on to say, “I’m a person of deep, deep hope…but that hope comes at great cost.”
Real hope comes at great cost. It cost Sarai and Abram their home and everything they knew. It cost Jesus and most of his disciples their lives, because it is a belief in another world. A world that, in the words of Kierkegaard, collides with the world we live in. Even as Jesus is telling Nicodemus all this stuff about eternal life, he can’t help mentioning that death is in the midst of it. He says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”
Real hope acknowledges Good Friday but sets its eyes on Easter morning. It sees all your pain, all your doubt, and refuses to let those things define you, but asserts that you are precious in the eyes of God, that God holds you now, that God has not left you and never will.
I wrestled all week with this idea of hope, because it can’t ignore suffering, and it can’t be a false hope, as if if you hope everything will work out, just have faith. And yet, it has to be strong enough, real enough, to actually do something. In other words, it needs to acknowledge circumstances, but not be limited by circumstances. It needs to change, transform circumstances. As I was wrestling with this I kept thinking of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Hope acknowledges that we are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down (some of us more than others), and yet God will see us through. God will always carry us through. We will not be crushed or driven to despair or forsaken or destroyed.
I know that in light of all that we see cynicism and hopelessness seem like the only practical response. But, as followers of Jesus, we are a people defined by hope. I know it’s scary leave the world you’ve created with its logical, realistic worldview to trust in a living God. It’s scary to leave Haran and really believe in a promised land you can’t yet touch or see or even imagine. I know it’s hard to believe God is present when God has seemed so absent, but let’s just take one step out of doubt and into trust. We’ll do it together – we never journey alone. Let’s venture to hope. Let’s let our feet leave the ground.
 Soren Kierkegaard, Provocations, ed. Charles E. Moore (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 2002), 78.