March 5, 2023

The Second Sunday in Lent

March 5, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-21

From the Book of Genesis, "So Abram left, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and sustaining Sanctifier. Amen.

     As we continue our Lenten journeys – this forty-day season that urges that we pause and allow our souls to catch up with us; take time to examine our hearts and minds, our choices and the values we cling to as people of God, our scripture lessons this morning seem to go in different directions. And that poses a quandary for preachers.

See, our reading from the Gospel according to John is considered “the Gospel in a nutshell” – the Gospel proclaimed each week in the Eucharist . It is the unifying scripture about what it means to be a Christian. Yet it is one of the most misunderstood and misused scriptures as churches split hairs over what it means to be “born again” or “born from above” and in the process, fostered disunity. So, some preachers might focus on the gospel alone and attempt to bring it into the context of our Lenten journeys.

Then there is our reading from the fourth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. This particular passage affirms something important that is often overlooked by all followers of Christ regardless of Church denomination. And that is, that God entered into a covenant relationship with Abram because of Abram’s faith in God. And it is faith alone that establishes and nurtures one’s relationship with God. We don’t gain more faith by imposing rules on others or even our own selves as many in the Church of Rome insisted upon doing then, and many churches still do today. So, some preachers will choose this text because the Christian Church continues to fracture over disagreements about who is welcome, how a Christian should live, or vote, or witness and so on. Again, good fodder for a sermon within the context of that inward reflection that is at the core of Lenten observances.

And having wrestled with each of our texts, I thought I would focus on the Gospel and our reading from Romans and began to craft today’s sermon. But that Holy Spirit kept nudging me back to our very short passage from Genesis. Now theologians agree that chapter 12 is key to understanding the rest of the Book of Genesis and, in fact, understanding the entire Pentateuch. Well that is dandy, it’s important, but I couldn’t quite get the connection between it and our lives as people of God in this moment in time, in this season of Lent. So, I backed up and looked at all the scripture readings offered in Lent this year. And a pattern emerged. A pattern that revealed why this reading is critical to fully understanding today’s scripture lessons, understanding the grace of observing Lent, and how all of it affects our continuing life together as followers of Christ today, as people of faith now, and in the future.

     See, in last week’s Gospel reading, the Spirit of God compelled Jesus to go into a wilderness – a place unknown, unfamiliar, to him. In next week’s readings, the Spirit of God will urge Samuel to stop grieving the past, get up, and go forth to anoint David - the most insignificant of Jesse’s family – anoint him as Israel’s next King. The following week the Spirit of God will compel our Lord to step out from his familiar surroundings in order to reach out to and bring dignity, grace, and salvation to someone whom in 1st Century Palestine, God’s people would never speak to: an adulterous Samaritan woman. And on the last Sunday in Lent, the Spirit of the Lord will urge Ezekiel to enter a valley filled with thousands of dusty, lifeless bones – a valley of death, a valley with an unknown future. In today’s lessons and in particular, our reading from Genesis, the Spirit of God, the Lord, directs Abram to leave that which is familiar and travel to a new land: a land unknown to Abram but a land that God has chosen for him and his descendants. How does this connect with us right now? How does it fit within the context of Lent? Well, let’s probe our texts a little deeper.

     The early Church at Rome resisted the presence and value of gentile converts to the Christian faith. In fact, it insisted that in order to become a real Christian and a true and full member of the church, gentiles must first convert to Judaism, and adopt all the Jewish laws, customs, and rituals. After all, many believed salvation was the privilege of the descendants of Abraham alone. And that insistence stifled church growth and in fact, started to split it apart. That is until St. Paul, in the 4th chapter of his letter, pointed out this: Abram was an uncircumcised Gentile when he was invited into a covenant relationship with God; Jewish people didn’t exist yet; there was no law and no Ten Commandments. All that mattered, Paul says, is what scripture tells us about Abram and that is that he “believed God” and that is why God deemed him to be righteous. So, Paul says, if there’s no law yet, no commandments yet, no purity rituals yet, how was it possible for Abram to be righteous in God’s sight? Well, by his faith in God. Abram “believed God” and that – not family origin or rituals or rules or only doing things our way – believing God is all that matters in one’s relationship with God. And suddenly for the Church at Rome, old patterns and old expectations, old ways of thinking about what it means to be Christian and what it means to be the Church shifted as people grasped that in Christ, God was doing and is always doing something new, and the church began to flourish again.

     In our gospel reading we learn about Nicodemus. He wants to believe that Jesus is the Christ, but he’s not quite sure yet. He meets Jesus face to face and makes it clear that he wants to be a part of this Kingdom of God Jesus proclaims is at hand but, Jesus’ words you must be “born again” were confusing and vague to him. And yet, as their conversation unfolds, Nick comes to understand that being born again, being born from above, is about believing, it is about faith. Belief and faith that Jesus is the promised Christ. Faith is the foundation of what it means to be a Christian; faith that whoever believes in Jesus Christ will not perish but have everlasting life. And that faith, that belief, leads and urges us to embrace a way of life that strives through every thought, word and deed, to foster God’s justice, mercy, love, grace and forgiveness in everything we do as that faith, that belief, forever alters how we think and choose to live. That faith, that belief shapes who we are now, and who we will be in the future.

     And that brings us back to this short reading from Genesis and its connection with Lent and the continuing role and ministry of the Church. Genesis affirms that Abram was doing just fine where he was when God spoke to him. He was successful, wealthy, and content in his relationship with God, his family, and his neighbor. But God, the Lord, directed him to leave what had become his home and journey to a new land. A land that was unknown and I am sure must have seemed vague and unclear. Where are we heading Abram. I don’t know but the Lord promised to show us. So let’s go. And off he went. And Lot went with him as did both of their families with all their possessions. Now think about that for a moment. Imagine packing up your entire household to go on a journey with an unsure, unheard of, unknown destination. Nevertheless, Abram believed God and because of his believing, his faith in God, because he was willing to give up the familiar in order to follow God, he and his people entered a new land, and Abram became a father of not just a family, but an entire nation: a nation that was destined to be a blessing to the whole world; a nation that would bring forth Jesus of Nazareth: Jesus the Christ. But none of it would have happened if Abram didn’t listen, didn’t believe God, trust in God, have faith in God, and follow God.

     Abram’s experience mirrors that of Samuel and Ezekiel and our Lord because each story affirms that God can do unimaginable things when God’s people listen, and listen carefully to God’s voice, and then choose to follow God’s direction no matter how odd that may seem to be, or what change it may require of us and in us. And therein lies the connection to our observance of Lent. Lent urges us to inward examination, to ask ourselves, “what’s in my heart,” listen for God’s response, God’s direction and then embrace and follow it. For the truth is, friends, today – right now - God is indeed calling you, calling me, and calling the entire Church into a new and what appears to be an uncertain future. The Church is not dying as some suggest, but it is changing. We are being invited to leave the familiar both past and present, in order to enter a new land of abundance. And listening is the first step in that journey.

     You know, Nicodemus asked Jesus, “How can these things be?” You might wonder the same. I don’t know the answer, but like Abram I do believe God and I invite you to the do same so that together, we discover what God has in mind for us – the Church of the Holy Cross – today and in the future. Abram believed God and his life changed forever. By God’s grace may each of us also believe and be willing to do the same. Amen.