Sermon St George’s Preshute on the Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 12.1-4a and John 3.1-17
Our readings this morning invite us to think about what we trust and believe. And it is not just an academic exercise to make us reflect on our beliefs, but a challenge how we act upon those beliefs, how we let the light of God’s promise illuminate the unknown that lies ahead of us. Let us start by looking at the person of Abraham, or Abram as he is still called at this point. In some ways he is the founder of our religion as well as Judaism and Islam. At the age of 75, God tells Abraham to leave his county and go to the land that He himself will show him. Abraham goes, just as God has told him.
Abraham believed in God’s promise, and for him that is enough to take his wife and other relatives, all his belongings and to go to a yet unknown land. God’s promise alone is enough for Abraham to go. Not many of us will question that this is a courageous thing to do, and I wonder how we would feel if God asked us at the age of 75 to go to a different country, away from home with only the assurance of God’s blessing.
Later, of course, Abraham’s blind trust makes him seemingly willing to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. A hugely difficult passage for many of us that makes us wonder if there comes a point at which trust in God starts to look like religious fanaticism. No matter the interpretation of that story, most of us would agree that killing in the name of any religion cannot be justified.
So what happens when we read, or hear, or see something of God that seems at odds with our understanding of Him? We have two choices: change our understanding of God, or try to understand whatever we experience within what we already know of God. And that difficult question brings us to Nicodemus and our Gospel reading this morning.
Nicodemus is a devout Jew, a leader and from what we can gather a good man. He has been taught and indeed has been teaching that there is only one God, and that no human being can claim equality with God. He has heard of this new prophet, Jesus, who claims to be the Messiah and is described as the son of God. How can this be, as it is so clearly at odds with all that he believes? Yet, on the other hand, he also sees Jesus’ ministry, the miracles, the signs that he is performing. And he knows, no one can do this without the presence of God himself. So he is faced with this dilemma: who is this man? Is he a false prophet like so many others, or is he really who he claims to be?
Nicodemus decides to go and see for himself. He is going the ask that most difficult question to Jesus to see what he says. It is a courageous step to take, and no surprise that Nicodemus goes by night, as many would have condemned him for even thinking about approaching Jesus. And so Nicodemus puts his thoughts before Jesus. When we look closely, we see that he is not even asking the whole question. Nicodemus’ statement that Jesus is a teacher of the one God, because he is performing miracles that no one could do without him, is enough for Jesus to reply.
Jesus replies that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. Many Christians have understood and understand this to mean that it is only through faith in Jesus, through Baptism that we have any chance to enter eternal life. Indeed, I remember going to Sunday School being reassured that I would not go to heaven as I had not been baptised.
However, it is here that I personally come to the point that I find it hard to change my understanding of God, and Christ, to believe that only those of us who have made a commitment to following Jesus will see eternal life. What about the millions of good people who have led extremely good lives, without encountering Christianity? Or the many devout followers of other religions, who may, like Nicodemus, wrestle with the idea of a man being fully God?
But the main reason why I find it hard to believe that Baptism and a belief in Jesus will save us is that it has become something we do, rather than a trust in God. For me, faith in God, faith in Christ means trusting that God knows more and better than I do, and that his goodness and justice are without limits, and too hard for us to understand.
In that wonderful phrase in John 3.16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”, I hear a promise. The promise of life eternal. I don’t hear that those who not believe will have eternal damnation, and indeed will perish. God’s grace which we encounter in the Scriptures and particularly in the Gospels through the life of Jesus shows me that Jesus is concerned with those on the fringes. He teaches, inspires, compels, but he doesn’t condemn.
I know that there will be many Christians who would find my understanding of this passage rather feeble and untrue to their interpretation of Jesus’ message, and maybe that is so. But instead of living my life in fear, whether I am good enough, whether the people I love will not go heaven, I rather hold on to God’s goodness and see the unknown as a gift rather than a threat.
Archbishop Tutu puts it rather well, I think, when he says “Because God is God, because God is infinite, because none of us who are creatures will ever fathom the infinitude that is God, heaven is going to be forever a place of new discovery”. Heaven as a place of ‘new discovery’, where we can see ourselves and others as God sees us. Not at our worst, but at our best.
Coming from a different tradition, but also one full of wisdom, the Dalai Lama adds to the Bishop’s words: “Many people on this planet worry about going to hell, but this is not much use. There is no need to be afraid. While we remain on earth worrying about hell, about death, about all the things that could go wrong, we will have lots of anxiety, and we will never find joy and happiness. If you are truly afraid of hell, you need to live your life with some purpose, especially through helping others”.
So where does that leave us this morning, on this second Sunday in Lent? I suggest that above all, we need to put our trust in God. That He will help us see the Truth, a truth which we cannot find on our own. We need to try, but not be afraid if we don’t achieve. We need to believe, but not be afraid to disagree. And above all, we need to love, and not be afraid to be hurt.