Lent 2 11 Breathing Space
Genesis 12.1-4a, John 3.1-17
In today’s readings we meet two men who haven’t got the foggiest idea what is going on around them, men who feel as if they are in the dark. That makes them readings which we can all relate to, because I suspect we often feel like that too.
The Gospel tells us that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night”. At first sight that might seem just to be a reference to the time of day of his visit, but actually it’s much more than that. John uses the imagery of light and darkness, day and night, sight and blindness all the way through his Gospel. Jesus is the “light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” They are powerful symbols and when we come across them they are always significant. Nicodemus probably comes by night so that no one will see him – he’s a respectable religious leader, and he doesn’t want people to know he is visiting this rather controversial figure – but there’s a sense too in which the night is about his own understanding too. He’s used to being in control, understanding his world. He’s a leader, after all, and leaders like to feel they’ve got a handle on things. But when it comes to Jesus nothing quite makes sense. He doesn’t fit Nicodemus’ preconceptions of what a holy man ought to be like. He breaks the rules, heals on the Sabbath, associates with all the wrong sorts of people. And yet God seems to honour his work. Those he prays for are healed. People are changed. There is an authority about him which is undeniable.
Nicodemus is baffled, in the dark, and Jesus tells him that it will require a new start if he is to be able to see what God is doing – making the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Nicodemus doesn’t understand that either. He gets so hung up on the image of being born from above, trying to get his head around how that could work, that I wonder whether he goes away not much more enlightened than he arrives.
So Nicodemus is in the dark, literally and spiritually. But in a sense Abraham, whom we meet in the Old Testament reading is just as baffled by what happens to him, just as much in the dark. The reading ended with the words, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” It seems like a rather undramatic statement, but it is actually quite extraordinary if we know the context. Abram and his wife, Sarai are childless, and they are well past the age when there is any realistic possibility of having a family – Abram is seventy five. They are living in Haran in Mesopotamia, and they no doubt expect to die there, and probably not too far in the future. But God has other ideas, and one day Abram finds himself hearing a voice he can’t ignore. “Go” it says. “Leave everything you know, everything you have, and go. And I will make of you a great nation…” The sensible reaction to this would be to politely ignore it and wonder whether you ought to go a bit easier on the booze – it sounds like complete nonsense. There is no way that God can make a great nation of Abram – he has no children. The line ends with him. And sending a 75 year old out on a spree like this seems not only daft but cruel. God’s call to Abram makes no sense, and as the years pass (he is 100 years old when his son Isaac is finally born) it doesn’t become much clearer. He has no idea how God will bring any of this about. He is in the dark, and it is a long time before any light dawns.
But Abram went, we are told, stepping out into that darkness without any real idea of what will happen next.
Two men who are in the dark, as we all are often, about what is happening around them and how it will all work out. Two men who are told that they will need to give up what they have, to let go of the certainties in their lives, if they want to be part of what God is doing in the world, part of his kingdom. Abram seems to find it easier - or perhaps he is just braver than Nicodemus, though Nicodemus does get it in the end, declaring himself as a follower of Jesus after he has died, and sharing in the work of burying his dead body.
But both remind us that doing something new, seeing something new, being someone new, nearly always means letting something else go, giving something else up. Nicodemus is told he will need a new birth. Abram must make a journey. If we want to be part of God’s kingdom work in the world, we too might have to learn to see again, to go from where we are to a new place, to leave behind our old attitudes, prejudices and resentments.
In our silence tonight, let’s ask God to open our eyes to see where he is at work in us and around us, and show us what we need to do, what we need to change, what we need to leave behind to be part of that work. Amen