Old Testament: Genesis (12:1-4a)
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
The Response: Psalm 121
1 I to the hills lift up my eyes;
From where shall help be given?
My help comes only from the LORD
Who made the earth and heaven.
2 He will not let your foot be moved;
Guard over you he keeps:
He watches over Israel
And slumbers not, nor sleeps.
3 Strong is the LORD; your shield and shade;
Safe are you in his sight;
Sun shall not hurt your life by day
Nor shall the moon by night.
4 So shall the LORD keep you from harm;
He will keep safe and sure
Your going out, your coming in
From now, for evermore.
The Epistle: Romans (4: 1-5, 13-17)
What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
The Gospel: John (3:1-17)
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “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.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 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? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
With today’s first reading, the story of salvation begins. And it all begins in barrenness.
The first eleven chapters of Genesis, sometimes referred to as “the prehistory,” present us with a wondrous collection of ancient stories and myths. They begin with the first of the two great stories of creation, the one in which God commands all creatures of the earth to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the world with life. Yet over and over again, death comes instead: either literal death or at least figurative death. It seems that everything that God had attempted to do and to create with the human race had been a failure.
When we reach the end of that primitive collection of accounts, the unknown ancient editor of the book has narrowed our view from all of creation, with which we began, to just one couple: Abraham and Sarah, then known as Abram and Sarai. But even here, it seems that the narrative has hit a dead end: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.” It looks like the story has come to a full stop. Yet it was in that barrenness that God began the great work of salvation.
According to the opening verses of Genesis, God had begun creation at a time when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” All had begun in chaos and in darkness. God had started creation with what was essentially a hopeless situation. Now again, God was starting with what was essentially a hopeless situation – a childless couple in their mid-seventies — in order to bring about a new creation.
Essentially, God called Abraham to leave everything that he knew and to travel into the unknown, trusting in God alone. Leaving what we know, or at least what we think we know, is always unnerving, to say the least. We want certainty. We want something to hold onto. God told Abraham, in effect, “You do have something to hold onto: you have me. Have faith in me, and leave all your other so-called certainties behind.”
That seems to be the same thing that Jesus was telling Nicodemus in today’s gospel reading. When it begins, Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night,” which in John’s use of dramatic effects, is an inner night, as well as a chronological night. Jesus’ visitor is in the dark in more ways than one. And it is his clinging to what he thinks he knows for certain that keeps him in the dark. He begins by telling Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that…” He starts off with his certainties, with what he thinks he knows for sure. But by the end of the exchange, he wanders off stage, back into the darkness from which he came, shaking his head and asking, “How can these things be?” He has come to Jesus with answers and leaves with only questions. But that, it turns out, is the necessary beginning of his enlightenment.
Maybe that is the necessary beginning of our enlightenment by God as well.
Many people throughout history, while professing that their ultimate belief is in God, have, nevertheless, placed their actual trust in things. Sometimes these things have been physical objects: “Wear this around your neck and you will be protected from anything bad happening to you.” Sometimes they have been actions: “Have this rite done for you on this day, or perform this ritual five times in a row, and you are guaranteed God’s protection.” At other times, people have taken things which are good in themselves and essentially made them into idols: whether it is a particular translation of the bible, or the particular form of prayer that they grew up with, or an attempted literal interpretation of biblical stories. It seems that people of every age like to say that they trust in God alone, but then quickly reach for something else, for something that they can hold onto (sometimes literally) or to old certainties.
God called Abraham to let go of all his certainties — his home, his family, his entire culture and way of life, even the certainty of knowing where he was going – and to trust in God alone. Essentially, God was calling him to commit his life to walking in a sort of interior darkness, but one in which God would be his light.
Jesus asked the same thing of Nicodemus: asking him to let go of what he thought he knew, and instead, allowing himself to be born from above, to be willing to walk and live his life in an ongoing night, and to trust himself to God’s light alone. Nicodemus must have felt like his head was spinning when he wandered outside after that first encounter with Jesus. Letting go of what we thought we knew for certain and putting our faith in God alone can do that to us.
Brother Roger, the founder and long-time leader of the ecumenical Taizé community in France, reflected, late in his life, on that darkness that allows the light of God to shine. He wrote: “As a man grows older, he is less inclined to look for signs. He dares admit to himself that he is familiar with darkness. In this realm, no one is privileged. Even psychologists and scholars of the highest order admit that they are at the first stammering of their sciences, that they can only understand one outer layer of the human being. To each one his night, but the darker the shadows become, the more a man discovers the delight of believing. Does belief not include consenting to our night? To refuse our night would be to seek a privilege. If we should see as in open day, to what purpose would we believe? Advancing on a road without knowing where it leads, such a man believes without seeing. No fear of the shadows; they are lit from within. Certainty as solid as the rock: At a given moment the night is rent and dawn appears. So let this dawning come, and one day our death, dawn of a life.”
In all likelihood, we are never going to be asked, as Abraham was, to leave everything we know and everything in which we place our confidence, and to journey into the unknown, trusting in God alone. And we are not likely to experience what Nicodemus faced, having everything that we thought we knew for sure being brought into question. But if we really want to live by faith, if we really intend to place our trust in God alone, then we are going to have to let go of other things to which we have looked for security and certainty. We are going to have to step out into the darkness, confident that the night in which we walk is enlightened by the one who is still and always the light of the world.