The story of our faith community begins when God speaks to a man named Abram. He tells him to leave behind everything he knows, and to set out on a journey. God does not tell Abram where he going, only to go to a place that God will show him. And he tells Abram that he is sending him for a purpose. “It is my purpose,” says God, “but you will experience it as a blessing. And not only will you be blessed, but you yourself will become a blessing, a blessing to all the families of the earth.”
The story says that Abram answered the call, and set out on the journey, and his son-in-law, Lot, went with him. So right from the beginning this was not a solitary, heroic quest; it was a family migration. And that is the way it has been ever since. The Jewish family traces its ancestry back, through all the centuries of dispersion and exile, and returning home, of captivity in Egypt and Exodus, of pastoral nomadism desert wandering, to Abram (later called Abraham). They trace their lineage through Isaac, the son of Abraham’s wife Sarah, but the Muslim family also claims Abraham as their ancestor, in a bloodline that began with Ishmael, the son of Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. In the same way the genealogies of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke trace the family tree of Christ back to Abraham.
But in his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul says that this biological descent is not what makes Abram our ancestor. We may be Jews, or we may be Gentiles, says Paul, but we are members of the family of Abram either way, because we share his faith in God. When we hear the word that calls us to leave behind our old gods, our old ways, we set out on a great journey, toward the promised destination of all human wandering. And our right of inheritance in that homeland is not grounded in our genetics, but in the grace of God who creates all things new. When we set out in faith to make the migration, we are reborn into a new family--a family of blessedness, that blesses all the families of the world.
Some of you heard the story I’m about to tell on Ash Wednesday, but I come back to it today because some of you weren’t there, and because it is about the point of departure on a journey of faith. When I was a boy, about nine years old, my school friend Mark invited me to church with his family. The church I usually attended with my parents was a large, beautiful, architecturally-significant structure in a park-like setting, in the finest neighborhood in town, but on this Sunday I rode with my friend’s family to a non-descript cinderblock structure on the wrong side of the tracks. The preacher was a younger man in shirt-sleeves with slicked-back hair who paced around on the stage speaking extemporaneously into a microphone he held in his hand.
And I don’t remember anything he said, but I do remember that while he was speaking I suddenly understood that my life was intended for me by an all-knowing, loving, and compassionate wisdom. In a brief but unforgettable encounter, this wisdom communicated itself to me, so that I knew that nothing about my life was random or meaningless or wrong, and that I had no reason to be anxious or ashamed or fearful about the future, because the same presence I was feeling in that moment was behind everything in the world, and would never abandon me, because it was eternal.
As quickly as this moment had come, it was over, and as my ordinary consciousness reasserted itself my first thought was about Jesus. I was, after all, in a church, and there was a guy up there talking about Jesus, so immediately I wondered, “what does Jesus have to do with what I just experienced?” And what came to me was that Jesus was the journey ahead. He was given to me as the key, if you will, to making that moment the enduring truth of my life, to integrating it into my ongoing every day experience. And I would have the rest of my life to learn who he is and how he works.
As I say, this entire experience happened very rapidly, maybe in just a couple of minutes, and while it was happening my friend Mark saw tears streaming down my cheeks and that I was powerfully moved, and he decided that in that moment I had been “born again.” From that point forward he took it upon himself to educate me in the rights and responsibilities pertaining to my new status. And I think poor Mark found it confusing that I showed so little enthusiasm for his doctrine, and no inclination to return with him to his church. But the thing is, what he had to say to me about God and Jesus and salvation never seemed remotely connected to the loving wisdom I had encountered on that day.
I guess you could say my friend Mark was a little like Nicodemus, the Pharisee we meet in today’s reading from the Gospel of John. He can see the outward signs of the presence of God, the tears streaming down the cheeks, the deeds of power and transformation. But something is missing from his understanding. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, in the darkness of his ignorance of who Jesus really is, but he tells Jesus what he already knows: “We know you are a teacher who has come from God.” But if there is implied in that statement, a desire for something not yet known—a deep and searching question—we never hear it. You get the impression that Nicodemus may be interested in what Jesus has to say, but he is basically struggling to fit it all into his existing conceptual and doctrinal framework. And it’s not fitting very well.
Because Jesus wants Nicodemus to go on a journey. In the verses that follow, the Gospel of John takes us on a whirlwind tour from the superficial signs of God’s presence to the inner workings of God’s purpose in Christ. It is a kind of crash course in the great gospel themes of the journey of salvation, from baptismal rebirth in water and spirit, to seeing and entering the kingdom of God; from the new freedom of the Spirit, to believing the testimony about heavenly things; from the incarnation and ascension of the Son of Man to the strange medicine of the cross that gives final liberation from the captivity of death and evil. This rushing current of religious imagination brings us at last into the very heart of God, to the loving wisdom that sent his only Son into the world, that the world might be saved through him.
People sometimes speak of the season of Lent as a journey. It is a time to remember that our life in faith is a long searching, and that we still have a long way to go. It is a time to jettison the extra cargo, to pack light, so we can cover some ground. And the destination of this journey is not an end, but a point of departure. The season has its origins in the ancient church, in the final weeks of preparation for baptism at Easter. In those days baptism was not an individual thing. At the center of the church’s Easter celebration, it was a remembrance and participation in the moment when the family of Abraham, and every person in it, and the whole created world, was reborn.
And even if you had been baptized already, maybe long before, every year there was a part of you that went down with the neophyte into the dark waters of Christ’s descent into death and hell. Every year there was a part of you that came up out of the water, newborn, and was anointed with the oil of the spirit and clothed with the white garment of Christ’s resurrection. And I think that the veterans began to join in the neophytes fast of Lent because they also wanted to be ready. They wanted to be open so that when the family gathered to enact again the drama of God’s love for the world, they were open to receive the gift of the only Son. They wanted to set out on the great migration again from the beginning, a little closer to the goal.