I’d like to take a little time to explore the story of Abraham, to enter into Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus and then ponder a bit how these stories might be guideposts on our quest for God.
Sometimes I feel like Abraham. Sometimes I feel like Nicodemus.
Or as singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter once put it, “Sometimes you’re the windshield / Sometimes you’re the bug.”
Sometimes I am trying to understand what God wants of me – I am looking through the windshield of our sacred writings trying to make sense of God.
Sometimes I am searching for wisdom under the cover of darkness, following my own experience until I smash into the realities of life – just like that bug.
Today, I’d like to take a little time to explore the story of Abraham, to enter into Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus and then ponder a bit how these stories might be guideposts on our quest for God.
Abraham – or Abram, as he is still known in this story – is a fascinating, complex and mysterious character. He is a defining figure for 54 percent of the world’s population – Christians, Muslims and Jews. You may recall when we had our multi-faith Longest Night services the past two years, we called them “The Longest Night for the Children of Abraham.”
It was Abraham and Sarah’s descendants who chart the genealogy of the Jewish Torah. The Gospels according to Mathew and Luke trace Jesus’ ancestry back to Abraham. And Muslims trace their lineage through Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar.
Thus we are all bound together by this common ancestor – an ancestor whose story changed the way people thought about God.
There may be different stories about Abraham in the three religions that are connected through him, there may be different understandings of who he was and what he did. But Judaism, Islam and Christianity all agree on one thing: Abraham believed in one God.
Part of the way some people tell that story is by going back to Abraham’s younger days.
In the Koran, Abraham asks his father why he takes idols as gods. Over time, Abraham observes the multitude of stars in the sky and concludes they are gods. But then they disappear. He decides that one God must behind them all.
Abraham tells his father, “I disown your idols. I will turn my face to him who has created the heavens and the earth and will love a righteous life. I am no idolater.”
In Jewish legends and later in the Koran, there are stories of Abraham smashing his father’s idols with a stick.
Those are stories to help define the God of Abraham as different from the other gods of his era. But it is not until today’ story that Abraham actually encounters this God. And then what this God asks of him is extraordinary.
Abraham by this time is an old man. He and Sarah have no children. God asks him to head off to an unknown place. God promises him offspring. And God asks Abraham to accept the legitimacy of this divine being.
In one of the best books about Abraham that I have read – Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths – author Bruce Feiler writes of what a moment this must have been:
“Abraham, rooted in a polytheistic society – a world where gods had form and physicality and were identified with tangible facet of daily life, like rocks and trees – is prepared to put his trust in an a-physical, indiscernible, unprovable god.”
If what God asked Abraham to do was unprecedented, so was what God promised Abraham:
To make him a great nation – the ancestor of people whom God will bless.
To make his name respected and to make his very life a blessing to others.
Abraham accepted this call.
Each of the three faiths that emerged from this story understand this moment a bit differently, offering us three windows into our own understanding of God.
For Jews, Abraham and descendants are blessed by God. The notion of being a chosen people is vital to Judaism.
For Islam, Abraham submits to God. That is the essence of being a Muslim – submitting to God.
For Christians, the importance of this story is hearing and then responding to God’s call. Think how important call stories are in the Gospels.
This is just the beginning of story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, of course. In the next few verses, Abraham, Sarah, nephew Lot and the rest of their household leave Haran in modern-day Turkey and go to Canaan, which is now central Israel.
They kept on the move, according to the next verses of Genesis: “Abram traveled through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem…From there he traveled toward the mountains east of Bethel, and pitched his tent…Then Abram set out toward the arid southern plain, making and breaking camp as he went.”
We know the stories that followed – his despair over not having a son, his liaison with Hagar that brought Ishmael into the world, the dispute between Sarah and Hagar that wound up with Hagar and Ishmael being banished – at least in the Jewish telling of the tale.
Then Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Abraham responded to God’s request to sacrifice his only son (it was Ishmael in the Koran), God relenting once he saw how Abraham was willing to totally submit to God.
So why do I feel like Abraham?
I have not wandered from nation to nation – much to Ellen’s gratitude. I haven’t tried to sacrifice any of my children – much to their relief.
But like Abraham, I have tried to figure out who God is and where God fits into my life. Or – maybe more appropriately – where I fit into God’s life.
The stories of Abraham and God, like so many of the stories in the Bible, are stories of a relationship, of fits and starts along the way, of uncertainty and then of relief, only to be followed by more uncertainty.
As Bruce Feiler wrote of Abraham, “Being human is being uncertain, being on the way to an unknown place. Being on the way to God.”
It’s helpful to know that in my quest for God, others have faced these struggles before me and God held them in God’s love and care.
How, then, am I like Nicodemus?
Well, he was one of those religious authorities of his day, so that fits, I guess. And he came to Jesus with more questions than answers, so that fits as well. And he came at night.
Often, the night meeting is portrayed as Nicodemus hiding out from his fellow Pharisees so that they would not think he was contemplating following Jesus. It is portrayed as Nicodemus being ashamed of or vacillating over his interest in Jesus.
Could be. But maybe by setting the story at night, John was talking about our own quest for the divine in the midst of the dark moments in our lives. Maybe the darkness represents a time when all else is quiet so there is time to meditate on the message of Jesus.
The most famous line from the exchange they had is John 3:16 – “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”
But the line that intrigues me comes a little earlier in the story. Nicodemus, who clearly likes to take things literally, is trying to figure out what Jesus meant when he said that to see God’s kingdom, one would have to be born anew.
Jesus gets a little mystical in his reply, but I think that is exactly the point. Hear his words again:
“God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
You don’t know where it comes from. You don’t know where it’s going.
Remember those words from Bruce Feiler about Abraham – “Being human is being uncertain, being on the way to an unknown place. Being on the way to God.”
I think we are all on that journey.
If we think we have God all figured out, we really have no clue about who God is.
If the God we envision hates all the same people we hate, it’s not really God.
If God would vote for all the same candidates we like, guide our favorite sports teams to victory and bestow great riches on us as a sign that God loves us, we are not really comprehending God.
Abraham knew that there was one God, not a lot of idols.
Nicodemus knew that Jesus could offer insights into God, but he really had to struggle with those insights.
So here we are, week after week, coming together and along the way learning a bit about God and a bit about each other. Maybe we could wrap up with the last words of Jesus from that story John told us.
It’s easy in hearing the most famous lines – John 3:16, you’ve got to believe in Jesus to be saved – and figure we are on the inside and all those other folks – our cousins in the family of Abraham, for instance – are out of luck.
But Jesus did not stop with that one verse. He went on to say: “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
I know that one of the great debates across the ages is whether God is a judge or a giver of mercy. It seems to me in this passage at least, Jesus tilts towards mercy. And if that’s the dominant image of God for me, then it seems to me part of what I need to do, even as my quest continues, is reflect that that image of God to those I encounter along the way. What other people see in me will be one of the ways they will experience God. Will that be an experience of love or an experience of judgment?
God invited Abraham to set off on a great journey. Jesus invited Nicodemus to think about his relationship with God in a new way. Today, in this season of Lent, let’s open our selves to God’s invitation, to God’s call for our lives and then let God’s love and grace and welcome shine through us.
Of course there’s a hymn that we can sing that might offer some insights into God and into our own lives. It’s not as familiar as some, but it’s not hard to sing and I think it reminds us of our connections to the divine. It’s #530, “God Our Author and Creator.”