Rev. Scott L. Barton
March 16, 2014
Genesis 12:1-4; John 3:1-17

Prayer: O Lord, save us from our religiosity.  Open us to you. Amen.

There’s something about starting over, isn’t there, that can give you a big lift?  Last week marked the first birthday of our first grandchild, and for the past year, thanks to airlines getting us to Utah, and Facetime and Picasa web pictures and videos, we get to be constantly surprised at something new, from the first time we each held that tiny package from God in our arms a year ago, to her crawling at top speed and laughing and first attempts at words and sheer delight, all from someone who is taking everything in for the very first time.  Last week, Facetiming on computers, she in Utah and her grandparents in Pelham were talking to each other by sticking our tongues out. Gayle and I laugh out loud. And then, wonder of wonders, we get to start it all over again in a month with the expected birth of grandchild number two.  Thank God, he’ll be closer.  Houston!

There’s something about that freshness, what seems like a tabula rosa, that puts a smile on our face and a spring in our step.  I saw it outside my window as I was writing this sermon, the cardinals and black-capped chickadees and tufted titmouses flitting from rhododendron to bird feeder and back, enjoying their fill of the black oil seed from the Hadley Garden Center but also sensing that spring is in the air, or at least was, and talking about it to each other.  Or so I imagine. I saw four bluebirds a few weeks ago, which inspired the making of three birdhouses, and then I made a dozen more for family members and friends and neighbors. I guess I’m just a cockeyed optimist this time of the year. And maybe you are, too.

But it’s not only when there’s a baby around, and it’s not only in springtime.  Our first text for today is one I have used in worship every time Gayle has put the scary idea in front of me that she wanted to go someplace new, used it on the last Sunday before we’ve left.  Abram, called by God to pack up his things, maybe discussing it first with Sarai and trying to get her to agree to this idea, this voice, this prayer that he’s had in the middle of the night, and how do they know just what it is but they follow through on it, the idea, the dream and prayer that would change everything.  Everything.  They leave home, where they’ve gotten comfortable, where we can presume they’ve made friends, and come to love their house and property, maybe planted gardens and trees.  They were settled.  They knew where to take the dry cleaning, and the car for an oil change, and the shoes for repairs, and they had their doctor and dentist and church.  And did I say friends?  But Abram and Sarai decide to go, go where they don’t know anyone. And maybe this sounds a bit familiar if you’ve ever made a move yourself; but it was perhaps the most radical move ever made because it was really about a whole new attitude about life – for the world.

What does it mean that they were giving up one set of ways of looking at the world as they’d known it for some 70 years, for some half-baked idea, except to say that this idea, this word, this, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” was all about trusting a God who, by definition, is all about doing a new thing for the sake of love?

I started out talking about our grandchild and her new eyes, but maybe Abram and Sarai had to be old.  I mean, maybe there was something about their age that helped them see things better.  For example, recently, it has seemed to me that maybe my ministry, or at least my preaching, can be divided into three phases.  I have the feeling that the first third of it was all about trying to explain God, and the second third was about trying to get everybody to follow God, and I'm thinking that the third third has been about simply trusting God.  Or maybe for some of us it takes longer to get there, and maybe that’s why Abram and Sarai are the parents of our faith because if they could do it at such an old age, well, then, maybe anybody can.

But you know, they’re not the only ones.  I think it’s the entire Biblical story.  You can start with Adam and Eve. They don’t look back at that garden but go on ahead, and yes, they had to leave, but first God sat down and made animal skins for them to wear after they figured out that they were buck naked.  Is that love, or what

The Noah story is another one.  It’s God’s tears that rain down for forty days and nights until God figures out with that rainbow another way, a promise not to do that again.

And Abraham and Sarah’s son (their names get changed) is Isaac. Isaac means “laughter,” and what was their laughter, anyway, but at such unexpected love for them?

Then Isaac and Rebecca’s son, Jacob, wrestles with God and ends up crossing his own Rubicon with fear and trepidation and some great faith to face the music with his brother Esau whom he’d swindled out of the blessing years before.

And years later, Joseph, rather than seething with the rage of justifiable homicide because of his brothers who had sold him into slavery is unbelievably generous because something has gotten into him.

Moses is unbelievable, too. What gives him the ability to put up with all that grumbling, grousing and complaining at how they at least had soup pots with meat back in Egypt. But even the starving complainers are fed each day by – “what is it?” – right, manna, who knows what it is? You do not know where the wind comes from.

And Joshua crosses the Jordan to settle in a land that never had milk and honey flowing in the streets but one battle after another to survive and so in that way it wasn’t any better than wandering in the wilderness; but they had each other, and believed when they were at their best that they were called to be a people who would be a witness to this ever-making-new attitude that comes from God.

Then some of the kings were better than others at trusting it, but they all had to be reminded, some less gently than others.  The great prophets, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Micah, all stand out in love by daring to speak the truth either by seeing disaster, when everybody’s been self-congratulating themselves on their chosen status, or, restoration, when everybody’s been about to throw in the towel and become like all the other surrounding tribes, living just day to day with regrets and failure, and living in the past.

And along comes Jesus who, instigated by John, reenacts that earlier Jordan crossing and is baptized, an act which for us we still see as dying to an old way of life, a life without trust in what we cannot see, for a life with it, trust that inspires a person to love the world in way never before possible.

And somebody like Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he has a hunch about him. He sees him acting as if the kingdom has come, looking forward to it in each next encounter. But Nicodemus isn’t sure, and so he comes at night so nobody will see him, and he asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”  He’s no dummy; he knows how hard it is.  And Jesus tells him that it comes like the wind.  You can’t figure it out, or manufacture it, this wild and generous giving for the world, even the only Son, so everyone might be alive, and not living in the past, dead. 

Later in John’s Gospel, Nicodemus tries to get the Pharisees to slow down in their haste to have the temple police arrest Jesus; and then John later says that it was Nicodemus who takes one hundred pounds of embalming spices when he and Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus’ body down from the cross and lay it in the tomb. The man now believes.


Nicodemus knew
That Jesus was on to something
With all that talk
About being born from above,
Even though he hadn't a clue
Of the wind's comings and goings.
Thus he went to that meeting
Where the blowhards
Wanted to do Jesus in,
And tried to talk some sense into them.
I wonder where he got such courage,
Going again by night,
The weight of the world on his back,
Or at least a hundred pounds,
To bury his rabbi,
Winded by the law of love?

You probably know this, but in case some of you don’t, “spirit” and “wind” are the same word in the biblical texts, both Hebrew and Greek. But when he starts out with Jesus, Nicodemus isn’t winded at all.  He starts out, knowing.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”  But knowing isn’t what Jesus is all about.

“Knowing” is problematic, maybe especially for believers. Calvin MacLeod at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago [sermon, February 20, 2005] once put it this way: “We know,” said the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa before the end of apartheid, “we know that black people were created as less than white people and therefore apartheid is justified by God and scripture.” “We know,” said parts of the church in this country for years, as do some parts still, “that women are less able than men to take on positions of leadership in the church.” “We know,” said the Protestants of Northern Ireland, “that Catholics are second-class citizens and do not deserve the same rights we have.” “We know,” the church still too often says, “that people who are gay and lesbian are not to be leaders in our churches” or married in our churches.  “We know who’s in and who’s out.” Beware the religious person who says “we know.”

I was reading about Henrik Ibsen the other day.  You may have read something by him in high school or college. It was something he said in his play, “Ghosts.”  It goes: "I almost think we're all of us Ghosts ... It's not only what we have invited from our father and mother that walks in us. It's all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can't get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light."

What an image, huh? Ghosts. Nicodemus comes by night, afraid of the light. But he leaves someone else.  He leaves like a baby.  No more ghosts. Maybe Holy Ghost, then.

Do you know Wendell Berry?  He’s a farmer, a poet, a novelist, an environmental activist and cultural critic. He lives in Kentucky. He believes in the land and he believes in sustainability and he believes in being rooted to the earth and he believes in having eyes to see the new.

He writes:

I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don't think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse. And the clouds
—no mere measure or geometry, no cubism,
can account for clouds or, satisfactorily, for bodies.
There is no science for this, or art either.
Even the old body is new—who has known it
before?—and no sooner new than gone, to be
replaced by a body yet older and again new.
The clouds are rarely absent from our sky
over this humid valley, and there is a sycamore
that I watch as, growing on the riverbank,
it forecloses the horizon, like the years
of an old man. And you, who are as old
almost as I am, I love as I loved you
young, except that, old, I am astonished
at such a possibility, and am duly grateful.

"VII." by Wendell Berry from Leavings.

The Letter to the Hebrews says, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." And this wonderful idea is written for us because God is always in the business of doing something new that we didn’t expect, and that something new always has the word “love” in it.  You heard the verse earlier in the reading that Bob read and you heard it in the anthem that the choir sang and you have seen it in the stands at most every football game, somebody holding that sign that says “John 3:16.” And you can probably all say it, “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.” Which is fine as far as it goes, but it has a tendency to be misinterpreted to be about us, rather than about God, which is why there is more to it in verse 17, which then goes, “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.”

The world.  Everyone.  The wino holding a paper bag on the sidewalk and the student at the Blarney Blowout. The President of the United States and the President of Russia.  John Stewart and Ann Coulter.  I know.  Hard to believe, isn’t it?  Hard to believe.

But we don’t have to believe in order for it to be true. It’s not up to us to make it true. It happens without us. We’re simply invited, as Nicodemus at night was invited, to trust this new thing, this new wind blowing, this love, that makes all things, even you and me, brand new.