Thoughts on Lent: Imagining the Impossible

As Moses lifted the serpent in the wildernessSunday, March 16, 2004 lectionary included Abram’s call from God (Genesis 12:1-4) as well as Nicodemus’ first interaction with Jesus Christ (John 3:1-17).  As part of the worship team at Auburn Homes, this was the particular scripture appointed for me to preach from today.

(If you are wondering what a lectionary is, it is committee created three year rotation of representative scripture passages that many denominations and churches use to choose scripture passages for a given day.)

I can tell you, that John 3:16 – the “born again” bumper sticker reference – isn’t my favorite.  I really struggle with this one as so many people take this passage as the key to “who is in and who is out.”  But as someone who isn’t “born again” in the traditionally American evangelical sense, it is outside of my faith experience and therefore makes me curious, and particularly skeptical, about making this as “the” determining factor of being Christian.  (I have had many moments of dedication and re-dedication, having always been a Christian in some way.) 

So, when John 3:16 ended up in the scriptures for me to preach, I tried to look at them with fresh eyes.  For me, the scriptures are dealing with with two men who are challenged by God to imagine the seemingly impossible.

We begin with Abraham…he’s “old”, his wife is “old”, they have no children, but they did have Lot, who was their nephew and essentially adopted son, and unmarried.  They have followed Abraham’s dad to a new land and settled there, but then the dad died.  By the cultural realities of the day, they had nothing as they did not have financial security through offspring.

God comes to Abraham and says that if they move to a new land, God will create out of Abraham and Sara a new nation and bless them.  For three people who have essentially nothing – this is a pretty good deal.  What do they have to lose?  But even with nothing to lose, it does take a lot of courage to leave what you know to step into God’s seemingly impossible promise.  (Having each other probably made this a bit easier.)

Then there is Nicodemus, a Pharisee who comes to Jesus because Nicodemus believes Jesus is a teacher who has come from God.  Likely, Nicodemus had personally overheard Jesus talking in the temple.  As a temple politician and business man, Nicodemus comes at night to see Jesus.  Under the cover of darkness he is more likely to maintain his reputation, minimizing the possibility of gossip of him talking with this man with radical ideas.

When Nicodemus begins to talk with Jesus, he is confronted with the seemingly impossible.  Nicodemus is a smart and popular individual, someone who knows how to work in both the religious and secular circles.  So when Jesus tells him that he doesn’t understand something very basic, it throws Nicodemus for a loop.  Nicodemus has come to Jesus assuming that Jesus will teach him about how to successfully live on earth, so when Jesus talks about how to successfully live eternally, from Nicodemus’ point of view, this is talking about an impossible promise.

Jesus says that if you understand who I am then you are promised life in the Spirit – but we are left with the impression that Nicodemus is so tied to everything that he has to lose, that he can’t understand God’s seemingly impossible promise.

There are some basic differences between Abraham and Nicodemus in these stories:

  • God comes to Abraham, and Nicodemus comes to Jesus.
  • Abraham has, in earthly terms, nothing to lose.  Nicodemus has, in earthly terms, everything to lose.
  • Abraham – who has no proof of God except stories and hearing voices – accepts God’s directions and promise.  Nicodemus – who has Christ standing right in front of him – doesn’t understand God’s directions and promise.
  • God’s promise to Abraham is for a better earthly life for himself and his descendants, God’s promise to Nicodemus is for eternal life.

So what does this mean to us?  (As any decent discussion of scripture asks…) Who are you – Abraham or Nicodemus?  Have you always been one or the other, or does it depend on the circumstance?

Writing Prompt:  How may your own needs, personality, and/or earthly ties be a barrier from knowing God?

More to contemplate:

  • Nicodemus doesn’t drop out of the story.  At the time of Jesus’ arrest Nicodemus seeks legal justice for Christ (John 7:50-51, see also John 7:16).  Nicodemus also financial contributed to the proper burial of Christ (John 20:39).  What could this mean about the faith journey of Nicodemus?  How is it similar to your faith journey?
  • If you put an emphasis on John 3:17 rather than John 3:16, how does this change your impression of John 3:?    (14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.)
  • Read John 4:5-42 from the lectionary for March 23rd.  How would you see John 3 in light of this passage?  (Come back next week for my take on this.)

I would love to hear what you think!  Please add a comment!

Under the Trees talked about these texts last Thursday, please join us this Thursday, March 20th to talk John 4:5-42 and Exodus 17:1-7, and possibly Romans 5:1-11.  Click here for more info.


About SFriant

I live to walk with others on their journeys - because everyone needs to know that they are loved, that they matter, and that they are doing amazing things. I'm a lot like our two kids: obsessed with learning, and constantly creating.
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