Saving the world, one adventure at a time. That’s my motto for today’s readings. Since coming to this parish almost two years ago, I have often referred to the mission we share as “the Saint David’s adventure.” Adventure is an important concept in the life of faith—as Christians on a mission living in a post-Christian society, we’re always on an adventure.
The adventure begins with today’s reading from Genesis.
God invites Abram on an adventure. (In case you’re wondering, part of the adventure is that as God’s purpose unfolds, Abram gets a new name and becomes Abraham.) When we meet him today, he’s still Abram. God says: pack up everything you own, leave your extended family and the land you’ve been settled in for generations, and go to another land. What land would that be? God doesn’t give Abram a clue. He just says Go to the land that I will show you. How would you respond to this? How does Abram respond? So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.
Abram’s journey is a complete and total leap of faith. He leaves not only a place and a family, but also a whole culture. In the world Abraham knew in Mesopotamia four thousand years ago, everything was based on the cycle of the seasons, on the determinism of what people knew about nature. During planting season, the people prayed and sacrificed to the local fertility gods. During the harvest season, they prayed and sacrificed to the gods of the harvest. Then they did it all over again. Life—including the life of the spirit—was a predictable and repeating cycle: spring, summer, fall, winter. Spring, summer, fall, winter. In responding to God’s call, Abram breaks away from that cyclical worldview and steps out. Because of the way that God comes to him in relationship, he is able to imagine a world with a future, a life that is not just a repeat of last year. The words “Abram went” have been called “two of the boldest words of all literature.” God didn’t even tell Abram that his act of stepping out in faith was going to change the world.
Neither did God tell Nicodemus that his act of stepping into the night for a conversation with the subversive guy Jesus behind the backs of his Pharisee buddies, might also change the world. Nicodemus’ leap of faith is not packing up his whole life and moving across a continent. Nicodemus is here to remind us that there are different adventures for different people. Rather than a leap of faith, Nicodemus does more of a “tiptoe of faith.”
I have to say I’m more enamored of the Abraham story than the Nicodemus story. I sometimes have Abraham-envy. Why can’t God come to me, or—even better—someone I know, maybe one of you, perhaps, and say: go to the land that I will show you and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you. You’ll live to a ripe old age, your descendants will number more than the stars in the heaven, in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed, and I’ll be your best friend forever. Can you imagine?
The truth is that most of us are probably more like Nicodemus than Abram. Nicodemus puts only a toe into the water of discipleship. This is not to say that he is not a person of faith, but rather that he compartmentalizes his faith, and is pretty identified with a particular institution. Unlike some of the disciples we met during Epiphany, and will meet again, he’s not ready to change his whole life. He’s not ready to literally or metaphorically abandon his community or his standing in society, in order to follow Jesus.
Nicodemus comes under the cover of night, as a representative of the established religion. He probably brings with him preconceived notions of the Kingdom of God. It’s likely that he has just seen Jesus overturn the tables in the temple, which would’ve been as confusing to him as it was to all the other temple officials who witnessed it. Isn’t the definition of the Kingdom of God to keep building up and extending God’s temple in a particular time and place? Apparently not. Jesus’ invitation in this late-night conversation about the Spirit is an invitation to see and enter the kingdom of God, not as something we build or preserve or expand, but as God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
The world is saved, one adventure at a time, when we see the kingdom of God as God sees it. This is what enables Abram to simply go. He is able to imagine the future God imagines for him. Like the people of ancient Mesopotamia, we have our own cycles and seasons: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost….Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost…. The difference is that in each of these seasons we are called, as God called our ancestor Abram, to step out, to go on an adventure with God. Even if we think we know the end of the Lent and the Holy Week story—(pssst….after all that talk about death, Jesus is raised from the dead)—we don’t know how the adventure is going to turn out for each one of us, or what opportunities God will place in our path to save the world.
How does Nicodemus’ timid, late-night adventure save the world? Or, to put it another way, how do we see and enter the kingdom of God?
One way is to so love the world as God loves the world. Preacher and pastor Anthony Smith reminds us that as humans created in the image and likeness of God we are “genetically predisposed toward loving-kindness.” When we so love our enemies, our neighbors, strangers, and all of creation as God loves, when we see the world as the place where God’s will, God’s loving-kindness, is being lived out in us and through us, people like you and me and even Nicodemus can see the kingdom of God and rejoice in it.