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Sermon – March 20, 2011 – Go Far

Sermon for March 20, 2011                                           The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
Go Far
Psalm 121,  Genesis 12:  1-4a,   John 3:  1-17

It is normal to have what’s called a “comfort zone” and to be gotten out of one’s “comfort zone” by any number of things.  The person who attends church always sits in a certain place, because that’s a very human thing to do, and that person will feel uneasy and a little put out if he or she arrives some Sunday to find somebody else in the seat.  It’s not a matter of room, it’s a matter of being displaced.
One of the things about being a baby boomer is that you’re always floating with the tide of big trends.  When those of us qualified to be called boomers began to settle down there were lots of articles about “nesting,” about the evident need people have, at some point in their lives, to abandon being adventurous and footloose and to make a secure, snug environment in which to get serious about the future.  Getting to a place where some issues of life are more or less decided can be a big relief, and one feels permitted to live out one’s destiny by fulfilling the various roles attained, in the places already established.
Now the stories of Genesis have people at ages that don’t translate very well, because these folks are way older than we get.  I suppose that means we may have to translate Abram’s seventy-three years down into something younger.  Maybe it’s not the equivalent of your being told, at the age of seventy, to go to a far country and live there and if you do that, God will do some really nice things for people after your time.  Your descendants will be blessed, and the world will be blessed.
See, nowadays a person at seventy-three is apt to think, “I’ve finally gotten the house paid off” or “I moved here to be near the grandchildren” or some other homey thought that resists the idea of pulling up stakes and heading off for a far country, simply because God, for some reason, can’t make all these good things happen for you right where you happen to be.  Here’s a big comfort zone problem.
I guess anybody can maintain an openness throughout his or her life to new experiences, and even to moving and starting over.  There must be folks who used to get excited back in the sixties at the thought of flying out into space and colonizing Mars who still, fifty years later, would welcome the chance to go colonize Mars.  For a lot of people, however, including some who temperamentally like to stay put even at twenty, having a God who blesses in connection with moving on is uncomfortable.
So much so that you ask, “how big a part of the God of the Bible is that moving on thing?”, thinking that being flexible and ready to go questing is probably just one of the options God offers.  But you know, the go-you-to-a-far-country approach is pretty big with the God we have.  God’s people seem to end up being sent somewhere a lot of the time, and if God doesn’t positively send them, like with Noah being sent into what’s going to be really a new world, or Abraham being sent into a new life, then God’s going to negatively send them, like Adam and Eve moving on from Eden, or the inhabitants of Israel, much later, being carried off to Assyria as captives.
In the New Testament this unwillingness to leave people alone in the place where they’ve made a home for themselves is personified in Jesus.  He’s a wanderer.  He says he has no place to lay his head.  The climax of his earthly life is a long, deliberate march into a Jerusalem where he expects his life to end.  That’s not like a cozy retirement someplace, which has become such an ideal for so many of us, perhaps only moreso as economic problems make it less secure a dream.  Look at Paul.  He never stays put, unless he’s in jail.  The whole religion shifts from Jerusalem, where it is and isn’t at home, to a lot of little places all around the Mediterranean basin, and all those churches, even somewhat settled ones, are marked by people coming and going.
Being a human being is a matter of coming and going.  It’s not that unusual to live a century nowadays, but still that means there were millennia before your arrival and there will be who knows how many more after your exit.  Some people suspect that our awareness of the temporary nature of our existence is the reason people resist all kinds of change, that every shift from one stage of life to the next or one place to another is a little death, and reminds us of our mortality.
There’s probably something to that, but there’s another aspect to it.  We aren’t from here.  One reason we are tempted to snuggle into a cozy situation of some kind and resist relinquishing it is that it delivers us from the unease, at least for a while, of being between two worlds.
I’m talking about our belonging to heaven, and having to manage that while living in this created world, but we all know people who live between two worlds in more mundane ways.  Foreigners live and work among us but use phones and computers and televisions to continue to participate in the cultures they’ve left behind.  Now that April is approaching I’ll be getting on the computer every morning to see how the Red Sox are doing.  By the same token, people from here who’ve moved from here to someplace else are sent care packages by friends with hard pretzels in them, or something that allows them to experience this environment even at a great distance.
Just as a worshiper gets attached to a particular place to sit in a sanctuary, we get attached to the world we make for ourselves.  That’s natural.  There’s something very comfortable about settling in, and one of the comforts is half-forgetting that there is something slightly illusory about it, that we won’t really be here that long and that we don’t entirely belong here anyway.
Jesus, in John’s gospel, is the ultimate example of being in two worlds.  John’s gospel tends so much in the direction of Jesus’ true identity being heavenly that some early Christians made a heresy out of it, asserting that God only appeared to take on flesh in Jesus Christ and that the two realms never really merged.  No; Jesus was human, but Jesus knew that being a human wasn’t as simple as being one with the dust of the earth or as simple as being full of the breath of God.  Being human is both.
The story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus is connected with this theme.  It is a sad story, because it sums up in itself the inability, which we’ll witness throughout the entire gospel of John and which leads to the crucifixion, of Jesus’ religious peers to recognize who he is.
There’s no easy way to read this in translation and get what’s going on.  A couple of crucial remarks in the story are capable of being heard two very different ways.  The words for “from above” can also be understood as “one more time,” or “again”, and the word for “wind” can be understood as “spirit” and vice-versa.  The New Revised Standard translation, which we use, has Jesus tell Nicodemus that in order to know who Jesus is, people must be born from above.  That is what Jesus says.  Older translations had it that persons have to be born again, or anew, which is how Nicodemus hears it.  Nicodemus’ hearing it this way is a mistake, and we see the mistake when Nicodemus asks how a person is to reenter his or her mother’s womb in order to be born over again.  That absurdity is what should have cued Nicodemus that he should have heard Jesus as saying “from above,” but Nicodemus can’t get there.  This communication breakdown continues as Jesus speaks about the spirit or the wind–Nicodemus can’t be sure which–and the outcome of the whole visit of Nicodemus is that we have a brief, representative instance of Jesus’ fellow Jews being unable to see Jesus for who he is.
Those who do see Jesus for who he is do so by faith.  They accept that Jesus has been sent by God, and their acceptance opens great possibilities for them.  The story of Doubting Thomas is only in John’s gospel, and it is there for the lesson it teaches:  happy are those who have not seen, and yet believe.  That’s the basic circumstance of Christian faith, to anchor our lives on something we will to accept, and count on the grace of God to keep us there.
What makes the disciples capable of doing that?  They don’t have as much invested in the religion they’ve made for themselves as the scribes and Pharisees do.  All Jews know that feeling that they belong to heaven and to the world, but those most committed to the project of their religion have made their religion more comfortable for themselves by deciding exactly how it works and what it requires and all those things, so that it’s more like a familiar pew or a snug nest than it is a stance of being available for whatever God asks.
That’s why the failure of Nicodemus is a warning to us.  We recognize the signs, we know Jesus is something great, but can we really just give ourselves over and trust what God is achieving in Christ?  Are we so invested in the language and forms of our familiar faith that we won’t be able to recognize when God is asking us to do something new, or embrace a different future?  Do we really count on God for our security, instead of relying on ourselves?  Can we really trust God, in a changing world, to watch over our going out and coming in, wherever God sends us, from this time forth and for evermore?

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