Journeys: Lent 2

12th March 2017

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Genesis 12: 1 – 4
Psalm 121
Romans 4: 1 – 5, 13 – 17
John 3: 1 – 17

At the Southern Home Group meeting last Friday night, I found myself in conversation with Hee, a visitor from St James Church, King Street in Sydney. In Adelaide for a few weeks to enjoy the Festival she has been worshipping with us over the past few weeks. While we initially spoke about her desire to start walking the Heysen Trail once it opens for this year, her spiritual journey from a Buddhist family in South Korea to Christian at St Peter’s Cathedral is a fascinating one. She is here this morning if you want to ask her more yourself.

Lent is a time for Journeys. It marks the time spent by Jesus in the Wilderness doing we know not what – except that, according to both Matthew and Luke, he was tempted by the Devil at the end of the forty days. As Canon Jenny reminded us last week, the forty days Jesus spent in the Wilderness is reminiscent of the forty years spent by Moses and the People of Israel in their wanderings around the desert. Our own journey through Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday with an ash cross marked on our forehead and the solemn reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, takes us to Good Friday. There we find ourselves at the foot of the Cross.

But before we get to Holy Week and join the throngs of palm-waving pilgrims making their joyful way into Jerusalem, escorting the man they call the Son of David; before we go to Bethany, the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus and witness the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary; before we go to the Upper Room for the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, to have our feet washed as disciples of Jesus and witness Judas slipping away into the darkness; before we follow Jesus out into the Garden of Gethsemane where we struggle in vain to keep awake and watch and pray; and certainly before His arrest, trials and own terrible cross-laden journey to Golgotha – the place of the skull and crucifixion – we are invited to consider the journeys of three people mentioned in this morning’s readings.

The few short verses from Genesis chapter 12 mark the beginning of one of the longest journeys ever undertaken by human beings. It begins with a command from God to a man called Abram – later referred to as a wandering Aramean. (e.g. Deut 26: 5) “Go from your country, your kindred and your father’s house….” These days we are accustomed to people who leave their home land, their extended families and all that is familiar and move to a new place. Many of us either are immigrants, or are descendants of people who came to these shores not that long ago. Even those South Australians who proudly claim the first four ships as theirs arrived less than 200 years ago – a mere blink of the eye when compared to the very long occupation of these parts by the Kaurna people.

It’s hard to grasp the full extent of what Abram was being asked to do. In the way the story is told the most difficult and profound thing was to trust God and to trust that this God who called him to leave would be with him when and wherever he found himself. As those who are currently reading through the first books of the Old Testament in EFM will know, the thinking in the ancient Middle East was that gods were localised, each ‘god’ – whatever was meant by that term – was limited to a particular geographical spot. If a person moved from one area to another, one town to another, one country to another, they changed their gods – as well as language, culture and identity. We see this beautifully illustrated in the story of Ruth the Moabite. In a short speech resonant with love she says to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1: 16)

Abram’s trust and understanding of God is not yet what we understand to be monotheism but henotheism – the worship of one particular god, even if there are others. But his journey into the unknown will grow into a spiritual and theological journey of immense proportions and end up in the full-blown monotheism captured in the words of the Nicene Creed we recite Sunday by Sunday: “We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

St Paul is another traveller on this faith road of God. We first meet him as a shadowy figure at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1) and then on the road to Damascus. The encounter with the Christ, dramatically described as a flashing heavenly light leaving the poor man blind and speechless, changed his name and his life. Today’s reading comes from the final and most significant of Paul’s writings – the Letter to the Romans. In it he talks through something of the tremendous ‘journey’ he, as a good Pharisaic Jew, has made. It is a journey from exclusiveness to inclusiveness – from the children of Abraham only to a place for all the children of God. It’s a journey in the mind from closedness to openness; from trust in the Law and Works to justification by faith and the gift of God’s grace. In a densely woven treatise Paul does his best to convince his readers, those original Romans but also you and me, that the Gospel is relevant, grace-filled and inviting to all people. There are no exclusions anymore.

The fact that we are here today says much for the success of Paul’s arguments. Had Paul, and others, not taken the Gospel to the Gentiles, and had the early elders of the church, meeting in Jerusalem for the first ever Synod as described in Acts 15, not agreed to ‘allow’ people who had not been circumcised according to the Law of Moses into the Church there would likely be no Christianity and no Diocese of Adelaide looking forward to welcoming Archbishop-elect Geoff and no St Peter’s Cathedral. But of course, that is history and reflects a very long journey.

The third traveller we meet today is Nicodemus – a teacher of the Law. In this famous encounter with Jesus, we can imagine Nicodemus sneaking away from his Temple colleagues and seeking out Jesus. He’s intrigued, wants to meet Jesus – but doesn’t want anyone to see him doing so. I am reminded of the way those I call “pillar people” sidle into the Cathedral, intrigued, awed, trying not to be noticed. They hide behind the pillars in the back rows and watch and wait. If they are welcomed, if they feel safe, if they have the courage – they may come out from behind their pillar, real or imagined.

So Nicodemus encounters Jesus for the first time at night. Can he possible have imagined his opening flattering words –“we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…” – would lead to a deep discussion about being born again? I doubt it. The important man, a teacher himself, is left utterly flummoxed – “How can these things be?” There is no clear answer just yet. Nicodemus still has a way to travel – in fact, right through John’s Gospel almost to the very end. He appears again in chapter 7. Jesus has upset the authorities with his radical teaching and preaching. The Temple police are sent to arrest him. In the midst of his legal colleagues Nicodemus reminds them of one of their own laws: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to hear what they are doing.” (John 7: 51)

It’s not until John chapter 19 that Nicodemus appears again for the third and final time in the Gospel. After Jesus dies on the cross, Joseph of Arimathea asks for the body of Jesus and we are told that Nicodemus, “who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” (John 19: 39) One presumes that, for his name to be so carefully recorded in the Gospel, Nicodemus went on to become a foundation member of the fledgling Christian church, possible well-known to the first readers of the Gospel.

Three journeys through their own Lent. Each one very different. Each one becoming increasingly God-centred, God-focused, life-changing.

And so we find ourselves on our journey through Lent – each one different, each, I trust, becoming more God-centred, God-focused, life-changing.

God’s gift to those of us who seek Him, who journey towards God, who follow the Way of the Cross, is God’s ever present Love. It is beautifully put in what is surely the best known and most loved verse of the whole Bible, John 3: 16. “For 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.”

One question remains for each of us today: Do we know that Love of God in our journey?