Second Sunday in Lent
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who keeps promises. Amen
This Lent we are telling stories of faith,
last week we explored how what stories we listen to
impact our understanding of our identity,
this week our stories explore what it means to have faith,
what having faith looks like.
And I think this is something that we all wonder about,
at least at some point in our lives,
what does it mean to have faith?
Do I have enough faith?
How do I get more faith?
Why do some people seem to have an easier time than others?
Any of these questions sound familiar?
It’s pretty easy to go down a rabbit hole of questions
when it comes to faith
which is why it is helpful to have some examples
of what is meant by having faith
and we have two good examples in our readings for today,
Abraham and Nicodemus.
Abraham is often held up as the model of a faithful person,
Paul points to Abraham in our second reading,
and Abraham’s story of faith is quite simple,
God comes to Abraham and says “go to the land that I will show you”
then promises to make a great nation of Abraham
with many descendants and through Abraham bless the world
“So Abram went, as the Lord had told him”
Almost too simple,
so simple as to be impossible to live up to,
I know I take a lot more convincing than a single command
Even from God
But really when we think about it
why wouldn’t Abraham go?
God has made all these promises
seemingly based on the one command to go.
On the face of it,
it kind of looks like one of those transactions
that Paul attributes to the law,
until we remember that God says ‘go’
but does not give a destination,
and God says ‘I will make you a great nation’
and at this point Abraham is very old and very childless
and then it is easier to see Abraham's going as a great act of faith,
because what God proposes to do seems impossible,
when Abraham goes,
he goes into the unknown,
holding on to the promise of God
and trusting that God will keep that promise.
And yes this is remarkable and an ideal
but I don’t know about you
but I’ve found faith- the act of trusting God-
much more complicated than that.
Which is why I love the story of Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a religious leader,
people know who he is,
they go to him for answers to religious questions
he’s supposed to have it all,
okay well, mostly
but when Jesus comes onto the scene,
Nicodemus is intrigued,
he wants to know more,
but here’s the catch,
he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s interested in Jesus,
so when he goes to see Jesus
he goes at night covered by the darkness
and he comes with an attitude that says
‘I’m going to figure you out Jesus’,
he begins “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
and the way Jesus responds
it’s almost as if he’s saying
‘oh you know do you?’
and goes on to utterly confuse Nicodemus
by speaking of being born again and born of the spirit
and when Nicodemus asks him
“‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’”
I hear Jesus saying this in a rather sarcastic false shocked tone of voice,
undertones of ‘what, you don’t know everything?’
I don’t think that Jesus is judging Nicodemus
as much as making a point
that the mechanics of God’s work in the world
are confusing boarding on impossible to understand,
because then Jesus gets serious and says
look “we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony if I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things.”
Seeing Jesus perform signs has only gotten Nicodemus so far along the path to faith,
he struggles with hearing what others have experienced of God,
at some point understanding will fail
and that’s where faith has to take over,
the trust that however it happens
what God promises will come to pass.
And that’s when Jesus tells Nicodemus what God is going to do
- out of love send God’s son to be lifted up for the sake of the world-
now remember this conversation is taking place
long before the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday
Nicodemus has no idea that Jesus is referring to the cross,
and even if he did,
he’d be stumped as to how anything good could come of Jesus dying by crucifixion,
but at the end
Jesus gives Nicodemus a promise he can hold on to:
“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.”
Jesus promises that however incomprehensibly God chooses to act,
God intends salvation.
Nicodemus doesn’t have to understand the how,
his role is to trust that God is acting for good.
And that it seems Nicodemus can do,
we get no indication that when the conversation ends
Nicodemus understands the particulars of who Jesus is
or how God is acting
any better than when he started
but throughout the gospel of John,
Nicodemus keeps showing up
in ways that show his faith in Jesus is increasing.
The next time Nicodemus pops up
is when Jesus has been in Jerusalem for the festival of Booths,
Jesus has been publicly teaching
and people are starting to wonder if he is the Messiah
and all this is making the leadership anxious,
they want to arrest Jesus
and it’s at this point that Nicodemus speaks up
and says “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (7:51)
and the other Pharisees
because remember Nicodemus is one of them,
but also they do not arrest Jesus.
Speaking up for Jesus in front of his peers
Nicodemus has come a long way
from sneaking out to see Jesus under the cover of darkness.
The last time we meet Nicodemus
is at the foot of the cross,
he comes with Joseph of Arimathea
to prepare Jesus’ body for burial
and he brings with him 100 pounds of spices and ointments,
an amount so excessively lavish
that it could only represent the grace of God,
and here at Jesus’ seeming defeat
does Nicodemus make public his faith in him.
Nicodemus gives me hope,
because it means that faith doesn’t have to be an instantaneous ascent
nor does it mean we have to believe everything as true right away,
can start as a small seed,
as curiosity paired with a lot of questions,
and that seed can be nurtured to grow
and God offers a promise to hold on to
while faith grows,
the promise that God loves us
and nothing can change that.
God lives out that promise
by continually coming to us in love,
in the water and word of the font,
in the eating and drinking of bread and wine
blessed, broken and poured out for us,
in the stories of faith shared with us
where we get to see how God comes to others
and as we live
both questioning and holding on to the promise of God,
we may find our faith growing,
we still have questions
but we no longer need the cover of darkness to ask them,
we also might have times where growth stalls
but through it all God keeps coming to us
keeping the promises God has made,
and we find that ultimately what it means to have faith
to is to hold on to the promises of God,
to trust that God is acting for good. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.