(Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-4,15-17; John 3:1-17)
Preached on 3/16/14 at COSK in Portland, Oregon
“Go forth!” We could say, and we would be right to do so, that this is the first call to the Gospel recorded in the Scriptures. Abraham, the father of faith is called by God to go. Abandon what is known to you, depart from the familiar, the secure, the solid, the sensible, the self-evident, and go. The call of the Gospel, when it comes to Abraham, begins, as the Gospel must always begin, with a break. Just as we heard a few weeks ago from Jesus in the sermon on the mount, the Gospel always begins with a rupture, a radical disruption: “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . .” These words come to Abraham in Genesis no less than they came to the disciples from Jesus, no less than they come to us again and again in the course of our lives, which so easily slip back into the pattern of this world, into “the way things” are, or what our Gospel reading would call “that which is born of the flesh.”
It is this radical break, this calling to abandon all that has come before for the sake of receiving something new, something that, as far as we know does not yet exist, that pervades Jesus’s dialogue with Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading.
Nicodemus is interested in Jesus, but he is interested in him as someone who can fit within Israel and its teachers as it stands. He, “the teacher of Israel” stands in utter need of redemption, of new birth into a new life, and a whole new community, the community called forth by the Gospel of the kingdom. He is a secret admirer of Jesus and John is careful to portray him as cowardly, inadequate, and in need of redemption through confession of Jesus and new birth.
For Jesus has not come to offer something that “fits”, something that can be “added” to things as they are in this world. He has come to bring and proclaim a different reality, a reality that calls into question all of our present arrangements, all things that are most natural to us. Jesus presents an entirely new reality into which people are invited and in which they are offered eternal life, which is being brought into the love of God, the love that is so radical, so deep, so universal that God sends God’s own self into the world in the form of the Son. What Jesus proclaims and what Jesus brings is as strange and astonishing and hard to understand as grown people being “born again”. What might some thing like this mean if not the introduction of something utterly miraculous, utterly new, something that calls all that has come before into question?
The reality Jesus offers does not “fit within” any of the existing realities, rather it explodes them and transcends them. It doesn’t fit within “natural Israel” and the only way those belonging to Israel or the nations can participate in it is through hearing Jesus’s word, trusting it and being given over to it. Jesus represents a total break with natural divisions and loyalties. He comes from above, from God and introduces a new reality into the world which interrupts the old order and rearranges people into a new form of life that cannot be readily incorporated into old structures of this world.
The abandonment of all that is most natural! That is what the Gospel of God proclaims ever and again.
And this call to go forth, to leave behind what is most fitting, most natural, most reasonable comes, not just to Abraham, not just to the disciples, not just to us, but also to the one who issues the call himself. The one who brings the Gospel also subjects himself to the demands of the Gospel, indeed we probably ought to say, that he alone has truly met the demands of the Gospel with full obedience and total trust. Abraham’s trust in the one who called him was utterly fragile and at times fell apart. He may have once believed that God would make a nation from his offspring, but that belief certainly faltered in the face of the impossible obstacle that was Sarah’s barrenness. Likewise the Peter may have trusted Jesus enough to step out of a boat into the water of a storm, might have loved him enough to follow after him even when he was arrested and dragged into court, but that trust and that love fell apart in denials and curses when his own safety was on the line.
No indeed, even amidst the cloud of witnesses, there is ultimately one true witness to the call of the Gospel of God. And this witness is Jesus. The one who journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem, from exaltation to humiliation, from life to death in obedience to the Gospel of God’s coming kingdom of life and liberation for all. The call “Go forth from your country, and from your father’s house, to the place I will show you” comes fully, truly, and ultimately to Jesus and only derivatively does it come to Abraham, the disciples, or us.
It comes to us because it has come to Jesus. The call to ever again be shaken up, called on, to go forth into the unknown comes to us because Jesus continues to come to us. The one who journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem, from safety to death on a cross continues to come to us, and to go on ahead of us: “He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”
The call to go forth, to be shaken up by the Gospel is not a one time event, not moment of conversion, but an ever-recurring form of life to which we are called: the life of repentance. The God who calls Abraham to go forth from his father’s house into the land he will be given is also called to leave that land and go down to Egypt, trusting that God will still be faithful. The disciple who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, who is called the rock upon whom the church will be built, is called to turn again from denials and strengthen his brothers.
And this is truly where we can falter, where we can become like Nicodemus or worse. This is where we can blindly come to believe that we are being faithful when in fact we are simply living “according to the flesh.” When we assume that the moment of crisis and calling is behind us, that we are squarely on the path, that everything is coming together and we are on the right track. This is where we are most vulnerable to forgetting that the Gospel remains alien to us until the kingdom of God is all in all.
The call to go forth, to trust and believe that God is bring an altogether new reality upon us, this call does not simply come, but continually circles back until all is accomplished. It circles back upon us precisely when we think we are getting it right, when we are about to receive the promise, it is then that we are called to once again put it all at risk in trust that God knows and is really up to something greater. Abraham follows God’s call to the land, and then back out again in the time of famine. So also with Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. So also with the disciples, the apostles, and with us.
But before this was so with these witnesses, it was so with Jesus. With the one whose whole life in this world was a going-forth, a giving-up, a letting-go. At every point in Jesus’s life there were an array of non-risk option before him, as we saw in our reflections on the temptation story last week. “There are other ways this can go” — that is the call of this age, the call of Satan, the call of the wisdom “according to the flesh.”
Jesus is the one who has subjected himself full to this ever-recurring call of God to go forth into uncertainty, to put at risk, rather than to make secure, to give up, rather than to seize, to trust rather than to be suspicious. And this must, ever and again remain the call of the Gospel in this world, for we live after and before the promised end, the coming kingdom of life and liberation. Our lives are lived at the point of confrontation and conflict this present evil age, and the age to come, between life according to the flesh, and life according to the Spirit, between crucifixion and resurrection. In a world torn apart by the war between powers of death and the power of love the call of the Gospel will always and ever be the call of “Go forth!”
For we serve a God who has come forth to us and dragged us into life. We serve a God who has come to us in the world of power and and death in the form of a servant. We serve a God who believed before we ever knew there was a way out or the possibility of hope. For it was true about Jesus before it was true about Abraham, or about the disciples, or about us that he believed in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
And so while we continue to live on, struggling together in this little local body to discern how to follow the call of the Gospel in this time and place, in insignificant, statistically unimportant, little ways let us remember yet again today, that the call of the Gospel remains the call of “Go forth!” That the direction of God’s movement in the world is forward and downward, into places where we would not wish to go. That this call will never be over until all has become resurrection.
And let us also remember that we follow a God who does not merely call, but has lived this call for us in Jesus. That the God who calls us to “Go forth!” is the God who has come forth to us, lived our life, died our death, and promises us a share in a life we have no right to claim. Let us remember that we can trust the God who calls us to go forth into uncertainty and doubt, not once, but ever and again, right we want it least — just as Jesus trusted amidst cries of abandonment and the sweating of blood before the cross. For if Jesus’s whole life could be given over to this risk of trust in this God, then the life of risk, of going forth into the uncertain, even into death, is not too good for us who would follow after him. For we serve a God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.