2nd Sunday in Lent

February 17, 2008
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy
John Cobb on redemption
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Genesis 12:1-4a
Reading 2: 
Psalm 121
Reading 3: 
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Reading 4: 
John 3:1-17
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the Text
If there is any unifying theme in this arrangement of texts, it surely must be Romans 4:17: “. . . in the presence of God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” If there is a definition of the way God works in creation, this is it. Psalm 121 paints this theme with a broad brush; it could be part of the liturgy for worship. Put simply and elegantly: “I look to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” The psalm goes on to describe this God as trustworthy, ever vigilant, our keeper, our protector. What an affirmation of a God in whom we can trust, which is the point of the Abraham story. The call comes; Abraham responds in trust. It is a simple move, like a flower naturally orienting itself to the sun. Trust is the prime movement of religion toward the future. God is the source of life, why would anyone orient themselves away from the light? All the texts are future oriented, that is, the future grows out of present trust in God. God’s power is organic, relational and transformative.

How to characterize this mysterious, creative, transforming power of God that calls from the future? The John text offers the essential paradigm of this power: childbirth. What better imagine to capture the mystery, the surprise, the shock of something coming from nothing? This is not a biological problem or a genetic puzzle; the conception and birth of a human being is one of the most mysterious phenomena we can imagine. Nicodemus speaks for us in our stupefying self-confidence. We would like to literalize God’s power, try to understand it in formulaic terms so that we can manipulate it, manage it, parcel it out. Childbirth is not some grammatical expression that can be parsed. It’s not a chemical code that can be cracked. Life is, at its core, mysterious. God’s power is, in its nature, creative. What is the proper frame of mind to approach the mystery of God? The Bible calls it “faith.”

The fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham of a future came clothed in the form of a child. The birth of a child is the vehicle of future promise. The irony of the birth of a child is that it evokes the deepest feelings of vulnerability and risk, yet it is our deepest hope for the future. Maybe these feelings are two sides of the same coin. Abraham and Sarah had no children; therefore, they had to future. They had nothing. And God created something out of nothing. Where there was no future for them, God created a bountiful future.

Process Theology and the Text
The weight of the past has a tremendous pull. Left on its own, the past tends to repeat itself. But the momentum of things is toward the future, in the way the future pulls everything to it. The future exerts a powerful lure, reaching into the present moment. In the unfolding of everything from one moment to the next--in the great advance of creation--is a power calling from the future, moving everything forward. Like taffy being stretched, each moment of experience is stretched toward the future, lured by God’s persuasive influence toward life. Not only does God call what is toward what can be, God creates possibilities that we can not even imagine in our current context. Therefore, because we can’t know the future in detail, no matter how hard we try to anticipate it, why not put our trust in God? From the texts’ point of view, it only makes sense to trust God, given the nature of how the present moment is continually being drawn into the future, a future from which God exerts the divine power toward life. What is the alternative? Our own self-management--which begs the question, how well has that been working?

Preaching the Text
Our attitude toward the future is a defining orientation for our lives. And there are two basic choices open to us regarding the future, the proverbial fork in the road. We can react to the future in fear or in trust. The future is continually looming, emerging; it casts its shadow over every moment. There is a sense of emergency about the future. The question is how do we respond to this continual state of emergency? Fear is a natural response to danger and there are times when fear is appropriate and should be acknowledged. But it is one thing to respond to an event in fear and another thing to respond to the future with a vague, generalized fear of the unknown. In such a case, fear can be destructive to us. The preacher can spin out a scenario of a life lived in the shadow of fear. My grandmother was such a person. She was so fearful of the world and of the future that she remained homebound, peering out from behind closed curtains. She had my grandfather nail shut all the windows in the house. The doors had several locks and she would still stack empty cans against the doors and windows at night, all to warn her of the inevitable intruder that was going to break in and murder her. She trusted only my grandfather, and he was questionable at times. Because of this fear, she limited her involvement in life.  She didn’t take the necessary risks that would lead to a richer life. She cut herself off and narrowed her future to a shadow of what it might have been. What a way to live! If life is lived in fear, then we can become preoccupied with securing ourselves against all possible threats that we dread coming from the future. We secure ourselves on our own terms. We try to manage all the contingencies of the dark future in such a way as to rule out chance. Our lives then become filled with dread and foreboding. Anxiety prevails. What can we trust? The economy? The Military? Our political leaders? Ourselves? All the usual suspects present themselves with promises of a secure future. There is a politics of fear, there is an economics of fear and there is a theology of fear, all hanging in our cultural air like a gas leak. People often use fear to manipulate and control others.

Ultimate trust in anything other than God will lead to a more limited future. Fear then becomes the opposite of faith. Fear becomes the enemy of life. Fear becomes the fulfillment of its own dark possibilities. Fear becomes our clenched hands around our own neck, choking off possibilities for life. This is the way of death.

There is another way to live.

The Bible encourages us to live life in trust. Not trust in just anything, but particularly in God. The focus of trust is very specific: God is the Creator. We can entrust our future in God’s hands. The preacher could spin out the scenario of a life lived in trust. Abraham then becomes the prime example. So does Jesus and many others in the Bible. Perhaps the preacher can think of people in his or her own life who exude this sense of trust in the care of God. This attitude of trust in God for our future is the spiritual goal of worship, if not of life itself.

Furthermore, an attitude of trust in God toward the future leads to hope. If God can bring new life out of all our experiences of death, and if God can call into existence things that didn’t exist, then anything is possible in God’s hands. God opens up the future and provides possibilities that are not in our control, or even anticipated by us. What we can anticipate is that God will surprise us with new life.

Sometimes, preaching is essentially wondering out loud about life in light of biblical texts. In this case, wondering about a fork in the road: one path worn down with the burdens of so many who have chosen the way of fear and anxiety. Who would take such a road? The focus of the sermon, then, would be on these two choices that open up to us continually. A life lived in fear, or a life lived in trust in God.

Or the preacher could focus on the image of childbirth and work out all the implications described above. I’ve heard some people say that they don’t want to have children because they don’t want to bring a new life into this dangerous world. They point out all the dreaded conditions, the worsening scenarios, famine and destruction, a world gone horribly wrong. It’s a familiar litany of fear and it makes perfect sense in the terms of its own limited logic. Yet the same litany has been invoked through the ages.

Having a child can be an act of faith in spike of this litany of fear. There is another litany in the Bible, one of hope and trust in the mysterious, transforming power of God. The preacher could hold the Abraham and the Nicodemus stories side-by-side.

Children and the Text
Goal: To make the connection between faith and trust.  Who do you trust? Your mom? Your dad? What does it mean to trust them? You know they love you and you depend on them. You know that if you need help, they will be there for you. You don’t even question that do you? They will do everything they can to help you in your life. Who else do you trust? Teachers? Police Officers? Fire Fighters. Friends? How about a stranger? Do you trust strangers? No. We’ve been taught to not trust them. A stranger might be a very nice person. But we don’t know them. That’s why we don’t trust them. But maybe if we got to know them, we might trust them. Who don’t you trust? People who want to hurt you or people who do bad things to other people.

Once, when I was maybe a little older than you, I was with my father in the woods. Somehow I got separated from him and I got lost. Oh, what a scary feeling that was. I panicked and started to scream for my dad. All I wanted to do was find my father, because I know that if I found him, I would be safe. Well, sure enough, I found him and I felt so relieved. I stuck very close to him, following him, back to the car and then home. I trusted my father. That’s how we can trust God.

The Bible tells us that we can trust God. Do you know what that means? The preacher can draw parallels between trusting a loving parent and trusting God. That kind of trust is what the Bible calls faith.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.