Last night I had a dream – and as is the way with dreams, it’s hard to rationalise or even remember much of it. Some of the people I recognised, others I knew but I couldn’t tell you who they were. I think we were planning a Café Sundae session and we met outdoors. The one thing I do remember was telling the rural dean (yes, she was there too) that we were about to move house and, although this house was only just up the road from where I live now, not only had I not seen the inside of the house but I hadn’t seen the garden either. I was feeling slightly anxious about this because my current garden (in the dream, not in reality!) was flourishing with fruit and veg. I was particularly concerned about my blackcurrant bushes….. No doubt a psychoanalyst could have an absolute field day with all this but I’m not going to try and get any deep meaning out of it. Except to say that our attitudes to change, to moving on can say something about our relationship with God and our response to him.
The central characters in today’s readings – Abraham and Nicodemus – are the proverbial chalk and cheese of Scripture. Within Judaism, Islam and Christianity Abraham’s name has become a byword for faithfulness and obedience. Abram heeds God’s call to leave all that he possesses and journey to a far-off land. Unlike that other great figure in Hebrew history, Moses, he does not ask the Lord a series of questions or offer excuses – he just goes. His conversation with God appears to be very straightforward and one-sided. Abram was old – so we are told. Perhaps these days it would be said that his wanderlust was a result of a delayed ‘mid-life crisis’. While it is easy to be caught up in the finer detail of God’s call – how did Abram know it was the one true God who was calling him? – or become side-tracked by his age, it is important to recognise his courage and self-sacrifice. These days we’ve become accustomed to migration of people and peoples and we don’t think a great deal of it – partly because we know it is possible to travel half-way around the world on comfortable aeroplanes to study or work or just for fun.
But we also need to bear in mind the other migrations, undertaken in hazardous conditions – the migration of the trafficked people and asylum seekers. There are shocking statistics about the huge proportion of the population of Syria who have been forced to flee their homes. Migration is part of the human story and continues to be often a dangerous and risky business. The other aspect that we should take note of is to do with Abram’s age. Sometimes older people say to me ‘I’m too old to change’ and this usually refers to a change in attitude or ways of doing things. Physical age may prevent us from doing physical things but it is no barrier to progressing on our spiritual journey of discovery. As we get physically older, we may find it more time-consuming to learn new things, or we may not have the same mental agility as we did when we were younger but there is no such thing as being too old to reconsider and re-evaluate our ‘life attitudes’, if you like; no such thing as being too old to set out afresh on a new journey of discovery, a new chapter in our relationship with God and our response to his call. God has a calling, a vocation for each and every one of us, young and old; and for each gathered community of Christians – each parish. It is that calling, that vocation that we hope to recognise and respond to over the coming months as we look to the future as a team.
But, let’s for a moment contrast Abraham with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a ‘teacher of Israel’ as Jesus calls him this during their conversation. For all his apparent learning, Nicodemus has only questions for Jesus.
While Abram had to step outside his comfort zone in response to God’s call, Nicodemus remained inside his. We might argue that Nicodemus was a ‘head’ man; a thinker who used logic and reason to work out who Jesus was. Equally, it can be argued that Abram was a ‘heart’ person; it made little rational or economic sense to leave all that he had to embark on what some would have called a ‘wild goose chase’ as part of a promise that he would not see in his lifetime.
Are we more like Nicodemus than Abraham? Are we more interested in the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ – wanting a rational, scientific explanation for everything. Have we, I wonder, lost something of the spontaneity, the appreciation of mystery? Christians are often described as ‘pilgrim people’, whose journey only ends when we die. But when we became the ‘established church’; when Christianity became the ‘state religion’ as far back as the Emperor Constantine, did we lose something of the spontaneity, the sense of journey, of adventure, of restlessness even? And I wonder if that makes us more inclined to be like Nicodemus – interested, searching but very cautious.
The good news is that we know that Nicodemus became a follower of Jesus. His questions were answered and he used his position with the Jewish leaders to question their attitude to Jesus (John 7.50) and took the risk of buying spices to anoint Jesus’ body before burial.
We can be sure that God will speak to us, will call us in a way that we can hear – whether we are ‘head’ or ‘heart’ people. If we have questions, God will answer them. But the decision to respond, to go along with God’s plan is ours alone and perhaps this story about Abram speaks into the situation of the church in Western society today and in particular to us in this benefice. Instead of feeling sidelined and marginalised and threatened by society’s attitude to the church; instead of feeling vulnerable and under-resourced, perhaps we are being pointed towards taking risks in the face of uncertainty and the threat of decline; perhaps we are being pointed towards being imaginative in the face of unforeseen opportunity, as we look to the future together.
God of Abram, our God,
we praise you that you are a God of journeys;
a God of excitement; a God of possibilities.
Bless us with the courage of Abram this Lent,
that we might draw closer to you and to one another
and become the people you know we can be.
We pray in Jesus’ name.