Our reading from Genesis contains the Lord’s call and promise to Abram (not yet Abraham) and the first journey to the Promised Land. God tells Abram that he should take all of his people and possessions, everything he has, and go to a land that God will show him. Then God says, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram, at 75 years old and still without heirs, did as God said, and they went to Canaan, where God said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
Paul comments on this episode in our reading from his letter to the Romans. His question is whether there is any reason, other than his faithfulness, for Abraham to have been “reckoned righteous.” Paul finds that righteousness was given to Abraham, bestowed upon him by God purely because of his belief, his faithful following of God’s command. God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled and carried on to his descendants not through the Law or any other means besides faith. And that, Paul says, is so that “the promise may rest on grace.” Those of us who share the faith of Abraham live in the presence of a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
In this week’s reading from Luke’s gospel, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, comes to Jesus by night seeking to understand the source of Jesus’ teaching and his power. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus “must come from God.” Jesus replies that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus finds this hard to comprehend: “how can anyone be born after having grown old?” Jesus responds by telling him that “what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” The life and power that Jesus brings into the world in order to save the world requires belief in what has never been seen or revealed. It is not the Law, not received teaching, not reliant on past experience. Rather, it comes, like the wind, in the working of the unseen Spirit.
We nod in assent to this week’s lessons because we live within a tradition that has already accepted the promises made in both our Old and New Testament lessons. But how would we respond to God and to Jesus if we were in the place of Abram, or of Nicodemus? Would you, at the age of 75, take and risk all in the belief that God would give you something greater than you had ever known? Could you, after a lifetime of learning and then teaching one way of being in the world, accept another radically different one as the true path to God? Can you, along with Paul, be confident that faith, belief in God’s promises, is the only way to receive them?
Most of us would like to think that we would, of course, do what these men are asked to do. The harder thing to see and to understand is that we are, daily, asked to follow their way. And we often fall short, seeking safety in the known, pursuing the route of caution and self-protection and reliance on what past experience has taught. The call we receive this week is to be “converted” to a new way of being.