Second Sunday of Lent
The chief temptation of Lent is not that we will give in to our appetites but that we will enjoy seeing how right we can be. We set out a program of spiritual self-improvement, to fast and give alms, to skip the chocolate or alcohol or meat or TV, to make a few visits to someone who is lonely. Or we do none of those things, knowing that in this way we prove we are not the kind of people who go in for works-righteousness. Either way, we enjoy a chance to try to prove to ourselves that we are good, or at least better than some. We secure our place.
The life of faith is not like that.
Abram’s story begins because God calls him – which is to say commands him – and promises to bless him and to make him a blessing for others. As gifts go, it’s pretty costly. This gift means that Abram leaves his home, becomes a migrant in a strange land, and eventually nearly kills his own son. To become God’s blessing he becomes a wandering stranger. The gift was not certainty. The gift he was given was obedient faith.
Writing in the context of early Christian concern about the relation of Jew and Gentile, Paul points out that Abraham is not the father of faith because he followed Torah. Torah had not yet been given in Abraham’s time, for one thing. But more, God’s promise comes before anything is said about Abraham’s merit at all. The call of God is not a reward, much less an entitlement. It is the gift and the command of trusting obedience.
One way Christians have tried to establish their entitlement to their place from Paul’s time to the present is to claim that Christians (or some subset of Christians) have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. Willie Jennings argues in The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2011) that once European Christians decided that they had replaced the Jews as the chosen people, they had the perfect theological launching pad for racist colonialism. European Christians can be the great white savior, rescuing (and subjecting and enslaving) all others, who live in darkness. Now some claim that America is the city on the hill or that the safety of the US is matters above all else, that it is the hero in a struggle against evil. We mistake the good news for possession of a secure place at the center of a story we already know all about.
But we should notice that Paul’s argument is a Jewish argument, and nothing in it says that the Jews have been rejected and replaced. Abraham is at the center of the story, because Abraham knows he is not the center of the story: his willingness to give up his place makes him the father of faith for all God calls, Jew or Gentile.
And in this Sunday’s gospel from John, Jesus is astonished that a teacher of Israel doesn’t understand his saying, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” After all, Jesus’ words echo Ezekiel 36:
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statues and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ez. 36: 25-27).
Criticism of hypocritical legalism and recognition that God’s love of Israel is about a gift of new life were not new to Judaism. Jesus expects that a wise Jewish teacher should know that the gift of God has always been a call from the still hardness of stone into the tenderness of flesh and breath (which is the same word as spirit).
What was new—and still is new – is Jesus himself, the one who comes down from heaven. He is the gift of fellowship with God, made flesh. He will be lifted up for the healing of the people, but lifted on the cross, not on a throne. The victory and certainty he gives is that God is with us. That should give confidence and joy. But God comes not as a king securing our wealth and safety but as one who loves to the point of giving his life, one who forgives as he dies, one who dies a naked stranger outside the walls.
Jesus is the gift that is invitation and command to die to ourselves, to set out on a journey into a strange land. To be his follower is not to gain certainty or earn the hero’s spot. The gift of faith is that we become followers rather than owners. And the one we follow is the crucified.
We are given new life. We are born into it, as everyone is born, weak and without possessions, without a place in the world but with the trust of children who are beloved. The wandering stranger becomes God’s blessing for all the world.