Images of Faith
Have you ever been shown an old picture of someone you knew and had to ask, ‘Which one are you’? Perhaps it was a picture of a parent or friend as a child, or maybe it was someone after a major makeover. I’ve had such experiences and I’m sure you’ve had them too. I’ve also played the game in which the players are shown childhood pictures of famous personalities – film stars, artistes, politicians, etc – and have to figure out who is the famous person portrayed as a child. It’s challenging. The question though is: do we always recognise others? How about ourselves? Do we always recognise ourselves?
The readings for this Sunday, the Second Sunday in Lent, paint pictures of persons. My question to each of us is this: Which one are you? Which one am I?
Abram – Father of the Faith
In the Lesson, Genesis 12:1-4a, there is a man who is told by God, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ (emphasis mine). A few verses later, we are told the man went as the Lord had told him. This man, Abram, later known as Abraham, took his wife, Sarai (later known as Sarah), his nephew, Lot, his possessions, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran and set off for ‘the land that [the Lord] would show [them]’. Abram didn’t ask when, how, or why. He didn’t even ask for directions. He received the instruction and he obeyed. As Paul writes to the Romans in today’s Epistle (Romans 4:1-5, 13-17), it was this faith that was reckoned as righteousness.
Abram left understanding – believing – that, as affirmed in the Response, Psalm 121, his help would come from the Lord. Abram understood that God would not let his foot be moved. Abram didn’t know where he was going or for how long he was going if ever to return, but he knew that the maker of heaven and earth would watch over him, and that the maker of heaven and earth did not sleep. Abram understood although he didn’t know.
Nicodemus – One of Challenged Faith
The contrasting picture shown in the readings, in the Gospel, John 3:1-17 is that of a teacher, a Pharisee, Nicodemus, who couldn’t understand ‘these things’ as Jesus would scoff in verse 10. Now, Nicodemus was curious, he was genuinely interested (the text tells us that he came to Jesus by night). Nicodemus came seeking the Light in the thick of the darkness of the night. Nicodemus found the Light, as he said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ (John 3:2). Nicodemus, however, didn’t understand the Light that he had found. Now, Scripture doesn’t tell us what transpired after Jesus responded to Nicodemus, but something tells me that Nicodemus went away even more confused.
Nicodemus, as educated and learned as he was, didn’t understand. Nicodemus found what he was looking for; sadly, Nicodemus didn’t understand what he had found once he had found what he was looking for. I’m thinking Nicodemus went away in even greater darkness – more befuddled and confused – than when he approached Jesus. Perhaps Nicodemus had already determined the answer, hence his confusion once Jesus had responded to him.
Abram vs Nicodemus
Friends, that’s one difference between Abram and Nicodemus: Abram didn’t need to know more in order to obey because the Word of God was enough to get him started on his journey. Abram, who was settled started on a journey because of his faith. Nicodemus, on the other hand, had come on a journey in search of God’s enlightenment, but was stalled because of his faith…his lack of faith, that is. Abram’s faith was the foundation of ours, as Paul continues in the Epistle, ‘For this reason, it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us).’ (Romans 4:16). Abram’s faith sustained him in the journey, earning him a change in name from Abram (Hebrew name meaning ‘The Father is exalted’) to Abraham (meaning ‘The father of many nations’). Abram’s faith that caused him to exalt the Father, allowed him to become the father of many nations.
Another difference between Abram and Nicodemus is that Abram didn’t challenge God, at least not to the point of disbelief. As you continue to read the story of Abram, you will learn in Genesis 15, of Abram’s plea to God in the face of his continued childlessness (which meant he would have no heir of his own loins). Abram’s lament to God was as innocent as the Virgin Mary’s question to the angel when he announced that she would become pregnant. Nicodemus, on the other hand, came seeking to be proven wrong. Abram trusted that God was right; Nicodemus came needing Jesus to prove Himself right.
Friends, regardless of how you view Jesus’ response to Nicodemus, know that God leaves room for questions – think here of Nathanael who questioned whether anything good could come out of Nazareth and of Thomas the Apostle who needed to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ side to believe in the Resurrection. It is the heart of the one who questions that makes the difference. The righteous one, the one of faith, like Abram, asks, ‘Help me to see, Lord.’ The one who cannot believe says, ‘Prove me wrong, Lord; prove yourself, Lord.’
Which One are You: Abram or Nicodemus?
At this point, I ask again, which one are you? Which one am I? Abram or Nicodemus?
The good thing is that, in God’s infinite love, mercy and patience, God allows us to grow in faith. God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, allows us not only to confess with our lips but also to believe in our hearts, so that we can worship God in spirit and truth. I thank God because the faith journey is sprinkled with moments of questioning and even moments of doubt. The faith journey is one in which we must relinquish repeatedly any notion of what we thought it would be like…hence Nicodemus’ confusion – he approached Jesus with the answer already in mind.
Meister Eckhart, German theologian, is known to have said, ‘I pray God rid me of God’. Eckhart was praying that God would empty him of all notion, all pre-determined notions that he had of God and fill him instead with God’s expression of God’s self to him. In like manner, St Augustine said, ‘If you comprehend it, it is not God.’
Friends, God cannot be encapsulated. It is why we describe God as unsearchable, inscrutable, indescribable. God cannot be fully understood. The created cannot contain the Creator. Faith is about being at peace with that. And, if faith is about being at peace with that, faith is also about learning to be at peace with the indescribably challenging circumstances in which God places us to increase our faith so that we place our whole trust in God’s grace and love.
Which one are you? Which one am I? Abram or Nicodemus? The one whose faith is reckoned as righteousness or the one who came in search of the light but left the light in even greater darkness?
Allow God to Show You
Friends, know that you don’t have to answer definitively right now, because, like God said to Abram, some things, God has to show you, to show me. Will you allow God to rid you of God so that God can show you God? Will you allow God to hold your hand and show you the land to which God will lead you? Will you allow yourself to be lost in God?
Friends, as we continue our Lenten journey: this time in the wilderness, God is calling us into a deeper knowledge of God, into a closer walk with God. We are now in the second week of this journey, I encourage you: in obedience, let go and let God.
I pray you the love of the Father, the peace of the Son and the joy of the Spirit.
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