March 12, Second Sunday in Lent:
Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
Everything changes with Abram.
And this is remarkable mainly because there is absolutely nothing remarkable about Abram. When the twelfth chapter of Genesis starts, he’s barely even a minor character—more like an extra.
All we know about him is that he is one of three sons of Terah, and a descendant of Shem, one of Noah’s sons. And that he’s married to Sarai, but, we’re told, she’s barren and has no child…so we know that this storyline isn’t going to go far.
He’s a migrant, having left his homeland “Ur of the Chaldeans” with his father. They’re headed for the land of Canaan, but are currently settled in Haran.
That’s it. There is nothing that singles him out. But the whole story from creation through destruction and recreation has zoomed in on him.
And everything changes.
The curses of the past eleven chapters…that began with the serpent last week: that he would crawl on the ground and be hated by humans; and Eve that she would experience pain in childbirth; and Adam: that he would toil in difficult labor; the curses that continued and multiplied in the intervening chapters…
Cain killing his brother Able, and being cursed to live east of Eden in the land of Nod. The whole earth falling into corruption and being destroyed with only Noah and his family being saved. After the flood there are other violations of the covenant that God establishes and some of Noah’s offspring are cursed with enslavement.
There’s the attempt, by the humans, to build a tower to heaven “to make a name for themselves,” and for this hubris God curses them with being unable to understand one another…a curse that only begins to be reversed at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit enables everyone to understand everyone else.
But it starts here. With Abram. Everything changes with Abram.
Because with him…the curses begin to turn blessings…”I will make you a great nation…and I will bless you…and you shall be a blessing…and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”
Now, that’s not to say that it’s all hugs and puppies from here on out. There will still be sacrifices, and stolen birthrights, and deceit and betrayal…brothers turning against one another…brothers sold into slavery…an entire people become enslaved…then liberated…then wandering for generations in the wilderness. There will be judges and kings, some who try to do what’s right, many who actively try to cling to power and do great harm…most just do the what they can with what they have. There are personal betrayals, families torn apart, civil wars, empires rising and falling… “violence, strong language, adult content.”
None of that changes…but everything changes with Abram.
These promises, in the opening lines of Genesis chapter 12, begin to undo…reverse…the curses of the earlier chapters.
Rabbinal scholars note that these “extraordinary promises come like a bolt from the blue, an act of God’s grace alone; [because] no indication has been given as to why or even whether Abram merits them.” [Jewish Study Bible, p. 29].
It’s almost as if God, who has been working in one medium, suddenly shifts to another. The cosmic…mythic…grand gestures—creation, flood, towers to heaven…suddenly become the slow working out…over generations…of God’s purpose…God’s continued call to be in relationship, loving relationship, with God and with all of God’s creation.
It’s almost as if God has figured out that with us, the grand gesture doesn’t work.
Oh, we always want it. We’re always searching for that magic bullet, the ONE thing that will make everything alright. The right job, the perfect partner, the….you know, if I could just have one good hour to get everything done that I need to then everything would be fine!…the leader who will fix everything…
All of those temptations. They don’t work. They never have.
I wonder if this is part of what Nicodemus is searching for… “we know that you’re a teacher who has come from God because no one can do these signs…these miraculous things…apart from God.” Is the subtext here, “if you’re God, or someone really close to God…can’t you do something about all of this?” The Roman oppression, the poverty, the disease, the needless death…? Come on…give us a break! Help us!
How many of us have wondered the same thing… “we’re not doing so well down here, God…why aren’t you doing anything?”
But God, beginning with Abram, takes a very different tack, and Jesus continues on this same path.
It’s a long, slow, difficult path…it’s the path of being in relationship. Not sanitized, romanticized, imaginary relationships, but real, demanding, heart-wrenching, way-too-vulnerable relationships.
Do you know the very first thing that happens to Abram, after he sets out from Haran and goes to Canaan? There’s a famine and he has to flee to Egypt, and then there are a number of battles to be fought, and…oh right…his wife is barren…This is not the easy path that God has chosen…nor is it one that Abram enters into without any without misstep.
It’s a path that leads to frustrations and challenges. It’s a path that leads to misunderstandings, and denial, and betrayals…it’s a path that will lead to another garden…the Garden of Gethsemane, with another temptation, and another seemingly impossible choice…It’s a path leads to the cross…it always…ALWAYS…goes through Good Friday.
For Abram, there comes a horrible moment when he is asked to sacrifice his son, his beloved son…that moment looks different for everyone, but Good Friday always happens. The famine hits…the disaster comes…the denials and the betrayals multiply…The dream dies…the hope is extinguished. Good Friday always happens.
But so does Easter.
So does Easter.
Everything changes with Abram. And everything has changed because of Jesus. The world is still full of darkness and curses, full of temptations and empty promises…But everything has changed. Because the promise that we will be a blessing…that others will be blessed because of us…and that we will be blessed because of others…the promise that new life will always emerge from the emptiness of the tomb…that promise is sure…and continues to be worked out…to be lived out…not because of anything special that we’ve done. because God has chosen to walk this path with us.
The only thing required of us is that like Abram we continue to say “yes.” “Yes,” to walking with God past the temptations of the grand gesture…the quick fix…walking with God up the narrow path…through the valley of the shadow and into the promise of Easter.
Then we will see…then we will know…that truly everything has changed.