Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 16 March 2016: Year A, The Second Sunday in Lent
One of the joys of living in Inverness is that the surrounding Highland landscape isn’t far away. From many parts of the city centre you can see the surrounding hills- Craig Phardig from the High Street, Ben Wyvis from the top of Stephen’s Brae. In our call to worship this morning, we recited words from Psalm 121 (NRSV): ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills- from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth’. Or, in the words of the Scottish Metrical version which are perhaps more familiar to many of us: ‘I to the hills will lift mine eyes. From whence doth come mine aid? My safety cometh from the Lord, who heaven and earth hath made’.
That Psalm is very popular among many churchgoing Scots, for we look to our local hills and mountains and their grandeur impresses us, and reminds us of God’s glory, and the very solidity of the hills reminds us of God’s unfailing love. Yet perhaps that is a rather romanticised way of looking at the hills. For much of human history, mountains and high places were thought to be the home of evil spirits, of frightening demons, and perhaps also of capricious gods. But the Psalmist looks at the hills and remembers something of Israel’s God. His aid comes not from the old, the terrifying gods who lived on mountain tops. He sees the hills as evidence of his God, the God who created these hills. It is the creator God of Israel who the Psalmist praises, and in whom he trusts.
A few years ago, we were having lunch with my parents-in-law, whose home is close to the Rhine valley and a number of hot springs. We were interrupted by a sudden loud rumble and a vibration- it was no more than that- which clearly came from below the ground. We tried every way to explain it- a large lorry on the road, a supersonic aircraft- before we were forced to conclude that it must have been an earth tremor- and that was confirmed soon afterwards. It made the newspapers next day, for people all over the region had noticed it, although it did no damage. It was interesting, looking back, to see how we tried every possible explanation, until we were forced to conclude that we had indeed experienced a minor earthquake. It was as if we were unwilling to accept that the ground was moving under our feet.
Another Psalm, number 46, seems to have been written with earthquakes in mind. In the New Revised Standard version it reads:
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
For some people, turning to confident words like those after a catastrophic natural disaster, like an earthquake or a tsunami, seems strange. Why should we turn to the God of creation when it is creation itself which is causing such terrifying events? Apparently the earthquake which triggered the Japanese tsunami three years ago moved the whole of Japan and tilted the earth off its axis. Hills are not always as immovable as they seem.
Like Japan, the Mediterranean sea sits on the boundaries between continents, and there have been many volcanos and earthquakes in that region over the centuries. So whoever wrote Psalm 46 may well have known about or experienced an actual earthquake. Yet because of his faith in God, he still he can write, ‘Therefore we will not fear’.
It is just a fact that tragedy, disaster and grief is part of human life. But what perhaps makes us really human is the way we respond to such events. At first it is all too much, and, for at least some time, we are unable to respond in any meaningful way. When that happens to someone you know, then the best thing you can do is to be there with them, as they walk through the shadow of the valley of death. Yet people have an amazing capacity to respond to tragedy. Slowly at first, they find ways to rebuild their lives, to reconnect to others, to begin to simply get on with life. They begin to get on with the practical things they find they have to do, and other people around them can help them. Something like confidence begins to return, as they begin to live with the new reality they are now faced with.
And for many people, one response is to say something like, ‘Despite it all, and even although the hills moved and the sea foamed, I am going to bet my existence that at the back of all this, it is love which reigns in the universe’. We lift our eyes to the hills, and trust in God’s love: ‘My safety cometh from the Lord, whom heaven and earth hath made’. For some people, yet tragedy knocks their belief in a loving God. But for many others, down through the centuries, it has been in the times of tragedy and hardship that they have turned to God. Yes, the foundations of their faith may have been shaken, but when things settle down, they find a new foundation, something which truly cannot be shaken. And so at times of tragedy, people pray, they seek solace in faith, they might even sing. How often have I met with people who have gone through unimaginably difficult times, who say to me (who’s supposed to be there to help them) things like, ‘I know God has been with me through this’, or ‘My faith has helped me through this’.
For faith is a gift- a gift from God to save us from absolute despair. Sometimes we think that faith is something which we create for ourselves. But experience suggests that it comes as a gift- a grace which comes from somewhere quite unexpected. In today’s Gospel reading, we meet a man of faith, who is questioning his faith. He is Nicodemus, a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders of Israel. He has heard of Christ, who seems by his words and his actions to be shaking the foundations of the nation and the religion which Nicodemus holds dear. John the Gospel writer says that Nicodemus came to see Jesus by night- as if Nicodemus is in a dark place, a dark night of the soul.
He starts to speak to Jesus: ‘You are a good man, sent by God- your miracles show that…’- but it seems Jesus interrupts him. In the Good News Bible, we read that Jesus says to him, ‘I am telling you the truth: no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again’. Now, curiously, the Good News Bible offers us a footnote here: it says that here and in a later verse where Jesus repeats the statement, the word ‘again’ can also be translated as ‘from above’. So instead of Jesus saying, ‘no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again’, he could also have meant (in fact, I think he does mean) ‘no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above’. What’s happened is that there is no direct English equivalent to the Greek word- it can mean ‘again’, or ‘from above’, but also ‘anew’, or ‘from the start’ and ‘from the beginning’. Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, ‘You need to start all over again, you need to be born in a way which comes from above, from God, allow a power from above you to make you anew. There is judgement and grace here- judgement on Nicodemus as he has been living so far (because he needs to begin again); and grace, because here is the promise of love and forgiveness ‘from above’.
Nicodemus has to accept that there the answer to his worries does not lie within himself, or in his nation, or even in his religion as he currently understands it. His answers will only come form above. For sometimes we simply need to accept that when all the foundations shake, there is nothing we can do. Our help- if there is to be any help- must come from ‘above’. The ancient Canaanites might have thought that the help came from Baal. In our own time, we have tried science and technology to help us, but as Japan shows, they don’t help with everything and don’t give all the answers. And so we must look beyond ourselves, and even beyond the created order- beyond the hills themselves to the God who the hills, the maker of heaven and earth. Nicodemus is being challenged to give up any false securities, and to trust on nothing less than God.
There is some rather grotesque humour in Nicodemus’ dialogue with Jesus. Like all good humour, it arises out of a misunderstanding. Jesus has told Nicodemus that he should be ‘born from above’, but Nicodemus understands him to have said ‘born again’. And so he asks a rather stupid question: ‘How can a grown man be born again?… He certainly cannot enter his mother’s womb and be born a second time!’ Nicodemus doesn’t understand Jesus yet, and he has lapsed into absurdity.
And unless we understand that there are (at least) two meanings here- about being born again or anew, and about experiencing new things from God- then we, also misunderstand Jesus here. Some people speak as if being ‘born again’ is a one off event which makes you a Christian. They can tell stories of how they had a particular experience, at a particular place and time, when they were ‘born again’, and from that point on they somehow ‘became’ a Christian. So is being ‘born again’ just something which just happens to people at a particular point in time? Today’s Old Testament reading suggests it’s more than that.
In the Genesis history, humankind lurches from one disaster to another. Adam and Eve are thrown out of Paradise, Cain kills his brother Abel, humanity is almost wiped out by a flood, and then tries and fails to build a tower into heaven at Babel. And then suddenly, in the same area of the world where the tower of Babel had once stood, we meet a man called Abram, later to be called Abraham. An old man of 75 hears the call of God:
Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s home, and go to a land that I am going to show you. I will give you many descendants, and they will become a great nation. I will bless you and make your name famous, so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
But I will curse those who curse you.
And through you I will bless all the nations.
And so God begins the long process of restoring humanity back to its creator. Some people say you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. But here is God using a 75 year old (and that was a very, very advanced age in ancient times) to begin the work of blessing all the nations, of reconciling all of humanity. God does not ask a little of Abram he is to leave home, emigrate, leave all that is familiar and beloved and make his way to new place. His call from above is completely unexpected, and totally compelling. For Abram, this is indeed a call to begin all over again. We hear much about totally compelling. For Abram- Abraham- in the Bible, about his adventures, and about what he meant to those who followed him- for we are all of us spiritual children of Father Abraham. But the Bible is silent on the first 75 years, until that moment when his life is overtaken by grace from above and beyond him.
And Abraham, in faith, follows God’s call. At times he will struggle and even argue with God. He will suffer, but he will always from now on believe himself to be blessed. It is to that kind of life which Christ calls Nicodemus, and to which Christ calls us. Being born of the Spirit , being born anew, being born from above, means that that Spirit may blow us in directions we don’t know or expect. But if we are open to the winds of the Spirit, we will go where he sends us in confidence, with hope, and with joy. For we know that we are in God’s hands.
God shook the foundations of the city of Babel, and all was chaos. But then God called Abraham. Nicodemus was to see Jesus crucified- surely a great shaking of the foundations of his faith. But later, John the Gospel writer tells of how Nicodemus helped to bury Jesus, making sure that all the proper funeral customs were observed following the horror Jesus’ death by crucifixion. Sometimes just making sure that the rituals are observed is the beginning of putting things together again after all certainties and hopes seem dashed. And then, we can be born anew, born from above, ready to live relying only on God and God’s grace.
The foundations are shaking for us all. Watch the news, and you will see stories of places where the very foundations of their society, their beliefs, are being shaken. Like Nicodemus, we are living in times when things we always took for granted are being shaken up. Economies crash, social mores change, even the church and our faith seem to change before our very eyes. Yet after the earthquake and the fire, the still small voice. Who knows what new journeys of faith God might be about to lead us on? When everything else is shaken, might we be left with a new, deeper understanding of who God is and what God is doing? Might this be a time to leave behind some worn out ideas, as God brings us to a new birth, a new start, and offers us the gift of new grace from above? Whatever might befall us, let us pray for grace from above, so that we can confidently sing as the Psalmist did: ‘My safety cometh from the Lord, who heaven and earth hath made’.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo