Sermon - 20th March 2011
Starting Again with Unlikely People
Scripture Readings:- Genesis 12:1-4a & John 3:1-17
Rev Andy Braunston
We all have had experiences of having to start again. Sometimes these are good, sometimes these are very challenging. In the news this week we have been horrified at the devastation in Japan, the total destruction of so many towns in the north, the tales of heroism as people got to safe places, the appalling loss of life, the plight of the old and the sick and, worst of all, we’ve watched all these attempts at trying to make the nuclear power station safe. Whatever happens with the station, many people in Japan will be starting again; we just don’t know what help or resources will be available to them.
After a relationship ends we have to start again – that may mean finding somewhere new to live, reconnecting with old, or finding new friends and learning to date again when we’ve been out of practice.
Many people are facing up to starting again with work given the high number of redundancies that are being offered at the moment. My closest friend is desperate to leave his job and, due to a very generous redundancy payment, has some interesting plans to help him start again.
Those of us who have had to “come out” have had to start again in so many different ways. Often having to find new friends, sometimes having to renegotiate with family, knowing we’re the same but different, finding ways to start again has often proved lifesaving.
And then there are those who have fled here for sanctuary from oppressive regimes, leaving friends, family, jobs, and home in order to be safe and seek to start again. We know how difficult his is and are full of admiration for those who are able to do this and who enrich our society, and our church, through their experiences and determination.
All this is about starting again; after the deluge in Japan, after a relationship ends, after redundancy, after telling the truth, after fleeing oppression. Both our readings today are also about starting again and both involve the most unlikely people to fulfil God’s plans.
The story in our first reading concern’s God’s command to Abram to leave his family, his clan, his tribe and his people and go where God was calling him. At this point God hadn’t changed Abram’s name to Abaham and his wife, Sarai hadn’t had her name changed to Sarah. Why are these unlikely people? Well in order to escape the consequences of a famine, Abram and Sarai go to Egypt, but Abram passes Sarai off as his sister and she joins the Pharoah’s harem. As a reward Pharoah makes sure that Abram has food and livestock. When Pharoah finds out that actually Sarai was his wife he feels he has offended against God (Sarai’s feelings are, of course, not mentioned) and he frees Sarai – but Abram gets to keep his goods making him a very well paid pimp indeed.
Later on Abram complains that he hasn’t got any children and so he sleeps with his wife’s slave-girl and gets her pregnant. A slave wasn’t in a position to argue and we have no idea how old Hagar was. Hagar takes advantage of being pregnant with the master’s child and gets ideas above her station leading Sarah to beat her and cast her into the wilderness.
These are not the stuff of heroes. These people are not ones you’d hold up as moral exemplars; they are too human, too sexual, too pre-occupied with their own issues for us to really want to like them. Yet God uses this unlikely couple to start again as he dealt with a repeatedly rebellious, violent and corrupt humanity.
If we met Abram and Sarai we probably wouldn’t warm to them! They seem selfish, opportunistic and, well, just immoral. Yet God used them. They responded to God’s call and travelled thousands of miles in response to that call. They are the founding parents of the Jewish people and God used them.
In our gospel reading we have another view of starting again. Nicodemus is a leader of his people; he is intrigued by Jesus and comes to him at night, always a time representing difficulty and danger in John’s gospel. He has a life changing conversation with Jesus who tells him that he must be born anew – he must start again and re-order his life if he wishes to follow Jesus and find true happiness and purpose in life.
Nicodemus is not someone we immediately warm to. He is interested in Jesus but more interested in his reputation. He pops up again in the Gospel when he half-heartedly tries to defend Jesus against the religious authorities and he goes with Joseph of Aramathea to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. He isn’t brave, he is a cautious follower and after Jesus’ burial he drops out of history so we don’t know what happened to him. If we met him we may be a bit scathing about his lack of courage, his inability to really protect Jesus, yet God used him; what greater privilege could there have been than to prepare the Lord’s body for burial.
Becoming a Christian or taking Christian faith seriously for the first time is a new beginning. All of us here have made that decision to follow Jesus into the muddle and glory of our world; all of us have made that a new beginning. For some of us the decision to follow Christ wasn’t just life-changing but life-threatening and the consequences for some of our congregation of following Christ in Iran could be deadly. Sometimes telling our friends that we’re Christian provokes quite a reaction – especially from other lgbt people who, understandably, can be hostile to the Church because of how it’s treated them over the years. Buddhist meditation classes? They’re fine, Church? – Oh no!
Making the decision to follow Jesus is personal and life-changing. And when other Christians who think they know the Bible or theology better tell us we’re not good enough to follow God, that we’re not living the lives that are expected of God’s followers – just tell them that neither were Abraham, Sarah or Nicodemus, yet God still used them.