Transitions (Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; 2 Corinthians 5:15-19 ; John 3:1-10)
Thursday, we took part of the day off and drove to Eau Claire to celebrate my brother-in-law’s 90th birthday. Davis has been in our family as long as I can remember. He married my sister in 1952 and I have memories of his visits to our house for Sunday services followed by dinners at the parsonage of First Baptist Church of Eau Claire before that. Although we haven’t lived in close proximity for but a few of the 65 years of their marriage, I have watched the movement of his life from a young energetic lawyer and Wisconsin state senator from District 28 while still in his 20’s, through the highs and lows of entrepreneurial ventures into an odd sort of retirement. Always on the move, always going somewhere at least in his head. I think I saw him for the first time Thursday as having become an old man. I heard him say, “I sure feel old.” For all of us, life is on the move. Things never stay the same, we are always in some kind of transition, it seems, from one way of being or doing or feeling to another. We cannot escape it. It’s called life. As I am aware of my own transitions into what I can delicately call senior adulthood, I cannot escape experience of this. Many of you must surely experience this “transitioning” as well.
As we have transitioned into the Lenten season, we have been thinking about our lives and how we’re doing at discipleship, not with a view to beating ourselves up, but rather to a kind or realistic assessment of how we are. Today, I want to concentrate on the transitions in which we find ourselves all the time. All of today’s scriptures speak of these transitions and some healthy ways to experience these inevitabilities with grace and with kindness rather than dread and grumpiness.
I want to begin with Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If any are in Christ (it is) new creation, the old already gone, the new has come to be.” These words assume that transitions are ongoing, but it’s not just we that are remade in them, although that’s true, but also the whole creation as we experience it and interact with it takes on a new nature in Christ. Although I accept that as true, I have come to understand that both we and that new creation must take a long time to realize our newness in Christ because we do it, so to speak, a piece at a time. It does not ever seem that we are wholly finished. Or that seems true of me. Every time I grasp a piece of this new creation and transition from one place to another, I find there’s more and that transitions are not easy, nor quickly accepted. New ways to grasp what is truly real can be threatening to the way we’ve looked at things up to now. It also begins with that awful little word “if,” that means we’ve got to be on the “in Christ” road. There’s no just sitting and thinking, you’ve got to be “in the game.” Being “in Christ” is not just the same thing as “getting saved” or “being a Christian.” Using the figure of speech I’ve been using it means according to Jesus’ teachings, accompanied, in fact, blown along, by the winds of God’s Spirit. If so, as difficult as our transitions may be, they point us in the Godward direction of openness and inclusiveness, and toward contentment and joy rather than downward into isolation, insularity, anxiety about and fear of others and the world. It’s my experience that this works better sometimes than others.
As we read the stories of Abram and Nicodemus this morning alongside of our thinking about Paul’s declaration of the new creation[ in Christ, they can illustrate a couple of transitions from our parents in faith.
If I stick to the story of Abram in Genesis 12 rather than trying to invent a “back story” for it to make it conform to what seems more normal to me, the most interesting bit of the story is that, when God comes to Abram for the first time, Abram recognizes God as God and what God says as the truth, or at least as a life-altering challenge and promise. How many of us would not be deeply troubled, or even it seriously, if one day a voice said, “Hello, I’m Yahweh, I know you’ve never heard of me before, but I’m God, I mean the real one, and I want you to obliterate your identity and start over.” As I’ve said to the people who come to Thursday Evening Education many times, people in the ancient Near East understood their identity, primarily, from their membership in a group, and only in a derived way from being an individual. “Who are you?” “I’m of the family of Terah, I come from Ur, etc.” God said, “Go from your land (that gives you sustenance and meaning), your kin (ditto) and your father’s house (more or less, your family – ditto again) to the land I will show you.” What I would have said is, “Who is this really?” “And why should I go”? But that’s not what the last sentence of our reading says, is it? No, it simply says, “And Abram went.” Talk about a transition!
Now it’s probably true that God’s words between the first and last statements: “Go…and Abram went,” is what made it possible for him to gain enough of a glimpse of the new creation to do it. God said: “I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing…so that all the clans of the earth (or land, again a group identification) will be blessed in you.” But, even with this, Abram had to know that he hadn’t an heir, and was far from a great nation, and it would take an awfully long time for him to be one. Again, we probably ought not to invent a back-story for this, but I have a hard time imagining Abram saying to Sarai, “Sweetie, I’ve got news, pack up and leave everything…” and not imagining some intense talk in the tent about what that vision was all about and the risks thereof. I know on both sides of our Canadian sojourn, even though we both felt that what God wanted us to do was go from our land, coming to grips with uprooting everything (again) was a hard sell for both of us. And I, at least, had moments of sheer terror about the transition, not so much after, but before. Transitions are hard.
Really, the story of Nicodemus mirrors the story of Abram. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a teacher who had to come to talk to this unschooled but learned carpenter-rabbi from Galilee. He is polite to Jesus and says that “We know you are a teacher come from God because no one can do what you do unless that’s true.” Jesus went to the bottom line and said that Nicodemus, the senior scholar, the teacher, must be “born from above,” sometimes translated as “born again.” Jesus isn’t giving a formula to “get Nicodemus saved,” but is saying that this seasoned spiritual veteran who was experienced in so much, needed to start into a fresh transition that would take him back to the beginning. This transition didn’t come from being smart, experienced, or even good (although none of those things hurt in grasping it), but came as an act of God.
I don’t think Nicodemus was quite as slow on the uptake as we sometimes make him out to be when he says that “starting over” is difficult for an experienced person. When he asked Jesus, “How can it be?” Is he not simply saying, what I imagined Abram and Sarai said in the tent? Was he not saying, “Can you really expect this of me?” And Jesus simply says, “Yep, it can happen, if you’re willing to embark on this transition.” At this point Nicodemus simply confesses, “I don’t get how to do that.” I think what he was saying to Jesus was that, as a learned man who had practiced his craft and taught many, he was so invested in doing things as he had, that he couldn’t conceive of starting again. Not now, not when I feel so old, to take my brother-in-law’s words. I know how hard it is for scholars to change.
My own seminary Old Testament teacher’s father was a distinguished radio preacher and prolific author of popular Bible commentaries and devotional guides. His son, my teacher, put his craft together in far different ways, being scholarly and willing to entertain thoughts that seemed threatening and down-right dangerous to his dad. They’d had words before this. But, one day when his father was quite old, he confessed to his son that he thought that this new way of doing things was probably right, but he had done things the other way so long, and taught so many people that it was one way, that he couldn’t bring himself to do it any other way and he’d just have to stick it out. It’s hard for scholars like Nicodemus to change what they do, and it may seem a betrayal of their teachers and students. Later in the Gospel, we do find him coming around, so that, indeed, it is true that, although it may take a while, it’s possible even for those set in their ways to experience positive transitions Godward. I’m proof of that and maybe you are, too. Jesus says much more than that to Nicodemus, but that’s enough for today. Transitions can be hard, but, again, we should try to see in what way they point us, whether in a Godward direction toward openness, inclusiveness, contentment and joy rather than downward into closedness, insularity, suspicion, and anxiety about and fear of others and the world. In fact, it may be true that the harder the transition, the better it is.
As in last week’s Lenten sermon, I want to turn to the Psalm text for the day, Psalm 121 of which we sang a paraphrase this morning, to give us insight into these transitions that often are so difficult. The 121st Psalm belongs to a group of songs that were used in the period after the Babylonians released the Hebrews from captivity. Some went back home to Jerusalem to live, others stayed in Babylon, and still others moved here and there throughout the ancient world. Psalms 120-134 are songs that have been used by Jewish pilgrims from all over the world as they came back to Jerusalem for a festival to get back in touch with their spiritual roots. The 121st Psalm was probably the psalm from this group that was used to bless and dismiss pilgrims just before they left the Holy City to go back to the places they now called home. The Psalm intends to be the promise of God’s presence and blessing to be with them on the journey to whatever their place of home is.
The pilgrim starts out by giving voice to anxiety before a journey (I know I never sleep the night before I fly anywhere). The pilgrim has been led to Jerusalem, to the core of the faith, to the roots, but now, that part’s over, and the pilgrim must start out and cross the hills to return home – maybe, probably, a long way off. The pilgrim sings: “I lift up my eyes to the hills (to the dangerous journey between where I am and where I’m going, between here and there), where can I possibly expect to find help, strength and direction on this journey?” Other members of the congregation respond: “My help comes from the LORD, who is the one making the heavens and the earth.”
We all need help in making the dangerous transitions of life, so as to get home. I remember as a boy that, just before our family would leave on a trip, we would all gather and my father would offer a prayer asking for alertness to danger, and committing our journey to the protection of God. I often think of that family prayer when I read the 121st Psalm.
No fewer than six times, the departing pilgrim is assured that God will watch over the journey, will keep the pilgrim in a safe place during the dangerous times that are ahead. God will not fall asleep, but will keep pilgrim feet from slipping on the rocky hillsides. God will keep pilgrims from the dangers of the day and of the night on the way. God will, in fact, keep harm from snatching away the pilgrim’s life. God sustains both the pilgrim and the pilgrimage, including the home-going.
As the English word “to keep” is manifold in its meaning, so is the Hebrew word here in Psalm 121. When God is the subject it means to preserve, protect, and tend to in the sense of a parent tending a child. The God who leads us through fruitful, if scary, transition, is the God who will see us safe at home. Since this is so, as we measure the transitions in our lives by Christ, we need not fear nor resist them because God is preserving, tending, and protecting us through them and leading us in the direction of home. This is summed up in the words that Jews and Christians use to send folk out with assurance:
The LORD bless you and keep you, the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The LORD lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace.
God walks beside us to bless both the journeyer and the journey through all its transitions and turns. As part of that presence of tending, God makes the light of the divine face to smile upon the pilgrim way and give wholeness to those who travel on it. The God who enables our transitions, that open new creations to us – things we’d never even considered before – is also the God who empowers, accompanies, and tends us through the unfolding transitions that continue to remake us and open new creation to use, like that fiery-cloudy pillar of the story.
Yes, “if anyone is in Christ, it is a new creation: the old has passed away; see everything has become new!”
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.