Second Sunday in Lent: Sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 12 March 2017 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor. (Genesis 12.1-4a; John 3.1-17)
Journey one: Abram. A story told in rather bald terms. 'So Abram went' is the meat of it, though we do get to hear a little bit more, about who went with him, what they took with them, where they went through, and whom they encountered when they arrived. But if you boil down the narrative of this beginning of the story of the ancestor Abram, all you really need to hear is that God said: 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you'; and that Abram did as he was told.
But when you think of what is implied by this simple and sparsely-told journey, this is a hard and testing business. Even if our eyes were blind to the fact a few years ago, no one now has any excuse to be unaware of how risky and unpleasant it can be to make a journey into a far and strange land. So it's this instant and obedient response of his which has made Abram, later Abraham, such a symbol of hopeful trust in God. Like the disciples who later responded to the call from Jesus simply to follow him, this is a simple, unquestioning, and unambiguous response which changes the whole direction of life. And it's the reason why Abram is told by God not just that he will be blessed, but also that he himself will be a blessing. When you trust someone enough to stake everything upon them, then it really is possible that all kinds of unforeseen blessings will emerge.
(Digression 1: You may not think it possible that the subject of Brexit could squeak into a sermon about Abram. I've never made any bones about the fact that I think our country took a seriously bad decision when we voted ourselves out of the European Union. But I must say that if I had happened to be a citizen of one of the other nations in the Union I would probably be breathing a sigh of relief to see us go, because for as long as we have been in the EU, this country has taken a very ambivalent attitude to it; and it really is hard to run an organisation if some of its key members don't seem to be fully committed.)
Journey 2: Nicodemus. He came to Jesus by night - not a positive description, on the one hand because it suggests he was fearful and wanting not to be seen, and on the other because John's is a gospel shot through with symbolism of darkness and light, and to be in the dark means to be turned away from the things of God. Yet, he comes. I have no idea what he expected when he began his conversation with Jesus, but it certainly wasn't what he got. Nothing that Jesus says to him follows directly from what Nicodemus says or asks; instead this visitor is given a sequence of puzzles, riddles, and statements. In fact, so far does what Jesus says here move from his conversation with his visitor, that if you read on to verse 22 you will see that Nicodemus simply fades out of the scene - after in verse 9 he asks the question 'How are these things to be?', we never hear about him. Instead, Jesus sails on through two of the most resonant statements in our scriptures, verses 16 and 17 which concluded what was read to us just now.
And these bring me to Journey 3: God so loved he world that he gave his only Son; God sent his Son into the world not to condemn it, but to save it. That other journey is the one from God to his benighted creation, a world lost, blind to his being and deaf to his call. The spell of the darkness isn't broken by us humans, but by God himself, reaching out to us, not turning the spotlight of condemnation on us but wanting us to join him in the light.
Digression 2: Snakes.You might not have thought it pleasant or even possible that a snake could appear in sermons preached by all three canons here in just a few weeks, but here we are, and there it is, in the high eastern window of this Cathedral.
And here is another Journey - a bonus, perhaps, because today's scriptures told us nothing about this journey; but we will understand more about the snake that Moses is holding up in that image when we realise that the journey during which that event happened was the dreary one endured by the Israelites, when for decades after miraculously fleeing their captivity, they were denied their promised land and instead made to wander around in the desert. This was a people given what they most desired, promised what they most yearned for, but who preferred to take it all for granted, opted for the mundane, selfish and petty, and were now paying a price for that failure to be thankful and committed. So theirs is an aimless and punishing journey through dreary places and facing dangers symbolised by venomous snakes. And God gives Moses the sign of another snake; one which, if they will lift their eyes and see it, will heal them. A snake of hope, not fear.
So Jesus is saying, think of me as that snake: the one that turns the despairing wanderings through fear into the clear vision of hope. All we have to do is keep him in sight, aim for him.
If these 40 days of Lent are foreshadowed by the 40 days of Jesus in the wilderness, and the 40 years of God's people in the desert, then we need to look up. To grasp that God has come to us, and what we most need to do in our own wandering lives is to see him, and in him to find light.
Journeys. Digressions. Aimless wanderings. But if we begin with the call of God, and look to Jesus, we end in hope.