March 12, 2017

2nd Sunday of Lent
‘JOURNEY INTO THE UNKNOWN’

BIBLE READINGS
Genesis 12:1-4

John 3:1-17

REFLECTION

As humans, we like to control our life. We want to know the direction of our life and, if it’s possible, we want to control every aspect of our life. Indeed, losing the ability to control ourselves is one thing that many of us fear the most.

That’s why, I believe, IKEA is such a successful brand in Australia. Unlike other furniture stores where we buy ready-made furniture, in IKEA we are involved in the creation of the product we purchase. We feel as if we have control over the furniture; as if we have a say in how the final product will be.

But, the genius of IKEA is that even though we have to assemble the furniture ourselves, we know that we won’t mess up because everything is provided. We are given step-by-step instruction on how to build the furniture and as long as we follow the instruction, we’ll be all right. And, it’s not only instruction; we are also given all the tools necessary to assemble the furniture. Indeed, all IKEA products are closed system, which means that we literally do not need anything else from another source to make them.

But, life doesn’t provide us with a set of instructions and tools that guarantee a successful outcome in the future. Life doesn’t provide us with a beautiful catalogue from which we can choose what we like. Indeed, life never tells us what the end product will be like. Life never starts with the destination...

So, if you want to get good furniture, go to IKEA. If you want to learn about life, go somewhere else.

Friends, one particular theme that is often repeated in the Bible is the theme of journey into the unknown. Just like Abram, in our Genesis reading, God often invites people to an unknown place or situation or people.

In our reading from John’s Gospel, Nicodemus too was invited to a journey into the unknown. He was an educated scholar; a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin or the Jewish religious council. He was a man who had studied and knew the Jewish law and tradition more than most people in his life. People went to a man like him to receive instructions on how to be good Jews.

Yet, Nicodemus wanted something more. His glass was half-empty. His soul was restless.

So, he visited Jesus at night. Now, there are a number of explanations why he visited Jesus at night. Firstly, the time to study the Jewish Holy Scriptures and to have theological discussions was at night.[1]

But, secondly, Nicodemus also wanted to see Jesus in secret. The Jewish religious establishment saw Jesus as an ‘unlicensed’ rabbi; a charismatic teacher who was not acknowledged by the religious elites, yet who was embraced by the masses. Surely Nicodemus did not want to be seen as a friend of a man like that.

But, we need to dig deeper from what is written when we read the Gospel of John. We need to be careful not to take things too literally when we read his Gospel.

John often used metaphorical language in his Gospel. In the Gospel, we often hear how Jesus called himself as the bread (John 6:35) or the way (John 14:6) or the light (John 8:12). Of course, Jesus didn’t mean that he was a piece of bread that was made out of dough or the road on which people stood upon or the lamp that people carried around at night. These were metaphorical words that he used to convey deeper meanings.

Likewise, night represents darkness in John’s Gospel. Jesus is the light who shines in the dark (John 1:5). Nicodemus, regardless of his knowledge and high social status, was still in the dark. His knowledge and status didn’t bring him any closer to God.

Yet, unlike the other members of the Jewish Sanhedrin, he didn’t stay there. He acknowledged that he was still in the dark. So, he went to Jesus, the light who came into the world. Like Abram in Genesis, he took the courageous step into the unknown and listened to this ‘unlicensed’ Rabi who asked him to be born again. Like Abram in Genesis, who left behind the land that had given him prosperity to go to an unknown land with an unknown God, Nicodemus put aside all the things that he had known before and ‘be born again’.

What we witness here was humility and courage of a high order. Nicodemus showed to us that the first step to receive the light is to be humble and courageous and take the journey into the unknown with Jesus.

On March 17, the Irish communities worldwide celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Here in Australia, we may think that St. Patrick’s Day is the day when the Irish wear green shirts and drink all day in pubs and make fool of themselves. But, the day actually celebrates a much admired figure in Ireland.

According to his own writings, when he was 16 years old, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates. He was taken from Britain to Ireland where he was enslaved as a shepherd for six years. Somehow, he managed to run away from his masters and began a difficult journey back to his home in Britain.

Back home in Britain, Patrick studied Christianity. A few years later, he had a vision. In his vision, he saw a man coming from Ireland, carrying many letters. The man gave Patrick one of the letters. The heading of the letter said: The Voice of the Irish. While he was reading the letter, he heard people from Ireland crying out with one voice, saying:

            "We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us."

Patrick returned to Ireland, the land of his captivity, this time not as a slave, but as a Christian missionary. Initially, the locals, who were still pagans, did not welcome him and rejected his work. But, his popularity and influence in Ireland grew stronger every year.

He is now known as the ‘Apostle’ and Patron Saint of Ireland. He is widely regarded as the founder of Christianity in Ireland and the date of his death is celebrated as St. Patrick’s Day by the Irish communities throughout the world.[2]

(So, now you know that the day is not only about getting drunk. It’s about celebrating the life of a much loved and admired figure in Ireland.)

Friends, the invitation that Patrick received in his dream was an invitation of trust, just like Jesus’ invitation to Nicodemus and God’s invitation to Abram. The Holy Spirit asked Patrick to put aside his prior painful experience as a slave, just like Jesus asked Nicodemus to put aside his prior knowledge as a Jewish scholar, and God asked Abram to put aside his prior security in his father’s land.

God also asks us today to put aside whatever it is that has stopped us from following God further. The journey ahead maybe a journey into the unknown. There is no map or step-by-step instruction to follow. But, we have God’s own words: “Don’t be afraid,” “I’ll be with you, always,” “You will be a blessing.”

So, it’s up to us whether to run away, ignore the challenge, or embrace it with courage and humility.

Amen.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] Osvaldo Vena, Commentary on John 3:1-17, (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx? commentary_id=3188), March 12, 2017

[2] From an article about Saint Patrick on Wikipedia.org (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick), retrieved on March 10, 2017