Lent 2 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 5 March 2023 | Genesis 12:1-4a | Psalm 121 | Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 | John 3:1-17

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Amen.

Friends, welcome to the Second Sunday of Lent. In this season, we turn our hearts to God, and we remember our need for God’s help. Our prayers and our practices and our stories help us turn to God and ask for help in this season. Some of our scriptures give us stories of journey, where people meet God in the wilderness of the unknown.

When we’re in the wilderness or on a journey away from the comforts of home, our needs are more apparent to us. If we’re out camping in the woods, or even just traveling, we have to think about how we’re going to eat each meal and where we’re going to sleep. We can’t just open up the fridge and eat something, or go to bed in our normal bed.

When we’re in the wilderness or on a journey, we’re vulnerable. We have to think about how our needs are going to be met. And so in Lent, these stories help us to call on God. Stories of wilderness and journey let us remember how we need God’s help, and they give us models for facing the unknown.

Last week we followed Jesus into the wilderness in the story of the temptation. And we saw that Jesus was vulnerable like we are—Jesus faced hunger and thirst and mortality, and limits to what he could control. And when Jesus was tempted, he drew on scripture to strengthen him. He was able to face that vulnerability in the wilderness without escaping toward easy answers or betraying his calling and his relationship with God. He made it through the trials, and angels came to care for him.

And today, we turn to other journeys into the unknown wilds. God calls Abram to leave his homeland. Jesus calls Nicodemus to imagine the impossible.

So today we’ll look at Abram, and a little at Nicodemus, and we’ll see what we can learn from them about our own journeys into the unknown. And we’ll turn to our reading from Romans and our Psalm to remember how God meets us and cares for us in this kind of wilderness.

Let’s start with Genesis. God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s household.” God is asking Abram to leave all the things that are most familiar and safe to him, the place and the people and the protection that he’s had for all of his life so far.

God calls Abram to go to “the land that I will show you.” Abram doesn’t yet know where he’s even going ahead of time. He has to trust that God will lead the way. Abram has never seen this place before and doesn’t know where it is or what it’s like there. At this point, he doesn’t even know what the new land  is called. It’s so deeply unknown that Abram can’t even tell anyone where he’s going, because he doesn’t have a name for it.

God is asking Abram to do something that’s very hard to do—and God is also promising world-changing blessings on the journey. God promises to multiply Abram’s people into a great nation. And God says, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” God says, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Abram’s faith will bless the whole earth. And there’s a connection between this blessing and the call to venture into the unknown.

Finally we learn that Abram answers the call. “Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” We also learn that he doesn’t go alone—his nephew Lot goes with him, and we later learn that his wife Sarai goes with him, and a whole household of flocks and herds and people. Even though Abram is leaving one community behind, there’s a community that goes with him into the unknown.

Friends, God calls us into the unknown too. Sometimes God asks us to leave what’s familiar and comfy.

Sometimes we have a clear sense of that call, even if there are some uncertainties. Maybe we know where we’re moving for a job or for school, but we don’t know how we’re going to find community in that new place. Maybe we know it’s time to retire, but we don’t know what life after that will look like. Maybe we’re feeling called to a new way to serve others, but we’re not sure what the next step is to do it.

And sometimes, we have a call and we can’t say what it even is—like Abram’s unnamed land. Maybe there’s a yearning in us to do more. Or maybe (and this one is just as important but sometimes harder to hear) we have a call to do less, to lay down some burdens and rest. Maybe we can tell that God is drawing us toward some new insight or some new change or some deepening of faith that we can’t yet put a name to, even as we feel it beginning to unfold in us.

Like Abram, we journey on in faith, and like Abram, we don’t travel alone. We are here for each other as we face the unknown. When God calls the church, we travel together.

And perhaps for us, like it was for Abram, God’s blessing is waiting for us in the unknown. When we have the courage to leave what’s familiar and expected and reassuring and take a step into God’s wild country beyond, we will be blessed and be a blessing. Our faith and our vision and our courage will expand as we go.

This is what happens with Nicodemus too, in our gospel. Jesus invites Nicodemus to stretch to something new. Nicodemus can’t understand what it means to be born again. And Jesus expands his imagination by teaching him about the Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings new birth even after we think we’ve grown up. The Holy Spirit goes with us into the unknown, because the Holy Spirit is unknowable.

Jesus says, “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” In Greek, “wind” and “spirit” are the same word, πνεῦμα, and so is the verb Jesus uses for the way the wind blows. So we could translate it like this:

“The Spirit spirits wherever it wants, and you hear its voice, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.” The Holy Spirit lives in the unknown. The Holy Spirit hovered over the unformed chaos at creation, and the Holy Spirit is with us in all our journeys through the wilds.

And don’t miss what Jesus says next. The Spirit spirits where it wants to, and “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” If we listen to the Holy Spirit’s voice, she can teach us to walk the winds too. We can become people who know how move through the unknown with freedom and grace. With God’s help, we can be people who survive and thrive in the wilderness by faith. 

In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul praises Abraham’s faith as what blesses us; the law helped to guide people in living well, but it was faith in God, relationship with God, willingness to follow God into the unknown, that mattered most. And friends, it is God who cares for us when we face the unknown.

St. Paul describes God as the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” It is God who calls us toward what does not yet exist. And sometimes, like Abram, we have to let go of some things that already exist in order to make room for the things God is bringing that don’t exist yet. That takes a lot of courage. It’s one of the hardest things God asks us to do.

And yet, God shelters us in the unknown and the unimaginable. Our Psalm says God is our shade at our right hand. God guides us and protects us through it all. The maker of the heavens and the earth watches over our coming in and our going out, and all our journeys into the unknown.  

So friends, let us find courage for the wilderness in God’s care for us. In this holy season, let us always call on God’s help, knowing that we always need it. Let us venture forth together to claim the blessings of the unknown. And let us learn, little by little, how to hear the Spirit’s voice and walk the winds in faith. Amen.

Towards the Unknown (1950) by Mexican painter Gunther Gerzso and in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.