Unexpected Visitors

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

March 8, 2020
Second Sunday in Lent
Scripture readings – Genesis 12: 1-9 and John 3: 1-21

Two separate stories of unexpected visitors in our Scripture readings for today; in one of them, God visited a human being… in the second, a human being visited God. In both stories, a common theme emerges, but it may not be the one you see at first. Obedience is what emerges powerfully in both stories.

In the first one, we have Abram, who later becomes Abraham, one of the greatest figures in the Old Testament. Around 2000 BC, when Abram lived, he was rich, successful, and content to continue living in the land of Ur near what is today modern day southern Iraq. He was told to take up his possessions, his family, and his flocks and go to the land God would show him. Abram and his people spent some time in Haran, which is in southwest Turkey, before ending up in the land God showed him: Canaan. This episode demonstrates an unusual and probably difficult journey for such a large group of people, materials, and herds, but they did it successfully.

God told Abram to go…and Abram went. Abram was obedient.

But even though Abram was obedient, how do you suppose that conversation between God and Abram took place? It was not in a dream because Scripture does not mention that type of appearance at all. The only reasonable assumption was that Abram was alone when God appeared to him. Perhaps it was on a mountain like the first conversation between God and Moses 800 years later, but we can reasonably assume that Abram was alone. Was Abram compelled to go somewhere before God began speaking? Did God appear to Abram in a place that Abram usually went? Did God talk Abram into going? We don’t know…it’s probably not important.

Abram went despite an abundance of blessings he already had in place. Abram went even though he led a successful, comfortable life that he had no obvious reason to abandon! Abram was open to this new idea that God gave him which led to some pretty dramatic shifts in his life.

What is important is that God told Abram to go…and Abram went.

Two thousand years later, an important teacher, a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, a man named Nicodemus went to see Jesus. We don’t have much material on Nicodemus, certainly not enough when compared to Abram, who later became Abraham. Nicodemus appears only three times in the New Testament and all three are in the Gospel of John:

· When he assisted Joseph of Arimathea to quickly bury Jesus’ body in a tomb;

· When he defended Jesus to the Sanhedrin, reminding them that Jesus must not be judged without a fair hearing – and this was during one of the first conversations the Sanhedrin had concerning Jesus;

· And finally the reading we have today, when Nicodemus visited Jesus at night.

That’s all the material we have on Nicodemus. And yet it’s enough to draw some conclusions about Nicodemus and his own obedience.

The prevailing opinions on Nicodemus’ motivation to go and talk with Jesus fit into three categories:

· Jesus scared and unsettled Nicodemus with his words and his teachings, so Nicodemus went because he was disturbed.

· Nicodemus was merely curious about this unusual, vibrant new teacher who had appeared, and Nicodemus – as a good teacher – decided to explore his own curiosity.

· Nicodemus was trying his best to remain obedient to God, and to all that he had learned and been trained to do his whole life, in order to serve God properly and well. Yet… God had put something on Nicodemus’ heart, and so he simply had to investigate in order to try to remain obedient to what he thought he knew.

And what was it that Nicodemus knew? The Law! He knew it backwards and forwards. He had been training extensively in the Law. He was a member of the

Sanhedrin, the religious group of elders and teachers of the Law charged with maintaining the faith of the Jewish people – especially since they were under the occupation of the Roman army. This was not a task for the “sort-of” trained, for the weak or those easily manipulated by whatever new idea comes along. No, the Sanhedrin understood their task as remaining obedient to the God of their ancestors, the God of the Law, the God of Isaac and Jacob…and Abraham. That God. Their God. Obedience came with the territory.

However, Nicodemus may have been troubled by something from Deuteronomy, especially in chapter 18, verse 19:

“Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.”

Nicodemus knew that the Sanhedrin was rushing to judge Jesus without even following their own laws and procedures. He knew this was wrong. But he was impressed and yet disturbed by the teachings of Jesus. Despite his formal, life-long training, Nicodemus was open to new ideas, new ways that God could reveal himself to his people. After all, God had done this countless times in human history…why not now? Yet, it is amazing that Nicodemus was open to new ideas, especially when those new ideas were coming from an obvious radical like Jesus of Nazareth.

So Nicodemus visited Jesus at night…for whatever reason…and the teacher found himself becoming the student. The obedience of Nicodemus produced something I seriously doubt Nicodemus expected.

With both Abram and Nicodemus, we are not left to wonder about their next actions.

· Abram left for Canaan and became Father Abraham, a figure so significant that he is held as a patriarch of three major religions today: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

· Nicodemus defended Jesus to the Sanhedrin and later assisted Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus…the proper burial according to the Law that he knew so well.

Both Abram and Nicodemus demonstrated obedience to the Kingdom of Heaven, rather than the kingdoms of earth; they did this even though they had both been

richly rewarded and blessed by the kingdom of earth.

That’s obedience! Which leads to the big question for today: Where is our obedience? And what does it look like?

Is God sending us to a place far away from our comfortable lives?

Is God asking us…compelling us to be open to new ideas that unsettle our current ideas?

Is God watching for our obedience without expecting us to ask questions? Just blindly follow anything, everything, anyone, everyone who approaches us with a new idea?

In other words, how far does obedience go? Let me close today’s message with a story.

Back in my college days in Austin, I was living in my crummy student apartment one evening, and there was a winter storm blowing outside. I was watching television and feeling very lucky to be indoors when I was startled by a knock at my door. I assumed it was one of my two sets of neighbors who lived on either side of me in equally crummy apartments. When I opened the door, I was greatly surprised to find a very small, Asian woman dressed in an all-white outfit that resembled a cross between a nurse’s uniform and nun’s habit. She had a coat, an umbrella, and a big smile. I guess I stood there looking surprised and not saying anything. She began to talk about her church and her pastor and asking for donations to help their mission. I talked with her for a few minutes, but I didn’t invite her in and I didn’t give her any money. I remember giving her something, but I don’t remember specifically what it was…perhaps something to eat. She thanked me and went on her way. As I closed the door, I found myself wanting to throttle her pastor for compelling her to go out and solicit donations to her church! What kind of a pastor would do this – send a small woman like that out all alone on a storm night in a bad neighborhood? Why would he risk her safety like this?

And most importantly of all: why didn’t the woman mention God at all? All she talked about was her pastor and his mission.

That is obedience too, my friends. But it’s not the kind that Abram or Nicodemus demonstrated to us.

Obedience has its limits. Obedience has its boundaries. Blind obedience without the brain fully engaged is dangerous and can be easily manipulated by others. That is NOT the kind of obedience that God is looking for. God never told us to check our brains at the door when we become believers.

Our loving father – the God of Abram and Nicodemus – is looking for people who are obedient to his Word without compromising their own common sense.

Our God is looking for people who keep their eyes on the Kingdom of Heaven while reasonably laboring in the kingdom of earth.

Our God is looking for people who can set aside their own physical – and even mental comfort – in order to serve others.

Our God is looking for people who are inspired and open to new ideas that serve the Kingdom of Heaven AND the kingdom of earth.

Our God is looking for obedience and love and common sense and openness.

Thomas Fuller, an influential theologian of the 1700’s, once divided all human beings into three categories:

· Intenders

· Endeavorers

· Performers

If we are obedient, then where do we fit?