March 5, 2023
Second Sunday in Lent
Romans 4:1-4, 13-17
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who welcomes our questions. Amen.
Have you ever taken a picture or piece of art to be framed?
You start out with this central image
and then hold up all these samples
of frames next to it
and you see that the color or style of frame
can have a huge impact
on how you see the picture,
some frames will bring out one color
while others bring out another.
The frame influences how you experience the art.
The same goes for ideas.
The assumptions we make
or the questions we ask or don’t ask
they all influence how we experience the idea
and sometimes when we put a new idea or frame
on a discussion that seems old and worn,
all of a sudden it is vibrant and full of life again.
That’s what we’re doing this Lent
as we explore the themes that emerge in a life of faith
with ancestors of the faith,
we’re trying out different frames
to see if all of a sudden
we come across a combination
that draws out something
we hadn’t noticed before.
This week we have the theme of faith and doubt
with Abraham and Nicodemus
and this is a perfect theme for reframing
because there are so many more ways of thinking about faith and doubt
than the most common ways,
there are so many more colors we can draw out.
One of the most common ways to frame faith and doubt
is to simplify them as much as possible
by casting them as opposites
with a prejudgment of which is good (faith)
and which is bad (doubt).
Looking at our stories for today
with this frame around them,
we notice right away that Abraham represents faith
and Nicodemus doubt.
God tells Abraham to “go”
and he goes
While Nicodemus comes to Jesus
under the cover of night with questions
and with this frame that’s understood as bad,
or less than ideal.
Looking at it this way
if you want to be a good faithful person,
Be like Abraham.
If you want to know what a doubter looks like
look at Nicodemus.
Of course it is much more complex than that,
but it’s so tempting to reduce it down
to a cut and dry good and bad
and even if we try not to use this frame,
it’s so common it lurks in the back of our mind
so that when we hear the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus,
we hear in his questions a lack of faith
which we assume is a negative thing,
and when Jesus asks him
“Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
we hear it in a mocking tone,
and this interpretation seems innocent enough
until we realize that because Nicodemus is a leader of the Jews,
this negative view of Nicodemus
could be transferred to all of his people,
aiding and abetting anti-semetic views.
And on an individual level,
when our own questions begin to arise
we might fear being mocked because we have questions
or worse seen as unfaithful
or we begin to worry that if we don’t believe
we will perish instead of having eternal life
and a few questions turn into a crisis of faith.
All because a simple frame is placed around an idea
But what if we placed a different frame around this whole discussion?
A frame that acknowledges that life is far from simple and straightforward,
that there are shades of gray.
What if we start off with the idea
that faith and doubt are not opposites
but instead are partners
working together in the human quest for understanding,
making sense of the world.
In this frame,
faith rather than being an unquestioning ascent to outside ideas,
is instead a posture of awe and wonder at the mysteries of life.
Awe and wonder that lead quite naturally to questions,
and so with this frame,
questions/ doubt are not only present
but necessary for faith.
Placing this frame around the stories of our ancestors,
now how do we see Abraham and Nicodemus?
Abraham, awed by God, follows the instructions to go.
Some people are particularly good at following instructions
and it seems that Abraham is one of those people
but then we begin to wonder,
didn’t he have any questions or doubts at all?
And if we read a little farther
we discover that while Abraham had faith in the big picture
he was less certain about the day to day
and his doubts are exposed in his actions,
he goes into foreign lands
but he doubts as to his own safety,
so he pretends his wife is his sister,
And he believes that God will fulfill the promise of descendants
as numerous as the stars
but he has doubts about how that is going to come about
and Hagar and then Ishmael enter the picture
and add layers to Abraham’s story.
Abraham’s faith is much more complex than at first glance.
And if Abraham’s story is more complex,
perhaps Nicodemus’ story is simpler.
What if Nicodemus is genuinely approaching Jesus
from a place of awe and wonder,
in other words, faith,
and is curious to understand more.
In fact when we look back at the story,
when Nicodemus comes to Jesus
he comes with a statement rather than a question:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who had come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
That sounds an awful lot like faith to me,
and he comes to Jesus because he wants to know more,
to know how this works
and Jesus teaches about being born from above by water and spirit
as the way to enter the kingdom of God
and expands on his own role
in how these things will come about
and it’s at this point that Nicodemus gets confused
and starts asking questions
and here that simple frame starts to sneak back in
because when he questions Jesus
on the impossibility of entering a second time
into the mother’s womb,
we interpret it as him asking:
“what do I have to do?,
what do I have to do to enter the kingdom of God?”
but if we go back to our frame
where faith and doubt go hand and hand,
Nicodemus is approaching all of this with pure curiosity,
he is seeking understanding
and it with this in mind when we go back to Jesus’ teaching,
we see that God is the one who is doing all the work,
it is the Spirit who works to birth from above,
it is God who gives Jesus,
it is Jesus who will be lifted up on the cross,
it is love at work in the world.
God does the work
and we respond with awe and wonder
and yes questions
salvation doesn’t depend on us.
This is the grace of God offered freely.
And this is how we as Lutherans
being born of water and spirit.
At the font God claims us
Forgives us in the big picture
And sets us on the path
Of daily dying to sin and rising to Christ.
and since it is God who does the work
gives the gift,
we are set free to simply be in relationship with God
rather than continually asking:
“What do I have to do?”
We are free to wonder with Nicodemus ‘how can this be?’
without worrying that we will end up on the cosmic naughty list,
we are freed to marvel with Abraham at the movement of the spirit,
that is as mysterious as the movement of wind,
indeed we are encouraged to watch for the spirit,
and join in as the spirit moves to bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God.
We are freed to frame our lives with love of God and neighbor
take risks, to ask questions,
to stand up for justice and peace
because God has claimed us once and for all
and nothing, especially not questions,
will separate us from the love of God. Amen