Staunton Mennonite Church
12Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
I have always enjoyed science. It was one of my favorite subjects in school growing up and I still find myself drawn to the scientific world. My favorite class in high school was Physics. I loved learning how things consistently happened and I loved to learn things like the Newtonian laws. But what really made my Physics class fun was that my teacher, Mr. Martin was good with demonstrations.
One memorable demonstration was on the conservation of momentum. When we have a weight on the end of a string and drop that weight allowing it to go back and forth, we call this a pendulum. And the pendulum shows us that energy and momentum is not gained, but rather remains constant. With the exception of the energy lost to friction, the pendulum should continue to swing the exact same distance. So Mr. Martin ties a pendulum on the chalk board and puts a chalk mark at the beginning height of release and he marks the height of each swing, noting that each swing only comes as high as the one before it. And he asked us, “Now who believes in the conservation of momentum?” We all raised our hands.
Then Mr. Martin took us into the gymnasium where there was a climbing rope tied high to a rafter. He had previously attached a 100 lb. weight to the rope and he asked again, “Now who believes in the conservation of momentum?” We still all raised our hands, not knowing what was to come next.
Mr. Martin asked for a volunteer and a young man with glasses named Ryan volunteered, thinking he might be asked to swing the rope. But Mr. Martin pulled out a folding chair and set it up about 20 feet away from the rope. He had Ryan sit down and he pulled the 100 lb. weight back about 2 inches away from Ryan’s nose. And he asked Ryan again, “Do you believe in the conservation of momentum?” Ryan nervously said yes.
As Mr. Martin let that 100 lb weight go, we all watched as it gained momentum, swinging across the gym floor, slowing down at the end of the swing, and began swing right back in the direction that it came from, right back at Ryan’s face. And as that weight passed the midway point, the pressure got to Ryan and he jumped up, knocking his chair to the ground, and we all witnessed the weight, with all of its momentum, stop right back where it had been released. Ryan would have been safe, but he lost his faith in the conservation of momentum.
You see it is easy to “have faith” when faith doesn’t ask anything of you. It is easy to have faith in the conservation of momentum when your face is not a part of a demonstration. And it is easy to have faith in God when God doesn’t ask anything of you, or maybe I should say it is easy to have faith in God when you don’t listen to God asking something of you. Because God does ask something of all of us. And we must respond to God’s leading in faith.
Our scripture for today begins with a man by the name of Abram. And I will warn you, Abram’s name is later changed by God to Abraham, and there is a good chance that I will call him Abraham in this sermon. But know right up front that I am talking about the same person. So Abram and his father Terah, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot have moved from the land of Ur to the land of Abram’s brother Haran and settled there. And the Lord says to Abram, “Go from your land, from your family, and from your house into a land that I will show you.”
As far as we can tell, Abram had never had a direct talk with God before. So I would bet that this would kind of freak out Abram. I know it would mess with my head. And look at all that God is asking of Abram; leave your country, leave your family, and leave your house and go into a land that I will show you. God is saying, leave anything that is nailed down, and I am going to give you a new life in a new land. A land that I will show you.
And that “land I will show you” part is also something that would scare me a bit. Because God doesn’t tell Abram where he is going, he just tells Abram to go. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have ever just jumped into a car and decided to drive until I came somewhere else that I would rather be. I have never gone to the train station and slapped down all of the cash I had and said, “Give me a ticket as far as this will get me.” I have never purchased an airline ticket to someplace just because I felt like going somewhere. If I am traveling, I usually plan it out. I go to AAA and get a Trip-Tik and a map or two. I might spend some time on the internet and Map Quest my travel plans. Maybe I would even borrow one of your GPS navigational devices so I could have turn by turn instructions. I like to know where I am going and how to get there before I leave home. And I am only talking about a vacation. Abram wasn’t just going to the beach for a few days. He was being told to take what he could, while leaving much behind, and move to another land, a land that God would tell him about later.
So if some God that I had never heard from before told me to do such a thing, I wonder how I would have responded. I can only imagine the conversations I would have along the way at the gas stations and the rest stops:
“Where ya headed?”
“I don’t know.”
“How will you know when you get there?”
“I am planning on God telling me when I get there. Then I will know when to stop.”
“You gonna look for work when you get wherever your going? How else you gonna eat? How you gonna fill up the gas tank? Those credit cards will have to be paid back some day.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure. God just said that he would take care of me.”
“What about all of those Hittites, Ammorites, and Jebusites along the way? Are you nervous about them trying to car jack you and take what you have?”
“All I know is that God told me to go, so I went.”
“Your nuts, man.”
“Blessings to you as well.”
That does sound a little crazy, now doesn’t it? What does Abram have to go on? What he has is a promise. Beginning in verse 2, Abram is promised by God that he will be made into a great nation, meaning that he will have many offspring. He is promised God’s blessing and that even Abram’s name will be great, and therefore he will be a blessing to others also. Furthermore, God is going to bless all of those that bless Abram along the way, and curse all those that curse him. And through Abram all of the families of the earth will be blessed.
That sound like a nice promise to me. This is the promise that Abram is sent with when he is told to head out for some unknown land. But the problem with a promise is that you cannot see it. There is no proof that God is going to keep his promise. My friend Ryan, sitting on that folding chair with a 100 lb weight coming toward his head had more proof than Abram had because Ryan had seen this demonstration done before on a small scale. And what did Ryan do? He bailed out. But what about Abram? He had faith.
Abram had faith. At 75 years of age he took his wife, his nephew, and anything that wasn’t nailed down with him and he set out to do whatever it was God wanted him to do and to do it wherever God had in mind. And I think this is kind of interesting that Abram, at 75 years old was given a chance to start his life over. He had an interaction with God and he began anew in a new place, eventually with a new name, surrounded by new people. And after a period of time, he was given a new member to his family. He was given a son. A son through whom a great nation would develop. A son through whom all of the world would be blessed. A son who is a part of the lineage of great people like Moses, David, and yes, even Jesus.
All of this talk about newness makes me think about another time when we read about a new beginning in the Bible, a new beginning that is compared to a second birth. And this new beginning is much more like the new birth of Abram than the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah. I am thinking of the account of Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus found in John chapter 3.
Nicodemus was a bit of a closet follower of Jesus. He was a Pharisee and he was a little worried that other people would see him following Jesus and his reputation as a Pharisee would be tarnished. So Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night and professes his beliefs about Jesus. And Jesus answers Nicodemus in traditional Jesus style, by not being straight forward. And Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Of course, Nicodemus doesn’t get what Jesus is trying to say, so he asks how it is possible for a grown man to be born again? How can he enter into his mother’s womb? So Jesus explains that he is not talking about a normal birth. He is talking about being born of water and the spirit. And as I look across the page in the first chapter of John we have this discussion about the baptism of Jesus and how the Spirit of God descended upon him at his baptism. And all at once it starts to make sense in this context. Anyone who wants to be a part of the kingdom of God must be born again. They must experience a new birth, not an earthly birth, but the beginning of a new life. That is what baptism symbolizes; the beginning of a new life, a new birth in Jesus Christ.
Last Wednesday I was seeking something that is very important to anyone in Virginia that wants to be able to drive their car on a public road. I was looking for a little yellow sticker with the numbers 02/09. It had been a year since my last vehicle inspection and I was in need of a new sticker. So I made an appointment for my Volkswagen at a local shop in Harrisonburg for Wednesday afternoon and I planned on waiting an hour and then being able to drive off with my new sticker. The problem was, when the mechanic came up front he told me there was a problem. And he was going to give me a new sticker all right. But rather than the yellow one that said 02/09, this one was a pink one that read “REJECTED”.
I couldn’t drive my car. I took it home and waited until I could borrow a car to run some errands. You soon realize how dependant you are on your vehicle when you can’t drive it. Thankfully I could take the car back in the next day to make the necessary repairs. And after dropping the necessary $200, I got the coveted little yellow sticker. My Volkswagen, which had been dead, was given new life. It had experienced a second birth.
When Nicodemus came to Jesus, Jesus told him that in order to see the kingdom of God, he had to be born again. Born of water and the spirit. And I think that sometimes we as Christians over emphasize something about our new birth in Christ. I think we over emphasize the cost of this new life. I think we over emphasize that our new life in Christ is free. Because guess what, it isn’t free. It might just cost you everything that you have ever known.
No, we don’t have to pay a cash fee to become a Christian. But it may require that we radically change our lives. Yet some people believe that if they become a follower of Christ that all they have to do is fit an hour or two of worship on Sunday into their lives and that qualifies them as a follower of Christ. But that isn’t the way it works. We don’t fit Jesus into our lives, we need to radically alter our lives when we become a Christian. Our priorities must change. We don’t fit an hour of worship into our busy work weeks, we fit our work in around our service to Jesus Christ.
Jesus doesn’t just pull this metaphor of being born again out of no where. He recognizes that to enter into the kingdom of God requires that we die to our old ways of life and to be born again new in Christ. Like Abram, we may be called to leave behind family, land, goods, and security and set out in a new life in a new territory in a place that we have never been before. Or God might be calling us to stay right where we are. But when we are born again, when we begin this new life, it might cost us more than the $200 dollars that it cost me to give my Volkswagen new life. It might cost us everything we have ever known.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor during World War II who understood that a new life in Christ might cost him everything, and he was willing to pay the price. Bonhoeffer understood that being a Christian was more than just acknowledging Jesus as Lord, it meant living as Jesus lived. And for some reason, Bonhoeffer found it difficult to believe that Jesus would just sit around and watch the Jews be slaughtered.
Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship was written to offset some of the understanding of grace being preached by those around him. Bonhoeffer described what was being preached as “cheap grace”. Hitler had said at one time to the churches in Germany, “You can have their souls, I’ll take the rest of them.” And Bonhoeffer just could not understand how the Germans had arrived at this understanding that what you profess with your lips wouldn’t have any affect on what you carried out with your body. If you profess that Jesus Christ is Lord, then you don’t kill Jews.
A rebirth in Christ can be costly. I might cost you your life as you know it, because God might be calling you to do something radically different than what you are already doing like Abram. A rebirth in Christ can be costly because it might cost you your earthly life like it did for Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was eventually executed by the Germans for standing up against Hitler and calling out the sinfulness of the Holocaust.
As we sit here today, most of us are not being challenged to do something radically different with our lives. Many of us have been Christians for all of our lives and we are therefore less likely going to have to give up the lives that we have come to know in order to follow the leading of God like Abram. Few of us will need to experience re-birth like Nicodemus. But the challenge for all of us today is this: If we are asked to go today to a land that God will show us, if we are told that we must start a new life, to be born again, will we do it in faith? Will we sit in the chair as the 100 lb. pendulum swings back toward our face, or we bail out when our faith makes us uncomfortable? It is easy to have faith in God when he isn’t asking anything of you, but that doesn’t happen. God is always asking something of us. May God give us the strength to stay faithful, even when that faith seems dangerous.