From Genesis 11:31, 12:1-4
31 Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran.
Now 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. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I 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.”[a]
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b] 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] 8 The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
The stories of Abram and Nicodemus are stories of unsettlement. Abram had settled with his father Terah and other family members in Haran. Terah’s intention years earlier had been to go and settle in the land of Canaan. But for whatever reasons, they had gotten only as far as Haran, and there they pitched their tent. They stayed. They called it home. They did their lives. After Terah dies, Abram hears a voice that he identifies as the voice of God telling him to pack up and move on to the land that God will show him. That land is Canaan. Maybe it isn’t only the voice of God that Abram hears, maybe it is also the voice of his father beckoning him to complete the journey his father had begun. So now Abram agrees to go, to set off into territory he does not know, into circumstances unforeseen. He agrees to have his life uprooted, unsettled.
Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the Jewish religious leader has been living a pretty settled life. His theology is all sewn up. He’s clear about who God is and what God wants, and clear about his purpose as one who guides the lives of the Jewish people through certain teachings and practices that are intended to keep them in good relationship with God. But then this guy named Jesus comes along. And his presence, his actions, his teaching are unsettling. And while all of Nicodemus’ fellow Pharisees are plotting how to silence Jesus, Nicodemus is drawn to him. He doesn’t have the courage to come to Jesus in the daylight, but he comes. He is curious. Nicodemus wants to know more. To understand more. And by the time he finishes talking with Jesus, he is even more unsettled than when he came.
These are stories of unsettlement, and they are stories about us as individuals, and stories about us as a congregation. On the whole, I think it is safe to say that we like having fairly settled lives. We want there to be some predictability, some ease, some comfort, some routines we can count on. It is good to know where the grocery store is and in what aisle you can find pickles and spaghetti sauce. It is a gift to know your doctors over years, to have history with them, to have them know what you do for fun. And it’s a joy to hang out with people you’ve known for years, who understand your personality, and get your sense of humor, and shrug you off when you get your panties in a wad. It feels wonderful when our relationships are smooth, and communication is easy, and our ways of being together are familiar and unconflicted. And it’s restful to have a fairly intact sense of how you think about the world, and God or divinity, and the things in life that matter most. Because there is so much that is beyond our control, it’s a comfort to have certain of our ducks in a relatively straight row and to have them stay that way.
But there are always things in our lives that are, or that become unsettled. Sickness, death, breaks in relationship, work that is unsatisfying, the coronavirus, anxiety about money, housing, family, your own place and purpose in the world, tribal politics, glaciers melting, waters rising, the future of the church, just to name a few…. And I wonder, in what are you experiencing unsettlement this morning? Where are you carrying the tension in your body? What thoughts have been running circles in your mind? What unknowing about your future is bending your heart into a question mark these days?
The stories of Abram and Nicodemus and our stories are stories of unsettlement, stories about having what is familiar become disturbed, about movement into something yet unknown. And they are stories about a God who is unsettled, disturbed by all that is broken, all that aches, all that is unfinished in us and in the world. A God who is restless, and determined to be with us in our unsettlement, who finds us where we are, loves us as we are, and invites us to give ourselves over to another kind of unsettlement that is prompted by the grace of God and the purpose of God to heal and make whole.
Abram gives himself over to God’s unsettling proposal. He pulls up his tent stakes and sets off on a journey into an unknown future. And it isn’t just a journey through unfamiliar geography. It is a journey into a weird divine purpose that Abram himself has not devised, a journey to let God bless him to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Abram asks no questions. But he has to wonder what does this mean? How can this be? How will I, how will my little life, be a source of goodness and blessingfor all the peoples of the earth?
God thinks globally but acts locally, one person at a time. Abram agrees to go. To be unsettled. To trek through the wilderness. To encounter strangers and enter situations that will scare the wits out of him. He isn’t always courageous. He will regret his hasty decision to leave behind what he knows. He will doubt God’s goodness, doubt God’s presence, doubt God’s promise, question God’s purpose, and doubt his own capacity to keep on keeping on.
When Richard was nearing his fiftieth year of life, he felt God calling him to become a minister. He felt God prompting him to leave behind his settled, good, familiar life as the well-paid dean of a not-for-profit university. He struggled, and he wept, and he was scared. The weird thing is that this sense of call had first come to him when he was four years old and Jesus appeared to him saying, “you could be one of my ministers.” Nearly half a century later, the call came again to get on with this journey, like Abram continuing the journey that his father had begun decades earlier. And when Richard was in the throes of discernment, full of angst about becoming a Seminary student, losing his place and his power and his pay check as an academic dean, facing an uncertain future, I wrote a poem for him that began with the line:
You are the half-born son of a mad God.” Not mad as in angry, but mad as in crazy. Mad as in “what in the world is God thinking and doing with me now when I am half a century old and settled down, and content with my own discontent?”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus for something like night school. His experience of Jesus has unsettled and drawn him in. He wants to know more. Wants to understand more. He’s hoping that a conversation with Jesus will reveal that the religious beliefs and practices of he and his fellow Pharisees are largely compatible with what Jesus is saying and doing. And, as Lydia said in Bible study, Jesus is so unhelpful, so obtuse, so confounding, so not clarifying in the ways that Nicodemus is hoping they will be. Jesus is offering crazy talk. Asking Nicodemus to think thoughts that he cannot think. To do things that he cannot do. “You must be born from above. You must be born of the Spirit.” And Nicodemus asks: “How can these things be?”
And Nicodemus is right to wonder at what Jesus says. Jesus is the beloved Son of a God who is unsettled by all of our unsettlement and intends to change our lives. Jesus is the human one who is born from above. Born from the Spirit. Jesus is the one who for love, who for the healing and life of the world travels the distance and pitches his tent with humankind, with us, and reveals the impossible possibility. You must and can be born from above. You must and can be born from the Spirit. And Nicodemus is right ask: How can this be. Alone we cannot re-birth ourselves. It is a labor of the Spirit. A labor that we do not control—which is one of my greatest frustrations. Like the wind the Spirit blows when and where she will. We cannot make the Spirit do what we want her to do.
But the Spirit moves. The Spirit forms. The Spirit calls. The Spirit unsettles. And we are created to be able to sense the Spirit’s movement in us and around us. We are free to co-operate and free to resist. We are free to move and be taken more fully into the life of God, and we free to stay put, content with our discontent, settled in our unsettlement. We are half-born sons and daughters of a mad, crazy, wild, wonderful, determined, life-giving God, who in love will never, ever, stop pushing, and pulling, and moving with us through our resistance to bless us and birth us anew to be God’s blessing.