Title: Home away from home
Date: February 17, 2008
Texts: Gen 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Rom 4:1-5, 13-17; Jn 3:1-17.
To leave it all behind. To wander into the unknown with nothing to hold onto… only a promise. “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.’” Leave everything. Leave all the people and all the places that are important to you. Leave all the familiar landmarks. For what? A promise. The Lord says, “Go from your country to the land that I will show you.” That’s it. Leave everything, for a hazy promise.
But, like I said last week, I’m a home body. I like staying at home. It’s familiar, comfortable, predictable. I can make my coffee the way I like it. Drink from my favorite mug. I have three choice seating arrangements, depending on my mood, or what I’m doing. I can drop everything and take a walk, on a whim, and later pick up where I left off. Or go outside and tear out more annoying plants in the yard.
I am beginning to belong at home, learning how to be at home in my neighborhood, digging into my city, sending down roots. And I want to say that all of that is good. We must fight against the temptation to be like tourists, just passing through this place, this town. It’s important to belong to a place, to dig into our context even for a couple years, to tie our lives to the people around us, to learn what it means to call someone a neighbor, or to be a neighbor… even to strangers.
All of that must be important. But now there’s a tension. The story of Abram does something strange to all this talk of belonging. In Genesis 12 we find God telling Abram to leave everything. To uproot his life. To say goodbye to the place where he belongs, and to the people to whom he belongs. It’s unnatural. What can this mean?
God leads him away to another place for a specific reason: “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.” It’s all for the sake of blessings, God says. Through this wandering journey, God promises to bless Abram and his descendents. But it’s not a blessing that Abram can hoard, that Abram can hold with tight fists—this isn’t a blessing that turns into private property.
It’s a blessing that becomes more blessings, overflowing blessings. Abram is blessed, God says, “so that you will be a blessing.” Abram and his descendents will be given gifts so that they can give them away—they are blessed so that they can bless.
That is how God works in our lives as well. We are blessed not only for our sake, but so we can enjoy the blessing of redistributing God’s gifts. We are blessed so that we can be a blessing. There is no such thing as privatized gifts and blessings in God’s economy, which happens to include everything. God gives so that we can share in the joy of giving.
There’s another important characteristic of God’s economy of blessing. It’s strange. It’s a strange economy because there’s absolutely no reason that God chooses Abram and his descendents. Here’s this guy, hanging out in Haran, the land where his father had settled the family. And one day, for no apparent reason, out of the blue, this God shows up, without an introduction, and invites Abram into a long-term relationship, a journey of intimacy, a covenant. There’s no good reason why God should pick Abram out of a crowd. There’s nothing about Abram that would warrant God’s attention. It’s a non-necessary decision, indiscriminate and frivolous.
Our name for this is grace. Grace happens without reason. Grace comes unexpectedly, without prerequisites. This is what Paul is trying to explain in our passage from Romans 4. He says, “the promise rests on grace” (v16). There’s no explanation for God’s promise of blessing to Abram other than the depths of God’s mysterious grace. It rests on grace, an inexplicable gift, nothing else. Paul uses the language of our economy to help make sense of God’s economy. He says, in verses 4, “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due.”
That’s straightforward enough. We work so we can get paid. That paycheck is not a gift, Paul says. It can’t be a gift because it’s earned; it’s expected; it’s deserved; it’s payment for hard work. We earn our income. But Paul says that’s not the way it works in God’s economy of grace: we are those who, like Abram, receive gifts “without works,” without expecting them (v5).
The way of God’s economy—what Jesus calls the kingdom of God—moves like the mysterious wind. In John 3 we find Nicodemus and Jesus in a dance of misunderstanding about the way grace works. Nicodemus knows there’s something special about this man. He says to Jesus, No one can do what you do without God’s presence. And Jesus says, No one can see the way this kingdom of God works without being born again. Jesus is a bit playful at this point. What he says about being born again can also mean being born from above—being born anōthen, from above or again.
Nicodemus, like any reasonable person, took Jesus to mean that he must be re-born—that he must re-enter his mother’s womb and put his mom through that ordeal all over again. He says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (v4) You can almost see one of those cartoon bubbles appear above Nicodemus’ head, mapping out how absurd it would be to crawl back inside the womb.
Nicodemus shakes his head in unbelief, completely confused. But Jesus doesn’t leave him that way. Jesus pushes him further into the mysterious ways of God, which we can only misunderstand and then try again. “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. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (v8).
God doesn’t fit into our categories; God transgresses them. And so we are like Nicodemus and can only misunderstand this kingdom of God, God’s economy, but keep on trying to make some sense of it. But God doesn’t give up; Jesus keeps on talking to Nicodemus; he doesn’t shut down the lines of communication. And through the conversation we reach further into the depths of God’s mysterious grace, God’s economy of gifts without prerequisites, this frivolous love of God.
We all know what Jesus says, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” But Jesus goes on, in verse 17, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus is God’s salvation for the world; God’s love is blowing like the wind, over here and over there. This is where the wandering path of Abram leads—to Jesus, the descendent of Abram who blesses the world.
It all started with the unexpected gift of God’s invitation for Abram to start down a wandering path towards an unknown future. And as Abraham and Israel journey, as Israel walks with God, God’s life and Israel’s life are tied together more and more intimately.
Israel and God grow into one another. God envelopes Israel with holiness and blessing, so that Israel may in turn participate in, commune in, God’s abundant and gracious love for the world—that the world might be made holy.
The life of God and the life of God’s people are increasingly tied to one another as the journey continues. We hear this emerging union in Abram’s call in Genesis 12:3: “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” (Gen 12:3). I and You are woven together. The one is in the other. They become inseparable.
In the call of Abram, God begins to weave his life with ours. It’s not always a comfortable experience. I’d rather sit in my red arm chair, or work on my yard. That’s relatively predictable work. I know that if I invest in the yard for the morning, I’ll have something to show for my hard work in the afternoon.
But God calls Abram and us out from our comforts and into something unimaginably new, unpredictable. God invites us into a new relationship of belonging, where we belong to God and God belongs to us. God invites us into a friendship where we receive gifts for absolutely no reason, so that we can share in the way God blesses the world, so we can be God’s blessing of the world.
But belonging is risky business. It means that we refuse to live separate lives. Belonging means we don’t believe we can go on any longer without God, and without digging further into the life he offers. Belonging means we no longer believe that our lives are our own. Belonging means receiving a new of life, a shared life.
This new life is the eternal life God offers in Jesus, as we read in John 3:16. And eternal life is simply another name for God. God is eternal life. In Jesus, God makes his home with humans, with us, with you. In Jesus, God completes what was started with Abram. God and Israel become one flesh, one body: and that is Jesus of Nazareth, God and Israel enveloping one another.
Jesus is the way God forever binds his life to our human life. God now belongs with us, and we belong with God. God has entered into the depths of our humanity, the depths of his creation, and made it, made us, God’s home. God is at home with us.
God is not some Big Other, a distant projection of what we want to be but can never be, our fantasies of power (Lacan). Neither is God a benevolent master, micromanaging our replaceable and expendable lives of servanthood (Nietzsche). No. In Jesus, God has entered into our flesh, our bodies. In Jesus, the boundaries and categories that separate God and humanity are now crossed.
We can no longer speak about, nor live our lives, without bringing God into the picture. Nor can we speak about God without bringing our lives into the picture. They are intimately and inextricably bound together; God’s life and our life are woven together.
And this season of Lent is about opening up our lives to that needle, that needle called the Holy Spirit, who weaves us into the life of God, into eternal life. That means our lives get pierced, pierced with God’s love, which begins to move through our flesh, intimately tying us to God, and God to us, so that we can do what God does, and bless the world. We come to find out that we depend on God who holds our lives together, which also means that we are bound together with others; and that God depends on us to be a blessing for the world.
Lent is about discovering that we are at home with God because God has made his home in us. That’s why we are called the body of Christ. God is on a journey, wandering like the wind. And we wander with him, the one who gave his life for the world, so we can also give our lives, turn our lives into gifts, undeserved gifts for others, and therefore commune in the eternal life of God’s indiscriminate love, God’s gracious love, God’s saving love. In Jesus, we are God’s home away from home.