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Lent 2, 03/16/2014

The hardest step to take is the first one. After that, we’re in motion.
Sermon on Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17, by Frank C. Senn


We see that in our babies. For whatever reason---intentional or accidental---they take the first step. Having done that they try a second step, and soon they're on their way across the room. That doesn't mean they won't fall down and have to learn how to get up again and start over. But they took a first step once, and they can do it again.

The baby's first step is a model for the rest of our lives. We may do a lot of pondering about what we're considering to do and where we think we'd like to go. But it's not reality until you actually take the first step and put your plan into motion. I experienced that again in my life a year ago when I announced officially that I was resigning as pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church and retiring from parish ministry. I had thought about it for almost a year, and even discussed it with some members of the congregation, without making an actual decision. But once I took the step of making an announcement, things were set in motion. There was no more time for pondering. It was unlikely there would be a turning back.

Today we heard in our first reading about Abram hearing the call and promise of God and setting off with his nephew Lot to the land the Lord would show him. The lectionary reading stops short of telling us that they took their wives and servants and possessions and set out on a journey from Haran on the Syrian-Turkish border to the land of Canaan. We don't know anything more it than that. How did Abram perceive that God was calling him? Did Abram have to ponder whether to heed God's call? Did he discuss it with Sarai? Did he think the promises God made were worth the effort of pulling up stakes (literally) and going to an unknown land? All we know is that he went. He took the first step, and, like all of our journeys, things were set in motion and it was unlikely that he would turn back.

You may be aware that the season of Lent originated as a time to prepare the catechumens---the seekers and learners of the faith---for their baptism at the Easter Vigil. This season of catechesis emerged in the third and fourth centuries and waned after the sixth when infant baptism became the more usual practice. But the ancient Rites of Christian Initiation were renewed in the Roman Catholic Church in 1972 after the Second Vatican Council and have caught on in other Churches. The Episcopal Church has its Catechumenal Process. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has Welcome to Christ. Both are based on the rites of Christian initiation. I've personally come to the point at which it's hard for me to go through Lent any more without reference to catechumens being prepared for their Baptism, Confirmation, and First Communion. Lacking adult catechumens in our midst, reminding us of our own baptismal journey, I'd like us to imagine that we have some and that today would be a good Sunday on which to enroll them as candidates for Baptism. They are now referred to as "the elect." They're on a journey toward Baptism from which it is hard to turn aside.

They've probably developed a relationship with the congregation already by attending worship and being involved in parish programs, such social ministry projects. Or maybe they sing in the choir. I've gotten new members over the years from people who joined the choir before they became members of the congregation. But at some point the unbaptized need to be invited to be incorporated into Christ and his Body on earth, the Church. I had an unbaptized man at Immanuel who came to worship regularly with his family, who were all baptized. He sang the hymns because he liked music. But one day I looked up from the altar and saw him reciting the creed. I said to him after the service, "If you're going to confess the faith you really ought to be baptized. He became an adult catechumen, was enrolled as a candidate at the beginning of Lent with the whole congregation accompanying him in prayer, and was baptized at the Easter Vigil.

The act of enrollment with all its intentionality is important. The length of time of the catechumenate may be longer or shorter, and one could always decide, "This isn't for me." But once one takes that first intentional step toward the font, things are set in motion that will only end with the plunge into the water, the anointing and laying on of hands, and the welcome to the Lord's Table for the meal by which we are bonded with the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. The first step in the journey of following Christ to the promised land is the momentous one.

On each of the Sundays that break up these forty days of Lent, we are confronted with a challenging message about what it means to follow Christ. For some of us, the challenge of today's readings may be the most discomforting of all. Because, you see, it's one thing to be warned to count the cost when you undertake a project. It's quite another to be told that there is no way of calculating the cost. And that's a clear message in today's readings.

Many of us have developed skills in risk assessment. We can do what the business gurus call a costs/benefits analysis and work out whether the costs we are likely to incur by taking a certain course of action are justified by the expected benefits. If Christian discipleship just involved predictable costs-perhaps as much as ten percent of your income and two and a half hours of your time spent at church each week-we could easily weigh that against the promise of forgiveness of sins and abundant life in this world and the next, and decide that it comes out as a pretty good deal. But today we are being warned that you can't tackle it that way.

A ruler of the Pharisees named Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. He's already calculating the cost, isn't he? Otherwise he might have come to Jesus during daytime office hours. But he's nervous about what his peers will think if he's seen consorting with Jesus. Yet he has an urgent question that he thinks Jesus can answer. He wants to know about eternal life. So he avoids the risk and comes to Jesus in the dark of night.

Jesus asks him: "how did you get into this life?" "Well, I was born into it." "Precisely," says Jesus. "So you must be born again into eternal life. You were born once from the womb of your mother and you must be born again from the womb of the Spirit."

Jesus's description of being born of water and of Spirit may not have evoked baptismal images for Nicodemus (although as a teacher of Israel he would surely have thought about the first words of Genesis---the Spirit moving over the waters and bringing about a new creation), but there is no doubt that these words of Jesus would have evoked images of baptism for those to whom the Apostle John was writing when he wrote them down. And when Jesus responds to Nicodemus's bewilderment and elaborates on what he is saying, he compares the life of those who have been reborn of the Spirit with the vagaries of the wind. "You can hear the wind blowing," he says, "and you can see what it does, but what's driving it and where it's going next is anybody's guess. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

This is clearly not a prediction that the life of the baptized will be an orderly and predictable one. If Jesus is challenging Nicodemus and us to take a good hard look at ourselves to see whether we've got what it takes to take the plunge, then he is asking us to see whether we can bring ourselves to relinquish control over the direction of our lives. He is asking us to release our grip and entrust our future to the unpredictable and untrackable winds of God's Spirit. It's pretty hard to do a costs/benefits analysis when you are told that you can't know much at all about what might happen if you embark on this journey.

So if you think again about the story of Abraham, you'll realize that we can't take the sting out of this challenge by assuming that the unpredictability only relates to some kind of "spiritual" consequences, like being more regular in worship attendance. No, it doesn't come much more life-changing than it did for Abraham, and as St. Paul makes clear, Abraham is one of the key models we are following if we take this life of faith seriously. When God called Abraham to "Get up and leave your country, your relatives and the family of your parents, and move to the land that I will show you," he wasn't even told what the land would be like. It's just, "Get up and make tracks and you'll find out what it all means as it unfolds."

Now if you wanted to do a costs/benefits analysis, the benefits Abraham is promised are pretty spectacular---land and descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky---, but he has to weigh them against the unknown. And so do we.

And by the way, if the candidates who might be enrolled today as the elect wanted to know what it would the sacraments mean that they will receive at the end of this journey, they would be told to wait on that. Because the meanings of the sacraments weren't given until after they had been received. Experience Baptism and Eucharist; then we'll talk about them in the mystagogy---the instruction in the sacraments---that was given during Easter Week by the bishops.

For most of us, it's been some years since we took the plunge and entrusted our lives to the unknown future of God. Most of us probably had little to do with that decision, and even in our youthful confirmations or affirmations of baptism we had little awareness of the challenges that lay ahead. Looking back now, some of us might say that if we could have seen some of what it was going to mean, we probably would have been a little more uncertain and hesitant than we were at the time. But most of us will also gladly renew our baptismal covenant at the Easter Vigil because the journey has been more than worth it. Perhaps it is just as well we weren't warned about some of those consequences that might have put us off. Because as uncertain as this journey may be, the One into whose hands we have entrusted our lives is one who will stop at nothing, not even a tortured death, to ensure our ultimate safety and wellbeing.

For those who might be weighing whether they are willing to follow Jesus the Christ in the company of his people, and are prepared to take the first step of that journey, understand that no one can tell you all that it will mean or where it will take you. That's why testimonies, as edifying as they may be as examples of the Spirit at work in people's lives, are of limited value to anyone else. Because God's Spirit is not going to work in my life the same way as the Spirit works in your life.

It is simply a matter of entrusting your life to the One who will lead you who knows where, but who is utterly committed to your best interests and has proven faithful to generations of Spirit-led people before you.

And if you have taken this journey before, and have stumbled on the way, Lent is also for you. It is a time of repentance as well as of catechesis. Like the toddler we set out and fall down. Lent comes along and encourages us all to get back up and keep on walking, keep on following Jesus. Amen.

Prof. Dr. Frank C. Senn
Evanston, Illinois, USA
E-Mail: fcsenn@sbcglobal.net