Homily Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
at the MNIPC Lenten Evensong
March 16, 2017
Church of the Intercession, NYC
Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a, John 3:1-17
Vayomer Hashem el-Avram lech-lecha . . .”lech-lecha.” The Lord said to Abram, “Go!” – “Go forth!”
In our Bible, “Lech-lecha,” the Hebrew command that God gives Abraham, is translated as “Go!,” but it actually has several meanings. The first is obviously the literal one: Go! Leave! Vamoose! Some English translations say: “Go forth!” – I like that better. In any case, “Go!” or “Go forth!” is a command given by someone to someone else – here it is God to Abraham – so we assume that Abraham is being sent out on a mission for God – “Go and do something for me!”
But this command is two words, not one, and the “lecha” has a superfluous “lech” added to it. That changes the meaning, making it self-reflexive – Jewish translations all say, “Go for yourself,” in other words, “Get out of here for you, go for your own good, get out here to avoid harm”; it’s as though someone was shouting at Abraham that his house was on fire and that he needed to get out now, there’s danger. This danger can be as serious as death – the word used here in the Greek Old Testament is closely related to the Greek word used to describe Lazarus coming out of the tomb when Jesus raises him from the dead: come out! Leave the grave, this place of death.
But there’s more. It can also mean: go out to seek your destiny, leave your home country and your family and search for the mission that God has chosen for you. And if we look at the rest of our short passage, this is indeed the primary meaning. God is saying to Abraham, respond and go forth, you will find your destiny. God tells him who he will eventually become in a series of prophetic promises that are extravagant, even cosmically vast responses to Abraham’s prayers. Childless, he had simply prayed for an heir, but God says, oh yes, I will give you an heir, but there’s much more: I will make of you a great nation. Not only will I make of you a nation, but I will make your name great and you yourself will become a blessing so powerful that those whom you bless I, God will bless, and those you curse, I will curse. Whoa!
Why did God promise so much? Remember, this is the first time God speaks to Abraham in the Bible, and remember, too, that at this time there was nothing but pagan religion. Abraham would have had no context at all for recognizing the Lord.
So God, like a fervent suitor approaching his beloved for the first time, arrives bearing more than just a modest bouquet of flowers: he goes overboard to impress. Later, God would be more specific about what Abraham would be requested to do to fulfill his end of the relationship (like circumcision), but for now God has only one request: “Lech-lecha.” Go. Put one foot in front of the other and show me not that you believe in me, but that you believe me. The Bible says, “So Abram went, as the Lord told him.”*
God is calling Abraham, but God’s call is nothing without a response. We see this with Abraham’s own father, Terah, who the Bible says set out for Canaan, the Promised Land. But the Bible also says that he never made it there: he stopped in Haran, looked around, said, “this seems like a nice place,” and settled there. That’s why the Bible drops him, and hardly anyone knows his name. The only reason he’s mentioned at all is that he is Abraham’s father, but It is up to his son to do what he couldn’t do, and see the call through to the end.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of Abraham’s “going forth.” From this one man’s response to the call of a God he had never known to go to a land that he had never seen were born all of the Peoples of the Book: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of whom claim Abraham as their first patriarch, their revered founder.
And from this one seminal moment comes a whole host of other “lech-lechas“ in the Bible, beginning with Moses being pushed out onto the Nile River in a reed basket by his mother to save his life, a journey he did not choose as a newborn. It’s important to realize that sometimes we do not choose to go forth – instead we’re kicked out, forced out against our will. But, as with Moses, we need to remember that those kinds of kicks, nasty as they can feel, can also be from God, and they are never the last word. Moses was called on later in his life to make his own choice to respond to God at the burning bush. We could go on with stories about Joseph, David, John the Baptist, and Jesus – who had a host of goings-forth: his baptism by John, the decision in the Garden of Gethsemane, and of his course, his resurrection on Easter. The lesson is that a call isn’t complete until you respond fully; in order to fulfill your destiny, you must have your own “going forth” moment.
Which brings us to our gospel reading about the Pharisee Nicodemus. Nicodemus, says, John, came to Jesus by night, we can assume because he didn’t want his fellow Pharisees to see him hanging out with a disrupter. Nicodemus is curious, he feels drawn to Jesus because of his signs, his miracles. We can also assume that the allegorical meaning of “night” is intended here, meaning that Nicodemus was in spiritual darkness, and that he was drawn to Jesus’ light, the light of the gospel. So he goes forth under cover of night to find Jesus.
Our reading today contains one of the most well-known passages in the gospels: as anyone who has ever seen a football game on television knows, John 3:16 is famous, and it is the climactic verse in today’s gospel: For God so loved the world so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. This is, of course, a beautiful, inspiring summation of the gospels, but we don’t truly get it unless we consider the conversation that leads up to it, the odd back and forth between Nicodemus and Jesus about how many times a person can be born.
Now biological birth is one of those unwanted “go forths”; we had nothing to do with it, none of us chose it, we were all forced out of the womb. So when Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born from above” – or, as our evangelical sisters and brothers say, “born again” – he is telling Nicodemus that even though he was forced to be born once, Nicodemus now must make the choice to go forth, to respond to God’s call. It’s interesting that the way Jesus describes this call, it sounds very much like what Abraham must have experienced when called by God: “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 who is born of the Spirit.”
When Nicodemus protests that this is, to put it plainly, weird and confusing – “How can these things be?” – Jesus professes astonishment that Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, doesn’t get that he must step out in faith. But like God meeting Abraham for the very first time, Jesus when meeting Nicodemus for the very first time, also makes an amazing promise in return for his going forth: eternal life, that’s John 3:16. The promise worked, it must have convinced Nicodemus: after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus publicly appears this time with another respected Jew, Joseph of Arimathea, to embalm Jesus’ body. He no longer is sneaking around at night; he is out in the open as a disciple of Jesus. He did choose indeed to be born again from above, to respond to Jesus’ call.
We all are called by God. My seminal moment – my “going forth” – was when I walked into the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in 1987, approached Canon West, and said, “Father, I think I want to be baptized.” There have been other, smaller moments since, but the way that the Holy Spirit works is that you have to say “yes” and follow through on the first call or like Abraham’s father Terah, you won’t be given more chances.
In this Lenten season, let us shut out all of the other voices, all of the noise in our lives and listen. Is God calling us? Is Jesus appearing at the door of our heart loaded down with astonishing promises? Listen for the whisper of the Spirit. Is Jesus drawing us to seek him? Is the wind of a new call blowing us in a new, surprising direction? Lent is the time for us to pay close, deep, attention to God’s voice, to truly experience God’s love and forgiveness, to know – really know – that no matter what we have done, God loves us anyway, so much that he gave his only Son that we might have eternal life, if only we believe him, put one foot in front of the other, and step out.
God is always calling us. Will we respond? Lech-lecha, my friends. Go forth, for your own good, and for the good of God’s precious world.
*When God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah, the same word construction is used – “lech-lecha.”