The readings today start out with the beginning of the story of Abraham and Sarah. The story itself twists through more than 12 chapters of Genesis; and this being the book of Genesisâwhich means âoriginsââit is introduced by a genealogy that links Abram and Sarai to Shem, a son of Noah. The significant thing about that for us is that the story of Abram and Sarai situates us in relationship to the God who makes promises for new life. With Noah we find a God who promises never to destroy his creation again, and puts a rainbow in the sky as a sign of that promise for the new future of creation.
With the story of Abram who becomes Abraham, and Sarai who becomes Sarah, we meet the God who promises new life to those who hear, trust, and follow him. This is the God who promises that, despite their age and apparent inability to have children, they will become the ancestors of a great nation; their nomadic migrations will come to an end; and they will be a blessing âto all the families of the earth.â (Gen. 12:3) As St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans, this is the God âwho gives life to the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist.â (Rom. 4:17) Promises bear upon the future of a relationship, like marriage vows in a covenant of mutuality. There are no guarantees of what the future may hold, only the promise of ongoing mutual relationship for those who stick with it.
The word âpromiseâ literally means âbeing sent outâ or âsent forth,â (the Latin promittere) The Abraham saga begins with the words, âGo from your country and your kindred and your fatherâs houseâ¦â (Gen.12:1). It is a call to, and promise of, new lifeâbut Abram has to leave the world of his ancestors, break the ties of kinship, and follow wherever this promise takes him: new relationships and new territory.
It is no wonder that this aspect of the story impressed St. Paul, over a thousand years later. In becoming a Christian missionary, apostle, and church planter, Saul the Pharisee had made a radical break with his culture and the faith of his ancestors, and had entered into a new relationship with God, founded on Godâs promise of new life in Christ. Just as Abram eventually received a new name and identity as Abraham, and Sarai as Sarah, as a sign of their new relationship to the God who promises new life, Saul too had received a new name, Paul, and entered into a new life of traveling ceaselessly around the eastern Mediterranean. Perhaps he saw in the saga of Abraham and Sarah another connection to his own life. They had set out into an unknown future with no map; they had to âthink outside the box,â as the modern clichÃ© has it, and so did Paul. He recognized that Godâs promises and covenant of new life in Christ broke through the restrictions of the piety he had grown up with; the promise and covenant were for women as well as men, slaves as well as the freeborn, Gentiles as well as Jews.
Abraham and Paul had to trust not in family values, or the tried and true habits of their ancestors, but in new ways of thinking and living revealed to them in their new relationship with this God. They broke with their experiences of the past, and moved into an unmapped future to become new âpeople of the Promise,â for new life. In Johnâs Gospel today we find Nicodemus, a devout member of the Temple leadership in Jerusalem, questioning Jesus about God the promise-maker. We need not suppose that Nicodemus was unwilling to make the move into an unmapped future for new life, but he balks at the language Jesus uses. Jesus says that those who want to enter into this relationship with God have to be âborn from above,â or âborn again.â (John 3:3) Johnâs language here echoes that of Paul when he says that if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a ânew creation.â (cf. 2 Cor.5:17) New birth, new life, new creation: these images of entering into a new relationship imply that Godâs promise for new life entails Godâs gift of a fresh start, freed from the restrictions of our past lives in order to enter a new relationship with God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
And this is the point at which, finally, the promises of God touch our own lives, especially in Lent. Despite our popular pieties, Lent is a time for engaging our new life in Christ more deeply, risking new levels of trust. The purpose of Lent is not to dwell on suffering, or to spend 40 days bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness for the sake of feeling our pain. Lent is about engaging in the ongoing process of renewal, regeneration, and new birth, it is about encouraging us to trust, and to risk, going forth and being sent out with the promise of new life.
Lent may require us to âthink outside the boxâ of Christian piety and religiosity as we do this, just as Abram and Sarai had to break with their past, and Saul the Pharisee with his. We do well to pause during Lent and consider that the promises of God bear not only upon the future of our individual lives in relationship to him, but also upon the future of our parishes, dioceses, and our church as a whole. To respond to the promise for new life, given to those who hear, trust, and follow this God, means we have to be ready to redraw and rename the places on the journey. When the ancient makers of the Book of Genesis told the story of Abram and Sarai, they were at the same time inscribing new place names, creating a new social geography, on the territories of their migrations in company with this God. At this point in the 21st century, God may well be inviting us to rethink how we do church in light of the socio-geographies of the times we live in. When Saul the Pharisee became Paul the Apostle as we know him, he brought new words, images, and new community structures into being, âcalling into existence things which do not exist,â by trustfully following Jesus into new life. Lent is for listening to that call in our own lives. In the words of an old hymn no longer in our approved Hymnals, ânew occasions teach new duties, and time makes ancient good uncouth.â (âOnce to every Man and Nation,â Hymnal 1940.) Lent is for careful thinking about how to step into the as yet unmapped future for our parishes, dioceses, and church, seeking to deepen our relationship to God and trust the picture of new life in Christ, and for identifying the breaks with the past that we need to make in order to respond to the promises of God.