Readings: Genesis 12:1–4a, Romans 4:1–5, 13–17 & John 3:1–17
Each of our readings this morning deal with the question of faith. The passage from the Book of Genesis describes the calling of Abram, whose name would later be changed by God to Abraham, and it also reveals the first of God’s promises to Abraham that God would make him the father of a great nation, which is a reference to the nation of Israel, and that He would bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham.
God called Abraham, who was seventy-five years old at the time, to pack up his family, leave his homeland, and travel to an unknown destination. And without question, Abraham did as God commended him. Abraham demonstrated that he had complete trust and confidence in God.
The ancient Israelites believed that the only way to be in a good relationship with God, was to obey the 613 commandments contained in the Torah (Jewish law). So when the Apostle Paul began proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, Jewish Christians were angry that Paul did not require the Gentiles to observe the Torah when they became members of the church communities founded by Paul.
When writing to the church in Rome, which was not one of the communities founded by him, this was one of the issues Paul was addressing, because word about it had obviously spread to the church in Rome. Paul argued that people could not come to a relationship with God by their own doing, as though God danced to their tune, but rather it was through God making the first move, which God did by His grace. That is, by the gift of revealing Himself to humanity through Jesus Christ. And all that humanity had to do was to accept the gift by believing in Jesus. That is what Paul meant when he wrote, “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Rom. 3:21–22a NRSV)
To support his argument, Paul drew on the story of Abraham, who was the Patriarch of Israel. That is what today’s passage from Romans is all about. Paul wrote, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”, which is another way of saying that Abraham believed in God and was in good relationship with God as a result of that belief.
Paul goes on to say that the promises which God made to Abraham in today’s passage from Genesis – that he would become a great nation and that all nations of the earth would be blessed through him – were not made as a result of any law, because the law didn’t even exist at that time, but rather they were made because of Abraham’s faith. Paul makes the point that if the heirs to the promises God gave to Abraham are to be the people who adhere to the law, then the promises themselves are void. For if there is no law, such as at the time of Abraham, then there can be no violation of the law.
Paul argues that God’s promise depends on faith, and that by God’s grace the promise is guaranteed, not just to those who keep the law, but to those who, like Abraham, have faith, Paul says this is possible because God promised Abraham that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed.
In the gospel passage we are introduced to the figure of Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews who came to Jesus by night. One of the key themes of the Gospel of John is the contrast between ‘light’ and ‘darkness’. In simplistic terms, the light refers to the powers of good, and darkness to the powers of evil. Jesus is the “light of all people”. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
So the significance of Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, is that Nicodemus is slowly coming to faith in Jesus. There is something about Jesus that has drawn Nicodemus to him, and Nicodemus wants to hear directly from Jesus himself. But Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a member of the religious order that is opposed to Jesus, so he is still coming from the darkness, he is not yet committed to following Jesus. But eventually he does come to faith in Jesus, because we read at the end of John’s Gospel that Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea to ask Pilate’s permission to take the body of Jesus and bury him, which they do with great reverence and love.
During his dialogue with Nicodemus, Jesus tells him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”, and “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit”. To be born of water is of course to be baptised, and to be born of Spirit is to receive the gift of God’s grace, which is God’s revelation of Himself to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
All that humanity has to do is accept the gift by believing in Jesus Christ. In other words, all that we need to do is to have faith.