Believing the unbelievable

Genesis 12:1-4a
John 3:1-17

Leaving the known for the unknown takes a lot of courage, so Abram did something pretty remarkable when he upped sticks and took his wife and family (and all their possessions) into the unknown – trusting that the Lord would indeed bless them in their journeying and on into a promised land. Yet that wasn’t the really striking thing about the story. What really took the biscuit was this promise that Abram’s tiny family would grow into a great nation. Certainly that would take several generations, but is that a promise to be believed by a man who was already seventy five years old?

In our country births were not officially registered until 1837, before that people relied on memory and baptism records, to say how old they were. So Abram may not have been a septuagenarian. But he clearly was a man of maturity, and to suggest that he was to be the instigator of this great nation was asking him to believe the unbelievable.

Nicodemus was no spring chicken either. He was a leader of the Jews, a position that took time to be earned. Jesus faced him with this remarkable statement: no-one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or, as other translations put it, being born again). Both stretch the boundaries of credulity. Nicodemus was being asked to believe the unbelievable.

We can read on in Genesis and beyond to see that the promise to Abram was fulfilled. That is a historical fact. The challenge to Nicodemus needs a little more unpacking. It has nothing to do with reincarnation, nor does it require the suspension of our knowledge of human anatomy. The challenge is that the Spirit can so take hold of a person and change them that it is almost as if they’re beginning life again. It’s a bit like the action of the wind, said Jesus. You can hear it but not see it. Despite the best efforts of weather forecasters you don’t know exactly where it has come from or where it will go to, but the effect is obvious in the moment and after it has gone. So it is with the work of the Spirit in a human life. Yet still, because you cannot see the Spirit coming, you have to believe the unbelievable first.

The common thread between these two stories is that both men believed: Abram by setting out on the journey, Nicodemus because later in this Gospel we find him standing up for Jesus (7:50) and then coming to help in the removal of his body to its tomb (19:39).

That is not the only common thread. Indeed, if we are to get anything from these stories that may help us, the real key lies in the fact that both Abram and Nicodemus believed and trusted the one who was speaking to them. In Abram’s case it was the Lord, the God whom Abram and his forefathers had worshipped and followed for generations. In Nicodemus’s case it was Jesus, a teacher who he believed had come from God. These are two stories about believing and trusting the words that come from God. That is where they touch our lives. That is where they present us with a challenge. Are we prepared to believe the unbelievable if that is what God asks of us?

We need to be a bit careful here. The unbelievable does not mean that which is manifestly not true. We are not being called to switch off our moral compasses and follow blindly up any alley that appears before us. Nor does the unbelievable mean that which is impossible. Faith and trust do not require us to suspend judgement and experience. We need to be aware that people have done some dangerous and damaging things in the name of a faith that has discarded reason and justice and compassion. That is not the road followed by Abram and Nicodemus.

In their case, and that of many others, the unbelievable has more to do with things we had not considered before, or that we thought were beyond us, or which were impossible in the past but have now become possible.

Some years ago a church was considering uniting with another neighbouring congregation. The discussion went on for some months and as it did so the debate became more heated as people took up opposing positions. Eventually a Church Meeting was called to make a final decision one way or the other. A young mother who had never before attended such a meeting, let alone spoken at one, felt so strongly that the church needed to change so that it could provide a spiritual home for her children and their generation that she got a baby sitter, came to the meeting, and delivered a speech that so moved people that they were able to vote with almost a common mind. She believed the unbelievable, that God wanted her to speak and that God would give her words when it came to the point.

More recently a small youth group in an inner-city church watched a video showing some of the suffering faced by people caught up in the civil war in Syria. They were deeply moved by what they saw but they couldn’t see what they could do to help. So they prayed together and following that prayer they decided that they would work with their families and friends, with their neighbours and people at school, to raise some money. A couple of weeks later they had £1000 to send to Christian Aid. They believed the unbelievable, that God would show them a way to make a difference to the lives of suffering people.

The stories from the Bible and from more recent times make the same point. It is possible to change the direction of the human story, it is possible to make a new beginning, it is possible to make a difference, when, led by the Spirit, we believe the unbelievable – and act on our belief.

Nicodemus took some persuading. How can these things be? he asked Jesus. He must have been pretty surprised at the answer he got. Because, once Jesus had regretted Nicodemus’s lack of faith and trust, he took him right into the heart of God. He pointed to the day when Jesus, the Son of Man, would be lifted up on the cross as a sign, a witness, to the way of eternal life. He pointed to the cross as a sign that the God who calls us out of our comfort zones, who urges us to think outside the box, does so only because of God’s deep and lasting love for his people.

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. God’s unbelievable is for human good. Jesus’ call invites us to join him in order to save what otherwise would be lost.

Similar Posts