My dog is a spaz. Meet Shasta. He’s my 12 pound ball of fur. He was traumatized as a small puppy. He loved running out of our sliding glass door to the back yard. One day we had the glass door open, but the screen door was closed. You can see it coming can’t you. That poor little guy built up a head of steam, barreled toward the door, and then, BAM! His face smashed into the screen, it bowed, and then sent him flying back into the room.
He’s never been the same. To this day, 5 years later, he still has a door phobia. He also has a floor color phobia. It’s the strangest thing. In our living room we have carpet, the dining room has dark wood, and the kitchen has light wood. To watch Shasta you would think the transitions between those floors were made from lava.
Then, when you combine a doorway with a floor color change, forget about it. He’s a nervous wreck. That little hairball will stand in the door to my studio for 10 minutes, whining and crying before he builds up enough courage to make the big leap and scramble across the floor in a flurry of fur and nails.
Sometimes we are like that, aren’t we? We don’t really like change. Many times the fear of the unknown is stronger than the fear of the known.
The truth is that we often get stuck in habitual patterns. Week after week, year after year, we do the same things, go to the same places, have the same conversations. This can be true in our spiritual lives as well. We go to church, say the words, sing the songs, eat the bread, shake some hands, hum de dum. We’re stuck.
Sometimes, we might think there is more to it. Sometimes we might be inspired to explore something new, but, too often we are pulled back into the familiar. It might be fear that pulls us back, it might be pressure, or it might be plain laziness. For whatever the reason, we’re stuck.
In our lessons today we meet two men who were stuck. We get to listen in on the conversations they have. As we do, we will learn some important lessons on how we can get unstuck and move forward with God.
The first man is a guy named Abram. His story is found in Genesis and the specific conversation we want to look at is in Genesis 12:1-4. Abram lived about 2000 years before Jesus, in the land of the Chaldeans, in the capital city of Haran. The Chaleans were also know as the Babylonians. In the ancient world, to say that Abram live in Haran would be similar to saying, in our world, that Abram lived in Moscow during the height of the cold war. The Chaldeans were a powerful Empire. They worshipped the moon god, named Sin. His symbol was the horned bull and the crescent moon. He was the great bull rider that governed the marking of time and dominated his people.
I try to imagine Abram living in Haran and I wonder what was really going on with him. Here he is, a wealthy man. He lives in the powerful capital city of a major Empire. The gods he grew up worshipping were the kind of gods that loved power, and those who worshipped them were generally driven to build their empires and dominate those around them.
I just wonder if Abram was one of those guys who stepped back and looked at the bustling city, and the politicking of the priests, and the oppression of the enemy, and wheeling and dealing in the busy market place, and wondered about it all. Perhaps he stepped out in the field at night and looked up at the moon. He stared at it and thought, “Are you really my god? Isn’t there more?” Abram is stuck in the Moon God Religion.
Maybe he was one of the few people who was courageous enough to ask the big questions, and even more importantly, he was courageous enough to actually listen for new answers. That’s when God shows up and speaks to him.
Now, let’s role the tape ahead by 2000 years, until we come to our second man. His name is Nicodemus. The world has changed quite a bit since Abram. The world powers have shifted many times. And now, Nicodemus finds himself in a strange situation. He is a wealthy man. He is an influential leader of his people, but his people are under the oppression of the Roman Empire. Nicodemus’ religion tells him that God loves the Jews and hates the Gentiles and that if Israel would just straighten up, then God would oust the Romans and they could seek revenge on their oppressors.
Nicodemus’ people are fighting amongst themselves. They are angry at the Romans. They are angry at themselves. It’s a mess. Nicodemus is stuck in the Jewish Religion.
I just wonder if Nicodemus was like Abram. He was a man who stepped back and watched, and thought, “I feel stuck. Is this really what God intended for us?” He was courageous enough to break protocol and seek a conversation with Jesus.
Now, let’s role the tape ahead again another 2000 years to today. Where are you? Do you sometimes look around at this thing called Christianity, with some people fighting, and some people just going through religious motions, or maybe you just feel flat. As scandalous as this may sound, I think we can get stuck in a Christian Religion.
As we listen to these two conversations, I think we will learn three important lessons about how to get unstuck spiritually and begin to really move forward.
The first thing is to Lift Our Eyes. I think what happens in society is that, over time, we tend to shape an idea of God that is more about our ideas than about the true nature of God and we hunker down into a religious rut. We like to confine God into a creed or a specific confession and God has to come along and shake us up from time to time. We need to lift our eyes and look up to see what God is really like.
In Abram’s case, the moon god and all the pantheon of gods and goddesses were the gods of empire. They were gods who called people to live in fear and to dominate their enemies.
Look what Yahweh says to Abram in Genesis 12. He says, “I want to bless you.” This word to bless is a fascinating word. It literally means to kneel down before. So imagine this. Here is the God who is above all the gods. Yahweh — the one who placed the moon, and the sun, and the stars in their places — stoops down to a single man and says, “I kneel down before you. I don’t Lord it over you and demand something from you out of fear and intimidation. I am for you, Abram.”
Now look at Nicodemus. Jesus tells him, “For God so loved the world.” Among Nicodemus’ colleagues, the general belief was that God loved Israel and hated the world. But no, Jesus says that God loves the world – everybody — even the cruel Romans.
Many times we can get stuck in the idea that God is just like us and only likes people that are like us. We might be tempted to think that God loves Americans and hates other, less democratic countries. Or that God is a republican and couldn’t possibly love liberal democrats. Or, that God is a democrat and couldn’t possibly love narrow-minded republicans. Or whatever.
We must always be reminded that God is the God who blesses; the God who loves the world and all the various forms it takes.
Secondly, if we want to get unstuck, we need to Open Our Ears and hear God’s call.
Look what God said to Abram. There are two key words in his statement: so that. “Abram, I am blessing you so that you can be a blessing to all nations.” Let’s say this phrase together. Blessed to be a blessing. Once more, Blessed to be a blessing. That is the mission of God’s people. Do you remember what the word bless means? We are called to kneel down before all nations. We are called to serve all nations, to be the conduit of God’s grace to all people.
Look what Jesus said to Nicodemus. “For God did not send his son to condemn the world, but to save the world.” The mission of Jesus, and the mission of his followers is to bless the world, to bring the saving way of Jesus to all people through our words and actions. We are called to be like Jesus to the nations, regardless of who they are.
Nicodemus was stuck because he forgot what the original call to Abram was. Jesus didn’t bring a new message to Israel, he was trying to remind them of what the mission has always been. Blessed to be a blessing.
In our world, in our churches, it is very easy to get stuck in a self-centered theology and a self-serving religiosity. It is easy to think, “OK, I’ve been confirmed, I’ve got my ticket to Heaven, I’m comfortable, it’s all good.” But that is not what God calls us to. God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing to others.
That leaves us with the third thing. We need to Move Our Feet.
God said to Abram, “leave your father’s land and go to a place that I will show you.” How would you feel if God told you to move, but didn’t tell you where? It would be scary. It would require a huge amount of trust that God had your best interest in mind.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again, that he had to reconfigure his hard drive and see everything fresh and new. He had to leave behind the distorted thinking of his inherited worldview and see the world with the fresh eyes of a new born if he was going to be able to see God and hear God’s call on his life.
So here we are. I don’t know where you are today, or where you might be stuck. Maybe you have a hard time believing that God actually loves you, let alone that he loves people who are different than you. Maybe you are like Shasta and you’ve been traumatized by an event in your past that makes it hard to see God fresh and hear this call. Maybe it’s hard to imagine reaching out and blessing those who are different.
One thing I do know is this. God is a God that calls us to move. The universe is a dynamic place. Everything shifts and changes — even the earth’s crust. So we have a choice every day. We can either hunker down in our own version of God and let the shifting of culture shatter us, or we can lift our eyes and see that God is the God who calls us to move, that the Spirit is like the wind, wild and unpredictable, and we can follow God on a wild and wonderful adventure of faith.
I hope that in this Lenten Journey that we are on together, that it will serve to help you break free of wherever you may be stuck and take another step on the journey with God.