It was Christmas Day 1989, and I imagine my family, like most families, was settling in for Christmas dinner. It was just another Christmas for us, but across the world, the Romanian Dictators Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were being executed, after a hasty trial, for crimes against the Romanian people. The entire nature and horror of those crimes would not emerge for months and years, but for the first time in a generation, the Romanian people could breathe the breath of freedom.
It was January 1992, and I was finishing my studies at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy. One of my last requirements was a missions course that was being offered during the January term. J-Term courses were intensive, three-weeklong courses that met every day for those three weeks. The course was taught by Nazarene missionaries from the Azores who was home on leave. I had to take the class as a graduation requirement, so I signed up.
The first day of class arrived, and I went to the appointed classroom full of suspicion. I wondered what these Nazarene missionaries would teach this nice Catholic boy. Little did I know that one class would change the direction of my life.
The class would focus on world missions but with a particular emphasis on the work in the orphanages of Romania. The course instructor, who remains a very dear friend to this day, would be bringing us firsthand accounts from the field. Her daughter and friends were in Romania on a mission trip to bring what aid and comfort they could to the children in a particular orphanage far away from the media attention in the Capitol City of Bucharest.
Remember that this was back in the day before Al Gore invented the internet, so communication was difficult. But we heard stories of the work being done there, and something inside me stirred. I had felt this stirring before, but this was new. This was to leave my comfort zone and “Go from my own county.”
Today we have two stories of movement and change. We begin with the story of Abram from the Book of Genesis. Abram, who would later become Abraham, is called by God to leave everything he knows, his family, his home, his flock, everything, and go to a place he has never heard of.
It is an interesting use of words here. God does not call Abram to a particular place; nope, God calls Abram to leave everything for a “land that I will show you.” Abram does not know the destination. God is calling Abram not only to leave everything but to trust in the destination that is not certain. God calls Abram to step into the dark without light and trust that God will guide him along the right path.
Abram is like most of the people God calls ordinary. Abram is home, doing a job living a life he has chosen, and, by all accounts, is pretty happy. They were not native to the land they occupied, but people traveled in those days to find better land to graze their livestock and raise their families.
I am sure Abram had dreams and aspirations, but this call came along and changed it all. Genesis tells us that God called Abram, but what does God’s voice sound like? A couple of weeks ago, we heard of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and God’s voice coming from the sky, saying, “this is my son in whom I am well pleased.” Was it that sort of voice? Did anyone else hear it, or was it just Abram?
How did Abram, or for that matter, how do we know it is God’s calling and not us sounding like God, calling us to do something? We want to be sure; we need to be sure. That thing was stirring inside of Abram to Go and do. So Abram started listening to that still, small voice inside of him and tested it to see if it was God. Abram determines it is God’s voice, he listens to God, and his life changes forever.
Abram is called to change his location; Nicodemus is called to change his mind.
Not all of God’s calls are to do extraordinary things like found nations of people or raise the dead. Sometimes, God calls us to change our minds. God calls us from the wilderness of ignorance and darkness into the bright light of knowledge and love.
In the Gospel passage, we hear from John Jesus meets Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a teacher and a council member, so he has to come to Jesus in secret. Nicodemus is afraid of what will happen if he is found out. Many people feel this way and are uncertain about stepping out of their comfort zone to ask another to come to church. What will they say? What if they ask me questions I cannot answer? My faith is private, and I want to keep it that way.
Nicodemus was not afraid of discomfort; he was scared for his life. If he were found out, he would be put out of the Temple and shunned, basically ending his life. But he desired knowledge and sought out Jesus for the answers.
Nicodemus was an educated man and believed a certain way. Some people like things in black and white, and they do not want to think about things differently. Because of their privilege, some people want things to remain the same as they have always been, and when challenged in their narrow belief, they make fun of those who believe differently and call them things like woke.
Change can be difficult, and realizing that the way you have always thought about something is not necessarily that way can be jarring to one’s system, and we do not always react as we should. But then enter outside forces that think like you do and constantly preach the message you want to hear. Maybe your church does or the news network you listen to. You are so deep in the belief that the very thought that you might be wrong seems impossible.
Then along comes this guy named Jesus who says we have to love everyone. Surely, he does not mean everyone. He must mean people who look like me, talk like me, love like me, and think like me. Surely, he will allow me to continue to hate and persecute those who are different. Surely, he will let me hate people I do not understand because I am so unsure of my own skin that I have to persecute them to feel better about myself. Surely, he means that I can persecute those who do not think the same way I do and force them to believe the way I do. Jesus is not saying that everyone deserves to be loved and forgiven; he cannot be saying that!
But that is precisely what Jesus is saying. I mentioned last time that if your God hates the same people you do, it’s time to find a new God.
The call to discipleship is a call to change. Once we decide to follow Jesus, we must do just that; follow and following requires action. We must be willing to see things differently and through this lens of love for God and everyone. We do not have to like others or support their actions but must love them.
In January 1992, I felt something that I determined was God’s voice. I left all that I knew and all that was comfortable and, for a short time, put myself into an uncomfortable position. I left my country and traveled to Romania, where I worked for a month doing what I could. As I said earlier, that yes to that stirring changed my life in ways that I still have not figured out. It opened my eyes and my perspective and changed the way I thought and think about so many things.
Abram listened to God’s voice and became the father of a great nation that changed how we now look at the world. We are, in a sense, inheritors of that call to Abram and are part of that great nation of believers. Like Abram, we are being called to “Go from our own country” of darkness and ignorance. We are being called into the light and to help others find that light. We are called to come and see what God is doing in the world and what our part in that is. The critical piece is that we are looking, listening, and not standing still.
We have questions like Nicodemus, and we can find the answers. We are being called to challenge our beliefs that we thought were true and might have been at the time, but now, not so much. We are being called to examine and reexamine our beliefs and our thoughts. St. Paul said that when he was a child, he thought and acted like a child, but now that he is an adult, he needs to think and act like an adult.
We must be open to the idea that not everyone thinks the way we do and that we might be wrong. We must be open to the concept of change. As much as we want them to, things cannot remain the same forever; things must change. Faith is not a static practice; it is ever-moving and ever-evolving. Nicodemus asked questions, and although he did not get a direct answer from Jesus, he was put on the path of enlightenment and discovery. But it began with questions and seeking answers. Do not be afraid to ask questions and challenge the answers and your beliefs.
Don’t worry about having all the correct answers or doing things the right way; God does not call the equipped; God equips the called. If we say yes when God calls, we will be prepared, and there are a ton of examples in scripture to back that up. So don’t worry about your preparation or lack thereof; just say yes to the call and enjoy the ride.