Genesis 12, 1-4; John 3, 1-17
Do you enjoy travelling? Is a journey part of the adventure of a holiday to you, or do you regard the motorway, the flight or the train ride as a boring necessity that has to be endured in order to get to your holiday destination?
The Bible is full of journeys. In our Old Testament reading, we hear of Abraham being asked by God to journey into the unknown from his family and his homeland, leaving all that is safe and familiar behind. He is asked to do this on the basis of a promise from God that he will become the founder of a great nation in this new and unknown country to which God will guide him. It will be both a physical and a spiritual journey, as Abraham and his descendants move in and out of the Promised Land, and grow in their knowledge of, and trust in God.
Nicodemus is on a more obviously spiritual journey. He comes to Jesus and is invited to begin a journey from one understanding of God, one way of living in the Kingdom, into another. He is drawn initially by the miracles Jesus has performed, but when he talks to Jesus he is confronted by a much more demanding transformation – a new birth into a life animated by the Holy Spirit, living out the love of God in the way that Jesus does, in a transformation that brings eternal life. Anyone who has given birth to a child, or who has witnessed it, knows that this is one of the most difficult and painful journeys we ever undertake in our lives, requiring enormous effort from everyone concerned, and often skilled help if it is not to end in disaster. So it is with the journey of spiritual rebirth into the Kingdom of God. We cannot do it on our own. We need the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit if we are to find our way.
Some Christians speak about being ‘born again’ as if it is a one-off event. I don’t think that is true. Billy Graham said: “Being a Christian (is more than just an instantaneous conversion – it) is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ.” I believe we need to be born again many times during our Christian journey, as we grow in faith, as we encounter new situations, as we look with new knowledge at the ‘maps of faith’ which are our Scriptures, and as we read and talk and listen to the experience of other Christians who are making the journey with us. And, like the journeying of the descendants of Abraham, that journey may not be a straightforward one. We may travel into and out of our faith and faith community at different times during our lives, and as our situations change. I’ve often found that the journey of faith, rather than walking a straight line from A to B, is more like walking a maze, unable to see where we are going, persisting in trying to find the centre in spite of often going down dead ends and having to back track.
Part of our journey of faith is a journey towards generosity in our giving to to others of our time, our talents and our money. As we heard last week, what prompts our giving is not a sense of obligation or the need to obey rules: rather is is a thankful response to all we have been given by our generous God.
But like all journeys, it may not be a straightforward line from giving little to giving more. Our circumstances change and there may be more demands on our income, our expenditure and our time at certain points in our lives than at others. If we have children, we will have less money and less time to give when they are young, and needing constant care; and as we grow older, we may also have dependent elderly relatives to care for. Our employment may demand more of our time at some periods than others. Illness may restrict what we are able to give. Even in areas which seem prosperous, people nowadays may be struggling with a large burden of expenditure on housing costs, like rent or mortgages.
There will also be significant events that mark our journey, which prompt us to reconsider our giving. When we were blessed with two healthy children, we were prompted to give back in thanksgiving. Part of our giving was to promise support, through a Christian mission agency, to a project for children in another part of the world, who we knew would not expect such an easy life as our own children would. That has continued until the present time. Another aspect of our thanksgiving was a gift to the church we attended at that time of vestments and altar frontals, some of them made by me, which involved giving of both money and time and talents. Many of you will have examples of such times from your own lives.
But as well as changes in our own lives, our giving will be shaped by the needs of others. There is an account of a journey in the parables of Jesus that illustrates this, the story of the Good Samaritan. When faced with the needs of the man who fell among thieves, the Samaritan gave generously of his time, breaking into his own journey to help him. He gave generously of his other resources, using expensive oil and wine to treat and sterilise the victims wounds, and allowing him to ride on his own donkey. Finally, when he could no longer attend to the man’s needs himself, he gave money to support the wounded man in an inn until he was fully recovered, and pledged more so that the victim’s future care was ensured. That story gives us a pattern for responding to needs when they are presented to us.
We are constantly presented with the needs of many in our world who live in quite desperate circumstances, and often need to respond to crisis situations, like earthquakes, floods, famine and tsunamis. But it is also right that we are presented with local needs which may seem less desperate, but are nevertheless important, like the needs of our own church. We are all aware of what a difficult financial situation many of our parish churches find themselves in, not least this church. And although we may give generously of our time and talents to support our own particular church and to contribute to its life, there are some things, like heating, lighting and insurance,which only money can provide. All these are needed so that the church can continue to support us in our journey of faith.
We may be wary of rules about giving, because we don’t want to lose the sense of thankfulness and generosity in our giving, which mirrors that of God. But a rule of thumb can be helpful. The Bible rules recommend that we tithe, giving back one tenth of what we receive. That worked well in a mainly agrarian economy, where it was fairly simple to calculate one tenth of crops and livestock. The current Church of England recommendation is to give 5% of disposable income, after the costs of housing, food, taxes and insurance, and other absolute necessities of modern day living are taken into account. That is not an absolute demand, but gives a good guide for calculating what we could give as compared with what we do give.
I talked earlier about how we feel as we journey. Is it enjoyable, or is it full of fear and anxiety? One useful thing to learn as we journey through life and in faith is to be content with what we have. When the Good Samaritan helped the Jew who had been attacked, he was going against the cultural norms of his society, which said Jews and Samaritans were enemies, and should never help each other. The cultural norms of our society encourage us to acquire more and more goods, to want everything we can afford, and more than what we can afford if we can get credit, to constantly renew our clothes, our houses and our technological devices. It takes an enormous effort to resist this, and to remain content with just enough. Paul declared in his letter to the Philippians: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances”. That is a good attitude of mind to nurture on our journey of generosity. Being content gives us peace of mind, and encourages in us the generosity which is one of the fruits of the Spirit, who accompanies us on our journey though the life of the Kingdom into which we, with all our companions on the Christian journey, have been reborn.