2nd SUNDAY OF LENT 2021
Scripture Readings: Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; Psalm 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; Romans 8:31b-34; Mark 9:2-10
In the gospel, God commands us to listen to the “beloved Son.” Like Abraham, we do not know in advance what this listening might ask of us nor how our perception of God’s will, might change. Only this kind of listening to God, leads us to the new life which Jesus’ transfiguration foreshadows. “Listen to him.” Therein is the essence of spirituality: having our heart, mind, and ears spiritually tuned to hear what God is saying! Could we not begin each day with a time of quiet, praying Samuel’s simple prayer, “Speak Lord, your servant listens.” Then as our day progresses, we look for God and God’s message in the simple experiences of our day. “A spiritual life requires discipline”, Nouwen says, “because we need to learn to listen to God, who constantly speaks but whom we seldom hear. When, however, we learn to listen, our lives become obedient lives.”
Abraham left not only his homeland. Abraham left his earthly understanding behind and took faith with him. Abraham’s trust in God enabled him to keep putting one foot in front of the other without the benefit of seeing or knowing where God might lead him. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed it well, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” Through the centuries, Abraham’s faith, which was real and active, became the ideal against which his descendants measured their responsiveness to God.
Today we hear the temptation of Abraham. Usually when we think of temptations, we take a negative focus and consider our failures or how close we come to falling. But as I mentioned last week, temptations can also be seen as a test that if successfully overcome, can strengthen someone to put up a better fight for the Lord. Remember the role of “satans” in the Persian Empire was to test the loyalty of the King’s subjects. Also, we heard that the Spirit of God drove Jesus out into the desert where he was tempted. Again, today we hear that quote, “God tested Abraham.” God put Abraham to the test. Does not that line stop us cold? I wonder how the God I know to be loving and gracious would want to test me.
What to make of one of the most shocking stories in the Bible? On the one hand scholars urge us to hear this story as a “test of faith.” They say that God did not want a human sacrifice; Scripture scholars suggest that the story was actually meant to discourage Israel from the child sacrifices carried out by their neighbors. The key lies in God’s words to Abraham: “I know now how devoted you are to God.” But what kind of God would subject a person to such a test? We hear nothing of Abraham’s feelings; he almost mechanically took Isaac up the mountain and had the knife out and ready. Yet as we hear this story, we are full of emotional tension, even horror. This is a story that strains any confidence we might have in a loving God. Why would a good and gracious God order Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, “your only one, whom you love,” the miracle child, the promise, the cherished gift? Could any mother or father imagine a test that would require the sacrifice of one of their daughters or sons. That test seems like one that every parent would fail. Why call for the offering of the child who embodied God’s earlier promise. Why? How do you respond to these questions?
Of course, Abraham is spared from carrying out the act by a heavenly angel of the Lord. But that doesn’t make the plot any less troubling. It seems almost wicked that God would play such games with us.
But the story makes plain that Abraham believes that God is trustworthy. The issue is Abraham’s state of mind: if he truly believes the word of God, then he knows with utter conviction that “God will provide.” That is not just a statement to quiet the inquisitive Isaac. Abraham has learned to trust the promise of God where previously he could not believe that he would have descendants, so he had a child by Sarah’s slave woman. He, indeed, believes that Isaac is God’s promise of future generations. In faith, Abraham is certain even without understanding that, “Even if he dies, he shall live.”
If a person believes that God is good and will keep his promises, the test is not as cruel or irrational as first thought. What is more, this story concerns more than Isaac’s death. Will you or I ever hear God make that demand of us? The Scripture is not really talking about the test of Abraham but about the test that God will give to you! For that in fact is what it is! It is about the temptation… the test of us all.
Each of us is required to make Abraham’s sacrifice. Abraham would easily have placed his body on the altar. But it was the willing sacrifice of his own deepest hopes and ambitions, having trust that God would somehow make all things right, that was asked by God.
Let’s concretize this with a recreation of the Abraham story. A young couple gets pregnant. They should be excited, but the timing is bad. They are both in college and had not planned on starting a family for another two or three years. They don’t know how they are going to be able to continue their plans. Still, they are people who have a living faith in God. This certainly derails their plans. Yet, they know that somehow or other God will provide for the family and they believe that God evidently had something different in mind for them than they had for themselves. Their baby is a child not just of their love but also of their faith. The child is brought into the world as a child of faith and raised as a child whose life reflects his parents’ faith. This child becomes a person whose very existence witnesses trust in God. The question is raised in the minds of others, “Can I put my life into the hands of God as this beautiful couple did? Others learn to trust God.
We all must face the inevitability of letting go our most beloved person, task, accomplishment, joy. Everything dear to us, everything given to us by God is subject to death. We are invited to believe beyond the sacrifice of everything.The essence of the story is this: Is God good? And will God keep his promises? Abraham is our father in faith because he embodies the final act of faith that all of us must make. We all face the sacrifice. We all stand before the frightening relinquishment of everything we hold most dear. “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” The promise to us is life and life to the full. Do I believe as I climb a mountain of sacrifice?
Fr. Ken Forster OMI
Associate Pastor St. Philip Neri Parish
306 715 5064