The Church’s first scripture is from the Old Testament Book of Genesis, the first text of the Bible. The purpose of the Book of Genesis is to present stories of origin, beginnings- of creation, of humanity, and God’s chosen people- the Israelites.
Today’s story from the Book of Genesis is, I think, best described as a tale of terror. God tests the faith of Abraham, the progenitor of the Israelites, by insisting that the patriarch offer to him as a sacrifice his son, his beloved son, Isaac. Abraham passes the test and in the last moment Isaac is spared.
What are we to make of this?
Saints, sages and scholars have racked their brains for centuries over this story, this tale of terror.
First, the story is what is called an etiological text, which means it describes how a particular and significant cultural reality emerges- in this case, why it was that the Israelites rejected a practice that was established in many cultures- the practice of human sacrifice to God or the gods. The meaning of the Genesis story is that God desires an act of faith, but not an act of human sacrifice, which is precisely how the story concludes. It is off putting for us to consider that humans ever believed that God desired killing another human being in order to please him, but it is true, and one of the great distinctions of Biblical religion, displayed in this story from the Book of Genesis, is how the Israelites came to understand that human sacrifice was not something God wanted us to do. In this respect the frightening story of Abraham’s sacrifice is meant to be read a subversive tale, simultaneously acknowledging God’s right to give life and take life, while at the same time indicating that the worship we will institute, while demanding a sacrifice, will not be a cult of human sacrifice. Again, while this will not seem to us as an extraordinary revelation, it was for the ancient Israelites and the fact that they worshipped a God that did not desire that they murder their children was strange to other culture’s that did- and in the ancient world there were many!
Second, the story is not simply about Abraham and Isaac, but it’s depth of meaning is revealed in Christ. The story is about God, with Abraham as a stand in for God the Father and Isaac as a stand in for God the Son- Christ. The demand of sacrifice is the demand of love, willingly accepted by Christ (Isaac). The story prefigures or foreshadows the Incarnation- God who in Christ and for the sake of his love for his creation, accepts a human nature as his own and lives, like us, a real, human life.
This dramatic revelation will inevitably lead to suffering and death, yet God accepts this, why? Because God desires a relationship with the totality of who we are, which means the totality of our humanity and to be human is to be mortal, vulnerable to the raw facts of life- facts like suffering and death. And so, God in Christ accepts the experience of suffering and death for himself, not because he has too, but because he loves what he has created and desires for his creation to know he is with us, not just in some things, not just in things that are emotionally satisfying, but in all things- even the inevitable facts of our existence- suffering and death.
Finally, the story is about the human condition itself and the often pain filled realization that to bring a child into the world is to give life, yes, but it also means that you set that your child on a path that inevitably leads towards death. Again, a harsh truth, a terrifying revelation, definitely not emotionally satisfying, but a necessary fact of human existence that we all must come to terms with, lest we linger in illusions and never come to terms with what is truly at stake in being a parent and how fragile and precious the gift of life we give to our children really and truly is.
Remember, the Bible is not a greeting card, a cartoon fantasy where everything is neatly and easily resolved in the end. The Bible is not a Book of platitudes. The Bible is a Book of Truth- truth about God, about the human condition and when we open up this Book of Truth, it tells us, not what we want to hear, but what is the truth. And it is this fact that makes the Bible so important to us.
Our second scripture for today is an excerpt from an New Testament text, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
The Letter to the Romans is the apostle Paul’s tour de force, his magnum opus where he lays out with as much detail as possible what he believes the Lord Jesus has revealed about God and humanity, particularly the relationship of God and humanity.
God’s revelation in Jesus Christ must, St. Paul believes, change the way we think about God, how we worship, how we understand what God wants and what he wants us to do. As such, no one who gives their life over to Jesus Christ, can do so without the change of mind, of emotions, of will, that is called conversion. Concretely this means that our opinions and feelings about God and what we think is important, what we believe the meaning and purpose of life is, must give way to what God in Christ reveals about such things. To be in relationship with Christ means that we say, as St. Paul did, “it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me”- and if we can say that honestly and with integrity we are saying that it is Christ who is at the center of our lives, not our egos, not our opinions, not our feelings, and further if Christ is at the center of our lives, we will also be willing to say in response to Christ’s revelation- my life is not about me.
In this particular text, St. Paul is reminding us that inasmuch as God has accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real, human life, that he knows first-hand the difficulties we face and the struggles we endure, and because of this fact, we should view our relationship with God as something grim and frightening, but as friend to friend. God in Christ reveals he desires what is good for us, not our destruction and he is willing to suffer and die like us to show us the depth of his desire to save us from our sins, to redeem us from our death.
One day, we will all come face to face with God in Christ. Remember, God in Christ is not an idea or a feeling or cosmic force, but a living divine person, and as such we will meet him person to person and in this encounter with Jesus Christ he will be our judge.
God in Christ is our judge, but his judgement is not arbitrary and capricious accusation, but his judgement is the judgement that tells us our truth, what we have done and what we failed to do, and his purpose in telling us our truth is not to destroy us, but to set us free from the lies that inhibit us from flourishing as God intends.
St. Paul insists that as Christ tells us our truth that we will know that he understands the powers that have weakened us, he will know our fears and the desires that afflicted us. And inasmuch as he has lived as a man, he will understand us, and we will know in this that the truth he tells is not intended for our destruction, but to save and to redeem.
Finally, in his Gospel, the truth of Christ’s identity and mission is displayed to Christ’s disciples- who is Jesus- he is God, God who has accepted a human nature and has lived a real, human life. What is the mission of Jesus? To enter into the fullness of the human nature he has accepted as his own- to go himself into the hardest facts of human existence- to suffer and to die and in doing so demonstrate that neither suffering and death are stronger than his power to redeem us, to save us, to love us as his friends.
The disciples see this, but also fail to fully comprehend it. Why? Because it is a revelation from God, and no revelation from God is ever something easy.
The lesson here is about the Lord Jesus yes, but it is also a reminder to us about what Lent is about. Lent is preparing us to receive and understand the great revelation of God in Christ suffering and dying, a revelation we Christians remember with great solemnity during Holy Week. Lent is not merely a faith- based self-improvement program. Lent is preparing us for the events of Holy Week, where what the disciples of Jesus saw and experienced will be given to us and we, like his first disciples, will have to come to terms with a revelation that is not easy to understand and demands that we change our very lives.