1st Sunday in Lent
Until the last century or so, people expected life to be hazardous. Until relatively recently people simply grew up with the understanding that this world is a dangerous place! We’re the ones, us in this time, who seem so incredibly naïve!
For centuries people did not make the sort of claims that we take for granted. We are the ones who claim the entitlement that our brief time on the stage of history should somehow be painless, that we ought to have a personal exemption from the evils which plagued peoples of past eras.
So these days, when sickness strikes, when natural disaster lays waste to life and limb and property…there is for us this immediate sense of irritated impatience. Blame! Who can we blame for these things? Who among those managing public affairs can we blame for these disasters? Someone has failed us!
Well…in a former time people knew better. Earthquakes happen. You build your house on a fault line…the shifting earth will bring it tumbling down. You build your city below sea level…you’re going to get wet someday. People of the more realistic past had an almost instinctive sense that life is fragile, transient. It passes. They knew that the beauty of life is found in brief moments, not in some overblown illusion of human accomplishment. They in the past knew what we today seem incapable of grasping. The world is not stable. This is not a peaceful home.
So…does that mean that the story of Abraham and Isaac was easier to accept four thousand years ago when it happened? Easier for them than for us? That God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, his only son, whom he loved—that somehow that made sense in a world where tragedies are accepted as normal?
Ah…there is the temptation! It is the temptation to try and make sense of the Abraham and Isaac incident. To understand it. Tame it. Make it safe. How well we have been trained in our day.
But we cannot make sense of Abraham’s test. We cannot explain God. There is no way to make this episode safe or understandable or acceptable.
Which is exactly why we people of faith would be much better served if we spent more time reading about Abraham. Precisely because it is not a tame event, it is all the more important for us people of faith to read it…much better than all those books of religious cotton candy that continue to top the high selling book lists. Those bits of fluff between book covers are written to help us tame God, make Him safe, that He will be our pet. In the story of Abraham, God comes across as our enemy!
Abraham had it good in Haran. The family was already wealthy when Terah, Abraham’s father moved the clan from Ur of the Caldeans to settle in Haran. And that property continued to accumulate in Haran. Then out of the blue God tells Abraham, “Leave your country, your people, your father’s house…and go where I tell you.”
What kind of God would command such a thing? Isn’t God supposed to make you happy? Isn’t God supposed to make you healthy, wealthy and wise; make you significant? What sort of God would command you to leave the place of your health and wealth and wisdom? What sort of God is that? An enemy God?
Instinctively we strive to soften the command of God that Abraham leave his homeland. Make it safe. Make it palatable. Make it nice and religious. Yes, as the book of Genesis records, Abraham believed God—the command and the seven-fold promise. He goes. But it was neither safe nor understandable to do so.
For many people life is a string of injustices. Motives are misunderstood. You do good and reap nothing but trouble for it. Opportunities that ought to open up…do not. Hard work and talent goes unrewarded. Children grow up to be ungrateful after years of parental dedication. A marriage partner deserts. Or, perhaps more cruel, a lifelong search for someone to love goes unrequited.
After years of building up some sort of nest egg, the market or a crooked CEO or a change in governmental regulations…and “poof” it’s gone. Less worthy people (as we consider them) succeed while we do not. It’s not the good, but the well-connected who inherit the earth!
It’s no wonder we shell out millions for superficial religion. Faith is just too hard. A God who will make us happy, that’s understandable. But faith in the God of the Bible…that is neither predictable nor measurable.
I mean, just look at this episode today. Commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son. It’s like Abraham is back at the beginning all over again. Isaac was his son, his only son. Everything that God ever promised rested on that son. It depended on that son. It required that this son grow up to have a family. To sacrifice him? Kill him? Makes no sense. It is an abominable command. It is the voice of an enemy out to destroy Abraham!
Ah, now…that is where faith steps in. What is a person to do when the voice of God, when the actions of God, are those of an enemy? “Abraham, leave your home.” “Abraham sacrifice your son.” What possible sense can be made of that? It’s no wonder we read books with easy answers rather than The Book that takes us where only faith can go.
The Gospel Reading today, St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ temptation, lacks the details of Matthew and Luke. Yet St. Mark includes one detail that none of them do. He shows us faith. It begins with Mark’s favorite word, “Immediately…Immediately the Spirit drove Him out into the wilderness.”
This follows Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River. When Jesus is baptized, “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son; with You I am well-pleased.’ Immediately the Spirit drove Him out into the wilderness.” “Immediately” not simply according to time, but also for faith. “You are My beloved Son,” which means, “immediately You are to be driven into the Satanic wilderness.” What sort of love is that? An enemy’s?
And then from that wilderness of temptation the well-beloved Son is driven on to the cross. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The Father offers up the Son. The greater Isaac is slain. No angel dare stop this Father’s hand. The well-loved Son is killed. “It is finished.”
What sort of God would do that? It is the God who commanded Abraham, “Leave your country and father and house.” The God who commanded Abraham, “Take your only son, whom you love.” It is the God who sounds and acts like an enemy.
But Abraham believed the promise of God, despite the command of God. Despite the command of God, Abraham trusted the promise of God. In the face of God’s dreadful command, Abraham, in faith, trusted those promises all the more. It’s what faith does. As Jesus, in faith, would bring strength out of weakness, glory out of shame, forgiveness out of sin, life out of death. That’s what faith does when it seems that God is our enemy? As Martin Luther once said, “faith trusts God even against God.” In the face of God’s dread command, faith trusts God’s promises.
That’s where we are today. The learned voices tell us that we exist in the middle of a gigantic explosion. The universe is an exploding phenomenon, where ageless time is present in a few seconds of violent chaos as everything moves outward at astonishing speed. Dust gathers and forms shapes. Bits of debris collide.
Some look on this and see only random, purposeless motion. Others, in fear, cannot even think about such things. But faith
—like Abraham’s in the chaos of dreadful Mt. Moriah, like Jesus’ faith in the dark void of Mt. Calvary—faith lives in the middle of an incomprehensible chaos and trusts the promise of God. “The Lord will provide.” “The Lord will provide.”
Faith, like Abraham’s…faith, like Jesus’…faith, like ours, marvels at the sheer wonder and, sometimes, dread of God, the God who…even when He sounds and acts as an enemy…has made us many promises. And it is faith, in those dread moments, faith seizes all the more upon the promises that God has made us…the promises He has made to us in His own Isaac, His beloved Son, Jesus.