Summary: The story of Abraham's call from God to sacrifice his only son, the son of the promise, can be confusing if we don't see the larger picture of God's love for humans.
2nd Sunday in Lent 2021
Imagine a young man, maybe eleven or twelve, picking up the Bible and reading this story of Abraham and his only son, Isaac. If he’s read the chapters leading up to this scene, he knows that Abraham and Sarah were promised a son by God, and that after decades of waiting, Sarah conceived and bore Isaac, the son of promise. So he was dad’s pride and joy and hope for future progeny. And here is the same God, Lord of the universe, telling the man who has always obeyed Him, always done His will, to go off and murder and immolate Isaac in a horrendous human sacrifice. Wouldn’t that just totally confuse the young reader? It sure did that to me sixty years ago. A surface reading of the story leads to the conclusion that God has some sort of emotional or mental illness, giving this old couple a son and then demanding homicide. What kind of loving God is that?
So let’s get into context. The Scriptures frequently have more than one layer of meaning, and this chapter of Genesis certainly does. Last week we heard Mark’s brief account of Jesus being driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. The war began immediately after God’s declaration that He was His beloved Son. And Jesus won. That reminds us of another battle between man and Satan, right at the beginning of the human story. Adam and Eve lost that temptation, disobeyed God, and were driven out of God’s garden. No more paradise for them or their descendants. Jesus defeated Satan right from the start of His ministry, and after His passion, death and Resurrection, opened paradise, first for the good thief, and then, if we do as He teaches, for the rest of us.
Adults with a few years of experience know that our real problem is not some viral infection, or the loss of a job or high taxes or who runs the government. The real problem is missing out on our goal, our God-ordained destiny of eternal happiness with Him, because of mortal sin. God gives us a few good rules for our own benefit, and we prove ourselves children of Adam and Eve by disobeying them. Those rules boil down to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for love of God. We selfishly see that getting in the way of some pleasure or honor or our business or politics and tell God “no I won’t.” And almost immediately have cause to regret our decision.
Abraham and Sarah consistently did the opposite. God asked them to leave the fertile ancestral home and go into the desert to find a new home in Palestine. They did it. God made promises of land and many descendants, if they would obey some simple rules. They did it. God promised Abraham and Sarah a son, and they believed Him, and Isaac was born nine months later when Abraham was already a hundred years old. That bring us to today’s reading. God told Abraham to take his only son, his beloved, and offer him up. And Abraham obeyed. And, notably, Isaac did not resist. He surely could have, at the age of twelve or thirteen, overpowered a man of a hundred and twelve. But God did not require a completion of the act. He gave a lamb as a substitute. God swore an oath that not only would Isaac be the father of uncounted people, when any nation would be blessed, the blessing would be “may you be blessed by God as the nation of Abraham and Isaac.”
In the midst of what had to be a terrible emotional crisis, Abraham kept faith with God, and look around at his reward. Everyone hearing this is a spiritual descendant of Abraham, because we have faith in God’s promise as he did. And we offer God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
So God spared Abraham’s son, but, as St. Paul writes, He did not spare His own Son, Jesus. He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten into the hands of men, who murdered Him and unintentionally set Him on the path to Resurrection. By His grace we look forward to our own Resurrection into eternal life and joy. That’s the kind of loving God we worship.
The Transfiguration of Jesus, witnessed by Peter, James and John, is a kind of foretaste for them of Christ’s glorification. They needed to see Jesus in glory on a mountain between two revered teachers of Israel so they could look beyond Jesus in misery crucified on a mountain between two criminals. And we need to envision that scene every year because we need to hear the Father’s voice. Thus we can understand the price paid for our redemption, and respond by listening to Jesus and obeying Him.