Summary: Jesus died to fulfill the covenant God made with Abraham.
2nd Sunday of Lent 2009
What Hath God Wrought?
Let’s get the question the disciples asked out of the way first: what does rising from the dead mean? It means you first have to be dead. But why, we might ask, did Jesus, pure and sinless and powerful, have to die?
Some Protestant divines have explained it like this–all of us are sinners. All of us have offended God. We deserve the death penalty for our sins of blasphemy, fornication, abortion, contraception, and for disrespecting our parents and cheating on our taxes and all the rest. Jesus loved us so much that He took our place and suffered the death sentence Himself to placate an angry God.
Now that makes me very grateful to Jesus, but it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth for the Father. Coupled with this reading from Genesis, where God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, it makes the Father look like a bloodthirsty tyrant. In fact, Richard Dawkins and other half-baked atheists have made millions of dollars pointing that out. But that’s not right. God constantly tells us in OT and New that He is a loving God, full of compassion and mercy and forgiveness. So why doesn’t God just accept our repentance, forgive us and let us go on our way.
Why did Jesus have to die? The real problem here is that God is the perfection of mercy, but He is also the perfection of justice. Some satisfaction has to be made for sin. Some penalty must be paid. And here the OT can help us out, but only if we understand the three covenants with Abraham, the three covenants really with all of mankind.
A covenant is a family agreement. There are covenants all over the ancient middle east, usually made between a great king and a lesser king–like the king of Egypt and the king of Israel. The first two kinds of covenant are easy to understand. Number one is made after the little dog rolls over and does homage to the big dog. All the obligations are on the little guy–pay an annual tax, give your daughter to the other king for his harem, set up his god in your temple–whatever the big dog wanted. And if the little dog broke the covenant, there were covenant curses and he had to pay the price for backing out. All the obligations were on one party, and all the curses as well. Usually the curse included a death penalty.
The second kind of covenant was made when each party had something the other wanted–a trade route, a particular mineral, protection from other nations. Each king made promises and both of them understood that breaking the deal would bring a curse, and often it meant severe penalties up to and including somebody’s death.
God and Abraham made both of these kinds of covenant with each other. Abraham promised to worship and follow the one God in a day in which his ancestors and everyone else worshiped many false gods. In turn, God changed his name from Abram to Abraham and promised he would become the father of a multitude of nations (Gn 17:5-7), and the land of Canaan. At the age of 99, Abraham received the promise that his 90 year old wife would bear a son, and she did. This son, Isaac, is the young man in today’s story. For some reason Abraham’s key line responding to Isaac’s question about what would be sacrificed is not read here, but Abraham said: “God will provide himself the lamb for a holocaust, my son.” And so he did.
But that was not the end, and even saving Isaac from a horrible death was not the end. Because Abraham did everything God had requested, or was willing to give up even his one son, God made a special covenant, a “gift” covenant. In a gift covenant, the great king makes all the promises, and takes on all the curses. God took on Himself the curse of death if either party forsook the covenant.
And that’s exactly what happened. Look at the history of Isaac, Jacob, who was called Israel–the guy who constantly battled God is what that name means. God’s people were supposed to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth. They were supposed to draw the pagans to worship the one true God. Instead, over and over they profaned their land with idolatry, prostitution, injustice, even human sacrifice. They adopted the abominations of the nations instead of converting them. In Jesus’s day, they even converted the place in the Temple where the Gentiles were supposed to worship into a banking center and poultry counter. No wonder Jesus drove them out!
You see, God loved us so much that he fulfilled the promise of the gift covenant. He wouldn’t violate the terms of the agreements he had made with Abraham, Isaac and Israel. It was their descendants who acted like jerks, like disobedient kids. God could not die, so the Son of God, the very second person of the Trinity, became human and died to pay the price of our covenant betrayal.