My dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
Grace and Peace in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit who calls us this week to the mountain be with you all. Last week, Fr. Ev very eloquently walked us through that place of testing that is the desert. He reminded us that each of us walk through the desert in one way or another in our daily lives. The desert is a rough place to have to walk. And Lent is nothing if not a desert. Yet, this week, I was relieved to hear that my readings were the mountain, the place of encounter with God. The mountain is where Moses encountered God in the form of the burning bush. The mountain is where, upon his return from Egypt having freed the people of Israel from slavery, God gave them the law. The mountain is where Solomon built the temple, that perennial place of encounter with God for our Jewish brothers and sisters. And, yet, there is a tradition about the place where Solomon built the temple, a tradition that this place was also the scene of the first reading, the sacrifice of Isaac.
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is, for me, one of the most perplexing stories about God in the Old Testament. In order to test the father, you order him to kill his son. What was God trying to test in Abraham? His faith? I’d think there are better ways to test Abraham’s faith than telling him to kill Isaac. Try not hanging around for a while and see if he still acts like you matter, that’s what God did with Christian mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Calcutta. That can’t be right. Was he trying to test his trust? Abraham was a man who went for a very long time without having children. He trusted when God told him that he would be the father of many generations of believers. Abraham was nothing if not a person of faith and trust. What about his obedience? That seems more plausible, given the particular test that is offered. And, yet, I can’t help but feel that there is a more sane way of doing this than offering first-born sacrifice. I know that, if a father today were to approach me with the same assertion that Abraham is making in the first reading that God told him to kill his first-born son, I would be certain of one thing: God did not do that. God doesn’t want us to kill. God doesn’t need us to kill to show our obedience. God gave us life and wants us to live. So, what is happening here?
The question that surround this story is shared by our Jewish and our Muslim friends, by the way, though I suspect the conclusion we come to is slightly different than theirs. One thing we do know is that first-born sacrifice was much more common at the time of Abraham and Isaac than it was at the time of Christ and certainly than it is now. Most of the peoples surrounding Abraham and his tribe would have sacrificed their first-born son to appease gods. So, part of what his happening here is an open declaration that human sacrifice is not going to have a place with the followers of the one true God. And, yet, I couldn’t help but notice something from our Christian perspective that caught my ear. Isaac is called, “your only one, whom you love” which is kind of weird because Abraham had another son by his maid named Ishmael and, as any father will tell you, he probably loved both Isaac and Ishmael, even is his older son was a bit wild. It makes you wonder if Sarah had some kind of suspicion about Abraham’s intentions Such a suspicion, in fact, that she followed them up the mountain and hid behind a rock pretending to be God. Probably not but that would be a better sitcom explanation. As Christians, we hear this phrase “whom you love” and the phrase from the gospel, “my beloved Son” and we hear a connecting identifier, beloved. Both sons are loved by their father. Both sons are ordered by God to be sacrificed, Isaac to test his father’s obedience and Jesus to free the world from its sin. And, yet, even as we set up this comparison, we can hear our own hypocrisy. We cannot understand why God would order the death of Isaac and call it off at the last minute and we spend millennia trying to understand it. Yet, when God’s son was sent before humans to be judged, we had no clemency. Humanity collectively shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” We needed Christ’s sacrifice because of our own iniquities, the beloved for the sake of those who forgot how to love.
On this Lenten mountain, we once again encounter the God who gave his life for us out of love, the just for the sake of the unjust. Let us remember that, all our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is intended to make us more loving, intended to give us a heart closer to the beloved who gave his life for us.