A lamp shining in a dark place

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2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B: March 4, 2012
Gen 22:1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Ps 116; Rom 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10

Surely the most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16. Seen on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and banners at televised sporting events, it reads: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” It is famous because it encapsulates so much of the Gospel: the immense love of God the Father; shown in his gift of God the Son, Jesus Christ; for the purpose of drawing us to eternal life.

And St. Paul echoes this in our second reading, from his letter to the Romans, when he asks: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?” It is a message of hope; a message of faith. That, no matter what opposition and enemies and burdens and obstacles we might face, none of that can separate us from the love of God; none of that can separate us from the Father’s loving care.

Now, some of you might be thinking: “That’s easy to say if you’ve lived a sheltered and simple life. But that’s not my life. It’s not my past; and it’s not my present. I don’t know if I can depend on the care of God in the tough moments of my life. I can only depend on myself.”

It’s hard to believe and feel that way: bruised, dried out, abandoned. Our Lord Jesus wants to gently heal us and lead us to the same trust in the Father that he knew in his earthly life. And our other two Scripture readings today show us what it is like to trust God, even in tough times.

The first reading is perhaps the most dramatic story in the life of Abraham, some 4000 years ago—for the Lord tells him to offer his only son, Isaac, as a holocaust, a burnt offering. What a terrible thing to ask a father to do—to kill his own son! And Abraham knew that this contradicted what he knew of the Lord—for the Lord wouldn’t ask for human sacrifice.

But it was also a contradiction on an even deeper level. For the Lord had promised Abraham that he would be the “father of a multitude of nations,” (Gen 17:4) and that his descendants would be like the stars (Gen 15:5). Isaac was the son through whom all these descendants would come! And now the same God who made the promise was asking him to sacrifice the one through whom the promise was to be fulfilled. It made no sense!

But Abraham had learned something along the way. He had learned to see, by faith, more than meets the eye. For he had waited many years for that promise to be fulfilled—as he and his wife Sarah got older, well past childbearing age. And they thought, “Maybe we have our own idea of how to make this promise happen: Abraham can have a child with Sarah’s servant Hagar.” And he did—but that plan, their plan, didn’t work out well; it only caused problems. When the Lord revealed that he intended Abraham to have a child with Sarah, they both laughed. It was ridiculous! But he did it! And thus was born Isaac, their son.

So what had Abraham learned? That the Lord could do what seemed completely impossible. And that Abraham’s own ideas about how to carry out the Lord’s promises, instead of waiting on the Lord, didn’t work out so well. Abraham had learned these lessons.

And so, when the Lord asked for Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham didn’t hesitate; he didn’t question; he didn’t bargain. Rather, he set out with Isaac to do what the Lord had commanded. When Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” he replied, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Gen 22:7-8) And he knew he would, somehow. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead.” (Heb 11:19)

Through his experience of God’s faithfulness and love over those years, Abraham had moved from suspicion to faith, from despair to hope, from anxiety to trust; from relying on himself to relying on God. And, through growing in this way, he had become like God the Father—who, 2000 years later, also would not spare his own Son but would hand him over for us all.

And it was for the difficulty of that handing over that that Son, our Lord Jesus, wanted to build up a faith like Abraham’s in his own disciples. For he had told them that he would have to suffer greatly and be rejected and be killed, and that they too would have to take up their own cross and lose their lives for his sake. (Mark 8:31, 34-35) They hadn’t taken it very well! They needed a gift to build up their faith.

And so he took Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. And he showed them his heavenly glory, in a way they could see with their own eyes. And they saw Moses and Elijah with him, those giants of the faith representing the Law and the Prophets, the whole heritage of the People of Israel, testifying to Jesus. And the cloud that signaled God’s presence overshadowed them, and they heard the voice of the Father: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

They would need that. When Jesus was captured, scourged and beaten, bruised and bloody, and at last dead upon the cross—they needed to remember that glory that they had seen. As St. Peter would write later, they needed to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawned and the morning star rose in their hearts (2 Pet 1:19). They needed to be able to see, in faith, more than meets the eye.

And so it is with us. It is not likely that Christ will lead us through a peaceful, protected life—but through tests, through storms, through battles. But in the midst of that darkness, he gives us lamps to hold onto. And so I ask you: Do you have such a lamp? Have you experienced in the past moments like the Transfiguration, that revealed to you the love of Christ, the power of Christ, the faithfulness of Christ, for you? If you haven’t, ask him to reveal this to you. If you have, take time to go back regularly and gaze upon it in mind and heart, as to a lamp shining in a dark place. That gift was for Abraham, that gift was for the disciples, that gift is for you now—to be able to trust the love of the Father, and the faithfulness of Christ.

St. Paul, right after our reading today, continues (Rom 8:35, 37):

What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? … No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.

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