Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

March 16, 2003

(Another homily composed and never given! The last time it was a snow storm; this time I discovered -- right after the Gospel -- that it was the deacons' turn to preach!)

(Based on Genesis 22:1-18; PS 116:10-19; Romans 8:31-34; Mark 9:2-10)

"Out of the cloud came a voice: 'this is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.' Suddenly looking around they no longer saw anyone with them -- only Jesus."

I the two main readings in today's liturgy the church inserts us into two of the most dramatic and gripping scenes in all of Scripture.

We've heard the story of Abraham's call to sacrifice his son Isaac many times, and even though we know the ending, that the boy will not be killed by his father, the event still grips our hearts. The details are powerful: the wood for the altar, the knife raised up, and

(a detail dropped out of the text by the creators of the lectionary) the plaintive question of the young boy as he climbs the mountain with his father: "Father, where is the sheep for the holocaust?"

We hear that naive inquiry much as we might hear a young girl or boy today at a funeral, asking a parent, "Where has Grandma gone? Why is she in that box?"

On a sheerly human level we have to ask "How could Abraham do such a thing? To kill his own son?" And on a theological level the enormity grows even greater, for Isaac is the only one through whom God's promise to Abraham can be fulfilled. God had said Abraham's offspring would be as numerous as the sands on the seashore or the stars in the sky. But without Isaac, the only child, there could be no further family. God has made a promise and is now asking Abraham to destroy t. avenue of its fulfillment.

We read at the beginning of the story: "Abraham set out." These are the same words from the first Abraham story, when he was called to leave the land of his ancestors and strike out for a totally unknown country and future. The words bespeak intention and commitment -- but the only answer he can give to Isaac's question is "God himself will provide the sheep for the holocaust."

There is a promise. And I have made a commitment, I have said yes. But I don't know how it can be. . . .

Then when we turn to the Gospel we have this incredible -- momentary -- opening up, or revelation, or manifestation, or insight. A brief glimpse or peek into who this Jesus might be.

Last week we saw him weak and wrestling with his demons in the desert, resisting the temptation to spectacular displays of his power. He was wrestling with alternative models of what it might mean to be messiah.

And today for a brief instant they see him as the equal of Moses and Elijah.

After 2000 years of Christina history we have to work to appreciate how shocking a thing this would be for a Jew of that time. To be the equal of Moses! It's almost blasphemy.

And the revelation goes much farther, recalling the experience of his baptism: "My Son, my beloved!" And the simple command: listen to him.

And after all that comes the most striking feature of all. When they turn to listen to him, they saw -- "only Jesus."

There was the same Jesus who walked up the mountain with them. Ordinary, no haloes, no dramatic flashes, no 'special effects'. None of the pyrotechnics whose dangers we have been painfully reminded of recently. And then there is the Jesus who comes down the mountain with them. Only Jesus.

This is the one they are told to listen to. As he is, in his ordinariness. This is the one who is beloved of the Father. He is that now, as he walks with them, and eats with them, and gets tired with them, and is frustrated by them.

He is that, the beloved, already, but you will only understand that when he is "risen from the dead." And what could that possibly mean? It's easy to imagine them days and weeks afterwards moving apart from the rest of the apostles and debating among themselves, trying to puzzle the meaning.

It is apparent that in a very short time, perhaps this week, we will all begin to experience death in many forms.

We may know young men or women who will be risking their lives in the desert or the back streets of Baghdad. We may know some of those who will die. And every military person who has seen combat will tell us that we can never appreciate how horrible that experience is.

At a deeper level we will experience another death: the death of a dream that humans can be better, that we can resolve our conflicts without recourse to violence. Pope John Paul puts it very simply:"war is always a sign of failure." A failure of the potential that does lie within us as children of a creator's power. A failure to live up to God's dream for us.

We, you and I, are Isaac, asking where is the sheep for the holocaust; we are Peter and James and John wondering what "to rise from the dead" might mean for us and our world. We have participated in our national dialogue and debate -- perhaps more fully as a people than ever in our history before a momentous choice. Some have marched and written letters. All have surely prayed to be spared the scourge of war. Some will experience the death of despair because our God seems not be listening and seems not to care.

Now we must all be Abraham, setting out. Believing that God will provide but not knowing how.

And we must ask to be Paul, to have the clarity and conviction with which he writes to the Romans:

"For I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, no height or depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.