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Mistakes we humans have made trying to please God

March 1, 2015

2nd Sunday of Lent                                  Sunday 1st March 2015

Genesis 22:1-2,9-13,15-18               Romans 8:31-34                    Mark 9:2-10

The story of Abraham and his son Isaac is shocking. Abraham thinks he is obeying God. The problem is that Abraham, being human, THINKS he knows what God has said, and in his zeal to please God, He misinterprets God’s words, taking the words too literally, and then he tries to shoehorn his mistaken understanding into doing something that would actually produce a dreadful outcome. Human folly.

So how does Abraham get things so wrong? Firstly, he relies on precedent, assuming that the way things have always been done must be the correct way. In his time human sacrifice was common.[1] In his part of the world, for example, people offered their own children in sacrifice to the pagan god Moloch. But this was about to change dramatically for Abraham – the revolutionary idea that human life was sacred starts with today’s story of Abraham and Isaac.

The old way of doing things was no longer appropriate. And so it is that the Hebrew law that came down through Moses is very clear: Israelites are categorically banned from offering human sacrifices.[2]

Secondly, Abraham misunderstands God’s words, by taking them TOO literally.

God put Abraham to the test, saying, ‘Take your son, your only child Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a burnt offering, on a mountain I will point out to you.’

Taken literally, that could mean, ‘Kill your son’. But the text doesn’t say ‘KILL’. It says ‘OFFER him as a holocaust, a burnt offering’. The OFFER was declined by God.

There’s a very important message here for all humanity. If we are to follow what God tells us, it will not be easy; and if we misunderstand what God is telling us, we are going to get into a dreadful mess and the difficulties will get even worse.

If we choose to follow God, WE will be tested, we may be in danger, we may have to risk our lives. But we must trust God to come to save us. To save us. That’s where the word Saviour comes from. Our God, as Jesus Christ, will always be there to rescue us. That’s what it means: Jesus, Saviour of the World.

God saves Abraham from his human folly. God saves Isaac from being killed by his own father. So God saves us from human folly and saves us from death.

These ancient texts are tremendously revealing about God. Studying them and praying through them lead us to the Truth. They offer us reliable guidance, both spiritual guidance and practical guidance.

Let’s briefly ponder on the deeper, less obvious message of this story – the theological meaning. Can you picture Abraham climbing up the mountain, followed by his son Isaac? It’s a struggle. A reflection of human life in general. Striving to reach God. And there’s Isaac, carrying wood so that a sacrifice can be made to honour God. Little Isaac, Abraham’s only son, born of a woman that human understanding said was far too old to have children. Isaac is a beloved, miraculous son. An innocent boy, faithfully following his father.

See where I’m going? This ancient scene of Abraham and Isaac is a glimpse of something even greater that is to come. On the day before His Passion and Death Our Lord, an entirely innocent man, knows what is going to happen to Him, and He is fearful. In the Garden of Gethsemane he falls on His knees in prayer and says, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.’[3] Jesus trusts in God – He follows His Father’s will despite knowing the horror it would entail. He knows God will ultimately save Him. And He then follows His Father up the hill to Calvary, CARRYING WOOD. The cross.

And it is on Calvary that Our Lord offers the ultimate sacrifice to God – His own life. He didn’t have to do it. He freely chose to do it.

Compare that to the story of Abraham and Isaac: God steps in and prevents a father from mistakenly killing his only son, with all the pain and suffering that would bring to Abraham’s family. Yet, as St Paul tells us today, ‘God did not spare his own Son’. Our Father in heaven willing endures the horrendous death of His own miraculous son, the one born of a Virgin, His beloved son Jesus Christ, in order to break once and for all the power of death over humanity.

And we commemorate and celebrate that remarkable sacrifice of God’s only Son at every single Mass….

“Pray, my brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.”

Ponder, meditate, marvel, be inspired by these holy words every time we hear them. And recognise the very serious commitment we are making in the words we all say in reply, words that are not to be taken lightly.

The familiar story of the Transfiguration is another supernatural event, allowing Jesus’ disciples a glimpse of heaven, a sign of future glory for Jesus. This was to build up their faith before the transient horrors that were to come soon after when Jesus was arrested.

And just like Abraham, the first Pope, Saint Peter misunderstands the significance of the Transfiguration. Where is Peter going wrong? He is feeling the human urge to “do” something. Without thinking about it, he assumes that the way things have always been done must be the right thing to do. Peter, in awe at what is happening, wants to celebrate the most important holy day of the Jewish calendar, Sukkot or the Festival of Tabernacles. To this day devout Jews build and live in temporary tents or booths once a year to mark their ancestors’ 40 years in the wilderness. It is a period of anticipation of God returning to redeem, to save, Israel; and the Jews believe the arrival of the Messiah will be heralded by the return of Elijah. Peter already knows Jesus as the Messiah – the Transfiguration confirms it – but Peter wants to cling to the past by making tents. But things have moved on. The waiting is over; there is no need to celebrate Sukkot any more. Instead, God’s protective cloud descends on them – the same protective cloud of God that descended on the people of Israel when they were in the desert. And then the words: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ And as we hear in the gospel, they do indeed listen to Jesus. Interestingly, we are told that they discuss among themselves to understand the meaning of what Jesus had told them.

And so to a reminder of how we can apply these lessons in a very practical way.

At 7pm this Tuesday evening we shall be meeting in the Church Hall to discuss among ourselves how we should, as a Parish, come to a better understanding of what God wants for His Holy Catholic Church, faced by some very pressing, difficult issues – issues effecting virtually all of our families. How are we, the Catholic Church, to engage and embrace those amongst us, those estranged from us, those angry with us, who are divorced, separated, gay, living with partners and struggling in relationships.

We must not assume that the way we have always done things in the correct way. We must LISTEN to God. We need to ask God in prayer for guidance, and then we must LISTEN very carefully. Then, just as Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel, we must discuss together what these things mean.

It may be that, like Abraham, like St Peter, we have foolishly fallen into the trap of misinterpreting what God has to say to us on; or we may have clung unnecessarily to the way we have always done things in the mistaken belief that this will please God. Or, maybe, just maybe, despite all the pain and anguish, everything is fine and the way we respond to those who do not 100% follow the letter of the Church law is entirely justified.

This is what we’ll be talking about. Please come and take part. Your experiences, your prayers, your insights and understanding – we need to hear from you. Single, married, separated, widowed, young people, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters. All of us are fully entitled to be heard.

On Tuesday evening we are going to journey together, guided by the Holy Spirit, the cloud of God that descends upon us, to come to a better understanding of what God wants of us in this world. And we will do it in the way the Church has always been guided throughout its existence – by trusting in God, placing ourselves in His hands, and doing what he wills. Amen.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger (1977) The God of Jesus Christ p. 54

[2] Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:2–5

[3] Matthew 26:39

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