Sunday Reflections
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Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18 Romans 8:31b-34 Mark 9:2-10
For the ancients, divine worship was enhanced when performed on a mountain top or in another “high place” or on “a height.” Both today’s Old Testament lesson and Gospel narrative are set on mountain tops as a way of indicating the nearness of the human actors to God on high. The name of “the land of Moriah” in Genesis remains a mystery, except that in 2nd Chronicles it was one name given to the mountain (usually called Mt. Zion) on which the Jerusalem Temple was then located. However, it is very likely that 2nd Chronicles was written before the final form of Genesis, so this might well be an anachronism (a name or idea read backwards through time into an earlier story from a later era) along with an attempt to theologically connect Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac to the sacred place of God’s Holy of Holies in Temple Judaism. For Abraham, this theophanic encounter (one among many) was remarkably dramatic and tense. A ominous tone was set in the opening line, “God put Abraham to the test.” Some verses have been omitted so the dialogue between Abraham and young Isaac is not heard here, but it is the manifestation of God in the actions of Abraham which make this narrative especially important. God’s great affection for both Abraham and Isaac are clear in spite of the harshness of the test. The ultimate resolution of how to worship God by offering Isaac up as a holocaust (i.e., the offering of a sacrificial victim whole in fire) is actually a rejection of human sacrifice in the evolution of the earliest practices in Jewish worship in the Jewish religious memory centuries later. Human sacrifice was not unusual in the Ancient Near East in the late 3rd and early 2nd Centuries BC. Indeed, it survived well into the 1st millennium BC if the events involving the Jewish prophets are to be trusted. In any event, while the narrative text made it God’s messenger who intervened in the near-sacrifice of Isaac, it was God speaking for himself that reiterated the divine promise of “descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore . . .” This religious memory was a manifestation of God’s great love for Abraham and all that belonged to him. It has some very fine parallels to today’s Gospel narrative: on a high place, the son who would be sacrificed, God’s messengers present, and the very voice of God bestowing divine direction, assurance, and authority.
Mark’s version of the mountaintop Transfiguration theophany will be heard again this year on August 6th, the feast of the Transfiguration. In this story, three of Jesus’ favorite disciples are allowed to witness a theophany as a sign of Jesus’ intimacy with God as the Divine Son. The divine voice from the cloud overshadowing them contains both an acknowledgment and a command. Jesus is declared the Son of God directly by God and the disciples are commanded to “Listen to him.” The intimacy of God with Jesus, the terrifying confusion of the disciples, the apparition of the Moses and Elijah, and the sudden silence are literary devices by which to make the divine revelation of Jesus as God clear, powerful, and memorable. Each of the Synoptic Gospels records the early Church memory of this theophany, even if each is different from the other. For the early Church, the importance of Jesus being divine was crucial because that divinity gave him authority over every human institution and over every religious practice and value. That importance endures today for Gospel believers.
The second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, demands we wrestle with the human temptation to describe God as a controller rather than a loving creator who bestowed freedom and responsibility upon human creatures. It has been amazing all through history that people can profess that “God is love” and at the same time attribute to God all forms of disaster, evil, and such harsh punishment as condemnation people to eternal damnation. Paul, who had been a super-harsh extremist in his earlier life, had experienced the profoundly transforming love of the Risen Christ. He had changed from the hate-filled, murderous, enforcer of religious practice, into an individual who was super-conscious of how fully God had forgiven in him. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” This rhetorical question exudes Paul’s complete confidence that God is indeed for us! This God loves supremely. This divine love is greater than and more important than any question of fairness or justice or the correction of wrong-doing which might ever arise. God’s love is supreme and superlative. It is greater than any evil or sin. Christians would do well to keep this idea in the fore of any argument when evaluating, judging, or tempted to condemn anyone.
Last Sunday’s Cycle B lessons gave an imaginary theological memory from early in the story of Salvation History (the Noah-Flood-Ark story) as well as from the Mark’s account of the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Essentially, these were the beginnings of God’s dynamic power in the world and among the first Gospel disciples respectively. Today’s Old Testament lesson and Gospel narrative are about religious experiences of God’s presence by disciples well into significant relationships with God. Today’s texts appeal to us as well, we who have been members in the Gospel fellowship of the Church for some time. The profound depth of God’s love for us is technically unmeasurable. But, we do have the ability to experience that love. We may be unable to describe it. But, we can pass it along in how we relate to others, both those easy to love and those not so easy to love. We can be open to receiving God’s love from those who try hard to love us, even when we ourselves are not so lovable. But if God offers the divine love to us through others, we must graciously receive and be thankful.
The imperative of the Prophet Joel on Ash Wednesday was “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” In other words, change your lives, not merely your clothes! People who experience God’s love change profoundly, not superficially. People who love much are candidates to experience God’s profound love. Blessed Lent!
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