Sunday, 18 March 2012

Lent Week 4 Sunday B -- 18 March 2012

Readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Ps 136/137; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21

The strange stories of the early books of the Bible – Moses being attacked (Exodus 4), Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32), Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac, his only and beloved son (Genesis 22) - are strange, primitive stories and yet still speak to us of the mystery, we might even say the darkness, of God, perhaps speak more tellingly than texts we would regard as less crude and less strange. The earliest of them, the story of Abraham, comes back into play in the gospels and in the New Testament generally – as Paul, in Romans 8, says ‘God (who spared the son of Abraham is implied) did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all’.

John 3.16 is the heart of the gospel and it is in the passage we read today. We see it advertised frequently at sporting events, concerts, parades, and processions. It speaks about God giving over his only Son out of love for the world. ‘Only children’ and ‘only sons’ are mentioned in the Bible from time to time, almost always (there is just one exception) with reference to the death of the only child or only son – Jephthah’s daughter; three children in Luke’s gospel whom Jesus brings back from the dead; the prophets talking about the mourning for an only child as the deepest and most poignant kind of mourning.

Most significant of these only children is Isaac, the only son whose footsteps Jesus re-traces as he carries the wood for the sacrifice and moves off towards the mountain on which it is to be offered. And the prophet, talking about a fountain being opened in the heart of Jerusalem, and a pierced one on whom people will gaze, and a mourning as for an only son – in John’s account of the passion, on Good Friday, we will hear of this prophecy being fulfilled, as they open his side from which blood and water flow, as they gaze on the one whom they have pierced, at the Only Son of God.

There was a belief among the Rabbis that the faith of Abraham shown in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, was the reason for the sending of the Messiah. The sending of the Messiah was God's reward for Abraham’s faith. A connection between Isaac, the only son who is bearer of the promise, and Jesus, the only Son in whom the promise is fulfilled, is found all through the New Testament. The first Christians, Jews most of them, shared this rabbinic theological expectation, that the coming of the Christ could be linked to the faith of Abraham shown in his readiness to sacrifice his only son.

Hence the text in Romans already mentioned, ‘God did not spare his own Son’, and the text in Galatians where on one page Paul says that the promise was to Abraham’s offspring (singular), and this is Christ, and on the next page says that the promise is also ‘for us’. In Hebrews we read that ‘by faith Abraham was ready to offer up his only son considering that God was able to raise men even from the dead and he did receive him back figuratively speaking’: ‘the figurative anticipation is now really fulfilled in the resurrection’ is what seems to be meant. Luke, as already mentioned, tells us that three children restored to life by Jesus were only children. But he also, in the great prayers of the father of John the Baptist and of the mother of Jesus, tells us that what is happening through these (only) children is God fulfilling his promise to Abraham and to his posterity.

And then in his writings, at key points in the gospel, and in his first letter, John speaks about Jesus as ‘the only son’ – in the gospel passage we read today, in the prologue where he speaks about the glory of an only son from the Father, one who is in the bosom of the Father and so can make him known. Wherever John makes mention of the only son it is in relation to the love of God and the sacrifice of Christ.

The Church recommends that the account of the sacrifice of Isaac should be read at the Easter Vigil. So we continue to see this link between the two only sons. The promise to Abraham that through his posterity all the nations of the earth would be blessed, has been fulfilled, we believe, in Jesus Christ who is the posterity of Abraham.

As we move into the second half of Lent we become, more and more, simply onlookers, spectators. We have been participants, doing our bit of fasting, praying, and almsgiving, but now we stand and watch as a drama is enacted which in one sense does not involve us and yet is all about us. It is a drama involving the Father and the Son, their love and their life, displayed for us to see. It is, says Saint John, all about the glory of an only Son, full of grace and truth, come from the bosom of the Father, to make God known to us who have never seen God.

The first reading speaks of God’s exasperation as he hands his temple and the holy city over to the armies of Israel’s enemies. But then he restores them through Cyrus, king of Persia. The cycle of infidelity and restoration continues all through the history of Israel until finally God sent his beloved Son. He sent him while we were dead through our sins, as the second reading puts it, to bring us to life with Christ, raising us up with him.

That lifting up of us by God’s grace is the ‘aftershock’, the enduring effect, of the lifting up of the Son of Man. It is the radiance of the glory of the crucified Lord who is the only Son from the Father, the one who continues to reveal to the world that God is love.

No comments: