Sunday, 11 March 2018

Lent Week 4 Sunday (Year B)

Readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Psalm ; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21

There are some very strange stories in the early books of the Bible. Exodus 4 tells us that God attacked Moses in order to kill him.  Genesis 32 tells us that Jacob wrestled with God through the night, emerging alive but wounded from the experience. Genesis 22 contains what some regard as the strangest story of all: God tests Abraham, asking him to sacrifice Isaac, his only and beloved son, the bearer of the promise. They are strange, primitive stories, each one more bizarre than the next, and they evoke the mystery, we can even say, the darkness of God. They remind us of God's strange reality, speaking more powerfully of God's otherness than the many texts about God's actions that are less crude, less strange.

The story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice Isaac has a central place in the New Testament, in the liturgy of the Church, and in the thinking of Christian philosophers like Kierkegaard. Paul tells us in Romans 8 that God did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all, unlike Isaac, the son of Abraham, who at the last moment was spared.

There was a belief among the Rabbis that the faith of Abraham was the reason for the sending of the Messiah, that the Messiah was a reward for Abraham’s faith. Or, in some Hebrew traditions, it was seen as a reward for Isaac's faith, if he was indeed an adult who also consented to the strange sacrifice. 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. In other words the first Christians, Jews most of them, shared this theological expectation, that the coming of the Christ was linked to the faith of Abraham shown in his being prepared to sacrifice his only son.

So Paul in Romans 8, as already mentioned, says that ‘God did not spare his own Son …’. In Galatians he speaks again of Abraham saying that the promise was to Abraham’s offspring in the singular, and this is Christ, and a bit later saying that the promise is also ‘for us’, the offspring of Abraham in the plural.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, written by another great New Testament theologian, we read that ‘by faith Abraham was ready to offer up his only son considering that God was able to raise people even from the dead and he did receive him back figuratively speaking’. The figurative anticipation of resurrection seen in Isaac being restored to his father is now really fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Luke tells us that three children restored to life by Jesus were 'only children', and the great prayers of Luke's gospel spoken by Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and by Mary, the mother of Jesus, both say that what is happening through these children of promise is God fulfilling his ancient promise to Abraham and to his posterity.

So for Paul, for Hebrews, for Luke, the story of Abraham's only son is central. And at key points in the gospel of John also, as well as in his first letter, Jesus is described as ‘the only son’. The gospel passage we read today is considered by many to be the heart of the gospel: 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him might not be lost but might have eternal life'. In the prologue to John's gospel we hear about the glory of the only son from the Father, one who is in the bosom of the Father and so can make him known. Wherever in the writings of John we find the phrase 'only son', it is always 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, through the liturgy, to meditate on this link between the two only Sons, on the link between the faith of Abraham and the gift of the Messiah. The promise to Abraham that through his only son Isaac, all the nations of the earth would be blessed, is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham and the Only Son from the Father in whom all the nations of the earth are indeed blessed.

As we move through the second half of Lent we are, more and more, simply onlookers. 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 in another sense is crucial for 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, a drama that reveals the glory of Jesus as the 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. From the fulness of this glory we continue to receive, grace upon grace.

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