Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18 | Philippians 3:17 – 4:1 | Luke 9:28b-36
Oh God who have commanded us to listen to your Beloved Son, be pleased, we pray, to nourish us inwardly by your word that, with spiritual sight made pure, we may rejoice to behold your glory. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
These Sundays of Lent contain the message of God to man in a very, very powerful way, and it makes sense that, since this season was the time that the catechumens would be entering the church, it was their last full instruction as to what they were being baptized into, a great mystery, a mystery that was inviting them to allow something to happen to them that, I think, has been the most difficult part of this covenant, these promises that God made to us. The image in the gospel seems so clear to me, that one of the things that Jesus is intended to do, teach to all of us, is seen clearly for the first time in this mystical experience of these three disciples seeing the body of Jesus transfixed, transformed into the brightest light they’ve ever seen, and to see in this vision two of the most important people from the Old Testament, Moses, who gave the law, Elijah, who represents all the prophets, and they’re conversing. And what happened to the disciples when they saw this, they were completely confused, and they went into a place that would make sense to me whenever God is manifesting himself inside someone. There is a kind of, “Whoa, this goes way beyond my realm of what is possible.” And so you sort of disassociate. So they go into this cloud.
It’s reminiscent of the thing that happened when Abraham was called by God and manifested himself to him, and when he was explaining the relationship that he was going to have with Abraham and everyone after that, when that whole thing was unfolding, he went into a dark, dark place. I think it’s interesting. Abraham was in a place of darkness and fear, and the disciples were in a place of just confusion and cloud. And when they came out of that, they were changed, but I don't know how consciously you are when you have some kind of major shift in your life in terms of understanding something that you never saw before. To see it for the first time is an amazing experience, but it doesn’t necessarily instantly erase all the things that you’ve been doing, your patterns of behavior based on something that was different than that. We can imagine what it was like for Abraham to experience the presence of God. We know that God had appeared. At least in salvation history, we know he appeared first to Adam and then to Noah.
The thing that happened, when God had that time with Adam and Eve, is so important to understand clearly, because what it is, it’s not about God being upset with human beings for being human and sinning, lying and believing a lie. What was really happening in that relationship is it was established that God knew that this was a part of human nature, and he allowed them to leave, not with anger and resentment, but with, “Okay, if you choose to work out your salvation, or you work out your way of understanding who you are on your own, I’ll give you that opportunity, and I’ll just tell you first a little bit about it, how hard it’s going to be, but you go.” Not cursed. Only the serpent who lied was cursed, and they weren’t literally sent with a great prayer and blessing. But they maybe wouldn’t have understood that, but they were sent to accomplish what they thought they were here to do. And that is to figure out life on their own, to figure it all out. That is such a core part of human nature. “I want to be the one who figures it out. I want to be the one who accomplishes it.” It is in our DNA. It is in our human nature. To go against that is almost literally to go against our nature, our lower nature, but as you and I both know, this whole story of salvation history — and the same thing happens in our own individual lives, because our lives are reflections of the same full story we find in salvation history, but it’s simply that this task that we’re asked to do, this thing that we are making a promise to God to do, we know it has to have an ingredient that we naturally would rather not have. It seems strange to say this, but we would rather not have a partner in some ways. “I would like to accomplish this on my own.” So the first covenant that God made with Adam was to send him forth, in a sense, and say, “I’ll give you all the information you need. Now go and learn.”
Then there was a covenant with Noah, because God got so upset with everybody. It seemed like he couldn’t find a single soul in the world that had a heart that wasn’t just packed with evil. An angel finds the family of Noah and says, “Oh, please, please save Noah.” And he destroyed all the other life, the life of everyone else and started over with Noah, and then he made a promise to Noah. “I’ll never do that again. I’ll never do that again.” Don’t you love the way God seems to grow in his awareness of how to work with human beings? He didn’t have to learn that. It was the way he revealed himself, a God who is learning about a relationship that he longs for more than anything, and we resist it, even though there’s something deep inside of us that longs for it more than we ever realize.
Then we have the covenant with Abraham. What Abraham is promised is two things. God said, “I’ll come into your life if you’ll trust me, and I’ll give you a land. And that land is going to be wonderful.” Then later he adds to the covenant. He said, “Well, not only am I going to give you land, but I’m going to give you the thing you long for the most.” Back then people didn’t really believe in such a thing as life after death, so they had this instinct. They wanted to continue to live, so it was through their posterity, through their children that they saw their life going on. So Abraham didn’t have any children with his wife, Sarah, and that’s how you get the inheritance, through the father. So God said, “I will give you a child, and you will have posterity.”
Let’s just stop there with the way God worked with people and just fast forward to the gospel. Now, here’s a new covenant being established. How can I best describe to you the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant? It’s this. Look at the ceremony that’s in the first reading. Animals are cut in half and laid opposite each other, and then God symbolically walks between them. And Abraham, in a way, was to walk between them. He didn’t actually maybe do that, but the idea was that you would make a promise to fulfill the thing that you were going to do. You would say, “I will not — ever keep my side of the covenant, because if I don’t, I will die. I will have the fate of the animal, or some part of me will die, my integrity, my ability to keep a promise.” What’s so fascinating about that is, even after God made that covenant and realized that the Israelite people, who were so stiff-necked, couldn’t keep their end of it, he said, “Oh, this is not ever going to work, because if they don’t keep their part of it, I don’t owe them anything.” And so he changed it, and he said, “No, I’m going to make a change in this covenant. I’m going to say, no, I will never leave it. I don’t care how far you go from me, I will always be there. That’s my promise.” So you see this wonderful, mysterious way in which God, being revealed in the Old Testament, becomes so attractive, because you see him making adjustments to his demands based on human nature. And since God will always have the image of a demanding God, there’s something beautiful about him starting off with something — how can we say it — over our head, over our capacity, and when he finds out we can’t do it, does he just write off the human race and kill them all? No. He said, “I will change it. I will work with you.”
So you end up, at the time of Christ, with this God who has made a promise to his people that he will never ever leave them, and since he keeps seeing them as not being able to keep the covenant, and he adjusts it, now he comes to the part where he’s not going to adjust it anymore. He’s going to change them, and that’s the incarnation. And what is it that the disciples are watching? They’re watching the very thing that is the key to keeping the covenant on our part, and that is a God/man, a God/man, a human being who — it would have been so interesting to know the way the disciples slowly grew in their faith, but they must have seen Jesus as a human being completely. They couldn’t imagine him being God, and then he was promising them a career in the power structure of the world at that time. They were going to be major players in the world, and yeah, they were attracted to that. They had no idea what it was going to take to be who God wanted them to be, but the idea of having power was pretty intoxicating, as it’s always been with people. So they really thought they were going to be given a key position, and every time Jesus would explain something to them, they’d sort of shake their heads and say, “This doesn’t make any sense. This doesn’t make any sense, and who can be saved,” that kind of thing. You just see this God/man doing the work of preparing them for the reality that they see in Jesus happening to them, and they see that the things that Jesus is explaining about the way life really is, the truth of our existence, the truth of who we are, wouldn’t make any sense to them. Either in their culture it didn’t make sense, in their own way of seeing themselves it didn’t make sense. It pushed them, pushed them. It wasn’t until this figure explained by his very life that the whole thing God wants from us is not a commitment to do what he says but to become who he is and who we are, and when you become that, you have given up something that is so crucial, your need to be in charge, your need to know what you’re here to do, your need to feel you have the ability to do it. All of that is a great obstacle, and isn’t it interesting that God said, “That’s in you as humans. I placed it there on purpose, because I want to be the one who enters into you and makes this all happen. That’s what I want you to believe. Everything I ask you to do you can’t do without me. Trust me. I’m in you, not to judge you, not to tell you what to do but to enable you to be a source of salvation for the world.
Father, the mystery that you’ve given to us to ponder, to wonder about, to feel the depth of what it really is is this mystery of you coming and living with us, within us, and this partnership is hard for us. It’s really hard for us to understand it. It’s easier for us to be told what to do and then be judged by that than to enter into this mysterious cloud of unknowing and then find ourselves in union with you. And then we are somehow, in a way, not in charge, and we need to surrender our wills to yours. I used to think that meant leaving the world, but it means a deep, deep investing yourself in the relationships that you have in the world around you. And through your presence in us, we’re told to believe we can make amazing changes in the world, changes we long to see. So bless us with a faith in that, trust in that. Let it happen to us. Amen.