I spent some of Saturday afternoon setting-up a second-hand iPhone I’ve just been given by some friends, guided by “the book of words” – partly on-line and partly on paper – which now lives very securely in my desk and on my hard-drive, because while this phone is a relatively straightforward little gadget, you have to know how it works. “Follow the rules” and it works excellently, and will do all sorts of things that are helpful (and all sorts of things that are just fun, as well); lose your grip on the rules and it can just sit there not doing anything at all. So I keep tight hold of “the book of words,” the owner’s manual, because it tells me how this gadget works and how it doesn’t work.
You may already be making the same connection I found myself making with regard to today’s readings. What we have in the Ten Commandments is “the book of words” for the human being: not an arbitrary set of rules imposed from outside that restrict us, or take away all that seems to delight, but an owner’s manual for being a person. Couched in the language and images of a different time and place, the Ten Commandments point to the truth of who I am.
Note that: the ten Commandments tell me the truth of who I am. They don’t simply tell me what I must do – or mustn’t do – but in telling me that, (in their language, from their time and place), they tell me who I am, and what is the world in which I live. They tell me the truth; that I, and the world in which I live, are where the holiness of God is made visible, where the Holy is to be found.
For millennia, people have looked for the Holy in special places. For the Jews, the Temple was the place of the Holy: “Praise God in his holy place!” sings the psalmist. So the words of Jesus in today’s gospel were not just shocking but unbelievable: destroy this temple? Not only has it been being rebuilt for the past 46 years, but it is the Temple – it is where the Holy is to be found. Even in the time of the Temple, God’s first people knew that all of life was holy, but the Temple was the Temple: this was where the Shekinah, the glory of the presence of God, was to be found. To speak of it being destroyed wasn’t so much the equivalent of suggesting taking a bulldozer to St Peter’s as of suggesting we should do away with the Mass.
But we need to remind ourselves, as the Jews needed to remind themselves, that it was not until the time of King David that the first temple was built: for most of the defining moments of the history of God’s people, there was no one special place as such where God was to be found, and the Commandments spelt out that all of life was a place for the Holy to be found and celebrated. There was not one dimension which was the Holy and one which was the everyday: God’s revelation was of God as Emmanuel – God in the midst of us.
Judaism is full of blessings – thanksgivings for each moment of the day - just as it is full of commandments for each moment of the day, because each moment of the day is holy, because in each and every moment of the day (including some moments that we really might not think of as linked with holiness) the Holiness of God is there to be met. And if some of these blessings don’t sound too “politically correct”, such as the thanksgiving prayer for men which begins by thanking God for not making me a woman, then they, too, are lodged in their time and place, (when the obligations of Judaism rested mostly on men).
After the final destruction of the Temple, and the beginnings of the Diaspora - the scattering of God’s first people across the known world -Judaism came to focus more and more on the holiness of the everyday. The home rather than the temple became the place of the celebration of God’s presence: just listen to some of the Sabbath prayers:
“Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
King of the universe,
who made this bread come forth from the earth.
Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
King of the universe,
who created the fruits of the vine.
Blessed are you, O Lord, who made us holy with your ordinances
and in your love gave us the Sabbath day.”
John’s Gospel is put together after the destruction of the temple in the year 70 of our common era, and was addressed to a community that had broken its links with Judaism. John in his Gospel was telling us not something that disagreed with or refuted what the rabbis were teaching about the Holy being present in the everyday, but something that went beyond it: “but Jesus was speaking of the sanctuary that was his body.”
For John, as for all the Gospel writers, the Gospel itself was that Jesus is the Holy One: Jesus is God’s holiness in our midst, Jesus is God’s presence in our midst. As Nicholas Boyle puts it in an article in the Tablet some years ago:
The one central fact for Christianity is that God – the ultimate reality – is (more precisely, once was, and still is) human.
For St Paul writing to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, Christ – and Christ crucified - was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” – and today we can say much the same. But to those who are called, Christ – and Christ crucified - is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
The Commandments point us to the truth of who we are.
The Commandments show us that all of life can be a meeting with the Holy.
The Commandments show us how we can so live as to be with God, who is the Holy One.
Jesus – as he tells us explicitly - takes nothing away from that.
Jesus - the Holy One of God - does more.
Jesus becomes who we are.
Jesus lives the truth of who we are.
Jesus, living this truth in us in the presence of the Holy Spirit,
both shows us and empowers us to live the truth of who we are,
(whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves in others’ opinions):
holy sisters and holy brothers of Jesus,
the Holy One of God,
called to live in him and with him
as holy and beloved children of the Father.
I think today’s readings have a real relevance for any follower of Jesus in this stage of the development of the church, and that they speak to us today of the faith to which we are called and of the grounds for that faith.
I’m going to concentrate on the first reading. If we are not shocked by it, we weren’t really listening to it. What is it that God is asking for from Abraham? What sort of a God asks that sort of offering? And how do we reconcile the God of the Binding of Isaac with the God revealed in Jesus Christ?
Faced with the Mountain of Moriah, let’s take what seems the easier path first. Looking back to this story in Genesis from our Christian viewpoint, we can easily see the almost-sacrifice of Isaac as an image of the sacrifice of Jesus, the self-sacrificing love of Abraham as foreshadowing the love of God our Father. That is what St Paul points us to in today’s reading from his letter to the Romans: “Look,” he is saying, “this is how much God is on our side, how much God is for us; this is how much Jesus is not against us as one who condemns us, but with us as one who died because he loves us.”
We need to hear this – we need to be reminded again and again that God is with us, that God looks at each of us with the love with which the Father looks on Jesus, that God says to each of us “You are my child, my beloved!”
If I refer to that as seeming to be the easier path, it is still a hard path, because it asks us to trust in that love, to trust in the God who is with us, rather than trust in anything else – but anything else. If it seems an easier path, maybe it’s only by comparison with how this second path up the mountain appears, the path trodden by Abraham and Isaac, and by countless believers.
Abraham is our Father in Faith, as the first Eucharistic Prayer reminds us, and the book of Genesis gives us a series of accounts of how Abraham and Sarah prove that faith, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews points out:
It was by faith that Abraham obeyed the call to set out for a country that was the inheritance given to him and his descendants, and that he set out without knowing where he was going.
It was equally by faith that Sarah, in spite of being past the age, was made able to conceive,, because she believed that he who had made the promise would be faithful to it.
But if Abraham and Sarah proved their faith in these acts of entrusting themselves and their future to God, the commentators throughout the centuries, Jewish and Christian, have been very clear that in the Binding of Isaac – the Akeidah Yitzhak – Abraham and Sarah faced the greatest test. The narrative speaks to us mostly about Abraham, and a little about Isaac: we need to remember Sarah, three days walk away and in such distress, according to the rabbinic commentators, that receiving her son back alive is so overwhelming an experience that it triggers her own death. Perhaps Sarah prefigures not only the mother of Jesus – “and a sword shall pierce your own soul too” – but all those mothers waiting across the centuries while their men go about their violent business, waiting for their sons to be given back to them either alive or dead.
But we are in danger of getting ahead of ourselves as we follow Abraham and Isaac up Mount Moriah. Is God really demanding a human sacrifice? Can we take the easy way out (the apparently easy way out, at least intellectually) and say that “if God says it’s right, then it’s right”? To do so would seem at least to make the contrast between how our estimates of what is right and God’s absolute dominion.
The 19th Century Danish philosopher Kierkegaard wrote a whole book on this, calling it “Fear and Trembling”. In it he introduces two characters, two knights, one of whom,” the knight of infinite resignation”, is prepared to give up everything for a great cause and to live with the suffering that ensues. I suspect that many of us see Abraham in this light – and see in Abraham a model of what faith is for us – or rather, we see in Abraham’s expected sacrifice a model of what a life of faith can be. The heroic sacrifice has a very powerful appeal, and true self-sacrifice is out of love for another is both the pinnacle of the Gospel, in the death of Jesus on the cross, and the manner and matter of its mundane reality, in our everyday living as followers of Jesus. But we can all too easily see Abraham as modelling a willingness to give up all that is most precious, and to go against all that we think, and feel deep in our bones, to be the right course of action, simply because we have been told that this is God’s will for us.
That path, it seems to me, leads not to the Mountain of Moriah, the mountain of God, but to a different place, a place that risks fanaticism and fundamentalism, where the grossly cruel can be dressed in the language of God’s commandments, and pain and even death can as easily be inflicted in the name of the Gospel (as we have seen in history), as in the name of the Holy Q’uran.
But Abraham, the father of Judaism and Christianity and Islam, takes another path – the path of true faith. Abraham is an example of the “knight of faith”. As one Kierkegaard scholar puts it:
Abraham is not only a man of resignation … but is the father of faith, the supreme example of faith against the absurd. God had promised him a son. He had to wait decades for that son to be born ... Then God commands Abraham to sacrifice this long-awaited son. Somehow, Abraham had the faith to obey God, knowing that God would deliver his son … "By faith Abraham did not renounce Isaac, but by faith Abraham received Isaac".[i]
“By faith Abraham received Isaac?” I think that this is the heart of today’s readings – at least for me. Because what Abraham is asked to hand over to God is any certainty, any sense that he fully understands where God is calling him. Isaac is the child of the promise: everything on which Abraham has staked his life is literally embodied in Isaac, and God says “Hand him over! Let go of him! Entrust him to me!” And Abraham does. He puts away all his century-long dreams, he sets aside all the ways in which he saw God’s promise to him coming true, that promise that he would be the father of many nations that came with God giving him a new name and a new self. All of this he sets aside, puts away, hands over – not in resignation, but in faith.
Abraham does not say “It was a good dream while it lasted…” but “I have faith that God will keep his promise, and I will put aside all MY understandings of how that will come about, and step out into the void, launch out into the deep, give back to God the one and only way in which I can see God being able to keep God’s promise, because God is faithful – God keeps God’s promises - and I will be faithful – full of faith – in return.”
And Abraham receives Isaac back, now not as Abraham’s investment for the future as Abraham wants it played out, but as God’s free gift in love, building up Abraham’s faith that whatever the future, “God will provide.”
Abraham invites us, his children in faith, to make that same step: to pick up all that is most valuable to us, all that we most fear to lose, all that in which we have invested our lives, all that to which we have given our past and to which we give our present, all that embodies our future, and to place it, all of it, in the space between us and God and say: “This is yours. I trust you with all that is most precious to me.”
And to the measure that we do this – this Lent, this year, sometime in our lives, perhaps in one great gesture but more likely bit by bit, step by step – we will receive back all that we have entrusted to God, and know it for what it has always been – not our possession, our investment, our guarantee of the future we see for ourselves, (however good and virtuous that future may be), but God’s gift, God’s pledge of love, God’s guarantee of the future God sees for us, a future of transfiguration and grace.
As we meet God on the mountain of faith, we learn the truth: that with Jesus, we are God’s beloved children, and that it is God who provides.
[i] http://www.sorenkierkegaard.org/kw6a.htm D.Anthony Storm’s Commentary on Kierkegaard.
Today’s Gospel is a highly significant one – and, to be honest, one I would much rather preach about when there are no children in the congregation. Because today’s Gospel has to do with the truth of the Incarnation in a way that is as important as the celebrations of Christmas – but in a way that is geared more to what it means to be an adult follower of Jesus.
Each time the priest presides at the Eucharist, he adds a drop of water to the wine in the chalice during the preparation of the gifts, and says a prayer which often slips past unnoticed: By the mystery of the water and wine, may we come to share in the divine life of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our human life.
We tend, I think, to let this prayer slip past because we don’t really believe it. We have big problems with the humanity of Jesus: most of the time at least we are unconscious heretics (I can never remember which sort of heretic I am…) who don’t fully believe in the fullness of Jesus humanity. “True God and true man”, said the Council of Chalcedon on 451, and today’s Gospel shows us where that bites in the life of Jesus.
Jesus in the wilderness is coming to an awareness of just what his life is going to be – and just what it is going to cost. Jesus’ life is a living-out of the unconditional love of God – Jesus shows us God’s love in human form (the only way we can really get to grips with it). In human form – not in pretend human form: Jesus is working with what we work with, and is subject to the same limitations that we are subject to – that is what the awesome mystery of the Incarnation is all about – (rather than the Christmas tinsel, and what one writer memorably calls “the sweet smell of shepherds”…!) If you will pardon a line which might sound glib: in the wilderness Jesus comes to two realisations – the truth of how he is going to live his life, and the recognition that “they’re not going to like this.”
Jesus shares the contingency of our lives. We are not all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving: we have to live our lives in situations of not knowing what is going to happen next, how things are going to turn out; we have to life our lives in settings of weakness, when we simply cannot do what we know needs to be done – the resources- of money, of time, of energy – are simply not there for us; we have to live our lives in settings where we cannot find enough love and unselfishness in our hearts to be who we want to be as well as do what we want to do. And Jesus has taken on all this – Jesus has taken on our limits, our contingency, our human nature.
Jesus has taken on our living, and shows us what is possible. If we don’t believe the first, we can’t believe the second. If we don’t believe that Jesus is truly one of us – “like us in all things but sin” as the preface to EP 4 says – then he is no example to us – he is just pretending. “It was OK for him,” we might find ourselves saying, “he was God, he knew what was happening next, he had the power.” But if you will pardon another apparent irreverence, that reduces Jesus to some sort of figure out of Star Trek, able in the last resort to punch his wrist communicator and say the equivalent of “Beam me up, Scotty.”
And, of course, that is precisely what Jesus does not do. The Second Person of the Trinity has put off power and knowledge and everything that cannot be honestly contained within our human nature – all that cannot be part of a truly human life. Jesus was among us as one like us in all things but sin – and felt the limitations as we feel the limitations. And so was tempted.
Power – not to live with limits: power to provide for all material needs (turn these stones into bread); power to solve all the political and social problems (I will give you all the kingdoms of the world); power to dazzle and impress and become irresistible (Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple).
Jesus chooses to continue to share our life – to continue truly to be Emmanuel, God with us. So Jesus shows us what we can do, faced with the same temptations of power and compulsion. And Jesus doesn’t simply show us – he makes it more possible for us. Because there is one power which Jesus does not set down – the power of self-giving love. In choosing not to compel, not to override our freedom, Jesus enables us freely to respond to that love, to be empowered by it, to be enabled in our turn to love and empower others without over-riding their freedom – and so to build the kingdom.