God loves us.
God tests us.
These two truths are uncomfortable to hold together.
Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. The Jerusalem Bible, which we currently use for Mass in England, translates one phrase as “Do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.” It reminds me that Pope Francis recently commented that God cannot tempt us to sin, but he does allow us to be tested. So we pray not to be tested, but we know that sometimes God will politely decline our request. We have only a promise in Scripture that we will not be tested “more than we can bear”.
On the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus is affirmed as God’s beloved Son – but even that doesn’t spare him from testing. We know that Lent is leading us towards Maundy Thursday, when Our Lord will face the temptation to run away from his crucifxion before it begins, and the agony of the Cross, when he will be dared to come down before it is finished.
Jesus, the beloved Son, had a choice. He chose to co-operate with his Father’s plan. Yes, today’s Second Reading says that the Father sent Jesus, his beloved son, to lay down his life for us. But in John’s Gospel we also see Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his own life – indeed, the literal translation would be, “I am the beautiful shepherd.” As we see Jesus today bathed in light on top of the holy mountain, consider his beauty! Could anyone be more loving than Jesus?
It’s a bit harder to see something beautiful in today’s first reading. We have another father and son on a mountain, and this son almost lays down his life, too – but perhaps not so willingly. Abraham believes that God has asked him to slaughter his beloved son, the very boy God gave Sarah as a miracle baby. He must be hoping that this is a test, and at some point God is going to offer him a get-out, but when they reach the top of the mountain, there’s no alternative yet. It’s at this point that the horrible truth becomes clear to Isaac – because now Abraham binds his son and pulls out his knife…
I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which tidies up this story.
Maybe I could tell you that in the ancient cultures around Abraham, it was a normal thing for a father to sacrifice a son to establish a dynasty, and Abraham thought that this would please the Lord too. But that makes no sense of the Bible declaring that God asked for the sacrfiice, or was pleased with Abraham’s obedience.
Maybe I could tell you that Isaac was a willing victim, happy to obey this terrible command from God; but that doesn’t make sense of the full story – we’ve only been given edited highlights today, but read the whole of Genesis 22 and you will discover that Isaac asks Abraham where they will find the lamb to be sacrificed. And if Isaac was a willing victim, he wouldn’t need to be bound.
Yes, I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which explains this Bible passage comfortably. But in the end, I can’t. I can only give you these truths which fit so uncomfortably together.
God loves us.
God tests us.
When we’re faced with something like this, we have a word for it: “Mystery”. Not a puzzle to be solved, but a provoking story inviting us to seek God’s message. And the mystery of the binding of Isaac is mirrored in the mystery of our daily lives. For although we believe that God loves us, we may experience more often the truth that God tests us. And I recently came across a true story which mirrors this mystery.
Crystal McVea had every reason to be angry with God. I won’t share the details of the things that happened to her in her childhood, but they were horrible. She cried out to God, but no help seemed to come. She often boasted that should she ever meet God, she would ask him all the why why why questions. And she got her opportunity. She died.
Or rather, she didn’t die. But she was clinically dead for nine minutes and returned with a remarkable story of meeting God. Now no-one can prove that these ‘near death experiences’ are genuine spiritual experiences, but I think this one’s worthy of a hearing, because of its because powerful impact on her life.
Crystal was confronted with the beauty of God, and suddenly understood so many things about his plan for her life. In that light, all questions fell away from her lips except one. Why… oh why… didn’t I do more for you during my lifetime? In that moment of encounter, God showed Crystal a small girl radiant with light, literally playing in the rivers of light in heaven; and Crystal filled with love for this person before realising who it was – it was herself, as seen through God’s eyes. I won’t read out her words here and now; it’s easy to find her speaking for herself, online. But it was through seeing the glory of God, and her own radiance as a child of God, that she found peace with God despite the many, many tests she had endured in her life. Crystal returned from that experience knowing that her horrible past made sense as part of the loving plan of God; she also found strength to embrace a better present, forgiving her enemies and putting her trust in God. That’s the power of God’s beauty.
I can’t explain the mystery of how the Binding of Isaac was a necessary part of God’s plan. But I trust that it was, and one day we will understand, just as we will appreciate all the trials of our life in these times. Though God covers you with shadow, remember the light!
God loves us.
God tests us.
Jesus, I trust in you.