Crystal Clear

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B.

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.

Do You Look Like Jesus?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Do you look like Jesus?

There’s a story about a little girl who was puzzled about God. “Mummy, our Sunday School teacher said that God is bigger than we are. He said God is so big that He could hold the world in His hands. Is that true?”

“Yes,” said Mum. “That’s true, darling.”

“But Mummy, the teacher also said that God comes to live inside us when we get baptised and receive Holy Communion. Is that true, too?”

“Yes,” said Mum. “That’s right. That’s what happens.”

The little girl was now truly puzzled. “So Mum, if God is bigger than us and He lives inside us, wouldn’t He show through?”


When Our Lord took Peter, James and John up Mount Tabor, he wanted them to see something that would help them understand who He was. Jesus glowed with the light of God. But if Jesus is within us, shouldn’t we should glow with God’s presence? If not with ethereal light, then at least by our actions. And this Second Sunday of Lent is the day set out by the Church to invite everyone who wants to live the fullness of our Catholic life to examine our lives and go to confession.

It’s easy to examine our lives against a list of “Don’ts”. Next Sunday our first reading will be the Ten Commandments, many of which are “Thou Shalt Nots”. It’s much more challenging to try to understand what God is asking us to DO. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Did God want a human being to be killed as part of a religious ritual? No, of course not. But was God testing Abraham to see if this faithful man would follow God’s will whatever the cost? Oh yes.

Can you imagine the inner turmoil Abraham must have experienced before setting out with Isaac? Any Dad would have been appalled at the very idea. For Abraham, his son Isaac was already a miracle-baby who carried God’s promise to be father of a multitude. And yet Abraham must have been supremely sure of what God was asking to even set out on this journey of sacrifice.

When God asks us to do something more for him, we might become angry. What do we have to sacrifice within out own ego or comfortable lifestyle? Yet the depth of our anger is itself a sign that God truly is challenging us to change, because we’re also aware of that divine calling within us: “We can’t go on as we are!”

I’m going to run through some headings now… if one of these makes you feel angry, it might just be God inviting you to make a deeper change this Lent. And as I speak of each expectation, ask yourself, “In this area of my life, do I look like Jesus? Is He bursting out of me?”

God expects that we WORSHIP as Jesus honoured his Father. Do we speak to God when we are gathered with our family and friends? Grace before meals? A moment of prayer each day when the family is gathered in one place? In your family, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we CONNECT with other members of our church community. When was the last time you came to a church social event? If you don’t normally stay for coffee after Sunday morning Mass, what stops you? If you are free this Wednesday evening, are you planning on coming to the Station Mass with Archbishop George? Jesus ate and drank and enjoyed time with his disciples. In this community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we EXPLORE our faith and deepen our knowledge. When did you last pick up a Christian book? Are you reading this Lent’s Walk With Me or our Christmas gift of Rediscover Jesus? If you don’t normally come to our parish “Connect & Explore” groups, what stops you? The boy Jesus asked questions in the Temple, and as a man spoke to crowds of thousands. In your hunger to learn God’s word, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we VOLUNTEER our time and talents for the good of this parish and the world around us. Many things can be done even while we are at Sunday Mass – we are blessed with so many altar servers and welcomers. We need more people willing to sing and help with music, though. Some tasks can be done at times which suit you – the church needs to be cleaned at some point in the week, and we need more volunteer cleaners. Jesus stepped up and helped people even when he was weary. In the way you serve this parish and the wider community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we INVITE people to step into our community. Today’s prayers are a call to confession especially for those among us who, already baptised, now wish to become full members of the Catholic Church this Easter. We rejoice! But our church will not be complete until all the people of Llanedeyrn, Pentwyn, Pontprennau and St Edeyrn’s Village are worshipping with us. One easy thing to do is to take one of these fliers and invite a friend to come to the Friday lunchtime talk at the Cathedral during Lent. Jesus looked at his future disciples and said, “Come and follow me!” In the way you introduce your friends to our Catholic community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we INVEST in the work of the church. Today we have an opportunity to support CAFOD in its work empowering people in countries who don’t enjoy our level of wealth. Next month we will be looking at the financial needs of our own parish for the coming year. The apostles had a fund to help the poor, and Jesus praised generous giving to the Temple.* In the way you use your money, do you look like Jesus?

God has high expectations of us. None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. Perhaps one or two of the things I have mentioned have stirred a sense of discomfort in you. If you’re aware of avoiding something God is calling you do to, I’ve got good news. First, decide in your heart to do it. Next, come and talk to me in the confessional about why you’ve been avoiding God’s call. Most importantly, go and do it! And then, you will look a little bit more like Jesus!

expectations


* A very good summary of how Jesus and the Apostles supported the poor is on this page by Jehovah’s Witnesses. While I don’t share their views about the ‘world to come’, and don’t endorse any links that may go from that page, they do fairly summarise the things that Jesus said and did!