People worry me if they are absolutely certain that they know what God wants them to do. We can usually only be absolutely sure that we are doing God’s will after the event. We heard this expressed by three of our parishioners on the first of our Tuesdays in Lent last week. They all shared with us choices that they had made, that they can now look back on and see as God’s will. But, as Denise said “God spoke as a gentle breeze rather than a blinding light.”
Our 1st Reading (Genesis 22:1-18) and our Gospel (Mark 9:2-10) today both show examples of people who thought they knew what God’s will for them was, but then had to change their mind. In the Gospel, Peter is convinced that God wants them to stay on the mountain where they have seen, for a few moments, the glory of Jesus transfigured. But instead he has to discover that he has to go down the mountain with Jesus and follow him on a very different road to a very different kind of glory.
But we heard a much more dramatic turn around in the story of Abraham almost killing his son Isaac in our 1st Reading. Like many Old Testament Readings this is much more difficult for us to understand, for we cannot accept that God would ever tell anyone that he should take his son up a mountain and kill him as a human sacrifice.
Once again, as I explained last week, we must remember that we are not meant to take these stories literally. Scholars reckon that Abraham lived in about 1800BC, so once again we are reading stories that were not written down for almost 1000 years, and what they’re showing us is how ideas about God gradually developed during this time, so as to prepare the way for the final and full revelation of what God is like in Jesus.
As I read it, the point is that Abraham “thought” that this is what God was telling him to do. Now this is not unlikely, given the fact that many ancient peoples did believe that the only way to satisfy the gods was to sacrifice human beings, even members of their own family! The story shows us how Abraham was discovering the true God, a very different God from the pagan gods of the peoples round him. He was convinced he was doing the right thing, and then, right at the last minute with the knife raised to kill his son, he heard the sound of a sheep nearby, and took this as a sign that God did not want human sacrifices, but would accept animal sacrifices instead. What people believed, as we do too, is that they had to show God how much they loved him; but unlike us, in a world where your sheep were the most valuable thing you possessed, to offer one in sacrifice was the most significant thing you could do for God.
But we need to go at least one step further to get us back to the Gospel for today. Remember that in the time of Jesus offering animal sacrifices in the Temple was still the way to show you loved God. Mary and Joseph do so when they present Jesus in the Temple as a tiny baby. Jesus loves the Temple and spends a lot of time praying and teaching there, and is horrified by people who turn it into a market place. But Jesus also predicts the end of the Temple, and that one day people will offer themselves to God without the need for such sacrifices.(John 4:23-24)
But then Jesus goes one step further when he reveals that instead of wanting sacrifices from us, God’s love is so great that he offers a Sacrifice for us. He offers us himself in Jesus, his only Son, dying on the Cross.
So this was not just a turn around, but was a crucial step towards the idea, that we Christians now take for granted that God is a God of immense love and mercy, the God we know from Jesus, and is totally different from other gods. Our little sacrifices to him, things we do for others, gifts of money we make for the poor, our Lenten fast, are not there to persuade God to love us. Instead they are but a tiny response to the one sacrifice that God offers us. They only make sense when they are drawn into this one sacrifice and so become part, not of our love for God but God’s love for us.
So let’s remember today never to assume that we know for certain what God wants us to do. We will choose the best way we can, using the teaching of Jesus as the basis for our decisions, but always we will do this humbly before God, awake to the knowledge that we may discover, like Abraham and like Peter, James and John, on the mountain, that God wants us to do something very different indeed. Let’s be open to God’s surprises!