The Second Sunday in Lent (A)
March 8, 2020
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Our season of Lent begins with a memory: “Remember, O Man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” A primal memory of dirt: to trace this back to its source in Genesis 3, the primal memory of a curse which includes banishment from the idyllic garden of life and the strict limits of mortality. A season of memory, a memory we greatly wish to resist. This particular memory has been wrapped into our liturgy and is replayed each year, that smudge of ashes on our foreheads, because it is a part of our identity which, ironically, we are driven (or prone) to forget. Ironic, because each day brings us reminders of our frailty, our vulnerability. Each day demonstrates the truth of our mortality.
The Scriptures are filled with great and small acts of memory, good and bad, some cherished and some best forgotten. One of the most prominent memories is the story of Abraham. It is prominent and well remembered because his story is the founding myth of a tribal people who become the people of God. A story wrapped in promise, the promise that begins to rewrite the memory of the curse. Out of this story come the land of promise, Isaak, Jacob; the sons of Jacob who become the twelve tribes that will enter the land. And as one generation gives way to the next, the memory of Abraham persists, because God fashioned the life of Abraham into a promise that Abraham’s own life could not contain.
We encounter him first in Genesis chapter 11, just one name among others in a brief genealogy. A few comments about his father’s migration, and some geographical notes. But as he steps into chapter 12, he resolves into an individual character, and begins to acquire a certain shape. Abraham’s story begins, like very creation itself, when God speaks, not to curse but to bless. God speaks to him, appears to him, and there is no surprise, no fear, and no reason for God to say, “Do not be afraid.” What attracts attention is that Abram says nothing. He responds in silent obedience. And from the start, it is God’s word that shapes this man into the embodiment of promise and blessing. “Go forth from your land, and your birthplace, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” No destination is yet mentioned, just a sort of place-holder, a destination to be determined. The words speak beyond this moment and do so in a way we might not have guessed. But centuries later, Rashi, the medieval rabbinic scholar, following the text closely, noticed that the divine imperative to head out for an unspecified place foreshadowed a terrible scene to come. The words of blessing:
“Go forth from your land, and your birthplace, and your father’s house” would become the words of trial;
“Take your son, your only son, whom you love, and go forth.” The structure and cadence of these two divine commands to Abraham are remarkably alike. The first foreshadows the second; and the second remembers the first. We may not see immediately what the astute Rashi was able to see, but by the time we get to Genesis 22, we can begin to see that undoing the curse of the dirt in the garden is a complex piece of business that will require giving up what, or who, is most precious.
And so the story of promise continues to unfold as Abram becomes Abraham and silently (except when he expresses doubt) obeys the word of God. There are no stories, no memories in Scripture, about Abraham playing with the toddler Isaac. There is the birth, Sarah’s joy, and a brief comment about Isaac being weaned, and his half-brother, Ishmael, playing with him. The very next scene is the one in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son.
“Take your son . . . your only one . . . whom you love . . . Isaac,” and in a scene that cries out for a response from Abraham, there is only silence. Who would dare enter that silence? . . . . The rabbis, of course! Later rabbinic commentary on this story (and there is a great deal of it) imagined into Genesis 22 a rather stereotypical Jewish debate, and Rashi, our inquisitive rabbi, gives us the short version, almost a scene from Seinfeld.
God said to Abraham, “Take your son.” Abraham said, “I have two sons.”
God said to him, “Your only one.” Abraham said, “this one is an only one to his mother, and this one is an only one to his mother.”
God said, “Whom you love.” Abraham said, “I love both of them.”
God said to him, “Isaac.” And Abraham was silent.
Just a humorous remembering to break the silence of what is surely one of the most tension-filled scenes in Scripture. The cost of the blessing that would undo the curse of dirt. Perhaps that imaginary dialogue would be reversed when we come to the Gospel of John. But we would find God arguing with God. The tables are turned in John chapter 3, where Jesus remembers the Abraham-Isaac story, where the undoing of the Lenten curse is at hand.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Here is a remembering of the Abraham story played out now in full. A memory of God’s harsh command to Abraham, and the sacrifice of Isaac on the mountain. A remembering and a rewriting. Now God is standing in Abraham’s place and Jesus in Isaac’s. And the object of the Father’s love is not the only begotten Son, but the world fallen into sin. And the sacrifice, the bloody death that was side-stepped at the last minute by the replacement of a ram, caught in the thicket, would be fully experienced by both Father and Son. So early in John’s gospel, this remembering is a remembering that looks forward, compressing events to come into a brief exclamation of gospel promise, by a kind of prophetic sleight of hand, a reversal. While rescue came for Abraham and Isaac by sparing the son’s life, offering the ram instead, the Son of God will not be rescued but by his sacrifice will rescue the world.
In the darkness of Lent, we begin with a memory of dirt, and remember the limitations of mortal existence. But we do so, so that we can remember forward what the light on the other side of the cross will eventually mean for us. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2020 Philip H. Towner