Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 16; Romans 8:31-39; Mark 8:31-38

“Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.” – Blaise Pascal, “Pensees.” This quote from the 17th century philosopher Blaise Pascal reminds us that while reason is truly good and ought to be used by all people, that by our very nature as creatures our reason is finite, especially when confronted by God’s infinity, and our reason will always run up against a limit. The Scriptures today demonstrate those limits.

Abraham, the father of our faith, was a leader of a tribe in the ancient east. Called by God out of his home, he traveled to Palestine. He had no heir, no one to pass his lineage onto. But God promised him a son, and provided that son in Isaac. Through this son, Abraham is promised children like the stars in the sky, a promise that is ultimately fulfilled by Jesus. In Genesis 22, however, we read of a jarring, difficult episode in Abraham’s life, one that challenged him and challenges us: Abraham is called on by God to sacrifice his only son.

How can we make sense of this? How are we to think of God in this scene? As theologian Bruce Waltke puts it, “In this scene, Abraham and God’s commitments to one another are strained to their limits.” God has promised that he will bless the world through Abraham’s descendents, and Abraham has committed to living on the basis that God is trustworthy and will fulfill what he has promised. This command goes against fatherly love, against human reason, and worse yet, is morally highly questionable, pushing our own moral sense to the limit. Really, the command is absurd, and inexplicable. The faith demanded of Abraham here is a radical faith, requiring an obedience that challenges our norms of emotion, reason, and ethics.

Abraham goes to obey the Lord. Can you imagine the turmoil in his heart? The back and forth in his mind? But God provides. This story is a test of faith, one of the hardest we can find in Scripture. I will admit, it is not one we can fully solve with reason, not one that will ever make sense. Yet, it invites questions and urges us to ask, “how far would I go to be faithful?” The trials of the world will test us, God may test us, but those are not invitations to sin; rather, they are invitations to trust past reason, to trust beyond the bounds that we can understand. It is actually sin itself that is the agent of irrational disorder. To turn from God who is life, to turn rather to death, that is what is irrational.  The pain and suffering of the world exists because of human sin, and it will always, at some point, transcend our ability to understand it. We must yet trust that God is at work, and that he will ultimately make all things right. 

The real story here, though, is not about Abraham, but God. This passage is a type, what I like to think of as a “backwards echo,” an image of what was to come. For God the Father does exactly what he asks of Abraham here: He offers Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to be sacrificed, on our behalf. This too goes beyond human reason. Because the limit of God’s promises goes beyond our capacity to understand, so must our faith go beyond those capacities.

Consider Mark 8. In vss. 27-30, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter answers correctly: “The Christ!” Then, Jesus draws out further what they think the Messiah is, by teaching how he will have to suffer and die in order to be raised again, a sequence of events that secures salvation for the world. But to the disciples, the Messiah comes and conquers and reigns by force. For them, for the Messiah to die is a logical impossibility, something that went beyond reason. The disciples believed in salvation via the same means as the world: might, power, conquest. They believed that to such a degree that Peter “rebukes” Jesus, a word here used elsewhere in Mark for casting out demons. And so Jesus reminds Peter that he is a disciple, and as such is to trust and follow him in his work of self-sacrifice and love.

Kids, let me put this simply: Think of what you most love in the world. If God asked you to give it up, would you? That is what God did for you. For us. Can we trust him, then, when what we love is sometimes taken from us? That is what we are called to do. When I was 17, my grandpa died. It was one of the things in life that has hurt me the most, especially at that age. I didn’t think of this then, but I can see back now that this is one of those places where we can choose to turn from God, or turn towards God. I had to let go of my grandpa, and turn towards God.

The suffering and death of Jesus is at the heart of the Gospel. One cannot be raised again if one has not died. Sin came into the world through humanity, and it brought death; sin must be defeated by the one person dying who cannot stay dead, the person who is the promise of God himself. For it is not ultimately Isaac, but Jesus who is the promised one, the Son, the one in and through him the world would be blessed. It was not Isaac who was to be sacrificed, but Jesus. God provided the sacrifice yet again, just like he did for Abraham. It is through suffering and sacrifice that true glory is attained. It is, paradoxically, through death that life is gained. And it is through an innocent, sinless person that the sinful are redeemed. And yes, it ultimately goes beyond the limits of human reason. This is the tragedy of human life: that our sin brings death. But the joyful resolution is that through the death of Christ and our death to ourselves, we find life in resurrection. We struggle to believe, but to return to Pascal, this is one of the “infinite number of things that is beyond human reason.”

And to be the disciple of Jesus, he reminds his disciples and us, we must follow him into death, if need be. “You must pick up your cross and follow me,” he says. They knew the image back then. Carrying a cross was a death march into a particularly brutal form of state execution. That is the radical faith needed to follow Jesus. You have to be willing to deny even yourself. This is not easy. It takes time. It does not grow in a day, this faith. It is true faith, to believe that no matter how absurd it seems to obey God sometimes, that no matter how inexplicably hard life is, that no matter the fact that we cannot explain our circumstances and seem to gain no answer to our questions, God will keep his promises to you. And the answer to the question, “why?” is, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Trust and obey. Trust and obey.

Christian, you will suffer. You will struggle. And you will question. But know this: Vs. 35-36:Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it. Being a Christian is not easy. Being a human is not easy! But God keeps his promises, and we must trust and obey through even the strongest of storms, of tests, of trials. That is the path to life. And we, trusting in him, can say: 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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