Stephen Dawkins was a professor who unraveled some of the most complex questions in modern physics. When he was asked what was the biggest mystery in the universe, he answered: "Women. They are a complete mystery." We will soon come to this in Abraham's wife, Sarah, who laughed as God told Abraham (age 100) that Sarah (age 90) would bear him a son, Isaac.
Genesis - Chapter 20 and its history
Often no single theme can be found in all three Readings. So the better way at times to look at the Readings is often to take them one by one. So today we start with the Book of Genesis account of Abraham being willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.
Taking the whole story of Isaac being the most beloved son of Abraham and of Abraham being willing to offer him us as a sacrifice, we go back to how Isaac was conceived and born. Abraham was 100 and Sarah, his wife, as 90 when God informs Abraham that Sarah will bear him a child. Sarah, whose monthly periods had stopped long ago, laughs as she says: "Can I still enjoy sex at my age and how can I bear a child?" Needless to say God was a bit perturbed at her reaction, but continued through on His promise to Abraham. Nine months later Sarah bore Isaac. Abraham already had one son, Ishmael. Earlier when Sarah could not conceive, she asked Abraham to have a child with her slave, Hagar. That child was Ishmael.
Now as Abraham and Sarah were very old, God tells them that Sarah will bear a child, to be called Isaac. While Ishmael will many, many descendants, God's Covenant with Abraham to be the father of many nations will continue through Isaac. Hence, Isaac was Abraham's most loved son and God asked Abraham to kill him and sacrifice him as a burnt holocaust to Him. So Abraham - without further questions - was prepared to do so.
After God stopped Abraham, He promised that the Covenant that Abraham would be the father of many nations would continue through Isaac. And so it was that three major religions claim their ancestry through Abraham: namely the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims.
The question for us is how could Abraham have been so willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. We wander around trying - in the Holy Spirit - to find out what God wishes us to be and to do. The answer is - of course - "Faith", but unlike Abraham, we struggle to find this "Faith". We can say that Abraham was clearly commanded by God. Yet by the promise of Jesus we have the Holy Spirit to give us this "Faith". It just seems so hard to trust the Holy Spirit.
Paul to the Romans - Chapter 8
Many of Paul's letters are extremely hard to understand. He often is trying to understand how his new Faith can be reconciled with his former Jewish Faith. He also tries to understand and preach how the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, guides us into a "life of the Spirit" as opposed to a "life of the flesh" concerned with material things.
We cannot serve or even love God if we choose to live "according to the flesh" because we get caught up searching for material goods. But if we choose to live "according to the Spirit", we become "children of God" as well as "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ". Our adoption is according to the Eastern custom of becoming a child and also an heir. The Roman adoption was one of placing the child under a new father, who was sort of a master. This child would not automatically be an "heir". But we are to be "heirs" of God, adopted children.
Paul also talks of "predestination". This is not as some religions, even some early Christian "religions", which hold that God has already chosen whom He will bless and whom He has already assured of heaven. Paul's "predestination" is that of a God Who was willing to have His Son die for us. The "predestination" - in Paul - is rather that God has chosen to make living "according to the Spirit" to be the way of Christian life. Another way of putting this is to follow His Son through hardships and death to our material impulses to a Resurrection in "spiritual life". This "life according to the Spirit" cannot be conquered by anything - period.
If we live this type of life, no one can be against us, because God is for us, so much so that He did not spare His only Son. Essentially, Paul is trying to tell us to live in that Faith which Abraham had, being willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. We, however, must develop our Faith through prayer and actions.
Lent is to be a time to reflect deeply on what Jesus did for us. To do this we must regularly pray and fulfill our Lenten practices (both of self denial and of positive actions). We can lose the regular prayer and practices quite easily between Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday of Lent. We - being human - will simply not be able to have regular prayer or to regularly fulfill our Lenten practices, if we do not set a schedule for regular prayer, reflection and those practices we have chosen to take our eyes off material things. These Lenten prayers and practices of denying ourselves some material goods are so much more important than New Years' Resolutions. Lenten prayer and practices have a higher goal. That goal is to prepare ourselves for the spiritual celebration of the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.
Mark - Chapter 9
Mark, probably the first of the Gospels, has Peter, James and John witnessing a Jesus transformed and talking to Moses and Elijah (whom the Old Testament says was taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot after he had turned his Prophetic mission over to Elisha). The humanity of these three Apostles, who were terrified at the Transfiguration of Jesus, a person they were following, as well as their fear to question what Jesus meant by "rising from the dead" show us that they are real persons without a firm Faith yet. Further on in this Chapter, the disciples again could not understand what Jesus was talking about when He said that the Son of Man would be killed, but arise after three days. Even though they did not understand what He was saying, "they were afraid to question Him".
In short, the story of Abraham shows us what Faith can move us to do, even as Abraham was about to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. Abraham believed that God could speak to him. We have to adjust our Faith to what - just as real - the Holy Spirit is going to ask us to do.
Saint Paul tells us that we must "live according to the Spirit". Lenten prayer and practices are one means of doing this, taking us to further think deeply about ways of Christian living.
Mark emphasizes that the Apostles were not persons with a deep faith at that time. They were afraid of Jesus speaking to Moses and Elijah and of His being transfigured with clothes of dazzling white. This pattern of fear to question Jesus about what He meant when He told Peter, James and John that He would rise from the dead and this pattern of all the disciples being afraid to ask what He meant by being killed but rising on the third day continued until the Resurrection. So it is with our faith. It must grow. One certain way to do this is to work hard to understand the coming "Three Great Days" of the Last Supper, of the suffering and death of Jesus, and finally of the Resurrection. We will develop a stronger faith in the reality of this events and how they continue to affect our lives.