February 24 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Second Sunday in Lent
Texts: Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36
Theme: My first thought was something like "Past, Present and Future", as we look back to the beginning of the journey to Abram, we look at a present encounter with Christ, and we look ahead in hope to the future with St Paul's Letter to the Philippians. But when I thought about it, it occurred to me that much the same could be said on any other Sunday. (We remember the past, we look to the future and we experience God in the present.) So what about "Listening to Him" as an alternative suggestion?
Introduction. The Lenten Season is a time of paring back to remind ourselves of the basics of our faith, and today we have three readings to help us do just that. We begin with the "old" Covenant, the basic promises God made to Abram. At the heart of that deal is the fact that Abram listened to God, which is something much deeper in meaning than "heard" God. Abram "heeded" God's word, he took it into himself, accepting its truth and thereby making it part of his own truth, the truth he would lead his life by. It might be stretching it a bit to say that our epistle reading is also about listening to God, but it is certainly about choosing not to listen to our stomachs! That is, it's about not listening to our selfish appetites and instinctual urges; and not listening to the clamour of the world. It is about hanging on to the truth (the gospel) that we have heard, and standing firm in our faith until the Lord's return. And, of course, at the heart of the story of the Transfiguration is the voice from heaven telling the startled disciples, "Listen to him."
In that sense perhaps the best background to this week's readings are last week's readings, and, in particular, St Luke's account of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. The question for Jesus throughout that encounter was, to whom shall I listen? Portrayed as a debate with the devil, there is also a sense in which it could be described as a debate with "common sense", or with his own gut feelings, or even with his own instinctual drives. Take the first temptation, for example; after fasting for 40 days it may well have been his stomach urging him on to use his powers to turn the stones into bread! But with each of the temptations Jesus declined to listen to the devil's suggestions: instead he "listened" to the word of God as written in the Scriptures.
A failure to listen – at least, a failure to listen to God – is at the very beginning of our faith story. Long before Abram came on the scene Adam and Eve faced a simple choice: faced with the fruit of the tree that had such sensuous appeal to them – "the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom" – they chose not to listen to God's health warning in respect of that fruit, and instead listened to the snake, which again could be interpreted as listening to their own instinctual drives, or as St Paul puts it, listening to their stomachs.
Our first lesson is a particularly good choice as a guide to all this. Although Abram gives an outstanding example of listening to God when he accepts without question God's assurance that he will sire a son of his own – despite being, in the memorable phrase of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, "as good as dead" (Hebrews 11:12) – that part of the narrative begins with Abram giving an equally outstanding example of how to speak to God. The dialogue opens with some rather bland remarks from God – don't be afraid, I'll protect you, and make sure you get plenty of goodies. It's almost the gospel of prosperity stuff we get from people like Rick Warren or Joel Osteen in the USA.
And Abram doesn't hold back. Perhaps we should look at the previous chapter to shed some light on Abram's feelings here, although his age and a lack of a legitimate heir are obviously preying on his mind. Recall that God had uprooted his father, Terah, from his home base in Ur and had called him and the family to journey to a land God would show him (sometime). In fact, Terah got only as far as Haran and bailed out of the whole adventure. It was left to Abram to resume the journey, and it hadn't been easy. Chapter 14 shows a land of warring tribes: Abram's nephew, Lot, had got caught up in all that and Abram had had to raise a fighting force to go and rescue him. Throughout, Abram had remained faithful to the one who had called him; but still his dearest wish, a son and heir from his own body, had been denied him. And he knew who to blame for that: "You have given me no children", he complains to God (15:3).
More about that below: the point here is that listening to God does not preclude "talking back to God" in appropriate cases (and in appropriate ways). God wants honest dialogue with us, not dumb insolence. Abram shows us how to listen and how to talk back. And when God assures him of his inheritance of the land Abram doesn't hesitate to ask for some proof.
The ritual details surrounding the making of the covenant sound rather bizarre and more than a little gruesome to us, so a little background information may help here. Apparently, in ancient societies in the region, where an important agreement was to be made, the parties would walk down an aisle flanked on both sides by pieces of sacrificed animals. It seems that the idea was a sort of acted out imprecation: "may I suffer the same fate as these animals if I break this agreement." There is a reference to this sort of practice in Jeremiah 34:18-19.
On a more speculative note, here's a couple of way out things to think about. First, the commentaries suggest that behind the exhortation to "listen to him" is Deuteronomy 18:15: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him. But what about the even more important exhortation in Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord." Yes, that might be a bit of a stretch, but notice that it is immediately after these words from heaven are spoken that Jesus is found to be "alone".
The other point concerns the darkness that features in both the story of Abram and the Transfiguration. As I read these passages in preparation for these notes, into my mind came the phrase "bringing the curtain down" on something, meaning something like bringing it to a close, or forgetting it or finishing with it. (Presumably it comes from the theatre, when the fall of the curtain means the end of the act or even the whole drama.) Could it be that in both these passages something has now ended and a new beginning is to take place? (Moses, the Law-giver, and Elijah, the Prophet, have now exited the stage, and Jesus is the new actor for us to listen to?)
Genesis. This is a primary religious experience. The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. Classic language describing a subjective experience of the Divine. But notice that (somewhat unusually) the encounter seems to get off to a poor start: the Divine and the human are out of sync. God is bringing assurances of safety, protection and abundance, but none of these have any value to Abram: what he wants is a son and heir. In the absence of such, Abram has either already followed, or is planning to follow, the custom of the time whereby a childless man would adopt one of his male servants as his heir and the executor of his estate. Notice that God doesn't just promise a son; he promises descendants too numerous to count. And then he promises Abram the land he is standing on as an inheritance, revealing to him: "I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it." And the rest is a very troubled history, indeed!
Taking It Personally.
· Take the next opportunity you have to look up at the stars. Remember how much clearer and numerous they look in the desert (the absence of artificial light). Reflect on how amazing God's words must have sounded to Abram. And then fast forward to today, when Jews, Christians, and Moslems all recognise Abraham as the great patriarch. How do you feel about that?
· What is your most heartfelt desire at this time? Have you asked God for it?
· Do you feel that God has failed to give you something – are you disappointed or even angry with God on any such matter? Can you talk to God about it?
· Ponder verse 12. What do you feel about that? Is darkness for you a symbol of the presence or of the absence of God?
Philippians. This whole chapter 3 is worth reading in this season of Lent. St Paul is trying to underline again the complete transformation that conversion to Christ entails. Nothing can compare, nothing is of any value, besides our relationship with Christ. Yet, he says, some go on with their worldly lives as if nothing has changed. Remembering how important Roman citizenship was, he nevertheless insists that our true citizenship is in heaven: our primary commitment is to Christ, and not to any earthly ruler (even the Roman emperor).
Taking It Personally.
· Focus on verse 17. Do you have any role models who inspire you in living the Christian life?
· A good passage for a Lenten spiritual stock-take.
· Has there ever been an occasion where the demands or expectations of the State have clashed with your faith? Should a Christian employer be able to give priority to Christian applicants for a job?
Luke. Again, we have another example of a religious experience, but in this case it may not be clear who is having it. When we read the text carefully we find no reference to Jesus himself experiencing anything. It seems that it was the three disciples who experienced whatever was happening there. Notice how often the word "appearance" or its correlates occurs in this account. But appears to whom? The "Transfiguration event" took place "while he was praying". What exactly happened? Well, first of all "the appearance of his face changed": how would Jesus himself be aware of that? He could, perhaps, have noticed his clothes shining brilliantly, but again it may be that Jesus was lost in prayer and all this "appeared" only to the witnesses. Interestingly, the word used in verse 31 for "departure" is the same word used for "exodus". We should no doubt have in mind, too, Jesus' baptism; but notice the different words from heaven. At his baptism, the words from heaven were addressed to Jesus ("You are my Son whom I love"); here the words are addressed to the witnesses ("this is my Son whom I have chosen"). Then comes the command to "listen to him". Typically, St Luke the brilliant storyteller immediately shows us examples of their inability to do just that. St Peter comes up with a hare-brained scheme of his own; and when they come down from the mountain, things go from bad to worse. They fail to heal the boy; they cannot understand what Jesus is talking about when he predicts his own death; and, worst of all, they nearly come to blows over their respective rankings within the group. When we stop listening to God...
Taking It Personally.
· How often do you listen to God compared to the time you spend talking to God? If you ask God something, do you give him a chance to answer?
· When lessons are read in church, do you really try to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church, or are you more inclined to wander off the mental track? By the time you get home can you remember all three readings?
· Have you ever had a "transfiguring" experience – have you been looking at something when its appearance suddenly seemed to change? What effect did the experience have on you? Was it a lasting effect?