Second Sunday of Lent

In the Lenten Series on this past Wednesday evening, I talked a little bit about the Satan – the prosecuting attorney in Hebrew. Like Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, this being is an attribute of God who has been given an individuality and a personality. All of these beings are charged with bringing to life these divine attributes in our physical world. Our scriptures tell us that no one can “see” God and live. That “seeing” is not with our bodily eyes, but with our minds. We cannot understand God in the fullness of his being. At most, we can experience some of God’s attributes. So, these living attributes are God’s messengers – his angeloi in Greek – or, in English, his angels.

The mission of the Satan in this world is to assist us human beings to grow and become more spiritually evolved. This angel challenges us to grow by overcoming obstacles and, therefore, teaches us to avoid the easier, softer way…the way that leads to self-destruction. Today’s readings show us how.

The first reading focuses our attention on Abraham in the land of Canaan. The Canaanites at that time depended on fertility for their very survival: fertility of their fields, fertility of their flocks and herds, and fertility of their families. Starvation and death were a constant threat. The only way they knew to ensure the blessing of the gods on their lives and livelihoods was to please them by offering them the very best they had in sacrifice: the first fruits of their harvest, the first males born from their sheep and cattle, and their firstborn sons.

Living in their midst, Abraham could not help believing that this is what his God required of him. Abraham was given God’s promise that he would be the father of a great nation and that they would live on the very land where he was staying. In order to secure that promise, Abraham considered it to be a divine mandate – the voice of God himself – to sacrifice Isaac, not only his firstborn son, but his only son. Remember that Abraham was old and that Sarah, his wife, had been barren until she became pregnant with Isaac. All of Abraham’s hopes and dreams were incarnate in this son of his. Yet, in loving and generous thanksgiving to his God, he was ready and willing to give up all of that to please God and to live up to his part in the covenant. The difficulty of the challenge was matched only by the richness of the promise.

Yet, God’s challenger – his prosecuting angel – was prepared to relent if Abraham successfully met the challenge. So, the prosecutor stepped back, and allowed Abraham to buy back – to redeem – the life of his son by offering a ram in his place. From that time until today, the children of Abraham offered a sacrifice to redeem their firstborn sons, who otherwise would have belonged to God. In Jesus’s time, the offering would have been a lamb or, for the poor, two turtledoves; today, the offering is made in coins. Because of Abraham’s willingness to give everything in gratitude, God fulfilled his promise.

Now, let’s turn to today’s gospel reading of the transfiguration. Here, the event is a replay of God’s revelation of himself to Moses on Mount Horeb. There, God showed himself in a burning bush, allowed Moses to come into intimacy with him by allowing him to know his sacred Name, and gave Moses the tablets of the Law which were the stipulations of his covenant with Israel. Finally, the glory of God himself came upon the ark of the covenant in the meeting tent in the midst of the people.

Instead of a burning bush, Peter, James, and John encountered Jesus, his garments radiant. Instead of stone tablets, they see Moses and Elijah – the Law and the Prophets – in conversation with Jesus, mediator of the new covenant. In other words, God’s revelation is summed up and perfected in the person of Jesus. Peter wants to build three tents there – to capture and hold the glory of God as once it remained in the tent among the people. Even more significantly, Peter wanted the experience to continue. But the cloud of God’s glory – like the one that descended upon the meeting tent – covered them and the same voice that had spoken at Jesus’s baptism spoke to them saying in the words of the suffering servant song from the Prophet Isaiah, “This is my beloved Son.” But then it added, “Listen to him.” The Law and the Prophets are thus fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God.

As much as the disciples wanted to stay on the mountain and enjoy their spiritual experience, they immediately started back down the mountain, following Jesus. What awaits them – and us – is the real world: the world of trials and obstacles, the world of suffering and death…and rising from the dead.

Saint Paul, in the reading from his letter to the Romans, sums up what today’s scriptures are teaching. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” We might imagine that this is addressed to the persecutions and hardships faced by the early Christian community. But he shows us that it’s much more than that. He calls upon the image of Abraham and Isaac to show God’s love and fidelity. He shows us Abraham’s faith in reverse, as it were. As Abraham didn’t spare his only-begotten son out of love for God, Paul reminds us that God didn’t spare his only-begotten Son out of love for us. “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all.” So, the prosecuting angel’s challenge is met by the death and resurrection of the Son of God. “Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us, who will condemn?”

In his covenant with Abraham, God accepted the offering of his only-begotten son, Isaac. In the covenant on the mountain, Moses, sealed the agreement with the blood of animals. Now, God gives his only-begotten Son, transfigured before us, to us, his disciples, as the seal of the new covenant in his own blood. Therefore, we can join our voices to this hymn of victory from the Book of Revelation (Rev 12:10-12A) saying:

Now have salvation and power come,
    and the kingdom of our God
    and the authority of his Anointed.
For the accuser of our brothers is cast out,
    who accuses them before our God day and night.
They conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony;
    love for life did not deter them from death.
Therefore, rejoice, you heavens,
    and you who dwell in them.