Sunday, February 21, 2016

Faith of Abraham

Every year in Lent, our readings for the first couple Sundays follow a pattern. On the first Sunday of Lent, we always hear about Jesus's temptation in the desert. And then, on the second Sunday, we always hear about the Transfiguration. This Transfiguration story is always coupled with a first reading about Abraham, demonstrating his faith. So together, the first couple Sundays of Lent always sum up what Lent is about: it's about going into the desert in order to increase our faith. It's about leaving the comfort of the world, entering into the desert, and coming out the other side with greater faith.

But faith is a tricky thing. How do we often treat faith? I fear we often treat faith as just ignoring the problem. You have cancer? Your kids are going off the rails? You're frightened about the direction of the world? Just have faith. That's what we so often tell people. And if this is faith, the danger is that it looks a whole lot like sticking your head in the sand. When confronted with that age old question, "Why does a good God allow suffering?", we often say, "Have faith," or, "It's a mystery," when we really mean, "Just ignore the problem."

But what Abraham learns and what Jesus's apostles learn in the sufferings that they are dealing with is that faith means dealing with this present reality head on. What's interesting about this Abraham story and this Transfiguration story is that they are moments of doubt or questioning, on the part of Abraham and on the part of the apostles. But God doesn't condemn them for their questions or reject their questions. He accepts the questions and doubles down on his promises.

Not a common scene in art, I had to resort to Legos
The first thing we notice when we turn to Abraham in our first reading, well, is that it's strange. With these animals split in two and fire pots and flaming torches, this is all just weird. So, context. At this point in Abraham's story, God has already called him out of his old land and he promised him countless descendants, a great land, and a great nation. Yet Abraham, still called Abram, doesn't even have a single child. So countless descendants, but still not a single child, and Abram is over 75 years old. Abram sees the obvious problem with this, so just a few verses before our reading today he gently tries to ask God about this. He didn't stick his head in the sand and ignore the obvious contradiction in God's promise, he tries to deal with it. So what does God do? He reaffirms his promise by comparing Abram's descendants to the number of the stars, but then he takes it one step further with this ceremony with the animals and the fire pot. It's a lot of ancient near east symbolism, but the basic meaning in this: God is saying, "May I be like these animals if I fail to keep my promise to you." And that's a big deal. God is entering into some sort of agreement with Abram where he treats Abram like an equal. Now obviously they're not equals, but God loves him enough to treat him that way.

And then in the gospel, just a few verses prior to today's Transfiguration, Jesus had prophesied about his coming suffering, death, and resurrection, and then he told them to take up their own crosses and follow him. And they weren't getting it. So Jesus takes a few of them up the mountain to witness this transfiguration as a way of bolstering their faith, to prepare them for the coming trials. Like with Abram, he doesn't condemn their weaknesses in the faith, but he doesn't excuse it either. He uses it as an opportunity to explain just how serious he is.

And what's interesting is that Jesus uses this Transfiguration as an incredible teaching moment. To the Jews, Moses represents the Law since God gave him the 10 Commandments, and Elijah represents the prophets. And that's basically the Old Testament: the law and the prophets. So Jesus is demonstrating that all of Jewish scripture points to him, that the Death he has prophesied will lead to a Resurrection, and that he is reliable in his promise. And Peter's response, "Let us build three tents," no, he didn't want to go camping. Peter was referencing the Jewish Feast of Booths, which was a feast where the people would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and stay 7 days in tents to recall the flimsy dwellings they had during the desert wanderings. Peter was trying to give this Transfiguration a religious context.

What the apostles came to understand was that their faith wasn't so much in a thing or even a promise. It was in a person. Same thing with Abraham. We see is that Abraham's faith isn't in a thing, his faith is in a person. So Abraham can question what seems to be a contradiction in God's promises, not from a position of doubt, but from a position of curiosity that seeks understanding. There's a wonderful Latin phrase made popular by St. Anselm (bishop and scholar living in the late 1000's): Fides Quaerens Intellectum, Faith Seeking Understanding. That's what Abraham did, that's what Anselm did, and that's what we're called to do. This means that I first believe what God has revealed, and only then do I seek to understand it. This is how we approach any number of situations when we're seeking information. When you open up the newspaper, you have faith that the authors and editors have a message to convey, even if you don't believe they'll be honest, before you ever to seek to understand what their message is. With God we go a step further. We believe he has conveyed something, and we believe he is honest and good in that message, before we ever seek to understand it.

So, as opposed to some sort of pseudo faith that causes us to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the trials that surround us, Christian faith calls us to stare down the problem and believe anyway. When confronted with the sufferings of this world and of our own lives, we are not called to ignore the sufferings, but to deal with them head on. Whether it's poverty in the third world or our own private sin that continues to plague us, the world tells us that this is a sign that there is no loving God. But we also don't want to discount the role of the devil in this. The devil hates you, he hates the faith he sees in you, and he is more clever than you or I will ever be. He will twist things so that faith looks like the stupidest thing in the world, he'll make it look very reasonable and very attractive to abandon faith in God when the going gets tough.

But we know better, we know to deal with the trials of the world head on the way Abram dealt with his trials head on, and we just say, "How?" How, God, will your goodness shine through in this situation? How will your faithfulness shine through today? How will this Passion lead to a new Resurrection? If we end this Lent with a faith more ready to see the Resurrection present in every Passion, then it will be a successful Lent indeed.

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