HOLDING ONTO SOMETHING: A HOMILY ON THE SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT, YEAR C
Yesterday, we had only 5 students in the house. So I decided to spoil them a little. I took one of them and we went to buy some grilled fish. We got there at about 5pm and the fish man said it will not be ready untill about 6:30pm. I told him we will go home and come back. Then he asked us to pay him, so that he can trust that we will come back for the fish. In Nigeria, once you pay for something, you are at the mercy of the seller. So, I decided to return the favour by not trusting him as well. I told him to trust me that I will come back. I took his number and promised to call him. Eventually, we went, got the fish and paid him. But this got me thinking for a while, about trust. You cannot enter into any form of relationship if there is no trust between both parties. Our readings today show us the history of how we have struggled to trust God.
BERIYTH: SELF-MALEDICTORY OATH
In those days: God brought Abram outside and said, “Look towards heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness. And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a she-goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, Abram drove them away. A the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram; and behold, a dread and great darkness fell upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”: Abram has a name which means ‘The beloved father’. When his name changed to Abraham, it means ‘The father of many’. Yet, he spent most of his life childless. God promised to make Abram the father of a great nation, but as much as he believed God, so much did he also doubt God. He wanted something to hold unto just like the fish man. God decided to go into a covenant with Abram. The kind of covenant God is making with Abram is a self-maledictory oath. The hebrew word for covenant is ‘beriyth’, which means ‘to cut’. It comes from the fact that in all covenants, something is cut. In a self-maledictory oath, an animal is cut in two equal halves and placed opposite each other. Then the two parties of the covenant will pass between the two halves. What it means is like saying ‘May I become like this animal, divided into two, if I fail to keep my own part of the covenant.’ We will also see that when Jesus will give the bread of the New Covenant to us, he will first break it.
God allowed Abram to do all the dirty work of cutting up the animals, but God protected Abram from taking the oath. God took both His own part of the covenant by passing in the form of smoke and he took Abram’s part of the covenant by passing in the form of fire. These are the two forms that God takes whenever he appeared in the bible. First and foremost, both smoke and fire have mysterious origin and destination. One cannot physically explain where they come from and where they usually disappear to. There is no deposit of fire or of smoke anywhere. Also, God knows our temptation to have something we can hold onto, which is what makes us worship idols. We want something we can see, something we can hold, and something we can control, and both smoke and fire do not fit that description. In our churches, lit candles still symbolize the presence of God, and so does the smoke from the incense.
Just like Abram, lent is a time when we do all the dirty job, but our fasting, prayer and almsgiving cannot be used to control God. God is completely beyond us. Abram struggled with this. God made him a promise. He is getting old and there is no sign of the fulfillment of that promise. Yet, there is something to hold onto except a covenant which cannot really be held onto. That is why even after this covenant, Abram continued to struggle with trusting God. He trusted himself more than he trusted God. And he eventually learnt to trust God after so many failures with trusting himself.
WHO IS MY GOD?
Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so walk as you have an example in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly,, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in this way in the Lord, my beloved.: Of all the books of the New Testament, there is no other book that speaks of Joy that this letter of St. Paul to the Philippians. Yet, it is a book that was written from prison. How can someone in prison speak so much about joy, even calling the Philippians his joy and crown. Most of the people who lived in Philippi were people who spent most of their lives serving the Roman empire, especially as soldiers. Yet this did not bring them joy. The emperor was like a god to many of them, until they became converted to God. St. Paul is urging them to put their trust in no one else but God, just like he is doing from his prison cell. He is in prison, but very joyful, because he trusts in God to be his light and salvation. He accuses many of them as enemies of the cross. They want Christ, but they don’t want the cross. They want christianity to be promise of a good life and their stomach becomes their God. We can be like that also. But the season of lent is here to help us to detach ourselves from food, drink, and the things of this world so that we can fix our eyes on our glorious resurrection in heaven. But many of us are afraid of this promise. Many of us, believe there is heaven, but we have no proof and we may wonder ‘what if….’ We always want something to hold onto, and as far as the promise of eternal life is concerned, there is nothing to hold onto. God comes to us as light and smoke and we are unable to catch these things and mould images with them. How then, can we trust?
JESUS IS GOD
At that time: Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep but kept awake, and they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”- not knowing what he said. As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him?” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.: The disciples had been following Jesus in faith, but there was a lot of confusion about Jesus, and there was nothing to hold onto. This experience on the mountain strengthens their faith somewhat. Pope Benedict XVI in his book ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ tell us that the Gospel of Luke is the only book which tells us why Jesus went to the mountain in the first place, namely to pray. Therefore, what the disciples saw is what Jesus looks like when He is in prayer. I like the fact that Moses came to the mountain as well. In Exodus 34:29 we are told that when Moses came down from the mountain, his face was radiant with light. But there is a difference between that and what we see in Jesus at the transfiguration. Moses had been in the presence of God for so long and the light remained on his face. But in the case of Jesus, the light was coming from within Him. Moses was a man who stood in God’s presence. But Jesus is God and whenever He prays, His divine light shines from within Him. Peter, James and John were given something to hold onto by this sight. The voice of the Father, from the clouds also gave confirmation. Notice light and cloud in this story as well. But when they went down the mountain, they began to encounter a lot of problems. It is now up to them, having seen that Jesus is God, to hold onto him and to trust him completely. We also will struggle with different issues in life and we will want to hold onto something, like the fish man. But God hardly gives us anything to hold onto, because he knows us. We like to be in control and if we find anything to hold onto, we make it our God. The whole idea behind our relationship with God is to trust Him so much and to hold onto Him, even when it seems we have really nothing tangible to hold onto. We may not know how, and when. But we know Who.