What would you give up for love?
Today’s first reading puts poor Abraham in an awful position. Remember, he and Sarah were childless well into their old age. And it is only upon entering into relationship with God that that changes. God gives them a son, along with a promise, that he would be the father of many nations.
And so put yourself in Abraham’s place. After rejoicing in the son he never thought he’d have, God tells him: “Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.” It’s not a suggestion, it’s not an invitation, it’s an order. Abraham knows that it’s only because of the gift of God that he has Isaac to sacrifice in the first place. But many of you are parents: what would you do?
The reading omits a chunk in the middle that is perhaps the most poignant part. Abraham packs up his son, travels with some servants, and he and Isaac haul the wood and the torch up the mountain. Isaac asks him: “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Can you even begin to imagine the anguish in poor Abraham’s heart? And yet he responds in faith: “My son, God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering.” Which, of course is true. God had provided Isaac, who was intended to be the sheep. But Abraham couldn’t have known that God would intervene.
We could get caught up in the injustice here and call God to task for asking such a horrible thing in the first place. Why would God test poor Abraham so? Why would he give him a son in his old age, only to take him away? What purpose did that have? But we have to know that the purpose of the story is to illustrate that God does have salvation in mind. Yes, God would provide the lamb. It was never going to be Isaac; it’s not even the sheep caught up in the thicket – not really. We know that the sheep for the burnt offering is none other than God’s own Son, his only one, whom he loves. The story is ultimately about Jesus, and his death and resurrection are what’s really going on in today’s Liturgy of the Word.
But let’s also be clear: Abraham trusted God and was willing to give up the thing he’d probably die for – his own son. So what are we willing to give so that we can demonstrate – to ourselves if no one else – our trust in God’s ability to love us beyond all telling? For Lent, we’ve given up chocolate, or sweets, or even negative thinking or swearing. Maybe we’ve not done well with them, or maybe we have even given them up. But we need to see in Abraham’s willingness that our sacrifices are important; they mean something.
Jesus goes up a mountain in today’s readings too – and he too sees that he is to become the sheep for the sacrifice – sooner rather than later. That was the meaning of the Law and the prophets of old, symbolized by Moses and Elijah. But knowing that, and knowing what’s at stake, he does not hesitate for a moment to go down the mountain and soldier on to that great sacrifice. He willingly gives his own life to be the sheep for the sacrifice, because leaving us in our sins was a price he was not willing to pay.
There are a lot of things out there for us that seem good. But the only supreme good is the life of heaven, and eternity with our God. Think of the thing that means everything to you: are you willing to sacrifice that to gain heaven? Are you willing to give everything for love of God?
Because, for you, for me, God did.
God did that for us.