March 29, 2009. Lent 5 Passion Sunday
The Rev. Kurt J Henle, Rector, All Saints Anglican Church, Traverse City, MI
OT: Gen 22:1-14; Psalm 43; Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-15; Gospel: John 8:46-59
On this Passion Sunday, we need to ask what we mean by the “Passion” of Christ. The Latin root means Suffering & Submission, as in the word “passive” & the kind of “patient” you find in a hospital who endures & pays the bills w/o complaining. Christ, in His Passion, willingly accepted the cost of God’s judgment on sin – He emptied Himself & laid aside His prerogative of Action. He patiently & passively accepted & suffered His Father’s will. This we mean by His Passion.
On Passion Sunday, we mark the beginning of Passiontide. In this portion of the Lenten season, we transition from looking at the Nature of Sin - along with the work of Satan in the world, & the testing of the saints - to turn our eyes to the Nature of the divine Sacrifice for the remission of sin: Christ’s painful & costly work of Redemption on the Cross. Passiontide marks the 3rd stage of our Lenten preparations. You may recall, Stage 1 began with Pre-Lent, the Gesima Sundays, as we reflected on the fruitfulness of God’s Kingdom & the fruitfulness of our Lenten walk with our Lord Jesus to Jerusalem. With Ash Wednesday, we began the 2nd stage, which ended with Refreshment Sunday last week.
This was also Mothering Sunday with its theme of Jerusalem, the destination for our Lord Jesus in His Passion & the New Jerusalem, our spiritual destination & home. A Footnote on the Common Lectionary vs. the historic Lectionary: as you recall, the “newer” lectionaries truncated the Gesima Sundays, giving less time to prepare for the Passion of Christ. The revisions also expunged Passion Sunday from the Church Calendar. To add a dose of confusion, the revisers began calling Palm Sunday “the Sunday of the Passion”, which is Not the same as “Passion Sunday”. The historic structure of the Church’s Lenten preparations was used well over 1,000 yrs. Even through the turmoil of the Reformation, the historic calendar & Lectionary remained largely intact. A stable pattern of public readings, year by year, century by century, first in Latin, then in various vernaculars, I believe, is well worth preserving against the radical & often thoughtless revisions of the 1970’s.
We said that with Passiontide we turn from the Nature of Sin to the Sacrifice for Sin. Foundational to that transition is the consistent Biblical teaching that 1. sin is Death, & 2. the only remedy for Sin is Life. When we speak of sacrifice for Sin, we don’t mean that God needs a sacrifice, a death, because He is easily angered. Instead, the Bible teaches that the sinful, fallen human race needs Life. Sin – small or great –is always an infinite offense against an infinitely Holy God. His Holiness & Justice is like a Consuming flame that burns away every impurity. God can’t just wink at Sin, because it contradicts His very nature.
The only source of Life for sinful mankind is the infinitely worthy sacrifice of Life, the life of Jesus Christ, fully God & sinless man. The sacrificial system of the OT always points to that supreme & all-sufficient sacrifice of our Lord Jesus, who, as our High Priest (Epistle reading today) offers His Life - Victim & Priest - that we might have life again & a place in the New Jerusalem.
Our OT lesson today from Gen. 22 points to Christ’s sacrifice more so than any other. This passage is Either a great offense, Or the most penetrating prophecy of Christ’s perfect sacrifice. The radical costliness of Christ’s sacrifice confronts & shocks us in the human enactment of God’s plan of Redemption by Fr. Abraham & his son Isaac. Gen 22 is also one of the strangest episodes in the OT, a revolting scandal to the casual reader who may call this event a case of “child abuse” demanded by a bloodthirsty monster. Bp. Jack Spong referred to Gen 22 as “a barbaric idea based on a primitive concept of God that must be dismissed." Of course, it is true that God strictly forbade human sacrifices & child abuse. Without Christ at the Center of this event, it simply makes no sense.
Orthodox Jews have an equally hard time accepting the Akeda, “the binding of Isaac”, as prophecy. In fact, they suggest that Sarah, Isaac’s mother, whose death is recorded in the next chapter, Gen 23, dropped dead as soon as she heard what her husband had been up to.
How do We understand this event? The writer of Hebrews provides the key: You see, God had promised innumerable descendants to Abraham through Isaac. Therefore, if God now required Isaac’s life, He would also have to raise him again from the dead! Heb 11:19, “He [Abraham] considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”
In other words, Isaac acted out the Resurrection of Christ, just as Abraham acted out God, the Father’s sacrifice of our Lord on the cross. Notice the detail: In v 4, we learn that from the moment of God’s command to Abraham to the sacrifice of the substitutionary ram 3 days had elapsed. You see, to Abraham, Isaac was reckoned dead for 3 days, until he received Isaac back in a figurative resurrection. Notice also that as Jesus took his place between 2 thieves on the cross, Isaac took his place with 2 young men - v 3 – Abraham’s prophecy has additional interesting details that require longer readings, however.
So, as Abraham’s prophecy is an offense to the casual reader, so it is a miracle to us. The place is Mt Moriah (v 2, “the bitterness of the Lord”) is the area of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where 2,000 yrs later another Son was sacrificed by His Father – amazingly this was the same Place. V 8 can be translated either as “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering” (ESV), or “God will provide Himself [as] the lamb for a burnt offering”.
This Father, God the Father, would offer what no human father ever could, the life of His only Son –
whom He loves - as an act of lavishly generous & perfect love. And yet, He would also resurrect Him after 3 days. Without Christ at the center of this story, Gen 22 appears indeed repulsive & seems to make no sense.
Here is another thought: Abraham, as an old man, could not match Isaac in strength. In v 5, Abraham spoke of Isaac as a “boy”, true - but his age was probably in the 30’s (37 yrs old when his mother died in ch. 23). As such, he would not be bound against his will. The text uses the phrase "they went - both of them together" twice: v 6 & 8. (Repeated phrases, or names, in the Bible are very significant, as you see in God’s calling of Abraham - once for command – v 1, twice for the commendation after passing the test – v 11). Actually the Hebrew, twice repeated phrase actually says that "they went - in Agreement". Both Abraham & Isaac were tested in their obedience. Both obeyed, submitting freely to God’s will.
Did They Know that they were acting out prophecy? The answer is yes. In v 14, Abraham named the place Jehovah Jireh – meaning "in the mount of the Lord It shall be seen" (v 14, KJV). Footnote: NAV – “the Lord will provide”. The primary sense is “to see”. Only the secondary sense is “to provide”, as we say in the idiom “I will look after you”. God did Provide for our Redemption there, yes - but He also provided a view of the historic fact of Christ’s Sacrifice in this same place.
So on Mt Moriah, the “bitterness of the Lord” also became Jehovah Jireh, the mount where God would Provide & where the death of Christ would be Seen, hanging from the cross of Calvary (Golgotha), the place of the skull. Jesus understood the prophecy of Gen 22 when He said in v 56 of the Gospel, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”
And then Jesus, knowing that He would fulfill Abraham’s prophecy declared Himself to be the great I AM, who appeared to Moses at the burning bush. Clearly, the Pharisees understood Christ’s claim & fell into a murderous rage. They picked up stones to kill Jesus for blasphemy, unable to accept the Truth incarnate. But Jesus’ time had not yet come. It was God’s choice to fulfill every Messianic prophecy in detail. And so, Jesus hid Himself & left the Temple.
The Passiontide had begun. We veil the cross from now until the Resurrection to mark the hidden Christ until Easter. We follow our Lord into this time of mourning for the costly sacrifice for sin, praying our sermon hymn “lead us heavenly Father, lead us”, so that in this time of our testing “we may be governed & preserved evermore in body & soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Collect). AMEN