Good Company (homily)
Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 15:5-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36
I have a student who has a friend who is very confident about God. He knows it all. He’s been praying a lot lately, and God has been telling him he’s supposed to drop out of school. God wants him to drop. No question.
Well, my student said to him, jokingly, next time you talk to God, will you ask him a few questions for me? Because I can never seem to get a straight answer.
And the friend replied: you’re just not praying hard enough.
As if this is all up to us. As if we just have to be good enough and pure enough. As if the people who are having problems in this world are having problems because they aren’t as advanced as the really spiritual people.
No. This is a sign of this young man’s immaturity. This is a sign that he hasn’t really read the Bible. He just thinks he has.
Look at Abram in Genesis today. The Lord shows him the stars in the sky and Abram puts his faith in Him. He acts with righteousness. But then the very next thing in the story is that Abram doubts. He turns around and questions. “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” Because this is how it really goes in the spiritual life. Faith is always followed by doubt. Highs are always followed by lows. God has spoken to Abram directly, intimately, as God speaks to all of us directly, intimately, but even that’s not enough. Even the stars are not enough. We have to ask for a clarity that we can never really have.
And God’s response to the question isn’t to make Abram feel all warm and fuzzy. It’s to put him into a trance, to “envelope” him “with a deep, terrifying darkness.”
That’s how we know that this young man, this good, young man, hasn’t matured yet in the faith. He hasn’t been terrified yet. That’s how we know that he’s getting this backwards. He’s trying to envelope the Lord, and he thinks he has. He’s not being
Look at what happens to Abram before this passage, a few chapters earlier, when the Lord first comes to him. “The Lord spoke to Abram,” Genesis says. Just that. That’s all. We have no details. There’s no sense of why God would choose Abram, what’s so great about Abram, how Abram could have deserved this, because Abram doesn’t deserve it, as we don’t deserve it. It’s all grace.
And what’s the first thing that Abram does at that point? Immediately? He lies. He lies about his wife being his sister, to save his own skin, to keep the Pharaoh from killing him and taking her, because she is so beautiful. He lies.
This is how it goes throughout the book of Genesis, with Abram and his descendants. It’s one big dysfunctional family, full of cheating and lying and favoritism and sleeping around and sibling rivalry and conflict and pettiness of all kinds, and God keeps coming to them anyway, again and again, keeps coming to them and blessing them and guiding them. And that’s the good news, because God will keep coming to us, too, into our dysfunctions, into our fractured and difficult lives.
This is how it is, that God comes to us and promises us as he promises Abraham but that the promise doesn’t seem to be fulfilled, the good things don’t seem to happen, at least not in the way we expect. Abraham is told that he will be the father of the nations. But then the child doesn’t come. Sarah is barren. They’re too old. And they wander around the desert, and they question and they despair, and when the child finally comes, when Isaac starts to become a man, the Lord suddenly asks Abraham to sacrifice him, to offer him up on the altar.
This is how it is. We are promised the Promised Land, we are promised home, but somehow, despite the joy we feel now and then and all the good things we receive, the Promised Land is always far off. We don’t quite reach it, as Abraham doesn’t reach it, or Isaac, or Jacob, or Joseph. Not even Moses reaches the Promised Land. Centuries go by and the promise isn’t fulfilled, at least in the way we expect it to be, because as Philippians says, we are too preoccupied with “earthly things,” we are thinking in terms of power and glory, not in terms of what faith is really about.
The poor disciples in the gospel today, overwhelmed by the light of the Transfiguration, so terrified they want to build booths and sell tickets. They don’t get it yet.
Remember what happens before this moment, in the great pre-transfiguration discourse, when Jesus tells them that he will die and they must die, too, to their false selves, to their hope for power, to their boyish misconceptions that like this young man who thinks that he is in control they are in control and to follow Christ is to have everything figured out. No. They must die.
Remember what happens after this: conflict and confusion and the cross. The crucifixion.
And even after this moment of such beauty, of such greatness, when the stars and the sky are all concentrated into a single place, are all brought together on this hill into the person of Jesus, even after this, on the way down the mountain, the disciples are arguing and fighting and bickering about who is the greatest.
So let us rejoice. We are in good company, in our weakness and our doubt. In the company of Peter and James and John. In the company of Abraham and Sarah. Rejoice. There’s nothing we can do to earn the grace of God and there’s nothing we can do to lose it. The stars are always there and the light of the Lord is always there, on every hill, and we are always blessed, even in our boneheadedness. By our loving and patient Lord. Our loving and mysterious God.
In fact, it’s only when we wander, it’s only when we’re fractured and apparently forgotten--it’s only when we admit this, when we realize this, when stop thinking we’re so great and admit that we need the light and we need the grace--it’s only then that the light can shine into us. Only then.
The stars are always there. But it’s only the darkness that we can see them