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Second Sunday of Lent Cycle C (2)
You may have heard about the elderly woman who, when sitting in the waiting room for her first appointment with a new dentist, noticed his DDS diploma, which bore his full name.
Suddenly, she remembered that a tall, handsome, dark-haired boy with the same name had been in her high school class some 40-odd years before. Could he be the same fellow that she had a secret crush on, way back then?
Upon seeing him, however, she quickly discarded any such thought. This balding, gray-haired man with the deeply lined face was way, way too old to have been her classmate.
After he examined her teeth, she got up the courage to ask him if he had by any chance attended Morgan Park High School.
“Yes. Yes. I did,” he gleamed with pride. “I’m a Morgan Mustang.”
“When did you graduate?” she asked.
He answered, “In 1959. Why do you ask?”
“You were in my class!” she exclaimed.
He looked at her closely and then asked, “What did you teach?”
Aging changes our appearance. Here is something we need to think about: so do our emotions. We see someone who is obviously angry, or happy, or sad. We could be wrong, but usually we are right in discerning their emotion. Emotions change our appearance.
“When we are spending time in the presence of God regularly, our face changes,” writes Pastor Gene Brooks. “It changes from angry, upset, irritated, and critical to a contentment despite the circumstances, a joy despite the sorrow, a new perspective with better priorities informed of Scripture . . . Does your face,” asks Brooks “say about how much time you are spending in the presence of God?”
I’ve known people, haven’t you, that by just looking at them, I could tell they’ve spent a lifetime in God’s presence? It shows in their face and how they carry themselves.
Today’s lesson from Luke’s Gospel is about a time when three of Jesus’ disciples saw his appearance change in a powerful way and it had a powerful impact on their lives. You know the story.
Jesus often went off by himself for a time of prayer. This time he took three of his closest disciples with him–Peter, John and James. Together they went up onto a mountain to pray. And while they were on that mountain, something dramatic happened. Luke tells us, “As [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.”
Even more astounding, “Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.”
With this event we also get an insight into the last things which is a fitting reflection for Lent.
Jesus and Moses and Elijah look as persons do in the state of heaven. They are bodied no one said that Moses and Elijah were ghosts and Peter thought it would be fitting for them to have tents. But they literally beamed with the light of divinity. They were filled with divine life and Jesus was divine. It would be good if we could let a little of God shine forth in this life.
The apostles are like those who die but cannot yet be in the presence of God. They can still talk to God as Peter did to Jesus, but they are humbled in the presence of God. They had to be purged of their selfishness and self centeredness.
But what happens to people who do not want to let God in their lives and only want to be centered in themselves. This is what we call hell.
There are objects and people in our lives that we have become so accustomed to that we take them for granted. For example, we are so used to electricity that we assume that everything in our homes will always have the necessary power. And then a hurricane hits. And we lose power for hours. The refrigerator doesn’t work. You can’t cook anything unless you have an outdoor grill, not really useful in a rain storm. The air conditioner isn’t working, and its getting hot in the house. Worst still, there’s no TV, God forbid! The same thing with relationships. We are so accustomed to our loved ones always being at home that we enter into a bit of a shock when a child goes to college. Or far worse, someone we care for dies. Then we really feel rotten for taking their presence for granted.
Perhaps, we do this regarding our church. We are so used to coming into the Church that we tend to forget that we are coming before a special presence of God, the Sacred Presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. We take it for granted that Jesus is there with us, but we are so used to His Sacramental Presence, that we don’t give this Presence the reverence it deserves. Maybe we are so bound in the physical world that we overlook the reality of the spiritual.
Today’s readings help us to refocus on the spiritual in our lives, to refocus on the mystical. The mystery of God has entered human history in the covenant God made with this wandering Armenian, Abram, whom He now names Abraham. St. Paul tells the Philippians that they should not be like the Pharisees who are so concerned with Jewish dietary laws that “Their God is their belly,” and so proud of their circumcision that “their glory is in a shameful part of their body.” The problem was that they were not allowing mystery, the mystical, to enter their lives. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” St. Paul says. The spiritual is what matters. We have to allow God to transform our minds by his spiritual reality. We cannot allow ourselves to be reduced to a mere external following of physical laws. The spiritual must reign. The spiritual must transform the world.
We come upon Jesus at prayer on the Mountain. Even though the Transfiguration is presented in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, only Luke begins the account with the Lord at prayer. This is significant. The Lord is opening Himself to the presence of the Father. At peace, at prayer, He is transformed, transfigured, into a state that reflects the glory of God. Moses and Elijah appear. They also are radiant, reflecting the glory of God. Moses, the representative of the Books of the Law, Elijah, representing the Books of the Prophets, come to speak to Jesus, the very Word of God. They are speaking of God’s plan for his people, the conquest of the spiritual. Of course, the disciples, Peter, James and John, don’t understand this. They are still looking for a physical kingdom. The spiritual is beyond them. The voice in the cloud is meant for them and us: “This is my Beloved Son, Listen to Him.”
God wants to transform the world. He has established the Kingdom of the Spirit and called us as the new Chosen People. Following him does not mean merely performing certain external actions, like not eating pork or being circumcised, or simply coming to Church, showing up to get married, having our children baptized, receive communion or be confirmed. Following God means entering a spiritual, mystical relationship with him, a relationship that is present through our daily duties as well as when we are together at prayer.
We have to nourish our spiritual lives, our relationship to God. We have to feed our spiritual life the food of union with God. The spiritual must conquer in our lives. If we become spiritual, then we can fulfill the call to evangelize the world.
This is exhibited in a story about a meeting of leading African catechists who were discussing how to best to spread the Gospel. Various methods were suggested running from literature to videos to radio announcements. Finally, a young woman arose. She said, “When we judge that a village is ready for the Lord Jesus, the first people we send in is a devout, determined Christian family. It is their lives that will inspire the villagers to think seriously about becoming Christian. They are better than a hundred books or videos or radio announcements. Then she used this expression: She said “They will be the keyhole through which others will peer to see the Lord Christ. To spread the Church Christians must not so much promote as attract.” The woman’s views carried the day.
We all need to be less concerned with devising ways for people to hear about the faith and more concerned living the faith in a way that attracts people to the faith. We can only do this through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. The Holy Spirit is the Mystical Power of God. This Holy Mystery is a Holy Magnet. “This is my Beloved Son, listen to him,” the Sacred Voice calls out from heaven. God’s plan is that we share in the Glory of the Lord and that we share the Glory of the Lord. We have to be people of mystery. We have to be people of prayer. This is how we can listen to Him. We have to have a prayer life. We have to respond to His message in our hearts. We have to listen. We have to grow. He is transforming the world. He is transforming us.
On the Second Sunday of Lent we consider the way we are following the Lord. Do we allow ourselves to be exposed to the spiritual? Do we pray, really pray? Do we allow the spiritual to become real in our lives? Are we allowing God’s plan to take effect in our world? Are we living as citizens of heaven, or is our glory the mere external following of our religion? If someone were to ask any of us, “What exactly is a Catholic?” in what terms would we form our answer? If we were to answer the question in terms of religious practices, such as “a Catholic is a person who goes to Church on Sundays, receives the sacraments, says the Rosary, etc,” we would be giving far too much importance to what we do and not enough importance to what God is doing. However, if we were to answer the question, “What is a Catholic?” in terms of what God does, if we were to say, “A Catholic is someone united to God in such a way that others experience the Mystery of God working in him,” then it is God and his works that are the essence of lives. Few people are drawn to Catholicism because they want to do the things that Catholics do. People are drawn to Catholicism because they want to experience God as Catholics experience Him.
Spiritually alive, living with God, united in the Holy Spirit, we can become the Divine Magnet for the world.
We began today’s Gospel with Jesus at prayer, in union with the Father, entering into the mystery of his Being. He is transfigured. The disciples call out, “It is good for us to be here.” Yes it is. It is good for all of us to be here in the presence of the Lord. We also are called into the mystery of our being, the depth of whom we are where physical and spiritual unite. We are called into our depth, into union with the Holy Spirit so others might say, “It is good for us to be here.”
Second Sunday of Lent Cycle C (1)
There is an absurd story that comes out of World War II. An American soldier in Tunisia lost his bayonet. Rather than face the consequences of admitting he had lost this important weapon, he carved an excellent facsimile out of wood and placed it in the scabbard at his side.
For weeks he went about his duties carrying this fake bayonet. He was safe from getting into trouble as long as his deception went undetected. However, one day the much dreaded order came from his sergeant, “Fix bayonets.” That meant he would have to show his bayonet. Thinking quickly, the soldier hatched a plan. When the order was given, he simply stood still, not moving a muscle. The sergeant demanded an explanation.
“It’s a promise I made to my father,” said the guilty but creative soldier. “As my father lay on his deathbed,” he continued, “I told him I would never bare a bayonet on the anniversary of his death. Today is that day”
“That’s the most outlandish fish story I ever heard,” thundered the sergeant. “Let me see that bayonet.”
As the soldier somberly drew the bayonet, he declared loudly, “For breaking a solemn promise may the Lord turn this bayonet to wood!” And with that, he drew his fake bayonet. (1)
Now that was a quick-thinking soldier. But he was right about one thing–it’s never good to break a solemn promise.
Our lesson for this second Sunday in Lent concerns a promise–a promise that God made to Abraham. At the time this promise was made, Abraham was still known as Abram. The writer of Genesis begins our story like this, “After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.’”
Now we might rightfully ask, “After what?” The writer begins by saying “After this . . .” What is he referring to that happened immediately before Abram’s vision?
In the preceding chapter we see Abram in a heroic light. His nephew Lot had been kidnapped by a plundering alliance of four kings who had defeated Sodom. But Abram raised a small army and set out to rescue Lot. And he did rescue him. Afterwards Abram met with Melchizedek, the great High Priest and gave him a tithe of all the goods he had captured from the armies of the four kings. He refused to take even a fraction of the goods which had been plundered.
In this chapter we see Abram at his finest. It is then that God comes to him and speaks to him: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
That’s interesting, don’t you think? God is saying, “Don’t be afraid” to a man who just had an incredible military victory over four hostile kings. Abram should be on top of the world. But you see, despite that victory, there is a lingering concern in Abram’s heart. Despite the many victories that God has given him, he still has some reluctance in his relationship with God. God had promised him that he would father a great people. Yet he and his wife Sarai remained childless.
Being childless was seen as a sign of divine judgment in Old Testament theology (Leviticus 20:20-21; 1 Samuel 1:11; Jeremiah 22:30). Abram was concerned that a member of his household might have to one day be his heir. It was not uncommon in that time for a childless couple to adopt a servant as their heir. Abram saw that as his only viable option because he had no child of his own. In his mind God had forgotten His promise. After all, he and his wife Sarai were getting old. There were some things that even God could not change.
You certainly can’t blame Abram for his concern. So when God says to Abram, “I am your shield, your very great reward,” Abram responds to God like this: “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
In his infinite wisdom Abram was trying to show God, as far as he could tell, this was the only way things could possibly work. God didn’t come through, so Abram says to God, “Look, here’s where things stand. The only possible way out of this situation is for me to choose a slave as my heir.”
Have you ever done that? “Lord, I don’t see any way this can possibly work out. Here’s what you need to do . . .” And we explain to the infinite God what He must do.
We are so predictable . . . and our faith is so pathetic.
Then the word of the Lord came to Abram: “This man will not be your heir,” God says to him, “but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” Then the Lord took Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then God said to Abram, “So shall your offspring be.”
Then the writer of Genesis adds these words, “Abram believed the Lord, and [the Lord] credited it to him as righteousness.”
With the victory that God had given Abram over the four kings as a backdrop, we see how tenuous Abram’s faith really was. No matter how many times God had been with him in the past, Abram had difficulty trusting God in his present circumstances. And that’s often true of you and me as well.
The greatest need you and I have is the need to trust God. We’ve talked about this many times before, but it’s true: our greatest need is to trust God. No matter how difficult our circumstances, God will never forget us nor forsake us.
Pastor Tony Evans tells a wonderful story that comes from one of the Superman movies. I know some of you grew up on Superman comics or television shows or movies. “Look up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane. It’s Superman!”
In this particular movie, Superman saves a man from a burning building. He rescues him from the top floor and is carrying him to safety by flying through the skies. The man looks at Superman and then looks down to the ground. “I’m scared, Superman,” he says. “Look how far down that is.”
At this point Superman gives him a great answer. It’s the answer of faith. Superman says, “Now if I delivered you from the burning fire, what makes you think I am going to drop you when I’m carrying you to safety?” (2)
That sounds very much like God’s response to Abram. It also sounds very much like God’s response to you and me when we’re about to lose heart.
Have you ever felt desperate about a situation? Felt like your back was against a wall? Couldn’t sleep at night because that need was on your mind? Maybe it was a situation regarding your work or one of your children, or your spouse. Maybe it was you yourself who needed an outright miracle because there seemed no humanly possible solution to your situation. Have you been in that place? The next time that happens think of the words of Superman and apply them to God: “If I delivered you from the burning fire, what makes you think I am going to drop you when I’m carrying you to safety?”
All of us have found ourselves in a troubling place. And then, just at that moment when we were inclined to give up, God has come through with some act of hope and promise. And for a while we felt a renewed sense of faith and joy. But, as time goes by, we forget. And then we find ourselves in a difficult spot again. We see no way out and so, once again, we doubt God’s presence and love. When will we learn? God can be counted on. God keeps His promises.
There are times in our lives when our faith is tested by our life circumstances. Remember how we said last week when we began our Lenten journey that life’s tests are not designed to weaken us, but to help us grow stronger in our faith journey. We said that about temptation, but that’s true about all of life’s difficult moments as well.
God asks us to trust Him. He tells us about the victory that will be ours if we will just give Him our cares and concerns, but He rarely gives us the full details of the process involved to get us to that victory. It is then that God asks us to trust Him. As Superman said to the person he was carrying, “Now if I delivered you from the burning fire, what makes you think I am going to drop you when I’m carrying you to safety?”
Abram’s faith was fragile, but God’s promises are rock solid. We need to remember that. Like Abram, we do not always see how God will work things out in our behalf. Abram was approaching old age and his wife was also reaching an advanced age. They didn’t see how it would be possible that they would ever have an heir that was their own. But one day, God delivered on His promise. God always delivers on His promises.
Pastor Ray Stedman once told about a good friend of his from another country who, along with his wife, was going through a time of deep trouble. The wife was struggling with severe physical problems arising from asthma and bronchitis. If any of you have ever had difficulty breathing, you know how frightening that can be. This couple struggled for years with her condition. They longed to go back to their own country, but her sickness kept getting in the way.
One day Steadman reminded his friend, whose name was Mark, of the time Jesus stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Steadman summed up for Mark the lesson from this story. “Remember, Mark,” he said, “the boat will not sink, and the storm will not last forever. That is [what] having faith [is all about]–to remember those facts.” The boat will not sink, and the storm will not last forever. Mark thanked Ray Steadman, they prayed together, and Mark left.
Steadman did not see him for a couple of months; then they ran into each other. Steadman asked, “How are things going? How is your wife?”
Mark replied, “Oh, not much better. She’s still having terrible struggles. She can’t breathe, and can’t take care of the children or the house, and we have a hard time. But I do remember the two things [you said]: the boat will not sink, and the storm will not last forever!” So Pastor Steadman prayed with Mark again.
Sometime later Steadman received a note from Mark. Mark and his wife had gone back to their home country. There they found the answer to his wife’s difficulties. A doctor discovered a minor deficiency in his wife’s diet which needed to be remedied. When that was done, the asthma and bronchitis disappeared, and she was in glorious, radiant health, and they were rejoicing together. At the bottom of this note Mark had written, “The boat will not sink, and the storm will not last forever.”
Later Mark sent word to Steadman that his wife was in the hospital, and the doctors suspected leukemia. Her asthma was under control, but a new storm had broken out in their lives. Steadman could only pray that Mark and his wife would cling once more to those important words: “The boat will not sink; the storm will not last forever.” (3)
I hope you and I will remember those helpful words as well. Earlier in Abram’s life God had promised him that he would be the father of a great nation. As the years passed, however, he had difficulty holding on to that promise. You and I can relate to his difficulty. There come those times in our lives when we have difficulty holding on to God’s promises as well. But God does not fail. We may not see how His plan will unfold, but God will never fail us. “If I delivered you from the burning fire, what makes you think I am going to drop you when I’m carrying you to safety?” “The boat will not sink; the storm will not last forever.” But there is one more statement of faith I would like for you to hold on to.
When James Hewett was a small boy growing up in Pennsylvania, his family would often visit his grandparents who lived nine miles away. One night while visiting these grandparents a thick fog settled over the hilly countryside before they started home. Hewitt remembers being terrified. He asked his parents if they shouldn’t be going slower than they were. His mother said gently, “Don’t worry. Your father knows the way.”
“You see,” Hewett recalls, “Dad had walked that road when there was no gasoline during the war. He had ridden that blacktop on his bicycle to court Mother. And for years he had made these weekly trips to visit his own parents.” His father knew the way.
James Hewett writes, “How often when I can’t see the road of life, and have felt that familiar panic rising in my heart, I have heard the echo of my mother’s voice, ‘Don’t worry. Your father knows the way.’” (4)
That’s a good message for each of us. When life seems dark and we don’t see any possible way forward, remember, our heavenly Father knows the way. We can trust Him. He will not let us fall.
But there’s one final thing we need to say. It is one of the foundations this series of messages is built on. Do not forget that the purpose of all of life’s tests is not to defeat us but to make us stronger. This is a truth we are emphasizing in our Lenten journey. God wants us each to grow strong in our mental, emotional and spiritual lives. And so God has placed us in a world that tests us–but the tests are not designed to defeat us but to make us stronger.
God established a covenant with Abram. He had him look up at the stars and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then He said, “So shall your offspring be.” And God kept His promise to Abram even though Abram could see no possible way that could happen.
What promises has God made to you? There are some promises God has made to all of us–the promise to be with us through all our life’s journey; the promise to never forget us, nor forsake us; the promise to receive us into our heavenly home when we finish our journey on earth. Friend, you can take God at His word. He has established His covenant with you. Remember this covenant when you face challenges; when you come up against the hard times. Hold on to God’s promises. Don’t lose faith.
If it helps, hold on to these three simple phrases: “If I delivered you from the burning fire, what makes you think I am going to drop you when I’m carrying you to safety?” . . . “The boat will not sink; the storm will not last forever.” . . . “Your Father knows the way.” Even better, remember God’s words to Abram: “Look up at the sky and count the stars–if indeed you can count them . . . So shall your offspring be.” God always keeps His promises.
1. Walter Winchell, McNaught Syndicate, Reader’s Digest.
2. Tony Evans’ Book Of Illustrations (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009).
3. Cited by Pastor Stephen Muncherian, http://www.muncherian.com/s-mk4v35.html.
4. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988), p. 201.