I don’t know if too many people here have dogs, but one of the first things that people do when they buy puppies is to bring them to obedience school. It’s there that they learn to sit, lay down, not jump on people, not bark obnoxiously, and many more valuable skills. My own childhood dog went to obedience school in the Valley in 1993…until a flood came and destroyed everything. And one of the things that took forever to get into our dog’s head was that she needed to listen to what we were saying. Well-behaved dogs always listen very carefully to the certain commands that they’re given. If only people were the same way!
Today’s readings talk about obedience and listening. And it’s not an easy message, but let’s look deeper into the readings. In the first reading from the book of Genesis, we hear the story about Abraham and his son Isaac. Here’s a little background on this first. Abraham and Sarah waited years and years to have a son. They offered countless prayers asking for a child, and finally, God granted their prayers and gave them Isaac. Families who have tried to have children probably know what this is about. They finally had what they thought would complete their lives and what gives them great joy. So imagine what they would think when God asks them to give Isaac back, to sacrifice him as a holocaust, a burnt offering to God. To Abraham and Sarah, this must have seemed ridiculous. It flew in the face of who they thought God was. To start with, human sacrifice was forbidden by God – it was something that the savage countries around them did. But think about what else bothered them: why would God give them this great gift, a gift that gives them joy and satisfaction, only to snatch it away. But as we know, Abraham had faith, a real, authentic faith. And even in the test, he is obedient, and he listens to God.
Now, fast-forward 2000 years to the Transfiguration that we hear about today in Mark’s Gospel. The Transfiguration is one of those key events in the Gospels because it is an event of revelation – who Jesus is and what his mission is. Jesus is there with Moses and Elijah, indicating that he is the fullness of God’s revelation. God showed us who he is through the Law (Moses) and through the prophets (Elijah) and Jesus is ultimately what those things point towards. It’s a moment of clarity on top of the mountain. So what were they talking about? The other gospels tell us that they were discussing their gameplan – how Jesus would have to go and suffer and be killed. Now for the disciples who are seeing this, this seems ridiculous! It flies in the face of what seems right! Why would the fullness of God’s revelation be nailed to a tree and tortured and killed? So Peter wants to build some tents and keep these guys around a while and talk some sense into Jesus. But Jesus, Abraham, Peter, Isaac, and all of us are called to obedience.
Obedience is a tough virtue to follow. Most of us probably have kind of a negative idea of it. The American attitude does too. All of our heroes aren’t people who just followed the rules and did what they were told – no, they’re the ones who bucked the system, who rebelled, who stood up to authority. Now don’t get me wrong – I’m as American as the next guy, and it makes very exciting plots for movies. But I think that view shapes our notion of the virtue of obedience. So our idea of obedience becomes less of obeying what legitimate authority has in mind for our well being, and more of blindly following what someone else says because they say it.
So when we’re put into a situation like Abraham, where what happens seems to fly in the face of our idea of God, we’re supposed to be obedient? Try telling that to someone who has lost a child in a miscarriage. Try telling that to someone who has lost a family member or a son or daughter to an accident or war. Try telling that to someone who has just separated from their spouse of 15 years. Or try telling us that about some archaic teachings that the Church seems to cling to like annulments, or the big one right now, artificial contraception, or even the teaching of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. These sort of things fly in the face of who we think God is.
Most of the time, we don’t want to be obedient because we have our minds already made up. We have what we think about something, what we think God says about something, and the apparent clash between the two. So what’s the answer? Do we follow blindly? Of course not. That isn’t what God wants us to do. The answer comes from the Gospel – “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” This is spoken to Jesus, but it really could be spoken to each one of us. We are beloved sons and daughters of God, and because of that, God only wants what’s best for us. So what do we do? Listen to him. Listen to what he has to say – in the Gospels, in the Church, and in our hearts. Take a deep breath, put down the Riverfront Times, close the laptop with the crazy opinionated blogs, and listen to what God has to say.
This season of Lent is about listening to God. It’s about tuning out the other voices in our lives and focusing on one voice – the Lord’s. It’s a time for us enter into that mystery of denying ourselves – something that seems to fly in the face of what’s normal – and to listen to our Father, who cares for us deeply. As we continue through this Lenten journey, may we each have the grace we need to listen, and knowing God’s will for us, to do it with obedience and love.