Genesis 21:1-8 and 22:1-14
Fifthteenth Sunday of Pentecost
A New Thing Series
First Christian Church
When I was in college, I read the comics daily. One of the comics that I loved to follow was the Far Side, a one panel comic that ran from 1980 to 1995. What was so engaging about this comic was that it’s creator, Gary Larson loved to show the absurd and bizarre. Today’s text is just such an absurd text.
What can we say about this text? Well, there’s a lot. We all look at this text in some sense of horror. Abraham is going to kill his son and even though Issac was spared, we can’t erase the fact that Abraham was going to sacrifice Issac in order to follow God. This reminds me of those stories you would hear from time to time of an old retired man who emigrated from Europe decades ago and is found out to be a guard at Treblinka or Dachau or some other concentration camp during World War II. People wonder why the government is going after an old man who was only a guard at the camp. Usually the response is that simply following orders is no excuse.
I think about that when I read this passage. Was Abraham just following orders? When God calls him to take his son to be sacrificed, he says nothing in response. This is odd, because Abraham had talked back to God in the past. In Genesis 17, when God establishes the covenant with Abraham, he wonders to God how he will have a son, since he and Sarah were well beyond childbearing years. When Abraham was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city in order to save his nephew Lot. He was not afraid to question God in the past, but in this case, he says nothing. Why? We don’t know. All we do know is that he obeys God and takes his only son.
God also seems to drive the point home when he tells Abraham to “take your son, your only son, whom you love.” God was asking him to take the one thing that meant anything in the world to him and throw it away. God had promised him to be the Father of a nation, but he was called to get rid of the one thing that would make that dream come true. When Issac finally speaks noticing that there were all the things for a sacrifice save a lamb. Abraham mumbles that God will provide. He had to believe that God would provide; maybe provide another child to fulfill the promise. He was probably hoping God would stop this insanity and just stop the exercise, but nothing was happen. Later we find that Issac is bound and placed on the altar. Anraham has the knife in his hand and he raises it and just as he plunges the knife, which would end the life his son, God intervenes. “I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me,” God says. A ram appears that Abraham uses to offer a sacrifice to God.
It’s hard to not look at this story with a sense of horror. What would cause Abraham to go and do something so radical? If he had done this today, someone would have called the police to arrest Abraham. In preparing this sermon, I encountered one theologian that asked why God was so willing to spare Issac, but not the daughter of an Israelite leader found later in the book of Judges. Jepthath is the judge of Israel and pleads to God to let him win a battle against his enemies. If God allows him to win Jepthath vows to sacrifice the person that appears in the doorway when he returns from battle. When he returns home, the person that is in the doorway is none other than his daughter his only child. In the end he sacrifices his daughter to keep the vow. God didn’t intervene here.
What we want to do is ignore this text because it isn’t the God we know. God is a God of love. God would not ever ask something like this not even as a test. Maybe another god was muscling in try to temp Abraham to do the wrong thing. It has to be another god trying to deceive Abraham. The God we know, wouldn’t even joke about this, right? God wouldn’t commit divine child abuse, right?
I have to admit that it was hard to figure out what was the word of the Lord in this text. But in studying the text and listening to the text I think there is something this story can tell us about faith and what it means to be a disciple for Jesus.
This is not one of those story where you are asked to go and do likewise. Common sense should tell you that the lesson here is not that God is up for an occasional child sacrifice now and then. But there is a lesson here if we are willing to look at the text and all of its uncomfortableness.
This is as hard as it might be to see it, a story of faith. It is a story of believing in God even when it makes no sense, not to you and definitely not to others.
We want a God that is above all else, reasonable. It is much easier to Bible Stories where God is helping us to live better moral lives. But faith isn’t simply about being better, moral people. It is about being a faithful people, and sometimes that means doing things that make no sense.
The God that we worship wants all of us. The God we worship asks us to follow, and that following will cost, sometimes so much that it will hurt. Sometimes it will look like you’ve gone crazy to others and maybe to yourself. I’m not saying we will start sacrificing people on altars, but we will be called to do things that will demand a price all for the glory of God.
One of the things that is so prevalent in mainline Prostestant churches is how we don’t tend to step out in faith. I remember a while back asking someone if they were every interested in planting a church. The person said no, saying something related to the fact that there wasn’t any financial security in it.
I thought about that. Having been part of mainline churches, something that seems to be a big concern at least among pastors is that if so and so is going to start a church, they need a good salary and benefits package.
I’m not saying that pastor and other church leaders should not be paid. What I am saying is that in many cases, we aren’t so willing to take a step of faith, in planting churches and in the funding of church plants and planters.
Several years ago, I remember reading a blog post from a pastor, Bob Hyatt about planting new churches when you don’t know where your pay check is coming from. Here is what he said about his attempt at planting a church:
But we had to decide, my wife and I, that if taking this step cost us our house, set us back financially… that simply wasn’t too big a price to pay for God’s kingdom. If we did what we felt we needed to do, and there were financial costs, so be it. We’d rather see people come into relationship with God than have a house. We’d rather see those who have given up on church find community again than have a new car. We had to ask ourselves “What is the absolute worst thing that could happen if we do this?” And when we really started looking at it, it just didn’t seem like that big a deal.
God may not be calling us to do something like planting a church, but God is calling us to step outside of our comfort zones, to be challenged, to have our nice ordered lives upturned by a God that gave all on the cross and expect nothing less from us.
As we continue our series on A New Thing, I’ve told you that we have to see what new things God is doing in our lives and in the world. But for us to see that new thing, we have to be willing to not play it safe with God. Seeing the new thing means risk and it means faith, it means trusting in God even when life doesn’t make sense.
I think that God is calling this church to step out in faith. We come to worship and learn, but what is God calling us to do? Is God calling us to move out of the comfort zone we’ve establish to reach out to the wider world in a different way?
God is about more than morality. It is easy to worship a God that just wants us to be nicer people. Not that there anything wrong with being nice, but the end of religion isn’t about being better moral people. Being moral people doesn’t require risk. Being faithful people does.
I want to end with a story from the Methodist preacher William Willimon. He recounts a time when he went over this story and the surprising reaction he got from the crowd:
But what does this old story mean to us?” I asked. “I daresay we moderns are a bit put off by the primitive notion that God would ask anyone to sacrifice his child like this. Can this ancient story have any significance for us?”
“God still does,” interrupted an older woman, hands nervously twitching in her lap. “He still does.”
“How?” I asked.
Quietly she said, “We sent our son to college. He got an engineering degree, and he got involved in a fundamentalist church. He married a girl in the church; they had a baby, our only grandchild. Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to Lebanon. Take our baby, too.” She began to sob.
The silence was broken again, this time by a middle-aged man. “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me. I’ve decided that I and my family are looking for another church.”
“What?” I asked in astonishment. “Why?”
“Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I’m near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, Rotary Club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings. Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more. I want to know that God.”
How odd that we who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost. How puny is this orderly, liberal religion before the hard facts of life.
What Abraham did was shocking and upsetting. But it was also the sign of a man willing to go out on limb because he had faith that God was faithful. If this congregation is to move to the next stage, to grow and be an active presence in this community, we will have to discard the Rotary Club God and go to the Wild Side.
Thanks be to God. Amen.