Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sermon; Proper 8A; Genesis 22:1-14

“Abraham, take your son whom you love and go and offer him as a burnt offering.”

Where is God in this story?  We often say that we believe in a loving God.  Where is that God?  Where is the God who calls the little children?  Where is the God who calls people to life rather than death?  Can this loving God we say we worship really be the same God who tells Abraham to offer the son whom he loves as a burnt offering?  If it is, how can we possibly worship a God who requires the death of an only son?

This story has figured prominently in Christian thought because it bears so many similarities to Christ's Passion:  a father requiring the sacrifice of his son, the son carrying the wood that will be used for his own sacrifice on his back, the three-day journey, and the sacrificial lamb to name a few.

These all may be valid and correct interpretations, but they leave me feeling a bit unsatisfied.  First because they insert Christian theology into Hebrew Scripture.  It's one thing to say, “As Christians we can use this passage to help our understanding.”  It's quite another to say, “This passage is really talking about Jesus, they just didn't know it.”  It's a bad idea to continually insist that all Scripture points to Jesus all the time.

Second, by appealing to this story as nothing more than a prefiguration of the Passion, we can effectively ignore the drama, dilemma, disgust and difficulties this passage presents to us.  Saying, “Oh, we don't need to take it as a true sacrificial story, only as an allegory,” means that we don't have to wrestle with it.  It would be similar to me telling the parents of the two-month old girl who died of SIDS, “Hey, don't worry – God just needed another angel in heaven.”

But this story does present us with drama, dilemma, disgust and difficulties; and we should take time to examine them on their own terms.  I could probably take up all nine weeks of the time I allotted to preach on Genesis just on this one passage.  But instead of trying to touch on a lot of things, I will focus on one thing:  testing.

We are told right from the start that “God tested Abraham,” but we aren't told why.  Why did God find it necessary to test Abraham?  After all, hadn't Abraham proved faithful when he was asked to leave his homeland and to wander through what would become the Promised Land?  Wasn't he faithful when he made a tithe to Melchizedek?  Wasn't he faithful when he believed God's promise of children?

The answer, of course, is, “Yes, he was faithful.”  But as I look back over those events, Abraham really had nothing to lose.  At some point, we all leave home hoping for bigger and better things.  His tithe to Melchizedek came from the spoils of a great military victory, so giving one-tenth of newly begotten wealth was no sacrifice.  And his response to the promise of children was more along the lines of, “I'll believe it when I see it.”

So God tests Abraham.  Is his a faith of convenience (tithing from an unexpected windfall)?  Is his a faith based solely on what he might get out of it (a promise of children)?  Or is his a faith dedicated to God, even though he might not understand all of what God is doing or why God is doing it?

“Take your son whom you love and go and offer him as a burnt offering.”  That is the test.  And, for whatever reason, Abraham sets off to prove that his faith in God is not a faith of selfish convenience.

Abraham takes his son to the mountain, leaving behind Sarah and the men who traveled with him.  He carries the fire for the burnt offering and the knife for the sacrificial killing, while Isaac, the victim, carries the wood on which he is to be placed.

On their way up the mountain, Isaac, maybe beginning to figure things out, asks, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  Abraham answers, “God will provide.”  Does he truly believe this, or is this a mantra he uses to get through the test?  Will God provide, or has God already provided?  We don't know.  Either way, Abraham takes care of business, binds Isaac, lays him on the altar and prepares to kill him to complete the test.

But I think there is another side to this story and that is that Abraham is also testing God here.

God, supposedly, is different from all the other Egyptian gods and all of the tribal gods Abraham has come into contact with.  When God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, that request may not have been any different from someone else believing their tribal god has asked for a human sacrifice.  Does Abraham agree to go through with this to test God in order to see if God is truly different?  God has promised Abraham children.  Does Abraham test God in order to see if God is faithful to his promises?

How far will this go?  Will Abraham go through with the sacrifice of Isaac?  Will God stop it to save the life of an innocent child?  These are questions we can't immediately answer as Abraham, the father of God's chosen people, and God, the father of humanity, test each other in an all-too-serious game of chicken.

And God watched as Abraham raised his knife, preparing to deliver the fatal strike that would kill his son.  Then in the instant before Abraham struck, God intervened, sparing not only Isaac, but Abraham and God as well.

Abraham passes the test, proving that he will follow his faith into hard places.  Abraham passes the test by placing his ultimate trust in God.  Abraham passes the test in that he is willing to put aside his pride of knowing absolutely what God wants (the sacrifice of Isaac) in favor of accepting something new (the ram), which was also provided by God.  God also passes the test by showing himself to be different from tribal gods needing appeasement by human sacrifice.  God passes the test by showing himself to be faithful to his promise of providing.

Can we look at this story, see the great drama of Christ's Passion – his prayer of deliverance, his walking up the Via Dolorosa with the wood of the cross on his back, and the death of the only Son – and use it to help our theological understanding?  Yes, of course.  But we can also look at this story and the issue of how God is testing us; especially with regards to our sense of pride in knowing with absolute certainty that this is how God is, while failing to see another option caught in the thicket.

This poem from WWI soldier Wilfred Owen makes that point much better than I:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood and went, And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together, Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron, But where the lamb for this burnt offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps, And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.  When lo! An angel called him out of heaven.
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, Neither do anything to him.  Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns; Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son, And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Where is God in this story?  God is in the testing.  But like Wilfred Owen, I fear that, more often than not, we fail that test.

There are no easy answers.  Living faithfully with God can be challenging and difficult.  Maybe the way we get through the testing isn't by wondering why we are being tested, or by asking, “Where is God?” when we are tested; maybe the way to get through the testing is to continually remember that God will provide, and then keep our eyes open for another option hidden in the thicket.



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