A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, 26 June 2011
Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB
Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42
“Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Gen 22:12)
In Michael Crumney’s literally fabulous novel about Newfoundland, the inhabitants of a remote outport have only one Bible, a copy that was found in the gullet of a cod fish “as large as a goat”. Only one man, a lay preacher with the wonderful nkae of Jabez Trim, is able to read it. Unfortunately the bible is worse the wear for its time in the fish, and so sections of it are blotted and illegible. The story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is readable until the point where Abraham raises the knife over his son, but the ending of the story is too blurred to read. One fishermen, James Woundy, likes to regale his fellow fishermen with the story and supplies his own endings, each with its “inevitably gruesome conclusion”. When Jabez Trim protests that the angel intervenes to save Isaac, Woundy is unconvinced, claiming that it doesn’t sound like the God they know.
I think Crumney’s humour is quite astute, because even for those of us who know this story well, how we react to it depends to it depends on the God we think we know. As the tension builds line by line in this challenging story, we (meaning I and I suspect many of you) flinch at what God is asking Abraham to do, then cringe as Abraham appears willing to do it. The tension ratchet’s further as Isaac pathetically asks where the sacrifice is and in Abraham’s answer, “God will provide” leads us to wonder, does Abraham really believe what he is saying, does he really have that much faith, or is he allaying the child’s fears. Even after the angel stays Abraham’s hand, its tempting to supply our own ending and our own conclusion, focusing not on what God has provided, but rather focusing on what God has asked.
I have to admit that as a preacher, the sacrifice of Isaac is not a reading that I prefer to dwell on. T he story of God who can ask the unthinkable of a father, and the father’s almost robotic willingness to obey, well that all requires an effort to think about, and more to preach on. It would be easier to talk about our gospel reading with its call to reap rewards from a seemingly easier action. I suspect there are preachers this morning who will avoid this reading and even cut it from the service because they’ve heard enough about people are repulsed by the hateful and capricious God of the Old Testament. I can’t say I blame them, because I was tempted to do the same thing. However our prayer of St. Jerome reminds us, each Sunday, that God has “given us [his] word for a light to shine upon our path”, and so I think we need to ask how this old and difficult story offers any light to guide us?
In my preparation for today I was reading that all three of the religions which counted Abraham as an an ancestor drew different lessons from this story. For the early Christians, the story was anticipated God’s sacrificing his own son Jesus. In Isaac, who was old enough to carry the wood of his own destruction up the mountain, we see a foreshadowing of Jesus carrying the wood of the cross to the hill of Calvary. The parallel of obedient self giving is even closer if we assume that Isaac was a strapping young man who could have escaped his unnaturally old father but chose not to. For Muslims, who also claim Abraham as an ancestor, the point of the story was Abraham’s obedience to the will of God. For Jews, the point of the story was that God provides, a point made in the renaming of the mountain at the end of the story.
Are any of these lessons helpful to us later Christians who hear the story in a much more civilized time that celebrates the family, and which condemns child abuse and psychological cruelty? As we live in a military culture we can understand the idea of sacrifice, though we think in terms of self-sacrifice rather than that of others. We think in terms of obedience, though as soldiers we limit that concept to lawful orders from legitimate authorities. As I’ve said already, the idea of God testing Abraham this way challenges our ideas of God’s legitimacy and makes us draw back from this story. So even though we understand sacrifice and obedience, those values seem insufficient in their application to this particular story. So what about the idea that God will provide for us? I think that idea is helpful if we take a moment to sketch out a little background for this story.
Not all cultures were as enlightened as we are. In bible times, Israel was surrounded by other nations that did practice ritual child sacrifice. Biblical scholars have suggested that the ultimate point of the story of Abraham and Isaac is that God does not require child sacrifice. The point of the story of Abraham thus far is that God would give this aged, childless man and his equally aged wife a miraculous son whose descendents would fulfil God’s promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations. That long list of nations that we heard in Acts Two, two weeks back on Pentecost, was a sign of the fulfilment of that promise. The story thus becomes a narrative reinforcing Israel’s identity as a nation which believed, quite literally, that its children were the future fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, that Israel and the Christian church which arose from Israel would be God’s family and presence in the world. So, rather than worshipping a cruel god who demanded that children be provided to it, Israel worshipped the true creator God who provided children and thus a future.
Of course, not all cultures are as enlightened as we are. We don’t need this story, do we? We are willing to let whole cultures and generations be trashed as armies conscript child soldiers and destroy their futures, but we don’t practice child sacrifice. We are willing to let billions of children grow up undernourished and underfed, including millions in this rich country that go to school hungry, but we don’t practice child sacrifice. We are willing to let our own children consume a diet of increasingly violent video games and other culturalother products. We encourage them to embrace sexual practices and identities that destroy self esteem and respect for others. We pursue material goals, wealth and careers at the expense of the family, and we refuse to force morality, religion and discipline on our children, hoping instead that they find their own way. Increasingly, through practices and debate around reproductive and end of life choice, we devalue the sanctity of life. We as a society do all these things, but we do not practice child sacrifice. Not in name.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is our story in at least one respect, that just as Isaac was a precious and unspoken gift to his parents, so are the children given to us. The sacrament of infant baptism is our recognition and response to that gift, both a recognition that life comes from God, and it is the character and nature of God to create life and not destroy it. For those Christians who are parents, the responsibility entailed in the gift of children is significant. That responsibility can seem like a burden when we realize that raising our children in the faith can be so counter-cultural that it can seem like a burden and a sacrifice. However, the task of raising children in the faith allows us to reinterpret and reapply Gen 22:12, so that we truly do give our children back to God and not withhold them from him.
God provides, and while demands are intrinsic in that provision, as it is with any covenant, God still provides. At a very profound level, the story of Abraham and Isaac celebrates the character and nature of God. We risk forgoing that lesson and its application to our lives and times if we find the narrative shell of that story to be distasteful. We are Christians individually, but in lives as the church we are collective and intergenerational. We are wonderfully created and loved beings, and the journey of Abraham and Isaac, together descending the mountain renamed “God will Provide”, is a further step towards the family that God wants us to be.