July 2, 2017 Pentecost 4 Sermon
A Test of Faith?
We’re looking at some of the stories of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis. I mentioned a couple if important things a couple of weeks ago.
First of all, we should read these stories as stories. They’re not history. They weren’t told or written to be part of “the Bible”. They started as stories, and what they’re doing is trying to figure out how God is present in our world and our lives.
The second thing is to be very clear that these are not stories about what God actually said or did. They are stories about what Israel believed God said and did.
A couple of weeks ago, we read the story about Isaac’s birth. Two old crocks laugh themselves silly because of God’s promise about a baby. No one has babies at this age. Who has the energy? Give me a break!
We continue to tell that story, of course, because a child was born. They called him Isaac; it means “he laughs”. Sarah and Abraham’s life was filled with the laughter of faith as they doted on the boy.
Then today we read this ugly, chilling story. In Christian tradition, it’s called “the Sacrifice of Isaac,” and Christians have tied this story to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. In Jewish tradition, it’s called “the Binding of Isaac.” It’s an important story in both traditions.
Today, Abraham is not laughing anymore. He awakes with a start from his troubling dream in the long hours of the night. He slips out of bed, trying desperately not to disturb Sarah in her sleep. He wakes the boy, telling him to get dressed. There is somewhere we have to go.
Slowly, Abraham and Isaac and two servants trudge towards Moriah, towards the place where his troubling dream told him he had to sacrifice Isaac, his son, the one through whom God’s promises were supposed to be fulfilled.
They leave the servants at the base of Mount Moriah. On the way up, Isaac asks, “I see the fire, and the wood, Dad … but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”
It was like a knife in his own chest. But somehow Abraham manages to say, “God is going to see to that.”
Reaching the top, Abraham takes his son, his only son, and binds him, ties him, trusses him like a lamb and lays him on top of the wood.
He raises his knife, ready to deliver the killing blow … when he hears another voice, and he sees a ram caught in the thicket.
What are we to do with this story? It feels like child abuse. Is this really what God wanted from Abraham? Did Abraham truly believe that God would have called him to do … this?
As you might imagine, this story is interpreted in a number of different ways.
One interpretation is that this story speaks strongly against human sacrifice. There are several times in the Bible when the Israelites are commanded not to offer their children as a sacrifice. That’s what their pagan neighbours did; other societies would sacrifice a child as a way of appeasing the gods. But Israel was to be a different people with different loyalties and different practices, because they worshipped a different God.
In this interpretation, this story tells how abhorrent this practice is to Israel’s God. Abraham becomes an example of the practice of the other nations. He is ready to do what he thinks God is commanding him to do. So he travels to Mount Moriah, ready to kill his son, to sacrifice the son of the promise. But God has other ideas, and the ram tangled in the thicket becomes the instrument of God’s deliverance. Isaac is saved.
This interpretation is a powerful reminder that every person is a gift of grace. In this way, this story serves as a reminder that children are still suffering all around the world. They are still victims. They are being conscripted as soldiers in the Congo. They are being abducted by Boku Haran in Nigeria. They live without hope in Canada’s northern indigenous communities and end up taking their own lives. They are victims of sexual abuse in so many parts of the world, including right here.
Children are, in fact, being sacrificed.
The gospel tells us that not a single one of us is unloved, that each one of us is precious and holy and valuable. And this story points to that reality.
Another way of interpreting this story is to say that it was a test of Abraham’s faith. “Give me your all,” says God. “Give to me what is most precious in your life.” So this is a test of Abraham’s devotion to God.
And there is some truth in this interpretation as well. Our faith requires our whole–hearted devotion. Jesus told us that the Great Commandment is to love God with all that we are, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Give your whole self to God.
But to sacrifice a child? I don’t think so.
In fact, the prophet Micah offers a resounding “No” to that question. He asks, “What does God require? Shall I give my firstborn to atone for my sin?” The answer comes … “No. What God requires is to do justice; to love kindness; to walk humbly with God.”
So this interpretation—I don’t buy it.
Here’s another way of interpreting this story. It is not as common as the others, but it is a legitimate way of interpreting this story.
The story begins with the word that God came to test Abraham. This is a story about testing.
And for thousands of years, most people have assumed that Abraham passed the test. By being willing to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham proved that he was devoted to God. The book of Hebrews states that “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son.” By this word, Abraham’s act was an example of faithfulness in action.
But what if our assumptions have been wrong? What if Hebrews is wrong?
What if the real test was whether Abraham was willing to stand up like a real father and say, “NO!” No to death. No to killing. No to child sacrifice. What if Abraham failed the test?
Now, I’m not just making this up to make it easier for me or for us. For centuries, Jewish scholars have said that the most important part of the story was the ram. They don’t focus on God’s call. They don’t focus on tying Isaac to the altar. The focus of this story is that ram—which is the symbol of God stopping Abraham from doing what he was about to do.
Every year, at Rosh Hashanah, which is the Day of Judgment, a ram’s horn is blown. Many Jewish scholars say that the purpose of the shofar is to awaken the divine in us. Let me repeat it: the ram’s horn wakens the divine in us.
So every year, Jews blow the ram’s horn, the shofar, reminding them that God stopped Abraham from killing his son Isaac. The shofar renews in us all the command to honour life always and in everything we do, and to walk humbly with God.
I think that’s what this story is about. Abraham failed the test, and God did what God always does. God redeemed Abraham and sent him on his way, and the promise was kept intact.
We need to be very humble and careful about claiming what God wants. We don’t know the mind of God. We can’t know the mind of God, and we had better be aware of that — except that God calls us to love, to be compassionate, to be faithful, and to honour life everywhere.
Paul reminds us in Romans today that we are people who have been brought from death to life, and that we are to live as instruments of righteousness. And in the gospel, Jesus tells us that even a small thing like a cup of cold water given in love becomes a sign of God’s presence in our lives.
Our faith is also tested. And the question for us is whether we will honour this God of love, compassion, grace and hope in all that we do. Will we live as people who, in every small act of our lives, show the love of God in our lives?
Pray that it be so.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
July 2, 2017 (4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13)
Genesis 22: 1–14
Matthew 10: 40–42
Romans 6: 12–23