Religious Grounds

Java for the journey.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Mid-week Sermon on Genesis 22:1-18

A few words about why the text was chosen are in order.
I have chosen to preach this Lent on Biblical texts
which I have never preached upon before –
not because I wanted to avoid them,
but because they have been avoided for me.
For whatever reason,
they either do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary,
the three-year schedule of Biblical readings which we use,
or they are included in the lectionary at such points
that we usually miss them entirely.

This story about Abraham, Isaac, and God is one such story.
The only times it appears in our lectionary is at the Easter Vigil
and as an option for a Sunday after Pentecost.
Up until about twelve years ago,
this story was prescribed for the first Sunday in Lent every third year.
But when the Revised Common Lectionary was published,
it was replaced by the story of the rainbow and God’s promise to Noah.
I have no idea why this was done.
Perhaps there is an excellent reason for it.
Perhaps it is because sermons are shorter, and one needs a long time
to be able to do full justice to this story.
Perhaps it is because this text can do great harm if mishandled too badly.
But it does not seem accidental that in our time,
when concern for victims is of high importance,
the story about Abraham, Isaac, and God has fallen on hard times.
Indeed, in the Bill Moyers PBS documentary on the book of Genesis,
there were some theologians who flatly stated
that God comes out of this story looking pretty bad.
What kind of God would demand such a sacrifice, they say?
What kind of man would obey?

The story about Abraham, Isaac, and God
begins long before this particular part of the story.
God promises Abraham that his descendants
will be born of his own child, Isaac,
and that through his descendants God will bless the world.
And so just when Isaac, his only son, is at the time of manhood,
God commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a whole burnt-offering to him.

Our natural reasoning recoils at such a demand.
It seems utterly out of character
for the God we grow up hearing is a God of love.
After all, is not this God the same God
who commanded his people not to sacrifice their children to him,
when all the nations around Israel were participating in child sacrifice?
Is not this God the same God who promised that through Isaac
he would fulfill the promise to Abraham?
Is not this God the same God who declares, “You shall not murder?”
and commands that the parent love the child?

And so we quickly make this trial of Abraham’s
into a trial of God.
God himself is on trial here,
if we are calling his past statements into account
and weighing his actions and intentions in the balance.
And yet it is Abraham’s gift to do
what Adam and Eve could not do in the Garden,
what Peter could not do at Caesarea Philippi
or in the courtyard of the high priest,
what we cannot do from our vantage point.
It is faith that is Abraham’s gift,
faith and trust that God does not let one of his words fall to the ground.

In his lectures on the first three chapters of Genesis,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the conversation
between Eve and the serpent in the Garden
as “the first theological conversation.”
That is, it was a conversation “about” God rather than “with” God.
When Eve allows herself to consider the question,
“Did God really say?”
she is sitting in judgment upon God’s Word
rather than simply listening to it and doing it.
Bonhoeffer goes on to say,
“Where human beings use a principle, an idea of God,
as a weapon to fight against the concrete word of God…
at that point they have become God’s master,
they have left the path of obedience,
they have withdrawn from being addressed by God.”

Abraham knew that this was no demon masquerading,
suggesting to him a course of action that the real God would never hear of.
Abraham knew that the voice that called him was the voice of God himself.
He had heard that voice too many times to be mistaken.
And so he knows that there is an instant choice to be made.
He may put God’s word on trial, judge it upon its merits,
and accept or reject it accordingly,
or he may obey.
There is no third way.
And so early in the morning,
Abraham gets up and makes ready for the journey to Mt. Moriah.
At every opportunity to turn back from the way of following God’s command,
Abraham goes forward.

There are at least two things we need to be careful to remember.
One is that Abraham never would have chosen this course of action
without an explicit command from God.
Those who justify abuse or neglect of children based upon this text
are justifying their own hatred,
for we have no command from God except to love and nurture our children.
The burden is not laid upon us; it is laid upon Abraham,
who continued loving his son
even while he obeyed God’s command.

But the second thing we need to remember is this:
Abraham continued to believe and trust
the God who had not only demanded the sacrifice of Isaac,
but also who had promised the descendants through Isaac.
In other words, Abraham’s trust was based upon the premise
that God does not lie, even though his ways be inscrutable.
Abraham trusted in God to accomplish his purpose,
and Abraham’s only role was to be faithful.
Hadn’t that been how it happened before with God?
God had been the active agent, God had beyond all hope and imagination
given him the land and the son,
and all Abraham had done is believed and obeyed.

Other than “Here I am,” Abraham only speaks once in this drama,
and his words are the key to his outlook..
On the way to the mountain, Isaac notices that there is no lamb for the sacrifice,
and Abraham says,
“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
“God himself will provide.”
On one level, it can be seen as subterfuge,
Abraham’s deliberate deception of his innocent victim, his son.
On one level, it can be seen as hope,
that God will provide the way forward
from a seemingly impossible situation.
“God will provide.”
Has this not been Abraham’s watchword from day one
of his whole impossible adventure with God?
Is not his entire life staked upon this paradoxical hope,
that though God commands the offering,
yet he has also promised the blessing?
Is not his only hope that the same God who brings down raises up,
and that the God who kills makes alive?

This is where Peter falls short at Caesarea Philippi.
When Jesus tells the disciples that the road
he must travel leads to the cross,
the man who has just confessed Jesus to be God’s Son
begins to argue fiercely with God’s Son.
He bases his objection upon what he knows to be true,
that through the Messiah God will bring restoration to the world.
And yet Peter cannot see how God can do this through death,
and cannot put more trust in God than in himself.
He has not yet the faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus,
that God can make a way where there is no way,
that if Isaac can be bound, he can be set free,
that for God the Red Sea is no obstacle,
that water can come from the rock and manna from heaven,
and that on the third day the stone will be rolled away.

When we ask ourselves “Did God really say?”
is it not a testimony that we do not live by faith in God whom we cannot see
but instead trust in what we can control, what we can understand?
Did God really say, “Love your enemies?”
They have hurt us, it is natural to hate them.
Did God really say, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths?”
But we must vent, we must get sympathy.
Does God really want us to hold ourselves back from what feels right to us
simply because of some nonsensical utterance of Paul?
Did he wish the death of the martyrs?

These are questions which bring God to judgment
and make ourselves the measure of all things.
But we ask for the faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus,
which says, “God will provide,”
which trusts that God’s Word is God’s Word,
all of it, the commands and the promises,
and that God will, despite everything,
bring light from darkness, life from death,
speech from silence.

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