— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 4th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
Today we need to take a broad view of the Bible and how to interpret the Scriptures in the 21st century because today we engage the terrifying story of Abraham and his near sacrifice of Isaac.
Here is how the story begins…God made promises to Abraham and Sarah of land and descendants like the stars and the sand on the shore. On the way to the fulfilment of these promises there were perils of famine, barrenness, clan conflict, deathly family squabbles, fearfulness. Abraham and Sarah, while sometimes showing remarkable faith and trust, embodied fear, pettiness, and a destructive self-centeredness. The Scriptures, praise be, do not shy away from the imperfections of these pillars of the faith. Part of the glory of the story is that even with all their faults, Abraham and Sarah continued to be the bearers of the promises of God.
The couple, however, for much of the Biblical story remain childless. They remain childless until strangers – were they angels? – came for a visit. Those strangers made an announcement: Sarah will have a son. Sarah overhears and laughs. The angel strangers leave with a question on their lips – Is anything too great for the Lord?
The story unfolds and we get an answer – nothing is too great for the Lord because in her old age Sarah gives birth to Isaac!
Today, however, as the story continues, the question is different – Is anything, is any demand, too terrible for the Lord? Today the promise is in peril, not because of unrighteousness on the part of God’s people or because of famine or doubt or evil or family squabbles – the promise of God is in peril in this story because the righteousness of the Promise Maker is in doubt.
Listen to the story of Abraham and Isaac
and the horrifying voice that gave a horrifying command… Genesis 22:1-14
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offerhim there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
The year was AD 177, and the church in Lyons, France, was in crisis. Beloved Pothinus, the very first Christian bishop of the city, had been mercilessly slaughtered in a persecution carried out by Roman authorities. In the aftermath of the massacre, the church turned to a faithful priest named Irenaeus to assume the dangerous task of leading the local flock.
Irenaeus was determined to be a faithful guide and defender of the congregations entrusted to his care. He soon discovered that the threats facing the church were internal as well as external. A rival system of religious teaching, called Valentinian Gnosticism, was sowing great confusion among Christian believers in Lyons and elsewhere. Irenaeus knew that this body of esoteric ideas bore little resemblance to the teaching of Christ and his apostles. The good bishop was fully confident in this judgment because his own education in the faith had been only one generation of teachers removed from Jesus’ disciples. As a young man, Irenaeus had heard first hand the Christian teaching of Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna, who had in turn received instruction from Jesus’ own disciple John, the son of Zebedee.
Especially confusing for the faithful of Irenaeus’s time was the way the Valentinians supported their teaching with quoted snippets of Scripture. Irenaeus realized that these false teachers were lifting out isolated fragments of Scripture without any regard for their original order or context. Describing the Valentinians’ use of the Bible, Irenaeus invited his flock to imagine a skilled artist who had arranged many precious, colored stones into a beautiful mosaic portrait of a king. Now consider, said Irenaeus, if someone were to take the mosaic completely apart, and then reassemble all the original colored stones into a brand-new picture. Except this time the arrangement of stones was such that instead of the beautiful portrait of the king, they now depict a crudely crafted image of a dog. And suppose further, said Irenaeus, that this person then went around showing off the reassembled dog portrait and saying to everyone who saw it, “Behold, the king!” Irenaeus pointed out that even though every single stone in this work came from the original mosaic of the king, it was no longer a picture of the king in any meaningful sense.
This, said Irenaeus, is what the Valentinians do with Scripture. Every single passage they cite is true and authentic Scripture. But the Gnostic teachers have lifted these scriptural fragments out of context and rearranged them in such a way that they no longer convey a true portrait of the One to whom the original Scriptures bear witness (from Mark Achtemeier’s lecture at the Covenant Network luncheon at the Detroit General Assembly – the 221st – in Detroit, Michigan on Monday, June 16th, 2014 and in his book The Bible’s YES to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart, pages 27-28).
Mark Achtemeier, a very prominent evangelical, conservative voice, and professor of theology in our denomination, told that story at a luncheon I attended while at the General Assembly in 2014. He told the story to begin to unfold his own change of heart with regards to gay and lesbian people in the church and with regards to same-gender marriage. He was making the point that the church has erred in prohibiting marriage and the service of LGBT people in the church because we have misunderstood and misused snippets of Scripture. In his book The Bible’s YES to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart Dr. Achtemeier puts those few verses in the Bible that seemingly condemn homosexuality in the context of the larger picture of God’s gifts of love, marriage and sexuality as ways to help us grow into a deeper and richer experience of the joy, passion, and fulfillment that come with giving ourselves wholly to another in accordance with the pattern of Christ’s self-giving love. This larger picture combined with a careful examination of the context of those few verses in the Bible about same gender sexual acts – they are mostly about rape and sexual exploitation – led Dr. Achtemeier to change his mind about same-gender marriage.
So, how does this relate to the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain in Moriah. Here’s how I think it relates – the overarching witness of Scripture, particularly but not exclusively the revelation in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, speaks of a God of love who values each of God’s children. Given this deep revelation of God as love, the story of Isaac and Abraham raises important and I think fundamental questions –
“Would God demand that a father kill his son
to prove his righteousness?”
The follow up questions are these –
“Would the God who created humanity in God’s image,
endowing each person with infinite value,
torment anyone of God’s children
with such a horrific experiment?”
“Is it possible that the God of love,
who commands us not to kill,
would at the same time
command Abraham to kill
an innocent, unsuspecting and trusting boy,
his own son, for God’s sake?”
“Would the God who runs to welcome the prodigal son home
also command that another father slaughter his son
as a test of loyalty?”
“Would the God who longs to wipe every tear from every eye,
the God who beckons us to lay our weary burdens down,
would that God command a man
to take a knife to his only son?”
If the answer to these questions is “yes” then I say the portrait of God in the Bible is changed from loving King to dog.
If the story, then, at least now in the 21st century is not about a demand from God to Abraham to sacrifice his son, what might the story teach us?
To start, let me say – I think Abraham was hearing his own voice, not the voice of God. So far Abraham has been the star of the show. Everything revolved around him. Then comes this boy and the promises of God begin to form around him, around Isaac. Maybe Abraham was listening to the voice within himself that longed for the way things used to be, the good ole’ days when he was the main character? Maybe Abraham decided to sacrifice the boy to his own dreams of perpetual grandeur, to his own longings for his youthful supremacy?
In this way Abraham was like people in our own society, people who look like me and have my skin color, who have enjoyed centrality and now see other groups coming into their own in terms of power and influence. Like Abraham we can long for the way things used to be and long to be the ones who are always at the head of the line. Like Abraham we might even think so highly of ourselves that we are willing to use violence to maintain our position rather than loosen our hold on the reigns of power and place. It is hard to let loose of privilege.
At this point Isaac was not unlike many children throughout history and to this day whose parents are unwilling or unable to make the adjustments necessary to surround a child with love and affection. Abraham, like many parents, may have been unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to be a compassionate and supportive father. The world used to be Abraham’s to conquer, but now Abraham’s world was smaller, and maybe he was not happy with the reduction. Parents have quite often sacrificed their children on the altar of their own needs. I suspect many of us do not have to look very far to understand what might have been Abraham’s longing for freedom from parental demands, freedom from responsibilities, freedom from living closely with the very ones who will be our replacement in the not so distant future.
This speculation about Abraham failings as a father and family member has some support from the wider witness of Scripture. That Abraham could be detached from his family is well-documented. His attachments to his wife Sarah were tenuous. Remember, he passed her off as his sister while they were in Egypt so that the Pharaoh would not kill him and take Sarah as his own. Likewise, Abraham’s attachments to Hagar and Ishmael were not strong enough to withstand tension in the home – he had them put out into the desert to die. His attachment to Isaac may have been weak as well. The only conversation the Bible records them having is the one they had on the way up the mountain while Isaac was bearing the load of wood that would be used for his own burning.
These aspects of Abraham’s life as the story is told in Scripture combined with what I consider to be the deepest revelation of God as loving and generous and wanting the best for all God’s children leads me in the direction of saying that when Abraham heard a voice telling him to sacrifice Isaac … it was his own voice her heard.
So, what is the story about? What can it say to us today in our situation? I think the story is about Abraham coming to his senses. I think the story is about Abraham finally realizing that he could lay the heavy burden of his own self-centeredness down and recognize the importance of others in God’s plans. Abraham could let go of his desire to be a unitary executive and realize that he needed to celebrate the gifts of others in the ongoing work toward God’s beloved community.
It is no accident, I think, that the rest of Abraham’s story in the Bible has him acting as a devoted father and husband. When Sarah died Abraham grieved hard and made special arrangements for her burial. He took it upon himself to find Isaac a wife – Rebekah. Abraham married again – a woman named Keturah – and they had six children. And I suspect that Abraham made amends with both Isaac and Ishmael because when Abraham died his sons – who had been torn apart as young boys – came together to bury Abraham east of Mamre next to Sarah. Abraham came down from the mountain a changed man, a man with a broader understanding of the faithfulness and love of God and a better understanding of his place along side those who would follow him in the unfolding of God’s plan for the world. Abraham became less self-centered and more God and neighbor-centered.
May it be so for us. Amen.