3 Pentecost—Proper 8-A
June 29, 2014
Abraham is rightly called the Father of faith. In Genesis 15:6 the LORD tells Abraham his “descendants shall be as numerous as the stars”, and “Abraham believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness”.
God makes a promise and Abraham believes that promise.
He is saved by grace and lives by trusting that grace.
But then something horrible happens:
“God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
Remember the name Isaac means “laughter”—Abraham hears God telling him to go kill his joy, his love, his laughter.
And Abraham rises “early in the morning” to fulfill God’s command.
No spending a week or a year discussing this with Sarah, the boy’s mother. No trip to see his priest for spiritual direction. He doesn’t go for an agonizing 40 days in the desert to wrestle with this terrible summons from God.
No, he rises early in the morning.
From our perspective this is unbelievable.
But from Abraham’s perspective not so much, because child sacrifice was practiced in the ancient near east. It was the way you proved you were serious about your commitment to the gods. Without this kind of sacrifice the gods might cause a famine and kill off everybody, better to offer one instead of all.
Better to play it safe and do what serious religious people have always done. So he rises early in the morning.
This sounds unbelievable, but I want to suggest this is not the miracle the story wants to tell.
The true miracle is that he doesn’t kill Isaac.
–Which is to say, the true miracle is that Abraham is willing to give up the normative view of the gods as violent and bloodthirsty and follow a countercultural view in which there is no violence or thirst for human blood in god.
Some scholars have pointed out the text is maybe pointing to this shift by using two different names for god. The god who calls Abraham to kill his son in Hebrew is Elohim, which is translated as simply “God”.
But the god who tells Abraham not to kill Isaac is Yahweh, which is translated LORD—all in caps–since Jews are not allowed to utter this name out loud.
So Elohim says sacrifice Isaac but the LORD says do not sacrifice Isaac.
The miracle is that Abraham is given the gift of faith to reject the god of his culture and his upbringing, and follow instead the LORD who does not inhabit violence or human sacrifice.
It is always a miracle when someone can step outside the accepted religion of the culture and step into a different view of God’s will.
Imagine Gone with the Wind—movie or novel. The young men from the plantations talk excitedly about the coming war with the Yankees. They can’t wait for it to begin because they’ve been raised in a belief that god sanctions fighting and glories in such sacrifices, and of course will be on their side against the Yankees, who aren’t much fighters anyway.
Now imagine one of these young men standing up to the crowd and saying, “you know guys, I think god does not like violence and does not want us to kill or be killed and is in fact calling us to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who did not carry violence as part of his story. So I guess we need to find another way to deal with this conflict we’re in.”
Well, if you know some Quakers or Mennonites maybe you can imagine such a thing, but can you imagine it being one of the young men in that group?
Yet, Abraham is given the gift to hear and obey a deeper, truer word from the LORD: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.”
But his descendants would be tempted to fall back into the trusted old ways so prophets had to keep reminding them of the LORD’s will:
Leviticus 18:21(NRSV) reads: “1 You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them[a] to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.”
30 For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord…they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.”
Hosea says, the Lord “desires mercy and not sacrifice.”
Twice in Matthew’s gospel Jesus quotes this line from Hosea saying; “go and learn what this means, I [the Lord], desire mercy, not sacrifice”.
Jesus, on behalf of the LORD, is working to induct his listeners into a new kind of human community: one that does not imagine God is run by the system of violence; a community that finds its unity not in killing but in the vivaciousness of the LORD who knows not death.
Jesus is creating a community that receives its identity as a gift from the mercy of God and lives out that mercy toward others.
But let’s be careful: just because none of us here would ever do anything to intentionally hurt our sons and daughters, that doesn’t mean we, too, can’t be run by the system of death and violence.
For instance yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. In that war, according to Wikipedia, “There were over 16 million deaths and 20 million wounded ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.” Of the 16 million killed over 6 million were civilians.
We can’t imagine sacrificing our child but in that war so-called Christian nations, including our own, sacrificed 16 million—each of which was someone’s beloved child.
They sacrificed their children to the gods of cultural arrogance, racial superiority, and national pride. They offered them up proudly with flags waving—which is why I don’t much like having national flags in church!
Oh yes, let’s be clear–our nation is run much more by the system of violence and death than by faith in the LORD.
It’s why it is important every Palm Sunday and Good Friday to take the part of the mob and cry out, “crucify him, crucify him.”
It is why we must keep gathering together week by week to confess we often desire sacrifice over mercy; to remember the central story of our faith: Jesus carrying the wood to the place of his self-offering—not to placate a wrathful god, but to reveal to a wrathful humanity the insanity and sin of what we do every time we kill.
James Alison puts it this way: “The whole self-giving of Jesus becomes possible because Jesus is obedient to God, giving himself in the midst of violent humans who demand blood, in order finally to unmask and annul the system of murderous mendacity which the whole world is.” Raising Abel page 45
We gather week by week to proclaim our need to listen to the LORD to turn away from the false gods that tell us we are the good guys and everyone else are the bad guys.
We gather week by week to be inducted into the community that is sustained by the body and blood of Christ, God’s gift to us, so we like Abraham can live by grace through faith.