"It shall be provided"-Sermon for Proper 8, Genesis 22:1-14
So, I really wanted to preach on the gospel lesson today…as human sacrifice is never a fun subject. But, as I have mentioned before, when I get that interior feeling that I really don’t want to address something, God is likely telling me I should. As the late, great preaching professor, Fred Craddock, once said, “There is always at least one person in the room that needs to hear the sermon, and that’s the preacher.” And, indeed, this both familiar and deeply troubling story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, moved me as I entered into it once again…and I hope it might you as well. So, let’s dive in together.
Now, to begin with, this story is not as unusual as you might think. What I mean is in the very ancient Near East, as in ancient cultures across the world, human sacrifice was not an unusual religious practice. And, before we might write such a practice off as the moral and intellectual failings of unenlightened, primitive people, I think it is worth noting that, as CS Lewis pointed out in his book the “Abolition of God”, if one really believed in a capricious and vengeful God or gods, who demanded profound sacrifice to ease their anger and bless rather than destroy many, many people or whole families, perhaps one could argue, it is the good moral choice to sacrifice one…rather than allow great hardship, suffering or even death to come to many. We must remember that life in the ancient world was way harder than it is for us. People were way more subject to the whims of nature…the challenges of flood and tempest…of fire and draught…of growing and gathering food…of finding and holding water…of hunting with sticks, stones, and maybe a little bit of metal…of disease and injury without modern science and medicine…etcetera. Life is fragile, even now, but life in the ancient world was way more so…with each day’s work often being to just remain alive. And, further, if one believed that a “tit for tat” God or gods stood behind everything that exists, controlling life, death and every possible outcome for each person…in a moment to moment sort of way…then keeping said God or gods happy was itself a choice of life or death that carries with it great moral weight. Thus, again, to sacrifice to God or gods…one solitary life to ease the suffering and extend the life of many, as difficult as I am sure it was even in a world where death was a constant companion, could be seen as the right and good thing to do.
Thus, the problem that stood before these ancient peoples was ultimately a theological dilemma…more than say a moral dilemma. The deeper question before these people and really still before each of us today…is what is the nature of God? Is God capricious and vengeful? Does God require something of us, including sacrifices of all sorts, to love us, to bless us, to provide for us? And, as some biblical scholars suggest, the very story that sits before us today is the answer…or at least the beginning of the answer.
You see, up to this moment, Abraham had lived a good, full and relatively comfortable life for a person living with all the aforementioned challenges in the ancient world. Not a life without struggles, like we all face, but a good life. It included a lifetime with a person he loved, Sarah, in whom Abraham found a constant companion and life-partner. It included longevity and health in a world where life was typically short. It included the safe, if difficult, passage to a comfortable and promising home in the Promised Land. It included a covenant with God that a great nation would be born through his offspring, and that his ancestors will be as numerous as the stars. It included the accumulation of a goodly stockpile of material things…like numerous livestock and well-made tents. And, it included children by multiple partners, including, at long last, a child with Sarah…a son named Isaac, who they had wanted more than anything else and finally received long after their typical child bearing days were over. Abraham had placed his faith for many, many years in the God he loved, and the Lord had proved faithful. Abraham’s life…though not without difficulty…was good and full. He was blessed…indeed.
That is until now. For, it seems that, after all, a final sacrifice for all these blessings would, indeed, be required of Abraham. And, not just any sacrifice, but the very life of that very same son that Abraham and Sarah had waited a lifetime for and loved to the moon and back again. But, as unthinkable as this might seem, again, in the theological world view of Abraham’s time and culture, this is not as surprising…not as unthinkable. For surely, at least in the minds of some, God would require a sacrifice of great significance as recompense for all that Abraham was given. Now, I have no idea if this is how Abraham thought of God’s command to sacrifice Isaac or not…that is a deeply sad but just sacrifice for having been given so much…for his, otherwise, full life. But, what I do though think, is that Abraham’s heart was likely breaking into a thousand pieces. I believe he was sad all the way down to his toes…thinking he would give it all up…all the blessings and happy memories…to save his beloved son. Nonetheless, Abraham, the great archetype of faith, does as God says…the very next day.
Now, I am going to avoid the play by play from here because, honestly, to even describe the set up for the sacrifice feels almost unbearable to me. So, I will just say Abraham takes it all the way to the end…that is almost to the end. For, just as Abraham begins to take his own son’s life, an angel of the Lord calls out his name, saying, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him…”. And, understatement of the year here, I imagine those were the most welcome words Abraham could have possibly received. But, friends, well beyond what must have been an overwhelming moment of relief and joy for Abraham…and more so poor Isaac…not only was Isaac’s life saved that day…but perhaps countless others. For scholars suggest that this story isn’t only about Isaac…that this story isn’t only about one life saved on one particular day…but that this very moment ended human sacrifice among the people of the ancient Near East and, certainly, Israel for all time and forever. The theological math has changed forever. That is what this story is just beginning to reveal is an entirely new understanding of the nature of God. It would be thousands of years later, when another son, another ancestor of Abraham named Jesus…God in flesh…would say, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.” Jesus is confirming what is beginning to be revealed in the story before us today, which is that God is not “tit for tat”, capricious, self-interested or vengeful. Instead, the very nature of God is mercy, grace, life, and love. God does not require sacrifice but provides mercy…and asks us to extend that same grace and love, which we first receive from God, to one another.
Now, you may be thinking…what about Jesus. Didn’t God sacrifice Jesus, God’s own son, on the cross. And, I say to you…by no means. We rightfully call Jesus’s death on the cross a sacrifice, for he was willing to do anything, give anything up, including his very life, that sin and death might be defeated for each and for all. But God did not kill Jesus…humans did. Humans have been crucifying love from the beginning of our time on earth to this day, especially when that love shines a light on the selfishness, greed and sin that lives in human hearts. We can’t bear it, so we squelch it out by any means at our disposal. Humans, grasping for power, killed Jesus. And, what God then did do…was bring him back to life. Jesus’ resurrection, which was the work of God alone, is the merciful and gracious proclamation that life and love are stronger even then death. For, again, the nature of God and, thus, what God provides for each and for all…for Abraham and Isaac and for you and for me…is mercy, grace, life and love.
And, friends, I say this to you as one who has been intimately close to great suffering. For life, indeed, remains fragile…maybe different then in the ancient world…but, still, fragile. I have walked with people through all sorts and conditions of disappointment, pain and loss. I have watched as souls have departed bodies on many occasions as people breathed their last. I have held the hands of those who have lost loved ones, jobs, health, intimate relationships…their dreams. It is one of the great privileges of my vocation…to be invited into people’s lives in the most joyful and terrifying times. And, I say this to you because such experiences continue to lead people to the belief that God, indeed, remains capricious and vengeful…or doesn’t even exist at all. And, I get that. I understand that. Such feelings are entirely normal, and they are welcome in this church.
But, friends, I have also experienced hope flowing forth from those who are willing to lean into God when desperately hurting…who believe that God loves them entirely and will never leave them…who believe God is not causing their suffering as some sort of sacrifice…but, instead, walks with them in it and sometimes carries them through it. When people believe that God’s love is real and powerful and transformative…when people believe that God does not demand some sort of sacrifice but, instead, freely, willingly, gracefully, lovingly provides the spiritual sustenance and nurture to overcome their present darkness…I have seen such faith that God is an active and present love…lead people to finding light and healing and, even, profound blessings. I have seen, with my own eyes, people leaning into God’s ever present, freely given love overcome profound difficulty, return to a fully alive sort of life, and, even, grow through their suffering…that is discover resilience and wisdom and strength that they did not previously believe they possessed. And, I have personally experienced God’s love carry me through such challenging times in my own life, and I know so many of you have as well…for you have told me so.
Mercy, grace, life and love is the nature of God and the very thing that God provides for each and every one of us. For God is love…and as simply as I can say it…any love that comes with conditions…is something other than love. But, God is perfect love…and that love comes to us with no conditions, no sacrificial requirements…we just get to receive what God has already provided…and then get to share the mercy we have received with others.
Abraham named the place where his son’s life was saved, and the place where many sons’ and daughters’ lives were saved…he named it “The Lord will provide”. And, indeed, the Lord God does provide an unconditional love…that is always present…always there for us when we need to lean into it…especially when we need it the very most. Amen.