Is there any story in the Bible more horrifying than the sacrifice of Isaac? Why would God, who had given Isaac to Abraham in the first place, then turn around and ask Abraham to kill his own son? Even at the end of the story, when God rescues Isaac by giving Abraham a ram as a replacement, we feel uneasy with God’s behavior. It seems manipulative, even cruel. The point of the story seems clear-God wanted to test Abraham. But what kind of test makes a person choose between God and his son?
Today we have what we consider a reasonably sophisticated understanding of God. God is love. God is One God. God reveals himself in the Trinity. However, we must keep in mind that Abraham was basically the first monotheist. Imagine a world where every tribe has a different God. Religion is rooted in superstition rather than relationship. Imagine a world where the gods do actually demand human sacrifice to appease their anger. This is the kind of world in which Abraham lived. Abraham’s world was chaotic, loose. He was a nomad, whose safety and livelihood was dependent on the generosity of the gods.
God’s desire with Abraham was to start a new kind of relationship between God and people. No longer would a relationship to God be about superstition, instead it would be about trust and love. God had to show Abraham that he was NOT the kind of God that demanded human sacrifice. He taught the lesson in such a searing way, through the near sacrifice of Isaac, that there is no way we can forget the image of last minute rescue.
There is something about the terror in sacrifice of Isaac story that resonates with us. If you are walking the Christian walk, you are going to experience pain. If you are walking the Christian walk, you are going to experience great loss. Because, as our Gospel reading reminds us today, Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake. The imminent death of Isaac reminds us of our fear of obliteration. We fear that if we get too close to God, if we follow his call on our lives too precisely, we may lose everything we value.
When I was a small child, I saw a NOVA special about the Sun. It described the power of the Sun’s energy and how eventually because of changes in its energy, everything around it, even the earth, would be sucked into the Sun and be disintegrated. Now, as a child, I did not understand the concept of millions of years and so thought this would happen any moment, and I was terrified.
A close relationship with God can feel like this sometimes. God is so big and so amorphous, it can feel risky to draw near to him, to invite him into our lives.
While Isaac’s survival is small comfort, if we look more closely at this idea of losing our lives, we may be able to gain some courage.
Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake. This sounds suspiciously like the kind of obliteration we fear. However, we know that Jesus never threatened the life of anyone. He drew people out and loved them and helped them to grow. He took immature, impulsive Peter and believed in him so much he became a stable head of the church.
What if Jesus doesn’t want us to lose our true lives, our true selves, but wants us to lose our false selves.
What do I mean by a false self? I mean the self that has been constructed from other’s expectations and your own fears. I mean the self that was taught by your parents that it was not okay to cry or to be fat or to be smart or to be an artist or to be. . whatever it was that they didn’t want you to be. I mean the self that you’ve constructed so that your friends won’t be threatened by you. I mean the self you’ve constructed so that your coworkers think you are always competent and never afraid. I mean the self that you present to your partner so he or she won’t stop loving you. I mean the self that buys a house you can’t afford and three fancy cars so you appear prosperous to your neighbors, when you’re actually drowning in debt and terrified.
The Christian life involves a huge amount of risk, and the biggest risk is living an authentic life before God and before each other. Jesus calls us to leave behind the world and what the world wants from us. Jesus calls us, invites us to sit at his feet and learn from him about who we really are.
And who are we? Paul answers this in our Epistle reading today.
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We are God’s beloved. We are the people for whom God sent Christ. God does not demand human sacrifice, God sacrifices himself for us. God is big and amorphous and scary, but he was also human, and kind, and gentle. Above all, God is full of intense, specific love. God sees you, sees your true heart, sees beyond every false self you’ve constructed, and loves you.
And, like Isaac, right at the moment when life feels the most terrifying, God will swoop in and save you. He will give you friends when you are lonely, courage when you are terrified, and love when you feel your most un loveable. All we need to do is to surrender to him-perhaps the most terrifying step of all.
[At the 9:00]
We celebrate four baptisms today. At first when I read the readings, I was dismayed. I didn’t want Hunter and Anna Marie to link this image of the sacrifice of Isaac with their own baptism. I did not want their baptism to be something scary, but something exciting and life giving. However, these lessons reminded us that baptism isn’t cute.
Baptism is not something we do for sentimental reasons.
In Baptism we die with Christ and experience his resurrection.
In Baptism we commit ourselves to following Christ, to giving up our lives to do his work in the world. But, through Baptism and a life of following Jesus, we will become more and more our true selves, the people God made us to be. We will discover we can love more deeply than we thought possible. We will discover great vaults of courage and integrity. We will discover closeness with God that is not threatening, bur reassuring and life giving.
These four children being baptized are on the beginning of an exciting journey, full of ups and downs, but always rooted in the security of God’s love for them.