Proper 8, Year A, 2008

What in the world is happening?  What was good is now evil.  What was clear is now blurry.  The stars might as well have fallen out of the sky.  The ocean might as well have reclaimed the land.  Everything is wrong and disoriented and awful.

God has asked Abraham to kill Isaac.

Not only has God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, when God gives Abraham the instructions to do so, God seems to have forgotten who Abraham is.  Robert Alter, an Old Testament Scholar, points out that we seem to be hearing one side of a two-sided conversation. The Hebrew reads, “Take pray, your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac. . .”  And you can almost hear Abraham saying, “But I have two sons.  What about Ishmael? I love both of them.  Oh, you mean Isaac.”  From the very beginning of the conversation Abraham is disoriented, we the readers are disoriented, the whole world seems disoriented.

After all, we’ve just spent several weeks with Abraham and Sarah, a rare opportunity to spend more than one Sunday on any particular Biblical character.  We have journeyed with them.  We have joyfully and with trepidation followed behind them as they took the risk to follow God in the first place.  We have waited, and waited, and waited with them for the birth of their long-promised child, Isaac.  And when Sarah and Abraham were finally blessed with the squirming squealing newborn we laughed with them in astonishment that God’s blessing actually came true, despite the incredible odds against that blessing.

Now should be the time for celebration.  Now should be the time to raise Isaac into a responsible young man.  Now should be the time of passing the torch from one generation to the next.  Instead, God seems poised to rip the promise he has made right out of Abraham’s faithful hands. 

Strangely, Abraham does not even argue.  And Abraham knows how to argue with God.  In fact, in Chapter 19 of Genesis, Abraham goes head to head with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  God wants to destroy the cities, but Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family live there.  Abraham bargains with God until God agrees that if even ten people in the city are righteous, he will not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.  The argument finally resolves when God enables the righteous Lot and his family to escape, and then destroys the city.  Abraham may not have affected the ultimate outcome, but he did learn that he is allowed to argue with God.

But now, when his son’s life depends on it, Abraham does not argue.  Abraham is silent and obedient. Abraham splits wood, gathers a cleaver and some rope, calls to Isaac and begins the journey up the mountain.   They must have left early in the morning, maybe even before Sarah awoke.  I imagine she would have had a thing or two to say to Abraham if she knew what he was doing.

We are not given any information about Abraham’s thoughts or emotions during this test. We don’t know if he really believes he is going to have to kill Isaac or whether he trusts God to find another way.  All we know is that he makes the trip, reluctant step by reluctant step.  We know he piles the wood, binds his son’s arms and legs, and lifts his cleaver.

What we have here seems more like a script from a horror movie than a biblical passage.

When we talk about God in the Church, we have a tendency to focus on the love of Jesus or on the power of the Holy Spirit.  We talk about intimacy with God, tenderness, grace, acceptance.  We talk about God in ways that make us comfortable.  We think about God in ways that do not challenge the ways we live. Because God has been mediated through Jesus, we forget that God is a consuming fire.  We forget that God is powerful and that the sacrifice God wants is us, and as we say in the Eucharistic prayer, “our selves, our souls and bodies.”

But God is a consuming fire. God’s love is powerful and devouring.

And it is this love that motivates God to test Abraham.

God has taken a big risk with Abraham.  He has staked a future with Abraham and his offspring.  This did not work out well with Adam and Eve.  Even Noah dissolved into a drunken mess after awhile.  God is trying one more time and he wants to make sure he gets it right.  So, he tests Abraham.

God wants all of Abraham.  He wants all of Abraham’s passion and love and commitment.  He wants Abraham’s devotion so much, God is willing to see if he will sacrifice his very future, his beloved son, his promised blessing, to prove that devotion.

God tests Abraham to make sure he is the kind of man that will follow God in any situation.

And Abraham passes God’s test.

And we are left feeling ambivalent and uncomfortable because in passing God’s test, Abraham showed his willingness to commit a horrible act, an act so abusive and traumatizing that we cannot fully celebrate Abraham’s success. 

We do not know exactly how we are supposed to interpret this difficult passage. We do know that Abraham saw God in a new way after the test, and in fact the words see, eyes, and look are peppered throughout this passage.  Moriah even means “he sees”.  Abraham’s trip up the mountain was a transformative experience for him as well as for God.  Abraham learns that God will provide for him even in the moment of greatest need and God learns that Abraham will be faithful to Him even at great personal cost.  Yet still, we feel tension.

And perhaps we are meant to remain in that tension. Tension helps us not get too comfortable with God.  Tension prevents us from taking God’s will for us too lightly. Tension prevents us from us taking God’s sacrifice too lightly.

After all, Isaac’s horrible story sheds light on another Son who traveled up a hill, carrying the very wood on which he would be killed.

Perhaps this story helps us remember that other story, the story we honor with Easter bunnies, pastel dresses and decorated eggs.  This story helps us remember Jesus’ story was filled with fear and dread, too.

Perhaps Abraham’s story reminds us that though Abraham passed his test, as a human race we were unable to remain faithful to God.  But God was willing to make the same sacrifice he asked of Abraham.  And that sacrifice was brutal and cruel and bloody.  Perhaps, as we imagine the pain Abraham experienced, we are to discern a bit of what God experienced when his own Son was sacrificed.  God was willing to give us all of himself, so that we could be in relationship with Him.

In any case, this passage reminds us, as Charley told us last week, that grace is not cheap.  Discipleship is not easy.  A relationship with God demands that we give to God all that we consider most dear, even at great personal cost.

Amen.

Lent 2, Year B, 2006

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. 

[At 11:00]

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.