Sermon; 4 Pentecost/Proper 8A; Genesis 22:1-14
As I previously mentioned, our gospel passages for the past three weeks have come from Chapter 10 of Matthew. This chapter is essentially the missionary chapter of the gospel: Go and proclaim, cure, cleanse, cast out, do not fear, and know that whoever welcomes you welcomes Jesus and also welcomes the one who sent him. These passages are rich with material that ground us in gospel justice the world needs to hear.
But there's another passage from today that we need to look at, and that's the passage from Genesis. This passage has been called, “The Sacrifice of Isaac” (although incorrectly, because Isaac isn't really sacrificed), but is more properly known as, “The Binding of Isaac.” This is one of the best know, most problematic, and most theologically argued passages in all of scripture. And here at Saint John's, the apex of the story is carved into the left panel of the High Altar – that moment when an angel of the Lord intervenes and stops the sacrifice.
There are plenty of questions about this passage. Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Is this a story about moving from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice? Did Abraham really hear God's voice? What kind of God commands such a thing? And a little farther down the passage (which we don't get today), Why doesn't the story say that Isaac returned with Abraham from the mountain? These questions and more have been asked for thousands of years as Israelites/Jews and Christians have contended with this story.
For Christians, there are certainly parallels here between the binding of Isaac and the Passion of Christ. Isaac, the only son, carries the instrument of his death on his back. Jesus, the only Son, carries the instrument of his death on his back. The event with Isaac – from certain death to life – happened on the third day. On the third day, Jesus moved from death to life. When bound for sacrifice, Isaac said not a word. When faced with his own execution, Jesus was also silent.
But co-opting Hebrew texts to make them fit into a christian perspective does violence to the original text. It steals from that tradition in an effort to show that Christianity is superior. But we can't co-opt Hebrew texts in that way – or in any way for that matter. But we can use it to search for how God might be speaking to us today through those ancient texts.
Yes, there are a lot of questions produced by this text. Yes, it can be compared to the Passion story. But at its heart, this is a story of testing and promise. It is a story of God testing Abraham and the fulfillment of God's promise. It is also a story of God being tested by Abraham and Abraham fulfilling his promise. Wrapped up in all of this is a sense of unknowing.
Years ago I said that, although Abraham believed in God, he wasn't necessarily committed to God. Could the same be said for God – that God believed Abraham was the right person, but that God may not have been committed to him? Hence the test for both parties. And could the same be said of us? Are we in a period of testing?
God gave the ultimate test by commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son. Whether or not you believe God actually did that, or that Abraham was hearing voices, what becomes clear in the story is that neither God nor Abraham knew how this would turn out. Would Abraham follow through with this awful deed? Would God have to deal with the aftermath of a human sacrifice?
Likewise, Abraham may have been testing God to see how far he would go. Would God have Abraham go through with this act? Would God be willing to start the promise over, with Abraham and Sarah that much older?
This is like a game of spiritual chicken – wondering who will follow through to the end and who will back down. But this is also a part of faith we rarely delve into. As I said earlier, there's a difference between belief in God and being committed to God.
And there's always the question hanging over us – what does this ancient story have to do with us today in the here and now? I think that right now we are being tested. We are being asked to figure out if we simply believe in God, or if we are fully committed to God.
If we simply believe in God, we don't have to think about the consequences because we can fall back on the, “God said it, I believe it” defense. God told us to drive out the occupants of this land from before us (Josh. 3:10). God told us to exterminate those who were not like us (Josh. 6:24). God told us to kill the leaders of different religions (1 Kings 18:40). Belief in God has led to stealing land, enslaving people, and any number of abuses and atrocities. But simply believing what God says and blindly following him doesn't necessarily translate to commitment.
Commitment requires us to open our ears to a deeper relationship. Commitment requires us to be open to the possibility that we might be wrong, or that our understanding of what God is asking us to do might be wrong. Are we willing to hear God say, “Stop!” Are we willing to hear God say, “Stop driving people from their homes. Stop killing people who are different from you. Stop killing people in my name.”
Abraham believed in God, but he became committed to God when he listened to the angel say, “Stop!” and learned of another way to honor God.
Commitment requires us to open our eyes to seeing God in a new light. Abraham had seen God work in a particular way, which led him to unquestionably follow the instructions to sacrifice Isaac. Seeing God work in a particular way probably made Abraham comfortable. Because he had always seen it done that way, he missed seeing the ram caught in the thicket until it was almost too late. And it was in seeing what hadn't been seen before that the promise was able to be fulfilled.
If we are committed to God, we need to open our eyes. We need to be willing to see God providing other options. Just because we've always done things a certain way doesn't mean they always have to be that way.
The promise of God is that all people should have life. But like Abraham initially missed how that promise would be fulfilled, we also miss how that promise will be fulfilled if we only focus on how things have always been.
Abraham believed in God, but he became committed when he opened his eyes and saw another, less violent way to worship. We also believe in God, but how much more will we be committed when we are able to see God in a new way?
So this is, I think, where we are right now – somewhere between the testing and the promise. We are certainly being tested right now. We can either fight to keep things the way they have always been, or we can keep our ears and eyes open to hear and see how the promise of God might be fulfilled in a new way. And this new way isn't really new at all. Through Abraham, God said all nations of the earth would be blessed. Through Christ, God provided the means of life for all. Paul wrote that Christ has broken down the wall between us so that there is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Peter had a dream where he heard God's voice declaring all animals clean and realized no person should be called unclean or profane. And our country, supposedly, is founded on the principle that all people are created equal.
It seems, though, that we just have a hard time hearing and seeing these things.
This is our test. We say we believe these things, but are we really committed to making these things a reality in our society and in our lives?
This is our test. Are we able to hear God crying out for us to stop sacrificing our most vulnerable on the altar of the economy? Are we able to hear God crying out for us to stop sacrificing people of color on the altar of white privilege?
This is our test. Are we able to see God giving us an alternative? Are we able to see those we have bound up as our sacrificial victims? Are we willing to release them from those bonds and treat them as equals?
This is our test.
As in this story from Genesis, there is always the possibility we will fail that test. And as in this story from Genesis, even God doesn't know if we will pass or if we will fail.
It will only be in our response to this test, it will only be in our commitment to our fellow human, it will only be in our commitment to loving God and neighbor that will determine whether we pass or fail.
This is our test.