Sermon / July 2, 2017 / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / Genesis 22:1-14
Today we have one of the most difficult stories in all of Scripture, the near-sacrifice of the boy Isaac by his father, Abraham. This is the kind of story that makes atheists and agnostics believe that people of faith are right out of their minds, and that religion really is abusive. And so we can’t rationalize this story away. We can’t tame it. We have to deal with it.
One very important thing to remember is that the Jews were the first people in antiquity to abolish human sacrifice. And so this story may have been written to mark that. It signals a turning point in what people felt was proper to do. It was OK to offer fruits of the harvest; it was OK to offer animals; but it was not OK to sacrifice a human life, even when it seemed divinely mandated. And that’s an important frame to this story. Abraham is about to sacrifice a human life, and then (informed by a higher moral consciousness represented in the story as an angel) he stops and says, “No. This I will not do.” Or perhaps it was God who made that decision, God who said to Himself, “No.” That works if you think of angels as the subjectivity of God, the intentionality of God, the mandates of God reaching into us. Most likely, it was the Biblical writers who, over many thousands of years, eventually wrote a story that reflected this moral development. This is obviously still powerfully relevant, in this age of violent fundamentalism. God never mandates the taking of human life. Any claim to violence committed in God’s name is a false claim.
But let’s talk about sacrifice, which is the theological reality behind this story. We can’t just write it off as an antiquated aberration, as Christians are apt to do. Huge portions of the Old Testament are about sacrifice. And it was not the simplistic, “primitive”, vaguely superstitious thing we modern people often think it was. Sacrifice was highly refined. Slaughtering an animal and splashing its blood in a designated area in the temple was believed to maintain a living relationship with the living Lord. And because the animal’s blood was thought actually to carry life itself, when it was offered to God, it increased and sustained God’s life. The blood was “given up”, like some of us “give things up” during Lent. This is the way God was thanked and worshipped and conciliated. Sacrifice worked, and it worked for a very long time.
But no one really knows completely what ancient people were really meaning to do when they offered sacrifices. Because sacrifice had many layers of meaning, some of which are lost to us. And it represented different things to the different people who practiced it, just as our modern religious practices represent many different things to us. Receiving Holy Communion may mean something very different to you, for example, than it does to the person next to you.
The one constant was the belief that sacrifice served as the bridge, the mediator, between humanity and God. The carcass of the animal was left for humans to consume. But its life, its spirit, entered the world of the sacred. It became part of the life of God. This act of mutual sustenance, the shared meal, represented the relationship between the Lord and the Lord’s people. In sacrifice, something was gained by both parties.
I think it’s really we modern people who hold a primitive view of sacrifice. We tend to think of sacrifice in terms of loss. Like during Lent, when we give something up in order (we think) to grow spiritually. I’m not sure this always accomplishes its purpose. I’m not talking about fasting, especially now when most of us eat 3 or 4 t times more than we need and so effectively insulate ourselves against God. I’m talking about giving up one thing, something tangible, for 6 weeks, like martinis. The problem with that is that the idea that you are going without something can become more important than the relationship that the sacrifice is suppose to nurture. I’m not qualified to speak for God, but I think that satisfying sting of self-denial you feel when you give something up satisfies only you, not God. It can be a way that you actually withhold something from God – your self – and leave God hungry for you your presence.
Abraham himself had a touch of this withholding spirit in him. He too tried to have God on his own terms. You remember the story. Abraham and Sarah have been childless for years, and God comes to Abraham and tells him that He is going to give them a child and Abraham (who has been wringing his hands for years about how he will ever become the father of the promise without having a son) says, “Well, Lord, I appreciate your input, but I have this son Ishmael already with my concubine so I really don’t want another kid at this point in my life. Could we somehow accomplish this great nation thing through Ishmael instead?”
Sarah has been weeping and wailing for decades about her infertility. But when she hears that the Lord is about to help her conceive at the age of 99, she just laughs Him off and then has the cheek to deny it. “Nope, not me. I didn’t laugh. I was just reading my Old Testament”. And God smiles and says to her, “Oh yes, but you did laugh”, and God knows then that even though Abraham and Sarah have tried to give him the brush-off because they are afraid to lose the so-called “sacrificial” lives they have created on their own terms, He’s going to have the last laugh.
So sacrifice is not about self-denial, with the emphasis on “self”. It’s not about giving things up on your own terms. Sacrifice is about making holy. And that what this story is about. Making something holy. Making something sacred. Something that is intangible.
And so Abraham and Sarah have Isaac. It was a miracle. His name means “laughter” and it means that God will always have the last laugh, that God’s joy and delight will always be stronger than our skepticism and fear. In today’s story, though, it looks like the miracle is being revoked. God actually tells Abraham to take Isaac up the mountain and kill him, no reasons given (as if reasons would help). And Abraham, like a robot, simply obeys. Not a peep out of him. This wonderful nativity suddenly becomes a crucifixion. Isaac carries the wood on which he will be sacrificed to the place of his execution, just like Jesus, except unlike Jesus he doesn’t know what’s happening. And he’s just a kid. It’s grotesque.
But it doesn’t end that way. An angel speeds down to earth and says, “Take your hands off that kid. You have already done what was required.” And Abraham looks up from the blade of his knife and he lets go of his son’s neck and he spots a ram in the bushes and he sacrifices it instead. And the angel tells him that all the earth will be blessed because of what he has done.
You see what the angel meant. Abraham was willing to bring Isaac up the mountain because he knew, finally, that his son – and the promise that his son embodied – were not his to own. Abraham knew that his life and Isaac’s life were genuine only insofar as they were in God’s hands, put at God’s disposal, for God’s purposes, even purposes that seem to bring death and limits. Promise can never be owned. If a promise is owned, it dies. If it is sacrificed, it lives. Counterintuitive, but true.
This wasn’t manipulation on God’s part. In fact, it was God who did the sacrificing in this story. It was God who by testing Abraham denied Himself the certain joy of knowing that the nations of the earth would be blessed on His own terms, in the way He had originally planned. Because Abraham could have said “No, I am not going to take my boy up the mountain.” God took that risk. Because God wanted to find out if we are really partners in this enterprise of salvation.
And so how odd, how curious, that God asked a human father to sacrifice his own son before God asked the same thing of Himself, before He made the sacrifice of His own son Jesus. How curious. One son was saved from death; the other saved us from death.
Christians believe that in Jesus, God provided the lamb for the sacrifice, and so we have been set free. Free to make the sacrifices genuinely required of us if our lives are going to be rich and full of promise and connected to God. Not martinis, not chocolate, not cheese or dessert. You might give some thought to what those genuine sacrifices might be for you. Usually, they involve intangible things.
Do you need to sacrifice your past, to give it over to God? I think a lot of people live in a state of constant regret over what their lives have been like, the sins they have committed and the sins committed against them. This is a real poison in the spiritual life.
I think God does call on each one of us to sacrifice our hope of having had a better past. Because once you accept your past for what it is, you can lay it down and really listen to how God is speaking in your life now. You can move on. You can change. Don’t stay stuck in guilt or remorse over how you have lived, or in anger over how you believe other people have damaged your life. Just give the devil his due. Ask for forgiveness, extend forgiveness, and move on. That’s what Jesus’s ministry was all about: repenting, forgiving, and moving forward into new life. I think God also asks us to sacrifice our belief that we can save each other, which is a kind of functional atheism. Do you believe it’s your job to save everyone and fix everything? The hurting people, the angry people, the people in love with their own pain, the people walking around making mistakes all the time and doing things the wrong way, our parents or kids or spouses or fellow parishioners who tell the same story of grievance or offense over and over? We can give them love and prayers, but we cannot save them. Jesus already died for those folks. God breathed life again into Jesus, and God will breathe life into them too, if they will have it. Let life take its course. All will be well, God has promised us that, even if we are never able to see how that wellness is being bestowed. We are all in God’s hands. All the people of the earth have been blessed, that’s what the story of Abraham assures us. I know that life seems to work against trust a lot of the time, which is even more reason for us Christians to model that very thing.
I remember hearing something said by the second-century Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is waging a great battle”. I have never forgotten it. Because it points to something I think we all need to sacrifice, which is our tendency to judge each other, to impugn other people’s motives, to jump to conclusions about other people, to assume the worst about them, and to act as if it is our right to criticize and condemn. Even in churches, this happens all the time, probably because often so much seems at stake. We are so hard on each other. It’s so easy to do. And it tears us down. We can do better. I have to remind myself of this every day. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is waging a great battle.” Everyone. Because in the end, only kindness really matters.
Whatever the sacrifices we need to make, they all tell us that if we are to be truly human, truly holy, we have to let go. Of everything. It is the only way God can use us to be a blessing, to make us fruitful as he made Abraham and Sarah fruitful. We’re all walking up that mountain, our lives in our hands, together.