This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 2nd July 2017
Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac has been a troubling one for scholars since the day it was presented as a text. In oral and written traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and social scientific study this story has caused problems for thousands of years. I mean, what is this story trying to say? What is the take-home message from such an horrific account?
Some have said that the point is God’s definitive rejection of human sacrifice. That in a time and place where children were sacrificed to gods in the Ancient Near East, the instruction of Elohim as God is called here, to first bind Isaac on the altar and then to so gloriously redeem him with a last-minute shriek from an angel and the placement of a nearby ram, is clear. “No more boys, just rams please,” thus saith the Lord. But if that is the point, that Elohim does not need or want children killed in worship, why make such a big show of it? Poor Abraham and Isaac to be pawns in such a role-play. The God of Abraham and Isaac, and later of Jacob, comes out as a new type of deity, but this God is still a monster who thinks nothing of terrifying the most faithful of worshippers to make a point about God’s own generous nature.
So, no, I don’t think it’s that at all. God could have just said “thou shalt not kill thy children for my sake” and been done with it. This week-long sermon illustration which culminates at the point of a father’s dagger over his son, his dear son, the son whom he loves who is tied up and terrified is unnecessary and is therefore extremely cruel.
So, it must be something else: so why this story, and why so early in the Hebrew tradition? Remember that we are in Genesis 22 here, that’s page 15 of the Bible in front of you.
I think that the question is actually for the worshippers of God, and that it is framed by the thought “can we be trusted with God’s future”? Abraham was prepared to trust God even with the death of his dearly loved son. But more than the death of his boy, Abraham’s sacrifice put into jeopardy the promise of God that Abraham would be the father of many descendants, indeed of many nations. With Ismael sent off with Hagar years ago, and Isaac soon to be a charred corpse, how was God going to provide this nation? Now I am sure that Abraham had faith for another son, after all he’d had sons at 75 and 100 years of age, but the promise had been through Isaac and now Isaac was to be slain and cremated.
So, in asking whether we can be trusted with God’s future I wonder whether the real question is whether we trust God with God’s promise. Not that any of us would dare to sacrifice our child, or to even set off on the journey without first checking back with God in prayer: but what if God asked us to do something which would put in jeopardy the unique and divine promise made to you? Would you, do it? Would you ask God for clarification first? Or would you assume that this voice was a temptation or an instance of spiritual warfare and just ignore the call to a different sort of obedience?
I wonder whether you would think a call to you in the way that God called to Abraham was a step to far. Is this one of those “do not lead me into temptation” or “save me in the time of trial” situation we pray about in the Lord’s prayer, asking not for an easy life but for a life where God’s testing does not push us over the edge? In other words, is this a test you would definitely fail? Is this moment a step beyond Gethsemane where even the Christ who lives in you would hand the cup back to God and say, “no Father, just no, you’ve asked too much this time, even of me.” I believe that such an act is outside the love of God, and therefore inconsistent with the one who is utterly dependable. Yet Abraham saw light where there was just blackness and chose to trust God even when God seemed self-contradicting. This is extraordinary faith.
So, what do we do when God is saying yes and no to the same thing? I know that if a voice in his prayers had told my father, at any time in the last 45 years, to “take Damien into the hills, slit his throat and burn his corpse”, that my dad would have had a very hard time believing that that voice was God. And even if he did believe, I’m pretty sure that would have been an instruction too far: again “no Lord, not even you can ask me to do that, I won’t do it.” That instruction is inconsistent with the God we know, and who has been revealed to us in Jesus, scripture, Creation, and the history of the world and theology. So, it’s a pretty safe bet that if you hear an instruction to kill somebody it’s not God who is telling you that. But Abraham didn’t know that, Abraham did not have the Bible, or Jesus, or even Judaism to tell him the way of God. I don’t know if child sacrifice was part of Abraham’s earlier life in Sumer, and that the revelation that the new god he had followed into Canaan was that sort of a god was a shock to him. I mean if the gods of Sumer wanted child sacrifice why shouldn’t this new god demand it too? If you didn’t know any better, and Abraham may not have known any better, why not?
So, here’s two things we can do to be ready when our trust of God takes us beyond the edge or Reason, and then beyond the edge of Faith itself.
- Know God.
- Burrow deep into God and really listen.
How long must I wait for an answer says David in Psalm 13. This is the prayer of a desperate man, a man who is in dire straits, a man who feels abandoned and alone. This is the prayer of a man who needs the assurance and encouragement of the God he knows to exist and love him, but who is strangely and painfully absent in this moment. I know this feeling. Oh boy, do I know this feeling. “Where are you God? Where the hell are you? I know you’re not in hell, because I am, and you aren’t here!! So, where God?!!” Have any of you been there? Yep, me too: me two hundred. My commentaries suggest that Psalm 13 is a textbook prayer of complaint and confident praise. In other words, if you want to have a justified whinge at God, or even about God in God’s hearing, do it this way. Four times in Psalm 13:1-2 David asks how long. How dare God, my God in 13:3, forget and hide from me when God should consider and answer me? Is this sounding familiar to you? Have you been there? I have been there: this is an advantage to you because if you ever find yourself in Hell you can give me a call; I have been there and I know the way back. But you don’t need to call me (although you are always welcome to), the map for home is found in 13:5-6. Trust in God’s steadfast love, indeed sing of it because God is worthy of our trust and God will deliver you. In all my trips to hell God has never failed to bring me back. David has this testimony, and so have I. And so, I believe, has Abraham.
This is why it is important to know God. You cannot trust someone you do not know, and you cannot trust someone deeply if you don’t know him or her intimately. I do not have the most steadfast faith in God, but I have the most steadfast faith I have ever had in God. And God’s faith in me has never wavered, even if my faith in God’s faith in me has. I sometimes wonder how God could trust me with such an awesome task as I have been given, and I begin to doubt myself. I know God can do it, but I doubt that God can do it through me because I am so fragile. That is where God must do the trusting on my behalf too.
But here is where the struggle is. If we know God like David did, and like Abraham did, then it can be very hard to trust God when God goes missing or when God commands something utterly ungodly. And that is why, when the world turns against us, despite our best efforts in discipleship, we must go deeper. “I know you are faithful Lord”, we might pray, “but right now I am frightened and confused. I am going to trust you more, Amen.” Psalm 13 for modern readers. But what happens when there’s just more tunnel ahead, and when you find yourself a month further along life and you’re praying, “still alone and afraid Lord, but still trusting,” and then another month and another after that?
I have faced circumstances when I was confident that I was going ahead with God’s favour and in the path God had set for me. This is not a story of me being assured and wrong, arrogant and errant, not at all. I look back on these particular circumstances and say, “you know what, I was doing God’s bidding there”, but still it went pear-shaped. Now I have had the arrogant and misinformed times before, and the solution to those is simple. Get up, apologise to God, shake off the dirt from when you fell over, and walk with God for a while, perhaps hand-in-hand. But what if you were doing that, walking with God hand-in-hand, on God’s road, talking with God, tracking toward the opened door which was bedecked with welcome signs and flashing arrows, and as you reach it the door is slammed in your face from the inside. Slammed so hard it breaks your nose, and breaks your grip on God’s hand even though God is standing right there wanting to lead you through that door.
Then what do you do?
Then who do you trust. Or a more betterer question, then how do you trust?
If you know God, then this is another instance of “burrow deep and listen”. God’s plans for you can be ruined by other people, that can happen. God is never defeated by this, and you needn’t be either, if you stay close to God, but I have no doubt that God is frustrated by this. In the times when this has happened to me God’s answer to my broken-hearted, tear-flooding cry of “what the actual?” has been deep, deep assurance and comfort. The last time this happened God’s actual words to me were “that is not what I wanted to happen, you were right in pursuing the course you did. But you and I together are going to honour the decision made, and you are going to fulfil your call and do the work set for you through another channel.” Never let it be said that God does not have a plan-B. In a world where women and men have the freedom to make mistakes, especially mistakes which frustrate God’s plans for strangers, there is always another way for God.
If you have stuffed up, God will rescue you and set you on the right path.
If other people have stuffed you up, God will rescue you and set you on another path, which becomes the right path because God walks it with you.
God had no need of a plan-B for Abraham in this situation. Plan-A was the test of his faith and the fulfilment of the promise through Isaac and that was allowed to happen because of Abraham’s faithfulness. God also had no need of a plan-B for Isaac in this situation, Abraham did not kill him. But I have no doubt that there were plan-B moments in these men’s lives, and I am certain that David’s life as soldier and then king had many B-Road detours.
So, if God asks you to do something stupid, go with what you know of God. You know more about God than either Abraham or David did. But more importantly, if life puts you in a situation which just so obviously wrong in the company of the God you know and whom you know loves you, stay close. God is unstoppable, but only because God is also agile enough to get around human stupidity, stubbornness, and selfishness.
There’s still no better way than to trust and obey.
But please, don’t actually kill your sons. That’s just wrong.