s022o02 Lockleys Good Friday
"Because you have not withheld your only son..." Genesis 22:12
I began this sermon before Christmass - after Timothy was honoured to read a lesson at our Cathedral for the Brighton Secondary School Carol night as an old scholar. He read the portion of Genesis - the culmination of the story of Abraham and his almost sacrificing of his son Isaac. The reading struck home as he and I wondered what on earth this had to do with Christmass. Then I read the book "God Lust" and the comment that this implies a radical obedience to God. And I thought I'd better think about this myself.
Other answers to the conundrum of what this is about is to make the point that God doesn't want us to sacrifice people - that Abraham was mistaken. He thought he knew what God wanted, and had to find out that he was wrong. This message might lead us to realise that we too might be mistaken when we think we know the will of the Lord, especially if it involves someone else being sacrificed. Paul, for all the time he spent in the exercise of his religious devotions beforehand, had to be stopped in his tracks on the way to Damascus on his way to impose his expression of religion on others.
We can also dismiss the passage as being something about the Old Testament God of demands and anger, and we follow the New Testament God of love and forgiveness. Going down this track, we find ourselves quickly having to reconcile this with Jesus' words in Luke 14.26 about hating "father, mother, wife and children" ... We too cannot escape the call for radical obedience, or so it seems.
Abraham was an interesting old coot, and he is hardly on his own when we realise for him there was something special about having children of one's own. This desire is very powerful and it makes me wonder when sections of the Church so virulently oppose IVF techniques. How one can oppose what must seem miraculous is beyond my belief. Abraham was, it seemed, denied a child for much of his life, and then, miraculously, he had this son. All his hopes and dreams had come true - then out of the blue he is called to give this longed - for individual up. It didn't make sense. And the whole of humanity recoils from the demand. It is not fair. If God intended to take the child, it would have been better for Isaac not to have been born.
Yet those who have had a child who has died do indeed grieve for their lost child, but few will say that they would have preferred not to have "fallen" pregnant.
The story has a "Catch 22" flavour about it. The story is all a bit surreal, or so it seems.
But it is not surreal at all. I suddenly realised that the issue faces each and every parent. Each and every day, every mother and father has to commend their precious offspring into the care of the Almighty. And each time they do that, it is a matter of life and death, for the outcome is never assured. I have often been reminded of an incident where one of our boys wandered on to the main road between Stirling North and Quorn while some friends and us shared a BBQ in the creek bed. Catherine suddenly realised he was missing - fortunately soon after, a motorist returned him to our care, wondering what this baby was doing wandering along a main highway.
Here was Abraham, seemingly being asked to sacrifice all he had lived for, as if this is what God wanted. And of course the real answer is that God will provide. Everything that is needful, to atone for our own inadequacies and for the inadequacies that others have, is already provided for. As "Christians" we would say this has been provided for, by Jesus on the Cross - but it really doesn't matter how we picture the mechanism for this provision - if it was provided for, for Abraham - it has been provided for, for all people.
Some time later, I realised there was another possibility for the actions of Abraham - perhaps it was my devious mind working overtime, I don't know. Perhaps the near sacrifice was for Abraham to make sure that Isaac was his own child and not someone else's. I do not mean to be rude here, but Abraham was not averse to passing off his wife Sarah as his sister to those he thought he had to please. It was important to Abraham to know it was his child - that the promise of God had been fulfilled and that Isaac was indeed the promised son and heir. In this line of thinking, if Isaac wasn't his, God needn't have provided the lamb, and the promise would be fulfilled through another child. Or perhaps this incident was God showing Abraham that Isaac was the one.
It is, of course, helpful to know that everything has been provided for, for this saves us from any ambiguity, from any necessity to try to do this ourselves. But this is all. We are saved the necessity of trying to do something ourselves, and we are led to realise that no one else needs to do anything either.
So God does not ask us to sacrifice anything of ourselves. Even the most precious thing (besides our own life) the life of the only prospect of our name being carried on, is simply not required. God will provide.
But when I began thinking about sacrifice, I thought of another sacrifice, this time a fictional one. A distinguished person has an unexpected guest, and the distinguished person, in order to fulfil his holy obligations of hospitality decides not to provide for his guest out of his own resources, but to take a lamb from his servant. God's protest is immediate. The distinguished person's holy offering of hospitality using the precious possession of a servant brings immediate and dire consequences. The distinguished person's own son will perish. The distinguished person was in fact David, king of Israel, and the offering he took was from Uriah, the faithful alien servant. This bids us notice that God is more concerned about the precious possession of the poor alien. God is actually repulsed that an offering by the king of the elect people of God came from someone else.
So if our "sacrifice" is actually at the expense of someone else, or something that someone else considers precious - God's wrath is immediate and final - no matter how we believe our own place in God's kingdom is assured. We do well to offer our own sacrifices and not anyone else's.
Of course the immediate sacrifice that comes to mind is the "sacrifice" of Osama Bin Laden, who it seems cheerfully, sacrificed the lives of several thousand other people in the name of his god. He should not be surprised if the resultant retribution is swift.
But of course this is not at all uncommon. Wars are waged hoping that someone else's children will be sacrificed. The reality is that God will be angered, not appeased. Wars are waged with the expectation that only the enemy will lose the things they consider precious. The story of King David tells us that God will avenge.
For all we might be thinking that we are fighting in the name of our God, when we kill something that is precious to someone else's parents, whatever their nationality, colour, race or gender, retribution on us will be swift and final.
But then I thought about the mythical school master in the "good old days" who inevitably prefaced a dose of corporal punishment with the words: "This is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you ..." and in reality the recipient inevitably had the sneaking suspicion that the teacher actually was relishing the prospect :-)
I was reading recently an article in "Eureka Street" where Professor Tony Coady wrote: "One prominent church spokesman, rejecting recently the idea of genetic testing of embryos for tendencies to cancer used the "what next?" devise to suggest that scientists might next want to reject the implantation of embryos that had a tendency to asthma. The spokesman no doubt did not intend this as a gratuitous slight to those who suffer from this terrible disease, but this sort of insensitivity emerges all too readily in the polemical context of the abortion debate. A church known for compassion, humility and openness is more likely to achieve a deep and impressive identity than one marked by a passion for stringent metaphysical dogmatism in the face of complexity and suffering." * And I wondered, here is the Church, "sacrificing" other people's chances for some relief, and doing this in the name of God - and I wondered ... We do well to offer our own sacrifices, and not feel good because we have got someone else to make some sacrifice.
The Church for many years hasn't thought twice about forcing others to sacrifice any future prospects of physical intimacy when someone's marriage has failed or it considered the (adult) object of that intimacy inappropriate.
Yet one of the things that struck me as I read again the prophet Nathan's denunciation of the wickedness of King David and his response. David says in his anger (before he realises that he himself is the culprit:): "As the Lord lives, the man who has done this ... shall return the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity." (2 Sam 12.6) And I immediately thought of another "fourfold" - the lovely story of the "height challenged" tax-collector Zacchaeus, who, when Jesus invited himself to dinner at his home, offered to give half of his "possessions to the poor and if (he) had defrauded anyone of anything (he) would pay back four times as much." Luke 19:8
Our acceptance of others can produce remarkable results.
Jesus on the Cross graphically shows us the inevitable result of all religious bigotry - Christ is crucified again.
But the Cross is never the final answer, for we know that the efforts of the religious authorities to stop Jesus from associating with others was and is doomed to failure. The resurrection which we celebrate on Sunday shows us that Jesus is raised to continue the same lifestyle as before, seeking out and accepting the offerings of one and all, the offerings of saint and sinner, the offerings of those with whom we agree and those whom we don't, those who name God differently, and those who live lives so completely differently from us.
(* Professor Tony Coady is an ARC Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. Quoted from "Eureka Street" Vol. 12 Number 1 page 37)
Links to other sites on the Web:
About the author and links.
To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.
To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.
Back to a sermon for next Sunday.