Sermon - 2nd July 2017
Scripture - Genesis 22:1-14; Luke 9:18-24
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we will begin.
Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, it was a lovely, sunny summer’s day. Out among the rolling green fields, there was a farm: it was a very happy farm. Among the animals that lived on the farm, there were two who were very good friends indeed.
One of them was called Alexander: he was a pig. Like all pigs, he liked to roll on the ground, particularly in the sand, so everyone called him Sandy. The other one was Hetty: she was a chicken. Like all chickens, she liked to peck at the ground, particularly in the sand which Sandy had turned over.
On that lovely, sunny summer’s day, Hetty said to Sandy during his morning roll: “It’s a lovely day! Let’s go for a walk!” Sandy grunted with delight, and off the two friends trotted down the lane.
The sun rose higher in the sky and it got warmer, and after Sandy and Hetty had been walking for a while, Sandy and Hetty came to a stream, where they drank and played in the water. After their short rest, Sandy and Hetty continued their walk, over the hill… and down into the next valley… where the human village was to be found. As they approached the pub on the edge of the village, Hetty began to squawk excitedly.
“What is it?” grunted Sandy.
“Lunch! I’m starving. My legs are shorter than yours.” Hetty crowed.
“Yes, Hetty… let’s see what they’ve got on the menu!” squealed Sandy.
As the two friends got closer to the pub, Hetty shrieked, “Bwwaaaakkkkk! They’ve got bacon and eggs!” Hetty started to run ahead, half-flying, the way chickens do. She had not gone far when she realised her friend Sandy was not following her. She turned around to see he had stopped, just standing there.
“What’s wrong?” Hetty asked.
“Bacon and eggs! That’s what’s wrong. For you, a chicken, that’s a donation; for me, a pig, that’s a sacrifice!”
Sacrifice is a big word: the dictionary defines it as to “give up something valued for the sake of other considerations”. In the Lectionary, there is always a parallel narrative strand which this week revisits the disturbing story of God calling on Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
Abraham is one of the key figures of the early Old Testament. He is considered the great patriarch of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths. This historic notoriety was one of the three promises God made to Abraham at the start of Genesis 12, when Abraham - or Abram, as he was known – was already an old man, aged 75 we are told.
A significant portion of the book of Genesis is devoted to Abraham’s life-story, beginning with his ancestry at the end of Chapter 11, through to his death at the recorded age of 175 in Chapter 25. God’s other two promises to Abraham were the land of Canaan and to become the father of many.
From the Genesis account, the possession of the land of Canaan seems to take place without too much opposition, but the gift of a child required great patience from Abraham and his wife Sarah, one for which they had to wait 25 years, despite their human efforts through their maid-servant, Hagar, through whom Ishmael was born, the considered ancestor of the Arab people.
The first thing that the Bible tells us about Abraham is that his wife, Sarah, was barren (childless). We do not know at what age they married, but it is recorded that Sarah was 90 when she had Isaac. We may doubt the biological possibility, or we may consider this to be a divine miracle: the essence of the point is this: they had to wait a life-time for a child!
And it is into this context, a child for whom Abraham and Sarah had waited so long, a child much loved, their most precious, and God asked them to sacrifice their son…
[2nd Reading: Genesis 22:1-14]
The opening verse of our reading tells us that God tested Abraham. In the Bible, there are two other, notable accounts of individuals being specifically tested: in the Old Testament, we have Job; and in the New, Jesus.
You may be familiar with the saying – “the patience of Job” – Job lost everything: his wealth and possessions, his family (except his wife) and his health; yet Job maintained his faith in God. You may also be familiar with the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Job had no choice when testing came his way; and Jesus was led into to wilderness by the Holy Spirit. In comparison, Abraham’s testing was up-front and transparent: God tells Abraham where to go, whom to take and for what reason.
If you know the account of Abraham well, you will know that Abraham did not hold back when it came to speaking his mind: indeed, there is a long account of him negotiating with God about the destruction of Sodom, but that is a for another sermon. And, in his conversations with God about the promise to become the father of many, Abraham was somewhat vocal! But, here in this reading, when being asked to give up, to sacrifice, his most precious, much-loved, much-longed-for son, Isaac, Abraham says nothing: he just does what he is told.
In some ways, our reading from Genesis today might seem to be an easy one for the subject of a sermon. Surely the message is simple: that we should have the same willingness to sacrifice as Abraham did, even to give up the most precious in our lives; and, to demonstrate the same level of obedience which Abraham did; and thus, to be faithful to God. However, it is not that straightforward: this reading operates on many levels.
The first aspect I would like to look at is the place to which God calls Abraham – “the land of Moriah” (verse 2). Whether you consider this reading to have historical accuracy, or whether you consider it to be just a fable or an allegory – that is, a Biblical story to teach us a lesson – this verse has had real-world consequences for thousands of years. You may not be aware, but Mount Moriah is Jerusalem!
The place where we heard in our reading Abraham sought to offer Isaac was at the same place where the Jewish Temple was built (2 Chronicles 3:1), firstly by Solomon, restored by Nehemiah, and rebuilt under Herod, and destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans. While Islamic scholars consider the Moriah in the Abraham-Isaac story to be elsewhere (near Mecca), the Mount Moriah that is Jerusalem has for Muslims a different significance: it is considered to be the place from which Mohammed ascended into heaven.
We cannot ignore the significance of Jerusalem throughout history and in the present day: and, its significance is likely to continue in the years and centuries to come… We may do well to pause and reflect sometimes that the origins and the deepest roots of the issues in the Middle East go back to Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, and their trust in God’s promises.
The second verse I would like to look more closely at is verse 5: “Then [Abraham] said to the servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there and worship, and then we will come back to you.’” There may be parallels we might see between Abraham riding on a donkey to Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac and Jesus riding on a donkey towards His own self-sacrifice to the very same geographical place.
Another noteworthy point, which may be the result of careless editing, is that Abraham says to his servants: “then we will come back to you”. Was this Abraham hiding from his servants what God had ask him to do, that is, to sacrifice Isaac; or do we read in this the underlying faith and trust in God that Abraham had, that God would surely not have had Abraham and Sarah wait literally a life-time for a child, the child who would be the first of the many generations God promised, only to have the child lost to them.
From the next couple of verses, clearly God’s plan as revealed to Abraham has also been kept from Isaac. The boy seems to be old enough to carry the wood for the sacrifice, and from his questions, he seems to know what is involved in a sacrifice. Abraham’s answer – “God will provide” – has become through the ages an epithet (or character trait) which we attribute to God’s nature: we trust in God to provide for us.
This is re-affirmed at the end of this reading (verse 14): “Abraham named that place ‘The Lord Provides.’ And even today people say, ‘On the Lord's mountain he provides.’” Remember the real-world, historical significance of the place: for Jewish believers, the only remnant of the Temple is the Western Wall, also called the Wailing Wall. Jewish believers come to this place and bring their prayers, writing them on small pieces of paper and hiding them in the cracks in the wall. For them, Abraham’s words – “On the Lord's mountain he provides” – are a very real part of their faith.
Before we leave the story of Abraham and Isaac, we cannot pass over the horror within the account: the father takes his beloved, only child, binds him and lays him on the prepared wood, takes the knife in his hand and is poised, ready to plunge it into the boy, when God’s angel calls a halt. It is interesting to note that while it is God (YHWH) who speaks to Abraham at the start of this reading, it is merely an angel who intercedes and stops the child sacrifice.
We know the boy was old enough to understand what was happening: let us try and wrap our heads around what might have gone through his mind. Why did the boy simply not run away – after all, his father was very old: 100 when Isaac was born! The Bible is silent on the quality of the relationship between Abraham and his son, Isaac, other than the boy was clearly their most precious: Isaac is born, we have this passage, and the next we hear of Isaac is his father seeking a wife for him, Rebecca from their previous homeland, Haran.
Whenever I read this passage, I always consider what lasting effect this experience would have had on the boy. After all, we are all the sum of our experiences, and, maybe, for you, like it does for me, reading this passage again causes me to recall my relationship with my own father – a man who worked very hard his whole life to do the best for his family in the way he knew best. For some, however, recalling one’s father might not be a pleasant experience. For example, many LGBT people have experienced terrible rejection by their parents because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The last aspect from this passage I would like to look at is sacrifice. God brought Abraham to a place literally and metaphorically where he was challenged to give up his most precious, his son, but God saved Isaac.
God, in turn, some 1,500 years later, did the same thing: God, the Father, gave His beloved, precious only Son, Jesus: but then, the sacrifice was not stopped at the last minute: the sacrifice was completed on the Cross at a place called Golgotha, also on Mount Moriah.
So where does that leave us? Jesus reflected on this talking privately with his Disciples…
[Reading 3: Luke 9:18-24]
We live in challenging times. Ever fewer people attend churches. As you may have heard at the Church Meeting, The North-Western Synod is holding roadshows in June-July about Missional Discipleship. I attended one of these sessions two Fridays ago in Bolton. Lawrence Moore, former director of the Windermere Centre, had some stark words in that our churches today need to be ready to sacrifice what we have today to give life to the church of tomorrow. Lawrence used the same verse we have just heard in our short Gospel reading (Luke 8:23): “And [Jesus] said to them all, ‘If you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, take up your cross every day, and follow me.’” In one other word, ‘sacrifice’.
The Revd Richard Church, Deputy General Secretary of the URC’s Discipleship Committee and former Moderator of the North Western Synod, wrote this prayer for last Thursday’s URC Daily Devotion:
“God of glory, we don’t like being told that our religious beliefs frustrate your audacious purposes of love. Keep talking to us. Help us to recognise the prophetic voice. Prevent us from lashing out against those who are bearers of your truth. Set your record straight in us, so that unbeknown to us, people may glimpse your grace and truth. In Jesus name, Amen.”