Sermon - 22nd June 2014
Abraham and Isaac
Scripture - Genesis 22:1-18
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio recording of this sermon in mp3 format is available via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
I am blessed to live very near a Jehovah's Witness Church. As you know Jehovah's Witnesses put great store by personal evangelism and, it seems, my local congregation has a prayer meeting on a Tuesday morning before sending out the evangelists to spread the word. My street is one of the first they come to. I've noticed that the people have a certain pattern about the way they evangelise and it starts off by trying to convince me how awful life is! So I get asked if I'm worried by the state of the world, by suffering and injustice of if I think that family life is breaking down and should we return to a Biblical pattern of family life. I think my consistent “no” to each of these questions confuses them!
I'm most interested in their idea that we should return to patterns of family life that we see in the Bible. The Jehovah's Witnesses aren't the only people to say this – I hear it a lot from various types of Christians and it always makes me smile – especially when I think of Abraham and Sarah around whom todays reading is built.
This story from Genesis is well known, often preached about, disturbing and difficult. It's a story about faith, obedience, sacrifice, test and our understanding of God. It's sometimes used as a model of the Gospel story of Jesus' death and a story of God's provision. Yet, for me, it's about, most of all, how the Biblical writers believed odd things about God and how God's will and nature can shine through even the most troubling of people – and Abraham and Sarah – who is absent from this fragment of the story – are troubling people.
Abraham and Sarah
We don't often think about what we know from the Bible about Abraham and Sarah – we're not encouraged to by the way the Lectionary works – it divides stories up into manageable chunks for preachers to work with. However, it's interesting. We first meet Abraham when he's called Abram. He's already getting on a bit and he's called by God to leave his home in what we'd now call Iraq and travel to Canaan. He is already married to Sarah – who was then called Sarai. In their travels they venture into Egypt but Abraham is worried that, as Sarai is beautiful the Egyptians will kill him so they can seduce Sarai. Abraham tells Sarai to pretend to be his sister and not say they're married. The king takes a shine to Sarah and it's implied that she enters into his harem. Abraham gets paid off well but the king finds out, attributes diseases he caught to God's displeasure and sends poor Sarah back to Abraham and they leave Egypt financially enriched. Nowadays we'd call this behaviour pimping but the Bible doesn't pass any judgement upon it. God then makes a covenant with Abraham and his descendants but Abraham is troubled as he doesn't have any children. Sarah is also troubled so she gives her slave, Hagar, to Abraham to be his concubine. Hagar becomes pregnant – and proud – after all she's managed to do what Sarah couldn't, relations become rather strained. Sarah treats Hagar badly so Hagar runs away, an angel persuades her to go back and tells her that God has heard her distress. 13 years later another son is promised to Abraham and Sarah but before the promised son arrives Abraham pimps Sarah out again to another king who is warned by God not to seduce her. When the king admonishes Abraham, more of the story spills out and Abraham says that, in fact, Sarah is his half sister as well as his wife. After Isaac, the long promised son, is born Sarah urges Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away fearing Ishmael would inherit Abraham's wealth not her son.
Well if a script writer pitched this to the producer of EastEnders it wouldn't get very far as it would be seen as too unbelievable, too indecent, and too troubling to film – so you see why I smile when people talk about a Biblical model of families.
Now this all sets the scene for the story that we've heard read to us today. There is a history here which leads up to today.
There are a number of striking things about today's story that I'd like to explore: perception's of God's will, dilemmas in discipleship and the the nature of sacrifice. As we think about all this we need to remember that neither Sarah's nor Isaac's views and perspectives are heard and we don't get much about Abraham's inner struggles. The story teller doesn't let us in to those insights.
Perceptions of God
I think I'm most troubled by how Abraham, and the writers, perceived God. We know that Genesis was compiled from lots of different sources – we know this because each writer names God in different ways and because sometimes the stories don't quite fit together seamlessly. We have, therefore, a wonderful assortment of stories woven together into the book we know as Genesis and we have, therefore, a record of various different people's views of God. The writer and editor clearly believed that God commanded Abraham to go and sacrifice his child. Abraham seems to obey unquestioningly so this must make us wonder what type of God they believed in.
We know from Leviticus that child sacrifice was part of the culture and was forbidden in the Law for Jewish people so maybe it was seen as a normal demand of a deity.
We don't conceive of a God who demands a father kills his son. We don't believe in a God who demands blind, unthinking, obedience. We don't believe in a God who demands blood. Yet so many people have done and, sadly, still do. The Bible is littered with stories where people's perceptions of God are clearly at variance with what the Bible itself teaches about God. From the stories about killing Canaanites to the casual acceptance of slavery we see in the Biblical authors some radically different ideas about God that we struggle sometimes to wonder if we're believing in the same God.
Christian history is littered with similar examples. The Church turned from being a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire to becoming an imperial power which, itself, persecuted fellow Christians. Crusades were conducted against those it perceived to be heretics, those who had a different theology were killed and this was done in the name of God. More than this it was done because it was felt that God commanded it. The Popes who summoned Europe to crusades against Muslims and heretics clearly believed this was God's will. We, of course, know that God doesn't call us to kill. Yet even now, in the Central African Republic, Christians are murdering Muslims – despite many leaders in the churches telling them this is wrong. So distorted perceptions about what God calls us to are still with us.
What is striking in the passage is that Abraham has a sense of what God wants him to but he doesn't check it out, the writers weren't interested in thinking about a discernment process but, instead, about making a point about obedience. We have, hopefully, learnt something in the intervening years and have become more thoughtful and more discerning about sensing God's call. That's why have Church Meetings – to discern the mind of God together. That's why we're part of something larger – a Synod (or District) so that there are other voices and perspectives that are shared. A simple unquestioning obedience may sound attractive but can be dangerous. St Paul reminds us that we can only ever know partially until the Kingdom comes. Abraham may have believed he was doing God's will, he may have felt pain about it but his culture recognised the practice of child sacrifice and he would have understood the idea of giving one's best to God. Yet the story itself shows that the sacrifice of Isaac wasn't what God wanted, the Jewish law forbade such sacrifices and everything we know about God tells us that this isn't what God is like. We need to take care when we seek to discern God's will.
Dilemmas in Discipleship
When I read this passage I'm also struck by the dilemmas that are there in Abraham's discipleship. Abraham loved God. He had separated himself from his family and his land in order to journey where God commanded. He had argued with God in the story leading up to the destruction of Sodom – and won the argument. He'd accepted a name change. He'd struggled to believe that God would give him a child – and he had two. Interestingly this passage names Isaac as Abraham's only son whereas we know he had two so maybe this story comes from a source different to the other parts of the Abraham story, or maybe the author had a dimmer view of Ishmael than Isaac. But whatever else we may think of Abraham it's clear he loved God, he had a radical view of discipleship. Yet Abraham must also have loved Isaac; he was the long promised child through whom Abraham's descendants would bless the earth. He was the child he had with Sarah whom he seems to have loved – despite his odd behaviour at times. So Abraham's dilemma was about whose love had a greater hold on him. He loved his son; he loved his God. He believed that his God wanted him to sacrifice his son. How could he possibly choose between them?
Now all too many people know the dilemma that can exist between wanting to love and be faithful to God and to love and be faithful to another. Many Roman Catholic Christians face this dilemma if their marriages break up and they wish to remarry – do they obey the rules of their Church or do they try again with a second marriage? Many evangelical Christians struggle if they fall in love with someone who isn't a Christian – many evangelical churches would disapprove. As we know many lesbian and gay Christians struggle with a desire to find a partner, fall in love and settle down and contrast this with a view of the Bible which then troubles them and leads to feelings of guilt and self-loathing.
Abraham solved his dilemma by obeying what he believed was the voice of God; I hope I would have had the strength to resolve the dilemma by saving Isaac. These dilemmas can be demanding and, often, lead to people walking away from the Church. The idea that God will provide can be comforting – as it is intended to within this passage but the dilemma is linked to the first point – how do we discern God's will more completely. Once we realise that God wants the best for us, and that God doesn't want us to suffer new possibilities open up in our thinking and we may look at things in different ways.
Sacrifice and Culture
The third perspective I want to think about is on the nature of sacrifice. In the culture of the time child sacrifice was common place. The Jewish faith stood about against this, but did hold that animals should be sacrificed to God. The idea is that one gives something of what one values away. Now we're appalled by the idea of human sacrifice and pretty uncomfortable with the idea of animal sacrifice. Christians and Jews don't do this, Muslims do after the Eid-ul-Adhan festival. The recent debates about Kosher and Halal slaughter reflect a wider dis-ease about anything that looks like sacrifice – though we are happy to ignore how other animals are slaughtered.
Abraham understood his sense of God's command to kill Isaac as part of the wider culture he was in. He understood sacrifice – he'd given up much to follow God. The writer saw the story as one of God testing Abraham to see if he'd truly given God his heart. In our contemporary culture we're not used to thinking of sacrifice at all: during Lent some of us looked at some material prepared by the Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland and we remarked on how easy credit is now compared to previous generations where people saved up before they'd buy something. People would go without in order to save up for something, or go without because they couldn't afford it. Our culture is built on instant credit, our economy is built around people buying things – technology has built in obsolescence meaning we have to renew the things we've bought, hopefully after we've finished paying off the credit card we used to buy it in the first place.
So What Do We Do with This Passage?
For me this passage is difficult and uncomfortable. It makes me think and question and I have to really engage it in order to find some truth and insight within it.
God's provision of the Ram in the story teaches Abraham that human sacrifice is not what He wanted. Maybe the story was used to teach later generations of Jewish people that whilst God wanted sacrifice and whilst sacrifice had to be costly, it doesn't involve the killing of a human. Maybe this story represents a turning point in the Jewish people's relationship with culture. In our own age we need to examine our relationship with our culture – which is very hard. We need to see which aspects of our culture are harmful – to ourselves and to the Earth – and see how we can change them. The Jews, eventually, defined themselves in contradiction to the culture that surrounded them as they knew God had called them to be different. How are we different in our culture? How do our lives, our churches, point to the coming Kingdom?
The passage makes me question how I work out my discipleship and suspicious when my understanding of Christianity and the demands it makes became too harsh, too uncaring, too remote from the reality of life. Abraham had the dilemma of trying to balance his view of God and God's demands with his deep love for Isaac. When religion is cruel it has lost touch with God.
The passage also makes me wonder how we discern God's voice and calling. It makes me suspicious of those who are absolutely sure, who are certain, who are insistent. There is a lovely phrase in the URC service for the induction of a minister where one of the questions starts “insofar as you know your own mind...” that, to me, introduces a welcome element of uncertainty, a little bit of doubt which stimulates us to keep exploring and searching.
Finally, the passage, odd as it may sound, gives me some hope. Abraham and Sarah are not people most of us would want to be friends with. There is the rather dodgy nature of their marriage, the fact that Abraham seems to pimp Sarah at least twice, this relationship with Hagar, the uneasy relationship which follows between Hagar and Sarah, Sarah's demand that Hagar and Ishmael are cast out and Abraham's acquiescence in this as well as today's passage.
Yet there is some hope because if God can work through the likes of Abraham and Sarah He can work through you and me. Scripture is full of God working through the most unlikely of people to achieve his ends.