This week’s stories are all challenging. We need to take exception to the story of Abraham and Isaac to be faithful to the God of grace. Following Christ is ultimately about a life-giving lifestyle, not violence or fear.
To be honest, I am unsure what to do with the passage related to Abraham and Isaac. Though we can see it as metaphorical, the metaphor is too brutal to be helpful and the God portrayed more bloodthirsty than caring. First of all, it is absolutely essential to dismiss young children prior to reading the scripture. Taken literally, as children will do, it represents the worst form of child abuse and portrays God as an arbitrary trickster, testing us with heartbreaking tasks, and then dropping his game of Russian roulette at the last moment. Isaac must have been traumatized by this event. Abraham loved Isaac, and was compelled to choose between God and his son. Perhaps, from then on, he also had misgivings about God’s care for him. Could God be trusted with caring for those he loved after this bait and switch on the mountaintop? Divine deliverance at the last moment cannot obliterate the harm done by parental and religious violence.
Moreover, what kind of God is portrayed in this passage? While our faith needs to be refined in the crucible of life, what kind of God requires us to kill to be faithful? This god’s demands sound more like what people would expect from a terrorist, mobster or gang leader. What would have happened if Abraham said “no” to God? “Punish me, kill me, but I will not sacrifice my child just to please you. I would rather die than obey your orders!” Oftentimes, we substitute, especially in wisdom literature, the world “awe” for “fear” to be more religiously accurate, but surely this passage means “fear,” and maybe even terror before a bloodthirsty, inscrutable God. In the years to come, could Abraham, Sarah (who must have found out), or Isaac, ever have loved God again? You can fear the God of power and might, but can you love a God whose love is always on the borderline between embrace and destruction, and whose attitude toward creation is ambivalent at best?
For many, the story of Abraham and Isaac prefigures the cross. But, a God who demands the death of his own son to be reconciled with sinful humanity is also spiritually and morally suspect. While we need not dismiss the theory of sacrificial atonement as meaningless, we must remember that it is but one of many atonement theories and that Jesus sacrificed out of free will and not divine predetermination. He could have escaped the cross, as scripture states, but saw going to Jerusalem as fulfilling his destiny.
Psalm 13 joins hope and despair. God appears to have abandoned the Psalmist. “How long will you hide your face?” he pleads. Still, the Psalmist takes his anguish to God in hope that once more God will return. This is a provocative passage worth considering for your sermon. Many of our congregants may be living with what they perceive to be divine absence, and some may feel that this sense of God-forsakenness is their fault. This passage will enable them to more fully understand and accept their life situation and perhaps sustain them in times of spiritual darkness.
Jeremiah asserts that the fruits of prophetic utterance are the ultimate test of their veracity. Today, many prophesy the Christ’s second coming, identifying it with asteroids hitting the earth or the occurrence of four red moons. They are part of a long line of soothsayers, including the proponents of the Mayan calendar, who stir up frenzy, gain a following and often economic benefit, and are then proven wrong. Prophetic words, like the growth of a plant, take time to come to fruition. What prophetic words might we pay attention to today? Would they be the words of televangelists promoting a divine rescue operation or those who speak of the consequences of the disparity between wealthy and poor and the impact of global climate change? The latter, though often speaking from outside the church, may be more representative of the Bible’s prophetic tradition than today’s Christian media stars.
Paul is addressing the lifestyle of believers. The works of sin draw us away from God and one another, and are deathward in orientation. The works of grace build community and restore the soul and awaken us to eternal life. Lifestyle matters! Is our personal and corporate lifestyle reflective of God’s pathway of salvation or self-interest, hedonism, and consumerism? What guides our personal, professional, and political decision-making?
Jesus’ words connect our relationships with others to our relationship with God. We welcome and encounter God in encountering the other. Our acts of comfort and kindness, especially toward the vulnerable, touch the very heart of God, and transform our own lives. We are blessed in our generosity and receive the reward of nearness to our Parent and Creator.