Abraham and Isaac. Gen 22:1 - 14, 22.6.08
Revd Stuart Grant
In this sermon preached at Mornington Church, Stuart Grant explores the contemporary meaning of the disturbing Genesis story of Abraham & Isaac.
We’ve just heard one of the strangest, most abhorrent stories in the Bible. We recoil from it. How does this story warrant a place in Holy Scripture?
It’s a story that has come down to us from the far distant past; a primitive story that tells us of a man who was willing to offer up his only son as a human sacrifice to his God.
I could have passed over it and concentrated my thoughts on the Gospel reading, but decided to wrestle with the Abraham and Isaac story. What can it possibly have to say to us?
Some would say “Nothing at all.” The story might very well confirm their suspicion that religion is bad for you. “If that’s Christianity, you can have it. I’m through with it.”
Well, you’d have to include Judaism in that, which is where Christianity comes from; and Islam as well, which also has the stories of the Abraham tradition. There’s something about Abraham, no hero, but an ordinary man who was faithful to God, that appeals to us.
Before we get into exploring the story and trying to make some sense of it, I want to tell you about an art experience I had quite a few years ago.
While living in Germany in the early ‘90s I went on a day visit to Munich, where I spent a marvellous few hours in one of the great art galleries there. The painting that made the deepest impression on me was one by Rembrandt – of the Sacrifice of Isaac. It’s called that, - but of course Isaac was not sacrificed. The angel of the Lord intervenes just in time to prevent the awful act happening. The story, and the painting, could just as well have been called the Testing of Abraham. Rembrandt captures the scene so movingly; of all the paintings I saw that morning, none had such a powerful effect on me. I stood for a full five minutes literally moved to tears.
The compassion on the angel’s face, his hand grasping Abraham’s hand just in time; the knife caught in mid-air as it drops from the bewildered old man’s hand.
Well, experiencing a great work of art is one thing. The difficulties that the story presents are quite another.
What do we make of this God who, according to the story, asks a man to kill his son in order to prove his faith?
And what do we make of a man who takes his son up a mountain intending to kill him as a sacrifice to his god? If anyone did that these days he’d be arrested, put in gaol, and hopefully given psychiatric help to get over his religious delusions.
The first thing I’d want to say about these things is that Old Testament ideas of God can cause us a lot of trouble. But the important thing to realise is that there is no one comprehensive understanding of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. So we shouldn’t get fixated on the ones that cause us difficulties. Think, rather of the tremendous insights we find in these scriptures:
In the library that is the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a forward movement to the great compassion and self-giving love of Jesus, the Christ.
The next point to note is that we need to take into account is this: it’s always important to see things in their context.
The story of Abraham and Isaac comes to us out of the dim distant past when sacrifice, even human sacrifice was part of religion. It horrifies us, but it’s a fact. In the story, Isaac is not killed, - a ram is provided for the sacrifice; and it’s quite clear that God has no intention that Isaac should be killed. By the time the story was included in the scriptures of the Hebrew people, the sacrifice of animals and grain was a central part of their religious practice. Human sacrifice lay long in the past. I expect the prospect of Isaac’s death would have been just as horrifying to them as it is to us.
We may think , how fortunate we are to live in enlightened times, when ideas of sacrificing to God or gods have been consigned to the rubbish heap of history.
But consider this. In the lifetime of many of us there have been, - and unfortunately still are, - totalitarian regimes which have demanded the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives in their lust for power, - Nazi Germany, the Soviet Empire, China under Chairman Mao. The Govt. of the U.S.A. has thought it right to sacrifice many of its young people in the toppling of Saddam Hussein and in the war that still continues.
Think of what is going on right now in Zimbabwe, - the welfare of a whole nation sacrificed to the power mania of one evil man.
There are people who sacrifice their marriages, and with them often their children, in their quest for wealth and property and business advancement. In some family breakups, parents use and sacrifice their children in their attempts to punish each other.
We have the advantage of living at a time when our understanding of God is shaped by our understanding of Jesus. God, for the Christian, is like Jesus; that’s one way of putting it. We cannot judge Abraham by our standards.
But we can still learn from him and his story.
Abraham was no hero; he was an ordinary man who was always having to give something up.
At the beginning of the Abraham saga, starting in Genesis 12, he was called by God to leave his family and his native land behind him and go out into the wilderness to a land that God would show him; it was a journey of faith and trust. He had to give up his attempts to find security in life; and now, having been promised along with Sarah his wife that they would be the parents of a great nation, Abraham faces the greatest test of all. If Isaac dies, the future that he had staked everything on will be gone.
But Abraham, being Abraham, obeys God.
That’s the heart of the story. Obedience.
There’s something more.
It’s not stated explicitly in the story, but rather left to our imagination, - that Abraham is so severely tested that he experiences what is called the dark night of the soul; a feeling of being abandoned by God. This is not something I can relate to personally; my faith has never been so severely tested. But there are plenty of people who have been so tested.
The lectionary Psalm for this Sunday gives a strong hint: (I’ll read from the NRSV), -
It begins, “ How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow I my heart all day long? . . .
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death.”
We could leave the Abraham and Isaac story at this point, with the learning that it is a story of the testing of faith, and obedience.
I don’t think we always have to match a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures with one from the Christian Scriptures. But I’ll do so anyway.
Listen to these words, which must be some of the hardest words of Jesus:
“Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
What this is saying is that nothing is to get in the way of loyalty to Jesus. Most of us, - all of us, - wonder how we would measure up. Isn’t it just too much to ask of ordinary people?
Surely, if it came to the point, we would want to put the love of our nearest and dearest ones first?
But when you come to think of it, if we have a strong love for God, if we do try to be followers of Jesus, then our love for the people we hold dearest will be that much stronger. It will take on more of the self-giving quality of Christ’s love.
And one last point about the Abraham and Isaac story. It’s a strange story, and I expect that in spite of my attempts at explanation it will remain strange. But I leave you with this thought: sometimes there may come a time in our relationship with God when we need to be tested. Might it not be that in the testing, however that happens, we might learn something about ourselves, something that brings us to a stronger and deeper faith?