Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, July 2, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 5

Pentecost 5, 2023
Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, here I go again, preaching on the first reading.  But here’s something you might not know:  Every summer, we have to decide whether to follow tack 1 or track 2 for the first two readings.  We make the choice after Trinity Sunday, and then we have to stick with it.  I tell people I chose Track 1 this year because 2023 is an odd-numbered year.  But actually, it’s because I think the Track 1 readings are better.  So, now you know.  On to the scary story we heard . . .

We call this story, “The Binding of Isaac.”  It is one of the nine options for readings at the Easter Vigil, but I’ve never heard anyone actually use it.  Because . . . well, because it’s scary, that’s why!  You can’t just read this story  during a worship service and not say something about it.  And no priest in their right mind chooses to spend their Easter sermon talking about the time God told Abraham to kill his only son.

As we heard, God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”  You notice how it’s all right in there:  Your only son, whom you love!  Let’s take a moment to remember how we got here.  At some point, God promised Abraham that his descendants would number as the grains of sand.  Two weeks ago, we heard that Sarah and Abraham are very old, when God gives them the miraculous birth of Isaac.  And last week, Sarah has Abraham send away Abraham’s other son, Ishmael.  And now here we are: The one and only chance to give Abraham the offspring who will number as the sands, being taken on a three-day journey to be offered up as a sacrifice.  The end of everything God has promised.  Something’s not right here, right?  I mean, a LOT of things are not right here!

But . . . we have to remember that child sacrifice was not unusual in the culture of the time.  When we read the book of Genesis, we run into all sorts of things that seem unthinkable to us, things which were commonplace at the time the book was written.  That world is not our world.  We need to set aside our natural horror and revulsion, because in the wider culture all around Abraham, the gods were always demanding things like child sacrifice.  To hear God requiring the same thing from Abraham probably seems expected to him, on some level.  All the other gods were making demands of brutal domination and cruelty; that was the sign of a good leader, to make people suffer and cower in fear.  It was a different time . . . sort of.

So Abraham dutifully takes Isaac up the mountain.  We get the full description, from saddling the donkey and getting servants, to leaving the servants behind and going on ahead with Isaac and the stack of wood.  We can’t believe he’s really going to go through with this.  And Isaac asks his father, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  And Abraham tells him, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.”  And then we get to the dramatic climax as Abraham raises the knife, to sacrifice his only son,  and then the angel of the Lord calls out to stop him.  Phew!  The God of Abraham is different from those other gods.  Thank God!

Which is kind of the point of much of the first few books of what we call the Old Testament.  All those seemingly arcane laws and everything else show us that the God of Abraham is different from the other gods.  And God of Abraham’s people are different from the other people.  All those dietary restrictions and moral codes serve to mark God and the Hebrew people as different from their neighbors.  As being set apart, as a chosen people.

The gods of Abraham’s neighbors demanded sacrifice, and in Abraham’s mind, this would have made God just like the other gods.  But the God of Abraham is different from those other gods.  The other gods still want sacrifice, but the God of Abraham wants salvation.

And so the child Isaac is spared, and a ram in a thicket takes his place.  But notice, Issac is not spared because of the ram.  No, Isaac is saved because of God’s intervention.  The ram is not there because God needed a sacrifice.  My own guess is that Abraham still needed to sacrifice something, and God provides.  But God does not require the sacrifice; God desires mercy.  It is not about the death of the ram; it’s about the life of Isaac.  

And one thing this whole event gives to Abraham is a date to refer to.  A moment in time.  When his neighbors ask him, “How do you know that God desires mercy and not sacrifice?”  Abraham can say, “One day, God called to me and told me to take my only son, whom I love, and go up this mountain . . .”  He’s got a story to prove the point:  God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

And as Christians, we have a similar marker with Jesus.  Some Christians will tell you that Jesus needed to die because God needed a sacrifice.  The technical term for this view is Penal Substitutionary Atonement.  I know plenty of clergy who subscribe to this fancy-named Calvinist theory.  But I don’t believe it for a second.  God didn’t need a sacrifice, but we did.  Like Abraham, we need a date that we can point to and say, “That’s the day everything changed.  That’s the day when God did for us what we can’t do for ourselves.”  And that day for us is not Good Friday; that day is Easter.  That’s the day that matters for us.  The day that God raises Jesus from the dead is our Mount Moriah.  Our own story that proves: The Lord provides.

And even though the false god’s of this world still want sacrifice, the God of Abraham wants salvation.  Those false gods of selfish gain, and blind vengeance, and high moral principle want sacrifice.  The God of Abraham wants redemption.

And so the obvious question is, well, how do we satisfy a God who wants redemption and salvation?  It’s easy to satisfy the false gods who want bloodshed and sacrifice.  We do it all the time, by throwing people under the bus, or dropping bombs on their cities.  But how do we conjure up mercy, and salvation?  And the answer is back there on that mountain: The Lord will provide.  

Everything necessary for salvation is provided by God, not by us.  Our role is to listen and to trust, just as Abraham did.  Our part is to discern the voice of the gods of this world for what they are, and where they lead us, and to choose instead to follow the voice of the God of Abraham.  The one who cries out, “Stop!” and provides another way.  Even though we naturally think that what God desires are sacrifice and rejection, God shows us over and over that mercy and acceptance are the better way.  God’s story is about salvation and redemption, from the beginning of time until the day Jesus returns—Salvation and Redemption and Restoration.

We can trust that things really are going to be alright, because God will provide.  We might not see it right now, we might not believe it right now, but God always provides.  Because—like Abraham—we worship the God who wants mercy and redemption for all.


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