Preached June 26, 2011, at Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ (www.douglasucc.org)
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "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." So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?" Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place "The Lord will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided."
[Jesus said:] "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."
God has given you the most precious gift. God has given you the thing you most wanted in a all the world, something you thought you could never have. Then God comes along and says, “Nope, I want it back. Go to the holy place and sacrifice that most precious gift to me; destroy it for my honor.” Would you do it? Or would you give God the finger and walk away?
How many people don’t we know who have given God the finger and walked away. And why not? If God acts like the God in this story, I don’t want to serve or worship that kind of God, either. This is a bait-and-switch God. This is a God who tests people’s faith. This is a God who asks us to kill. This is a God who demands ultimate obedience. This is a God who would have a man kill his own son as a sacrificial offering. This is a God who would kill his (and it’s always “his”) own Son as a sacrificial offering.
This is a false God. Honor this God and die.
A story like this one in the Bible asks us to consider not only the nature of our God, but also the nature of our Scriptures. Why include a story like this? What does it mean? What does it have to say to us today? Is it merely to say, “Look, this Abraham guy was really serious about his God-business. He was really faithful and incredibly obedient”?
I don’t think so.
Instead, it is a story about the Israelites changing understanding of God. A “progressive” understanding of God, we might assert.
This could be understood in at least two ways:
First, it could be that this story was written decades or centuries after Abraham and was written as a way to explain why the Israelites did not practice child sacrifice like the peoples around them. In other words, the story never happened, but was inserted into the Scriptures to explain a past decision from a future perspective.
Second, it could be that this story has Abraham hearing one type of God in the beginning and another in the end. In other words, at the beginning of the story, Abraham hears what is essentially the voice of the gods of the peoples around him who practiced child sacrifice, while at the end of the story he hears the voice of the true God, who would never have us kill another human being. In fact, the word used for God at the beginning of the story and the word used for God at the end of the story are different.
What is the nature of your God? Are we willing to have our understandings of God changed? Are we willing to stand up against the gods of the world who would kill their own children and ask us to sacrifice ours? Or are we willing to stand up for a God who would have all killing of human beings come to an end?
I dare say that the gods of this world have asked you to sacrifice some precious goals and dreams and even people and friends on their altars:
“You can’t make a living at that.”
“Did you see what she just did?”
“No one cares about your paintings, your music, your dance, your dreams.”
“How can you hang out with someone like that?”
“Don’t you know what they’ll think if they see you with him?”
“You can come to the family reunion, but don’t bring your ‘friend.’”
How many countless stories I can tell of spineless church executives and pastors who wouldn’t fight for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, despite the fact that those people are their own sons and daughters. I heard just another one this week. Her dad said that now that he’s retiring he would speak out for her. “No thanks,” she said. “Don’t do that now that it’s not going to cost you much and you don’t have the influence you once did.”
No, these are not the gods we serve. We serve the God who says through Jesus, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and the One who sent me.” We serve the God of the end of the story, who says stop, don’t kill the child, there’s another way. We serve the God who says that whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones will never lose their reward.
Our reward is neither in riches nor in the number of friends we have nor in how people view us. Our reward is in giving life to others, in serving others, in even the simple act of sharing a cup of cold water with those in need. For in so doing, we will meet the God of Living Fully and Loving Wastefully. Who do you know that needs that welcome right now? Make a promise to yourself today to share with them a cup of cold water. In so doing, you will counter the gods of the world, who kill for power and profit. In so doing, you will encounter the God who speaks and acts for life, always and everywhere. In so doing, you might find one person who will lower their finger and return the the embrace of a loving God, who would never kill anyone, much less that God’s own child.