Preached on Sunday, 02.07.2017
By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
The question, we will discover, is ‘faith in what?’ In 1990 we as a family were on holiday in Canada and, on Sunday, we went to church. The bible reading was the same one we heard this morning, about Abraham and Isaac, about sacrifice and the voice of God. The minister said that there was provision in the church hall for children during the sermon – and he encouraged parents to send their children to use that provision because, he said, what he was going to say might not be for young ears. So, of course, our 8 year-old and 6 year-old decided they were going to stay.
What he had to say was about how he observed many parents in that community sacrificing their children on the altar of their own ambition, stealing their childhood from them under the pretext of ‘getting on’ or ‘doing their best’ or just ‘being the best’. In particular he laid in to those parents, usually but not exclusively fathers, who stood at the side of a football field (he called it ‘soccer’, but we knew what he meant) and yelled at their children to be more aggressive, to be more competitive, to be more intimidating – and tried to show them how it was done in their aggression and intimidation toward the referee. By and large, he said, the children ignored the attitude of their parents, played within the rules, played with respect, and thus wound up their embarrassing parents even more.
It may not have been the theologically most sophisticated sermon I ever heard, but I still remember it nearly thirty years later! I also remember trying to look for reaction among those listening, and seeing none; there were no looks of concern, or worry, or embarrassment, or agitation – nothing to indicate either agreement or irritation. It was not quite the X-rated offering that the introduction had suggested it was going to be, but it was designed to hit home, it ought to have hit home. There was, however, no outward sign of it – and at the end I, like the others in the congregation, smiled, shook his hand, and thanked him for the service – and went back to where we were staying, and had a barbeque – in the rain. (It was summer in Canada, so there had to be a barbeque!)
And this story of Abraham and Isaac ought to hit home, ought to elicit responses and reactions – the question is how. How does it make its mark? How do we understand it? What is the faith by which it is motivated? And what is the faith in which we now read it? In other words, what kind of story is this? Is it simply an account of an historical event? Or is it something more?
It is known by the Hebrew word ‘akedah’, the binding. And the traditional understanding is both about the obedience of faith and the mercy of God – about the willingness to do whatever you understand God to be calling you to do. So it’s the understanding explained in the letter to the Hebrews, probably more a sermon than a letter. In this letter, and in this chapter, there is an enormous emphasis on faith in God – on the faith that can accomplish the seemingly impossible, the faith that can move mountains, the faith to which the hearers of this sermon are being summoned, the faith in which they are being encouraged in difficult and dangerous times.
But it’s about more than that in the understanding of Christianity, because this story of a father willing to sacrifice his son is taken as a forerunner, an archetype, an interpretation, of the story at the heart of our faith – that of the crucifixion of Jesus the Nazarene. It was used as a lens through which to view a story that was (and is) so hard to fathom, of an almighty God who willingly allows his Son to be sacrificed on the altar of religious conservatism and political expediency. The akedah, the binding, becomes the binding of Jesus – and he comes to play the role both of the human son Isaac and the God-provided substitute, the lamb.
And therein lies what has become the central narrative of the suffering and death of Jesus, the central explanation for so many in the church of a sacrifice to God that God provides in order to win God’s favour and turn away God’s anger. And it has become so accepted in so many places by so many that, for many, any other way of thinking about Holy Week and Good Friday, of Gethsemane and Golgotha, is regarded as heresy, even as blasphemy.
And you can understand why. When you are trying to explain the life and death of Jesus to a religious community whose whole understanding of the relationship between humanity and divinity is based on the idea of sacrifice, you are most probably going to try to frame that explanation in the sacrificial terms you think stand the best chance of being first understood, and then accepted. One of the big emphases of the letter to the Hebrews is about sacrifice – about Jesus’ sacrifice – and about Jesus’ sacrifice being the end, the culmination of the sacrificial system, how all previous sacrifices have been summed up in this one. There is now no need any more of sacrifice, says its writer, because the ultimate sacrifice has been accomplished – and now the way is open; there are now no more obstacles needing to be overcome by either sacrifice or a sacrificing priesthood.
However, even if we are part of a branch of Christianity that takes that to heart – and the majority of Christianity still has not – we still find our religious language imbued with sacrificial language, to the point that we can often struggle to find any other way of expressing ourselves in the context of faith. ‘Remembering his work and passion,’ we say, ‘and pleading his eternal sacrifice’. We go on to say: ‘we offer and present to you our very selves, to be a living sacrifice’. So we do our best to change the way we use the language, to change the meaning of the language, but we cannot get away from using the language. And in that we are no different from past generations, past centuries, even past millennia. It seems there is something in our DNA about sacrifice being the way to relate to God.
So we can perhaps understand the frustration of Jeremiah when his prophecy takes on the subject. He is fighting against the presumed, accepted, traditional understanding and custom, one from which the people of Israel were far from immune – the tradition of child sacrifice:
‘ … the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.’
But actually Jeremiah takes the argument further, takes the story back further, and challenges the sacrificial system in its entirety:
‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt-offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For on the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt-offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.’ Yet they did not obey or incline their ear, but, in the stubbornness of their evil will, they walked in their own counsels, and looked backwards rather than forwards.’
And in the context of the prophecy of Jeremiah we can perhaps begin to see the story of Abraham and Isaac in a different light. This then becomes a story that tells the people of Abraham how they became a people that saw things differently from those around them; it becomes a story that tells how they moved on from the old ways, a story of revelation, the story of the choosing of a new path. This story tells how people thought God spoke, how they heard what they expected to hear, what their ancestors had heard, what their parents had taught them to hear.
And, says the story, Abraham was no different. Abraham was part of the culture in which he had grown; and he had taken that culture and its understandings with him when he set out on his journey into the unknown. Abraham grew up in a culture that practised child sacrifice – and the voice he thought he heard was the voice of tradition, a voice well-known and understood.
It was a voice not, as some suppose, hidden from the he helpers that Abraham tells to wait while he and his son go further. They would have known exactly what was going on – Abraham was doing no differently from many of his time, and relating to God the only way he knew how.
But that voice of tradition, the story tells us, was not the voice of God – it had never been the voice of God. Abraham was about to hear the voice of God, a revelation of newness, the inspiration to change. This voice spoke; and when this voice spoke it was not about death and blood and violence. This voice spoke of life and living, of inheritance, of the future – not the past.
And when you read the story this way, it becomes one not of obedience and the testing of faith, but one about the discovery of faith – and the discovery of the one true God, who puts aside the old ways and the old gods and the old presumptions.
We read this morning from Jeremiah 7; but in the previous chapter there is a famous passage about a crossroads:
Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
Also I raised up sentinels for you:
‘Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!’
But they said, ‘We will not give heed.’
Therefore hear, O nations,
and know, O congregation, what will happen to them.
Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people,
the fruit of their schemes,
because they have not given heed to my words;
and as for my teaching, they have rejected it.
Of what use to me is frankincense that comes from Sheba,
or sweet cane from a distant land?
Your burnt-offerings are not acceptable,
nor are your sacrifices pleasing to me.
He goes on to describe a people who insist on looking to the past when they should be looking to the future. He goes on, as does Isaiah, as do other of the ancient prophets, to repeat that this insistence on understanding God in the context of sacrifice is a mistake, a misunderstanding, just plain wrong.
The story of Abraham and Isaac offers a step down the right road – it is a step away from human sacrifice toward animal sacrifice; bit it’s only a first step. There were others to take. There are others to take.
We have had to learn in more modern times to face the ways in which we have sacrificed others on the altar of religious tradition; we have had to listen, like Abraham, to the voice of God telling us to choose a different way, a new path. There will still be occasions when we are faced with being told that the old ways were a mistake, ways we took for granted, ways we thought were blessed by God.
Our prayer must be that when that voice speaks we, like Abraham, will be willing to hear, willing to listen, willing to heed what is said. Because the obedience of Abraham was not in being willing to sacrifice his son; it was in being willing to hear a new voice, offering a new way, and providing a new future.