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Take Your Only Son...
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version
Trinity VII - 07/18/10
Gen. 22:1-19; Psalm 77:1-10; Rom. 6:9-23; Mk. 8:1-9
"After these things, God tested Abraham, and said to him.... Take your only son..."
God tested Abraham in a manner that none of us would want to be, and seemingly, in a manner that might be considered cruel. What are we to make of a request to a father to take his only son, whom he loves, to offer him on Mount Moriah as a burnt sacrifice? We know the end of the story, but Abraham did not. He could assume only that God meant for him to slay his son with a knife and burn the body on the altar of sacrifice up on Mount Moriah, some three days journey from where he was living among the Philistines.
What are we to make of such a story? How are we to understand God who would request such a thing? If I heard a voice saying such a thing to me, I might have to believe that it was not God talking to me, but that some sort of demonic spirit, or derangement in my own mind was happening.
An Anglican church nearby has a parishioner who is in prison for having killed one of his young sons. He is a Christian, soft spoken, and gentle. No one would suspect him of such a possibility. He did not think he heard God talking to him, so far as I know, and we must assume that he was deranged when he did it, perhaps with demonic influence.
It helps to put Abraham's experience into the context of his times, which were radically different from ours. If we were transported back to ca. 1900 BC, we would hardly know what to make of life. Abraham had been raised as Abram in the pagan Babylonian culture. Whether or not Babylonians sacrificed their own children to the gods I am not sure, but many of the surrounding tribes did so, and most likely the Philistines among whom Abraham was living did so. Child sacrifice would have not been the culture shock for Abraham as it would be for us. It was "normal".
It helps to understand Abraham's trial if we recall the effects of the Fall upon the human soul. When Adam and Eve separated themselves from God at the invitation of the Serpent, it was as though Satan had been able to insert himself between God and them, so that whatever they heard or understood from God would, as it were, be filtered through the image of Satan. They had shifted their trust and obedience at least partly to Satan. The Imago Dei would be twisted and warped in a demonic direction.
That was clear from Adam and Eve's immediate change in their understanding both of themselves and of God. They found themselves ashamed and afraid of their bodies, and fearful of God that He was now their enemy, one who was out to get them, perhaps because they thought they had eaten from His favorite tree, and that He, like the typical pagan gods, jealously guarded His superiority over the lower human beings.
They sought to be "like God", but the fact was that God had already made them like Him, in His Image. They did not want to be like God, they wanted to be independent from Him, to be lord over their own lives. They wanted to have omniscient knowledge, God-like knowledge. That was impossible, of course, it only set them up for a fall into vulnerability to Satan in his realm of rebellion. They had lost the protection of God. They thought they would become omniscient, but Satan knew they would become trapped into his own spider web. And so they were.
Whatever they could hear from the real God would be twisted and misdirected, not the true word from God in its pristine purity. Adam and Eve still heard from God, but their hearing was now assuming the hostility of God toward them, putting them on the defensive, and passing that on to their children.
Remember also that Abraham was the first known human being to be open to hearing God in such a manner that God could use him to begin the community of revelation through which God could enter the world and rescue it from its own self-destruction. There were no synagogues around, no Holy Scriptures, no rabbis or other clergy (other than pagans), life was eat or be eaten, and stabile relationships were few and always at risk. Life was a power-struggle, with no universal moral consensus on the difference between right and wrong. It was Abraham and God -- a fragile beginning.
However, we recognize Abraham as a man of faith. Paul makes much of that in his interpretation of the New Testament Gospel message. But Abraham's faith could not have had much to do with theological doctrines. There were none yet which could be called "Biblical". Abraham's faith came out of an experience with God telling him to move from Babylon to Canaan. He was being asked to move from a mighty empire to Podunk, to Nowheresville, to a largely desert area, no large cities, no settled culture, only wandering sheepherders who eked their existence out of the sparsely green countryside and the occasional springs they could find or wells they could dig. Perhaps God wanted to get Abraham out from the negative spiritual power of pagan Babylon.
There is abundant evidence of pagan religions having long distant, almost forgotten memories of a "high god", who reigned over all the lower divinities. We perhaps meet this high god worship when, earlier in chapter 14, Abraham runs into Melchizedek, priest of God Most High, El Elyon, and offers tribute to him. So it would not be entirely unlikely that Abraham might have understood that he, Abraham himself, was being led by this High God, who turns out, for Abraham, at least, the God whom we know to be the Creator of, and Sovereign over, heaven and earth.
If you were Satan, watching these events unfold, you might first of all be worried that God was intending to reassert Himself as sovereign over the earth which Satan pretty much dominated. But you might also understand family dynamics sufficiently to come up with the idea of derailing this family of Abraham -- to keep it from being usable by God for the salvation of the world. What if you could get Abraham to become more devoted to Isaac, the son of his very, very old age, his only son whom he loved, than to God Himself? Maybe a winning strategy?
One of the things that fallen parents do is try to live their lives through their children. We cling to our children, keep them dependent upon us, not wanting them to really grow up and become independent from us. Because we might never have grown up spiritually, getting our needs met by God, we need the attention and worship of our children to stabilize our own sense of worth. So we try to remain in the God-like role which we had with them in infancy, rather than letting go. We then do not want them to become children of God.
Jesus addresses this very problem in Matthew 10:37 where He says: "He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me..."
Or even more strongly in Luke 14:26: "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple."
The Hebrews would have understood that Jesus was not telling His disciples to go home and hate their families. Strong, stark comparison was a typical Hebrew way of making a point. Your relationship with Me must come first before any other relationship at all -- bar none, Jesus was saying.
Imagine Satan waking up that morning 4000 years ago, and being informed that God has just told Abraham to kill his son. His eyes begin to gleam. He must have danced with glee at Godís command to Abraham. "Ha! God is a fool! I have Him over a barrel! If Abraham kills his son, God will have to start all over again to find a new son to carry on the family. With Abraham past 100 years old? Not likely! And if Abraham refuses to kill his son, he will disqualify himself with disobedience. So either way God will have to start all over! Abraham, now disobedient, will act just like Adam and Eve, and all his trust in God will disappear!"
But God understood Abraham to be a man of faith.
The story makes sense if and only if "faith" means something particular, something special, something not often noticed. If faith means believing something so hard that nothing in heaven or earth can change your mind, Abraham will barge right on past God and kill Isaac. He will be so sure that he is right about killing Isaac that he will not hear God telling him to back off. That is how the non-Biblical world usually understands faith. Don't bother me with the facts, my mind is made up. And sadly, some Christians as well.
But suppose the faith with which Abraham was blessed was first of all a desire to get the truth of the matter, a commitment to truth at all costs. Supposing it was a humble faith, a faith which understood that he was fallible, and was therefore open to new insights, new directions -- a teachable and correctable spirit?
Is not that the kind of faith with which God can work? -- in any one of us...??? Are we not all acquainted with persons whose faith is of the "I know I am right!" sort, with whom there is no rational discussion? Perhaps most of us have on occasion been that way. I have my revelation from God!
It will be a rare person, and probably no person at all, who gets it all right the first time. If we do not have a continually, persistently teachable spirit, we will derail our spiritual progress, barrel on past corrections, and end up in the ditch, often deeply hurting many others as well.
Imagine Satan, standing on the sidelines, watching as Abraham and Isaac trudge up Mount Moriah. Can you not hear his lustful chuckle as Isaac asks, "Abba, Daddy, where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Satan's excitement mounts as Abraham ties Isaac, and places his son, whom he loves, on the altar, and steels himself for the blow. The knife is raised. God, watching Satan out of the corner of His eye, knowing what is at stake -- speaks, "Abraham! Abraham!...." And, Abraham listens.
There is perhaps a background rustle as Satan quickly departs. And instead, there is a ram caught in the bushes.
I said earlier that I might have to believe it was not God talking to me if I heard a command to kill my child. Actually, that need not be the case. I might conclude that God was asking me to do what he always asks us to do as Christian parents.
The point here is not what is happening to the child, but what is happening to the parent. God is saying, you, parent, give your child to Me. That is what God was saying to Abraham. It was not the death of the child which was at stake, but the death-to-self of Abraham, or of ourselves as parents.
And, how does God say that to us, and to most Christians? God says to the parents -- baptize your child. God was not really asking Abraham to kill his child, God was asking Abraham to baptize his child. But baptism was as yet unknown, and being raised in a child-sacrificing culture, it is not surprising that Abraham might hear the words, "Give Me your child" as "Make to Me a burnt offering of your child." It would not be surprising either that Satan would want to use such an error in his own favor. But God knew Abraham better than did Satan, and God saw the quality of Abraham's faith.
For parents, "Give Me your child" means dedicating the child to God, just as Hannah did with Samuel. She was so grateful for God having given her a child, that she brought Samuel to the Temple, where he grew up under the tutelage of Eli, the priest. We do not typically give our children to be raised by the local priest, but we are ourselves supposed to raise them for the service of the Lord.
To do that we may have to go through a dying-to-self, perhaps like Abraham had to go through. A letting go and letting God -- though we are told almost nothing of how Abraham might have been emotionally struggling through it all. We are given our children to raise them for God, not for ourselves, which would be idolatry. The story of Jesus talking with the teachers in the Temple suggests that we all ought to know who our heavenly Father is by the time we are 12. Our goal with our children, as they mature, is to become their brothers and sisters, all of us children of the same Parent in heaven.
If Abraham had not "let go", he might have hindered the spiritual growth of Isaac. If Abraham had clung to Isaac as a support for his own sense of being and identity, he might have trapped Isaac in his own fear of growing up, and in a deep resentment against Abraham for holding him back. It happens often in our human situations.
Fr. Terry Fullam, years ago was the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Darien, Connecticut. He relates that the earliest memory of his parents, the two most important people in his life, was of them kneeling before Someone more important. They pointed his gaze upward, beyond themselves toward the unseen God. They did not cling to him, but sent him on into life an adult well prepared for service to God.
We can have that maturity of being able to let go of our children, and even of each other, not clinging to others to support ourselves, only to the degree that we have moved our dependency from things in the creation to God Himself, to the Hand of God, trusting Him for the provision for our lives, and the Voice of God for our direction.
That is what it means to be "in" the world, but not "of" it. We can live fully in the world, participating in it at the deepest level because our source is from outside the world. We then do not need the world for those two necessary stabilities -- ontological and moral. We know who we are and where we are going.
So, let us take our sons and daughters, and give them to God. We will be much better parents and grandparents for doing so, and we will be much more able to set them free to take off on their own when they are ready, and they will be more likely to be ready to move out into the world full of faith and vision. If our children and grandchildren see us looking up to heaven, they too will peer up that way, and perhaps catch that vision of the truth, and power, and righteous love of God.
That is what God wanted from Abraham.
Let us pray... as our collect for the 7th Sunday
after Trinity begins,
Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things, especially our families, which are patterned after thee as Family; Graft in our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, true worship, true gazing into heaven, true offering of our children to Thee; nourish us with Thy Presence that we might be a nourishing presence for others, especially our children and grandchildren, and of thy great mercy, keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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