Friday, 4 May 2012

When God asks the impossible.

5th of Easter, Sunday May 6th 2012
Genesis 22:1-18 and John 15:1-8

When God asks the impossible

It’s time to engage with the Old Testament again and it’s a tough story today.
God (apparently) commands Abraham, his faithful follower, to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a test of obedience.
There are different ways of looking at a story, and it’s the same with this one.
I’d like to offer a theological and then a personal look at the story.
In one sense the command to sacrifice Isaac is a 'set piece' in the collective Judeo-Christian canon - a ‘type’ of sacrifice which is fulfilled ultimately in Christ’s own death and resurrection.

(Artwork - Roussimoff)

Both Abraham and God are fathers who are willing to give up their only sons.
But this analogy is probably a bit crass from a Trinitarian point of view.
Yes, God the Father gives up his only Son, but in another sense, God became flesh and was wholly involved within himself in the mystery of the Incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.

2 Corinthians 5:19 says
For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.’

So it wouldn’t be right to draw the conclusion, as some atheist commentators have done, that God is a sadist in sending his Son to die, whilst remaining unaffected himself.
God the Holy Trinity is not divided.
So here is the theological version of the story of Abraham and Isaac:
Faithful Abraham is asked to give up his son; his actions prove his obedience; God intervenes and provides the offering himself; God now knows that Abraham really is faithful.
It would be similar for Job.
But is the theological take on it enough?
When we read the bible we may have a number of reactions.
We may read the stories in isolation from our experience, as standalone bible gems that do not touch our lives at all.
Or we can read them from a ‘what if this happened to me?’ angle.
When Jesus told stories they provoked a reaction from his hearers.
He asked awkward questions:
‘Who do people say that I am?
‘Who was a real neighbour to the man?
In the same way, God would have us engage with the stories of the bible personally.

One of the bigger mistakes people make in reading Scripture is that they read it as a spectator. For them Scripture is a collection of stories and events that took place thousands of years ago. True enough, we are reading historical accounts. But, truth be told these ancient stories are our stories. We are in the narrative. You are Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Deborah, Jeremiah, Ruth, Peter, Paul, Magdalene, Mother Mary, and, if you are prepared to accept it, you are also Jesus.’

So this is a personal story involving real people and a real situation.
What is our personal response to it?
Your answer to this question will depend on how you reacted when you heard it read just now.
Did you think: ‘Oh I know this story’ and immediately switch off?
Did you sit and think ‘That is a barbarous thing for God to ask’?
Or did you leap to the personal and say ‘I wonder what God might ask me to give up for Him’?
Is it barbarous of God to ask Abraham to sacrifice his only son?
Is sacrifice ever good, ever desirable?
As a parent I find it a very difficult story, not least because it contains a command to do something which was against Jewish Law anyway.
Child sacrifice was characteristic of the Pagan societies around Israel but expressly forbidden by the God of the Israelites.
Maybe Abraham was comforted by this fact.
He says to his travelling companions, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you’ (Gen. 22:5).
Perhaps he was so convinced of the righteousness of God, that he was pretty certain he wouldn’t have to go through with the terrible deed.
But doesn’t that negate his obvious willingness to go through with it, which God identifies as faith?
As they approach the place, Isaac says to him ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’
Abraham’s answer reverberates down the centuries into this Eastertide: ‘God himself will provide the lamb…’
‘Behold the Lamb of God…’ (John 1:36).
However, and this is the hard part, Abraham does get as far as binding Isaac, laying him down on top of the wood and raising his knife above the young body of his only beloved son…
This is the part of the story where I find my reactions becoming most personal and least theological…(or perhaps they are not at odds with each other…)
Can you imagine how Isaac felt at this moment?
How he would forever recall the moment when his trust of his father wavered to the point of terror?
This really is a story of faith tested to the limit.
James, in his epistle, says there’s no real faith without actions.
Do you follow Christ and love his church?
Prove it!
Do you want to serve others in this community with the love of Christ?
Prove it!
Faith is like an elastic band which cannot prove its worth until it’s stretched and stretched (but hopefully not to breaking point!)
God is not a sadist.
We know from the New Testament that the testing of our faith brings a harvest of righteousness.

Talking of harvest, our gospel also speaks of fruit.
What are the links between the command to sacrifice Isaac and the command to abide in Jesus?
John 15:4 - ‘Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.’

Abraham so abided in obedience to God that he trusted even when God seemed to demand the impossible.
How can we abide?
For some it will be through the contemplative worship of Evensong.
Some will 'abide' through daily bible study.
We all need some diet of bible and prayer in order to abide.
Nurture groups help us abide – maybe we need one of those…?
We abide through feeding on Christ at Holy Communion.
We abide through letting God speak through creation; through letting the stranger teach us; through finding Jesus outside, as well as inside, our comfort zones.
When we abide in him we discover he prunes us, just as an effective gardener prunes a vine.
That way lies growth.
If our branches have become unproductive, we go back to Jesus for a remedy.
In the life of any Christian, and in the life of the local church, there is always pruning going on where Jesus is at work.
Pruning is good.
Pruning leads to growth.
Pruning may mean laying things down which are not growing any more.
It may mean looking for new shoots, shoots which seem at first to be fragile.
Pruning can feel a bit like sacrifice.
But whatever sacrifices are asked of us, those very sacrifices will be the means by which, like Abraham, we will know God’s abundant blessing, grace and new wine.

1 comment:

  1. We may all have adopted many "sons and daughters" in our lives, cherished thoughts, attitudes, things we feel certain are "right". But when I am convinced that I'm doing the right thing, then Thomas a Kempis warns that that is when I am likely to do the most evil. Perhaps the story is symbolic, warning us that God is bigger, more powerful more glorious than we can imagine. He asks us to do the impossible just to show us how limited our thinking is.