Sermon for November 10th, 2013
22After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 2He 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.’ 3So 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. 4On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5Then 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.’ 6Abraham 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. 7Isaac 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?’ 8Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.
9 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. 10Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 12He 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.’ 13And 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. 14So 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.’
On Human Sacrifice
For a long time (probably as far back as when my oldest son, Grady was born) I've had a real problem with this particular story in the bible. What kind of sick and twisted God tells a father to kill his son, and then at the last minute says, "just kidding--I wanted to see whether you'd really go through with it or not!"
I'm not the only one who has a problem with this story. Richard Dawkins, an Oxford professor and well-known atheist, has this to say about today's scripture passage: "A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: I was only obeying orders."
Richard Dawkins and I probably don't agree on a whole lot of things, but he raises some pretty legitimate concerns. As Christians, we point to Abraham as a model of faith in God, because he trusted God, was obedient to God's voice, to God's impossible request. And yet...if you were to tell me today that you heard God's voice telling you to sacrifice your child... as your pastor I would tell you to have your head examined first, and worry about your faith later. So why do we let Abraham off the hook so easily? Or for that matter, why do we let God off the hook so easily?
As with most difficult passages in the Bible, before we judge anyone or anything we need to take a closer look at the ancient historical and cultural contexts in which they were first written and received. Human sacrifice was a reality in almost all ancient cultures: Aztec, Inca, Asian, African, Indian, Slavic, Polynesian, Egyptian, and European, to name just a few. Sacrifices were almost always made to the gods, and this makes sense. The gods were perceived to rule over all the things people had no control over--weather, crop yields, sickness, fertility.
What do you give a god you're trying to influence? The same thing you'd give anyone else, something of value. The more value, the better the sacrifice: fruit, vegetables, grains for starters, small animals...large animals...finally, human beings, the most valuable sacrifice. The most desperate sacrifice for the greatest need. How do you sacrifice something? Well to give something to another person, I just place it in their hands. Where are God's hands? The only way to get something to God is to destroy it, to make it no longer here.
All of this makes perfect sense to a prehistoric mind. It's difficult for us because we are so far removed from it. But to Abraham, this would have been perfectly normal. Notice that Abraham doesn't complain, doesn't even question! Just a few chapters ago, God told Abraham of his plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is shocked--destroy an entire city? That's just not right! Abraham argues with God. He says, "Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"
But when God says, "sacrifice your only son" Abraham doesn't even blink an eye. It's not because of his great faith. It's because in Abraham's world, that's just what gods tell you to do! God has made Abraham an enormous promise--that his descendants will be numbered like the stars in the sky. Remember, the greatest promise calls for the greatest sacrifice. Makes perfect sense.
What doesn't make sense, what is strange, bizarre, out of time and out of place...is when God says "Stop! 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." In other words, I don't need you to sacrifice your son in order to prove your faith. I'm not that kind of God. Here, God changes the rules. God calls his people to be set apart, to be different than the tribes and cultures that surround them. Years later, this prohibition against human sacrifice is written into the law of Moses. And in the book of the Prophet Micah, God finally answers that burning question (pun intended) humans have been asking with their sacrifices, "What do you want, God?" Micah says, "With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
This is the new sacrifice: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Notice that only one of those three things is directed at God, and that's humility. The other two (justice and kindness) are things directed at other people, at our neighbors. We say, "God, what do you want?" and God says, "I'm good. But if you really want to help me...help each other."
Now, does that get God off the hook for asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? I don't know. I do think that sometimes we get so wrapped up in trying to make everything logically consistent, in asking "did God really say that" or "did things happen exactly in that way" that we miss the point of the story. And I think the main point of this story is that God changed the rules. For pre-historic people; for Abraham; and for us today. I still believe in human sacrifice, though. Not in humans sacrificing each other to God, but rather in humans who make sacrifices for each other in the name of God.
Today is stewardship Sunday. We launch our annual stewardship campaign today, and the reason we do this every year is because we really believe that by supporting the ministries of the church, by pledging to support the church on a regular basis, that we have the opportunity to help other people in the name of God. And we have. In the 130 years of our existence as First Presbyterian church, we have helped countless people in the name of God. Through our missionaries, our global partners, and the mission trips we ourselves go on, we have brought a message of faith, hope and love literally around the world. Through the ministry of our preschool, we have educated and touched the lives of thousands of children and families in our community. Every baptism, every wedding, every funeral that happens in this place is an opportunity for us to share God's love with our community. And the gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed at least 6,760 times right here on Sunday mornings in the 19th century, the 20th century, and now into the 21st century.
I say these things not as a "pat on the back," or for us to be proud, but as a reminder that in helping the church, we help the community. We are the community, and we help each other.
But it's more than just helping, too. It's a promise. Just as God made a promise to Abraham, God has made promises to us. In Philippians, God promises to supply all our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. In 2nd Corinthians he promises that his grace is sufficient for us. In Hebrews he promises never to leave us nor forsake us. In Romans, he promises that all things will work together for the good of those who love him; and in Isaiah he promises to raise us up with wings like Eagles, that we shall run and not grow weary, we shall walk and not be faint. That's just the tip of the iceberg--there are hundreds upon hundreds of promises that God has made to his children in the pages of scripture.
We have made promises, too. Every member of this congregation (and if you aren't a member yet, you are certainly invited to become one!) stood here at the chancel and made a promise to share in the worship and ministry of the church through our prayers and gifts, our study and our service, and so fulfill our calling to be disciples of Jesus Christ.
Those four areas--prayers, gifts, study and service--are all part of our stewardship campaign this year, and we're asking every member to make some kind of commitment in each of those areas: prayers, gifts, study and service. It takes all of those things to make a church work, for us to be able to help each other and our community.
In the time of Abraham, a person would choose what to sacrifice based on the need. Have a small need? Sacrifice some fruit or vegetables. Great need? Sacrifice your firstborn. I'm a firstborn son, so I'm glad God changed the rules. But then how do we decide, today, how much to offer to God? How much prayer? How much financial support? How much study? How much service? I'll offer two stories, then I'll close.
I had a conversation about giving with a wonderful, amazing member of our church just a few months ago, someone that even I look to as a spiritual example, although she would be horrified at that idea. She said to me, "Pastor, you know I don't give a whole lot to the church. But here's what I do. Every year, I sit down at the kitchen table, look at my finances, and figure out what exactly I can afford to give. And then...I make my pledge for just a little bit more than that. It forces me to stretch myself, to give up things I don't really need, and to put the important things into perspective."
I can't tell you her name, because she'd be embarrassed. But I can tell you that as a pastor, I'd rather have fifty people with that kind of humble, kind, sacrificial attitude than 5,000 people who make large gifts with little sacrifice, with strings attached, without thought or care.
The second story is one you probably know well. Really it's the same story as the one I just told, only 2,00 years ago. Mark 12:41-44. Sitting across from the offering box, Jesus was observing how the crowd tossed money in for the collection. Many of the rich were making large contributions. One poor widow came up and put in two small coins--a measly two cents. Jesus called his disciples over and said, "The truth is that this poor widow gave more to the collection than all the others put together. All the others gave what they'll never miss; she gave extravagantly what she couldn't afford--she gave her all."
The theme for our stewardship campaign this year is simple: Everyone gives something. Even if the only thing you can give is just the blue pledge sheet filled out with only your name on it. Everyone gives something. Not because we have to, but because we want to. Not because the church needs a balanced budget (although it's nice to finally have one of those!) Not for the needs of the church, but for those in need who we, as the church, can help. Because we are the inheritors of God's promises, and because we are also God's promise keepers. Because we're all in this together, and because together, we are God's offering to the world.