A sermon text, based on Genesis 22.1-14, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2020.
God said to Abraham, “Take your son, Isaac, whom you love and offer him as a burnt offering.”
A bit of the back story…
God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their home and go to a land that God would show them. There they would become the forebears of nations. But Abraham and Sarah were old and childless. Without at least one child, it would be impossible for them to be the forerunners of multitudes. Finally, when Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah ninety, Isaac was born.
Then Abraham, with Sarah, having left their homeland, sacrificing their past for God’s sake, is told by God to kill their son, thus, sacrificing their long-hoped-for present, now fulfilled, and the promise of their future. For to kill their one child would make it impossible for them to be the forerunners of multitudes.
Nevertheless, “Abraham rose early in the morning…and set out” to do as God had commanded.
Of all the images that come to my mind as I reflect on this biblical story, I see Sarah watching her husband and son walk toward the horizon with wood, but no animal for the burnt offering and wondering, worrying, fearing what was to be; perhaps, in horror, imagining that, one day, Abraham would return and without their son.
Now, God’s command was a test of Abraham’s love and loyalty. A test that God had no intention of seeing through to its terrible end. A test that Abraham, in his obedience, passed.
Nevertheless, it was a test, which, at first and second glance, for me, is monstrously cruel.
It may be of little or no consolation to the sensitive human conscience to assert that this story is a biblical protest against the ancient practice of child sacrifice. Nor may it be of comfort to claim that God’s command to Abraham to kill his only son prefigures the sacrifice of Jesus, the only Son of God, to redeem the world. The sacrifice of Jesus foretold in Abraham’s response to Isaac’s question about the whereabouts of the sacrificial animal, “God will provide the lamb.”
This was the view of one of my chiefest “theological parents”; those whose philosophies have formed and framed my theological thinking. Søren Kierkegaard, the first existentialist, considered the sacrifice of Isaac story to be a prime example of the teleological suspension of the ethical. That, somehow, in God’s call to kill Isaac, Abraham was able to behold the telos, the end to which it pointed, the coming sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. And that assurance allowed Abraham to risk suspending his ethical responsibility as a father to protect his son.
But sacrifice is sacrifice. Violence is violence. And in a world, whether ancient or modern, filled with gratuitous cruelty, how can this story appeal to wounded human conscience? How can this story assuage souls ravaged by human brutalities throughout history and unto this very day?
Maybe it can’t!
Or maybe, just maybe this story is meant to be a biblical wide-eyed, unblinking stare, glare at us demanding that we answer this question: For what greater good – in the name of God, in the name of love or loyalty or redemption – are we willing to sacrifice our lives?
This coming Saturday, we will celebrate the 244th anniversary of our nation’s birth. A nation born through the sacrifice of life against the might of an empire to secure long-sought liberty. A nation established on the foundation of a great ideal. Human equality. And with the recognition of the Creator-endowed “certain unalienable Rights…(of) Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
However, a nation established through the wholesale extermination and incarceration of tribes of native peoples. A nation established through the sweat, blood, and tears of imported, enslaved peoples.
Therefore, honesty compels our confession that as we celebrate, we also need commit ourselves to expanding the breadth of our founding principles to include so many who still stand outside the boundaries of our inclusion.
Therefore, in the bright light of our celebration, again I ask: For what greater good are we willing to sacrifice our lives?
Speaking always and only for myself and never asking of you a question that I am unwilling to answer…
I am a Christian. I follow Jesus who died for the kingdom of God’s unconditional love and justice. O’er many years, I, in the words of the hymn, have sought to see Jesus more clearly so to follow him more nearly, thus, demonstrating that I love him more dearly. And I am convinced that real life, living in liberty, free from undue restraint so to be and to become who God created me to be is a matter of knowing that for which I am willing to lay down my life. And as I daily decide to follow Jesus, his cause is my cause. For the sake of loving and being just with you and all people, I am willing to die.
For what are you willing to die, so to live?
For the Abraham-Sarah backstory of God’s call, see Genesis 12.1-4, of their ages, see Genesis 17.17, of Isaac’s birth, see Genesis 21.1-3.
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855), Danish theologian, poet, social critic, and religious author, widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher.
“Day by day, dear Lord, of Thee three things I pray: to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow Thee more nearly, day by day” – Words attributed to Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)