June 28, 2020
I've been doing a lot of golfing this summer relative to past years. I go with Robbie every Thursday. Bob Powers has joined a few times. Julie and I have gone quite regularly along with my sister Marian and a couple times Marlys. Sons Matthew and David too. Most of our scores are improving gradually, although Robbie had a pretty rough day on Thursday. But one thing I have noticed, every time we hit a really good shot, we are much more surprised than when we hit a bad shot. After a good shot, almost without fail, we'll look at our partners and say, “Well, I've finally got this game figured out!” And of course we haven't.
Do you ever think you've got this faith in God thing figured out? I share lots of words about our faith journeys; grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, joy. But then we read a story like our Old Testament lesson: God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son?!? What?
My first question, why would we want to follow a God like this? If the biblical authors thought this was a story to draw people into the fold, they were mistaken. It's a scary story even if God does stop the sacrifice. Imagine Abraham, three days walking to the site, the whole time contemplating just how he can bring himself to kill Isaac. And the writer begins with the three words, “God tested Abraham.” Who wants such a test?
On this week's Christian Century web page, they ran an adaptation from Ellen F. Davis's book, Preaching the Luminous Word: Biblical Sermons and Homiletical Essays. She explains that perhaps the story isn't about drawing people to Abraham's God at all. Perhaps it is written for those of us who are currently in a relationship with God. If that's the case, she writes, “this harrowing story exists to help people who already believe make sense of their most difficult experience, when God seems to take back everything... the point is not to draw people in but rather to help people who are already in stay in—stay in relationship with the one true God, even when their world turns upside down.”
When our world doesn't make sense, we often turn to the book of Job for understanding. But this chapter also speaks to us in our troubles. Again from Davis, “This story of Abraham and God and Isaac is the place you go when you are out beyond anything you thought could or would happen, beyond anything you imagine God would ever ask of you, when the most sensible thing to do might be to deny that God exists at all, or deny that God cares at all, or deny that God has any power at all. That would be sensible, except you can’t do it—because you are so deep into relationship with God that to deny all that would be to deny your own heart and soul and mind.” Now we are getting to the picture Jesus gives us; a picture not of a stern, bossy, violent God, but a loving God who longs for relationship, of whom Jesus says "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'” Obedience is just a part of that, but to test in such a way seems extreme.
I could make this a sermon on obedience, after all, Abraham does just what God is asking him to do. But it isn't. Child sacrifice is not in the purview of our God. Blind obedience, following orders without a conscience is not right. We have seen it played out in our nation's history, the Mai Lai massacre comes to mind, the Abu Graib prison abuses, even George Floyd; the other officers did not intervene because of chain of command. I've read two books about the holocaust in the last month; common men obeying monstrous orders, killing innocent men, women and children. From Davis again, “obedience is a virtue only if it serves a just cause. Obedience in service of an unjust cause is servile, cowardly, even criminal. If it is purely out of obedience that Abraham submits to God’s command, then his willingness to submit is monstrous. But there is another option. What if Abraham follows God’s command not out of obedience, but out of faith? What if Abraham trusts God, even now, when what God asks of him seems to run counter to everything God had promised?” It is a different feel if it is about relationship and trust rather than straight forward obedience, isn't it?
Speaking of the Holocaust, that tragedy forced many faithful men and women to question the goodness of God. Jewish theologian Eliezer Berkovits tied this story into their great questions. Listen to these words he imagines coming from the mouth of Abraham as he speaks to God on the journey to the mountain. “In this situation I do not understand You. Your behavior violates our covenant; still, I trust You because it is You, because it is You and me, because it is us. . . . Almighty God! What you are asking of me is terrible. . . . But I have known you, my God. You have loved me and I love You. My God, you are breaking Your word to me. . . . Yet I trust You; I trust You.” It is about relationship! If we are walking as closely to God as Abraham did, there is no hesitation. It is like Jesus said about his relationship with the Father, the Father is in me, and I in the Father." (John 10: 38) How many of us have this level of trust in our relationship with God? It only comes by the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives. This story challenges us to find a new level of intimacy with the Savior. We pray and we work and finally, we must trust the goodness of God as displayed in the life of Jesus.
Abraham had plenty of trials in his life. God did not; does not come to take away every trouble. But the Spirit does work when we are frightened or unhappy or angry about our troubles. Back when I preached in Harrison regularly, I asked Lay preacher Dennis Peterson to close our service with prayer. He came up to the pulpit, bowed his head and said, "Lord, I hate buttermilk!"
I looked up, wondering just where this was going...
Dennis continued, "Lord, I hate lard!"
Now, I was totally perplexed...
He went on, "Lord, and I'm not too crazy about plain flour neither, but after you mix em all together and bake em in a hot oven, I just love biscuits! So Lord, help us understand when life gets hard, when things come up that we don't like, and we can't figure out what you are doing, that we just need to wait and see what you are making. After you get through mixing and baking, it'll probably be something even better than biscuits. Amen!'" (Actually Bob Powers shared a generic version of this story, I just personalized it)
We can read further in Genesis and see that God's recipe really turned out great in Abraham's life. But we misread the message of scripture if we expect only good in this life. Biscuits are great, but I've made really heavy biscuits, burnt biscuits, used baking soda when I needed baking powder. Life does not always, I dare say often, turn out exactly as we'd like it. But that is not what God is about. When finally all is said and done, it is about relationship. That's what the “test” was about. Not so that God knew Abraham trusted him, but so Abraham would discover that he did truly trust God with even his most loved son. The story shows that relationship with God, with anyone, involves trust. I finish with more thoughts from Professor Davis, “The relationship endures only because two hearts are bound together through mutual trust. And trust is the very opposite of compulsion. The astonishing truth Genesis 22 reveals is that God chooses to relate to the world not by compulsion but by trust. Yet trust is inherently a condition of vulnerability. We do not often think of God as needing to be courageous, yet it must take courage for God to stay in relationship with the world just as it takes courage for each of us to stay in relationship with God... mutual trust is the only environment in which love is wholly free to act Relationship with the real God, the God of Abraham and Jesus, is not for the risk-averse... sometimes being in relationship with the real God hurts; Sometimes it’s bewildering with no vision of where this relationship is taking us. But the gospel also puts it to us straight: it’s taking us to the cross and on to resurrection. It’s taking us straight into the arms of God. It’s taking us into a parent’s aching yet indomitable love, the divine Love that will not let us go—not ever. We can put our trust in that.”
So when you think you have God figured out, look out. God does not fit into any boxes that we could create. Our goal and purpose is not to figure God out but to seek that relationship with the living God shown to us by Jesus. Lean on the promise of love and grace and salvation. Put your trust in God. Amen.
Hymn: Leaning on the Everlasting Arms