Another week with a difficult to hear scripture. We serve a Grace filled God who continually reaches out to us in love, and here is another passage where Abraham’s choices seem to indicate a God who is, at the least, complacent in encouraging choices that put others, even those we love, in harm’s way.
Last week Abraham sends one son out into the desert to fend for himself and this week he prepares to sacrifice the other on an altar. Child sacrifice not unheard of in Abraham’s time, but Abraham wasn’t a “heathen,” so it was not an expected thing for him to do.
This is a passage of which many ask questions in their effort to make sense of it. Some reconcile this story with their understanding of God sending his only son to die for our salvation. Some ignore the negative implications of this father –son – God encounter. Others see it as permission for things they require from their children as they live out God’s will, as they discern it. Still others use it as justification of their position that a God who allows horrible situations to test His followers or to prove His power isn’t a God they want to follow.
Reading it literally and/or out of context is unsettling at best. Trying to find one definitive meaning not yet accomplished.
Over the years I have met a number of people who come from families we would describe as faithful followers of God. Their parents attend worship services and Bible studies regularly. They tithe time and money, and enthusiastically tell others they need to follow Jesus. Some of those same people do not want anything to do with the God their parents serve.
Their stories reflect parental decisions that applied scripture one individual text by one individual text in justification of what bordered on and sometimes crossed the line of abuse. Their parents feeling God called them to discipline their children with rigidity and force, called them to make them conform to specific ways of appearance and behavior, and allowed them to interact with their children without consideration of the long term physical and mental implications of those interactions.
There are others I have met who feel on the brink of being sacrificed as their parents put all their energy into successful careers, amassing more things and participating in more activities, all in the name of providing a good life for their children. Those parents driven sometimes by their perception of God’s direction in their lives, sometimes by the force of the culture around them and an absence of a relationship with God, and sometimes a combination of the two.
I am only beginning to hear your stories, so I don’t know if some of you can identify with those scenarios. I suspect that we can all relate to a somewhere in the middle realty.
Some with parents who love us as much as Abraham loved Isaac. Parents who feel pushed by their understandings of what God wants to the point that they are willing to sacrifice who God created us to be: pushing us to act, dress, speak, study, think and worship in a way that fits those understandings.
Some with parents who want what they think is best for us, believing they are giving us everything, while in reality they are sacrificing genuine relationship with us, as they buy into the definitions of success created by a culture that rarely considers the broader consequences of amassing things, rather than deepening connections with God and each other.
As I struggled with this story of Abraham and Isaac this week I came upon the image in which the artist shows a loving father with his arm around his son, as they both look at the ram caught in the bushes, the altar of sacrifice behind them and the love-filled means of salvation in front of them.
This illustration put the text into a new perspective for me. I began to ask myself what is the test for Abraham? It seems clear Abraham saw the test as, “Are you willing to physically sacrifice your son to God?” A test he took literally, preparing the altar and binding his son.
As I considered the words of the passage and the artist’s drawing, it seemed to me that God was calling Abraham to give up his son to God, but not in the literal burnt offering as Abraham initially understood it, but in the letting Isaac go to respond to God’s call on his life in the unique way God called him. God intervened through the Angel to help Abraham and Isaac see what God had provided. Together their perceptions of how to get there from here were changed. Abraham now had the ram to put on the altar and Isaac had answers to questions regarding what was to be sacrificed.
In the process, the relationship between Abraham and Isaac changed. They do not return together. Isaac goes off and begins building a life further south where he sets up a farming operation. Abraham returns to Beersheba. Scripture gives us no evidence they saw each other again until Isaac joins his brother Ishmael to bury their father, neither present when Sarah dies. Both remain faithful to God, however, it is Isaac, separated from Abraham, to whom God now speaks directly. Isaac lives out his call differently, faithful to one wife even through a long time of barrenness, staying in the promised land throughout the 180 years of his life, and in other ways.
Except in cases of severe mental illness or distress, few hear God calling them to sacrifice their children in a literal sense today. Families are however, often called to make decisions and choices which have the same effect.
We can see our faith through the eyes of Abraham, hearing sacrifice as the thing we understand sacrifice to be. For Abraham sacrifice was a living being laid on an altar of rock and fire. For us that sacrifice may be understood as making sure those we love follow the patterns of Bible study, worship, giving, and behavior that we understand to be pleasing to God in those circumstances when they see things differently.
I remember how difficult it was for me to decide it was more important that our children felt welcome and a contributing part of our faith community than it was that they wore those beautiful smocked Sunday dresses to worship. For all of my life there was an expectation that to go to worship demanded a certain style of dress. It challenged my understanding of God’s expectations to allow my girls to show up in jeans and t-shirts. Until I saw the ram in the bush by looking in the eyes of our children and realizing God cared about their priorities not their clothing, I was willing to sacrifice who they are on the altar of “God demanded I do it this way.”
There are other places in my relationships with our children and others that I need to take a step back and look at this passage through the artist’s view. To see where I may be misinterpreting what I hear God saying, and need to look hard past the altar to the bushes to get a better perspective of what being faithful requires.
As I first read the gospel lesson this morning, I wondered how it had any connection to the Old Testament reading.
40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” (NIV)
As the message developed, it occurred to me that in the moment Abraham saw God’s alternate sacrifice, he began to live into this verse, even though it would be written well after his death. On that mountain he welcomes the change in direction that being faithful to God sometimes brings, he welcomes his son into a new relationship, and he experiences once again the grace and hospitality of the God he serves.
We are people of the New Testament, coming to understand God’s call on our lives through all of scripture. In living out these verses from Matthew we open our hearts and hospitality to all those who God sends our way, particularly the young in age and those young in faith.
We consider ways of faithfulness that are not necessarily the first ways that come to mind.
We look for God where God is already working in the lives of others, particularly the little ones who are Christ’s disciples.
We think carefully about the decisions we make that sacrifice, or have the potential to sacrifice who God created our children and the children of others to be.
There is a story about a little boy who asks his father how much he makes an hour and then expresses disappointment that he only has part of that hourly rate in his piggy bank. The father asks why the disappointment and the son says that he wants enough money to buy his father’s time so they can do something together.
I am sure there have been times I sacrificed time with our children because I felt called to do more, succeed more, give them more, set a good work ethic example.
In light of this morning’s lesson, I think God is calling me to love more, to increasingly recognize and accept who my children and others are as faithful followers of God. To look for God’s loving hospitality in places outside of where I expect to find it and to do a better job of offering hospitality to others.
God is grace-filled, offering us Rams caught in bushes, to help us get there from here, when we are focused on answering God’s call to faithfulness in the way we have always understood it to be and God needs us to have a new understanding.