An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Sacrificing Everything

A sermon on Genesis 22:1-14 by Nathan Nettleton

There are some stories in the Bible that we’d rather weren’t there. There are stories of betrayal and violence, of racism and murder, of rape and genocide. Some of these are stories we hardly ever hear, and probably with good reason. Some of them seem to have very little to offer other than a bleak and sickening picture of the depravity to which human beings are capable of sinking. And there are some others which can seem even more distressing, because they glory in this inhumanity and then attribute it to God. God is described as the inspiration, or even the source of the orders, that lead to these atrocities. It is common among Christians to measure these ancient stories against the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and to conclude as a result that while the ancient writers may have wanted to credit God with their every blood-curdling defeat of their enemies, it is clear that God is not celebrating such acts of terror.

But some of these stories won’t go away quite so easily. There are some that have continued to be read, and which are widely known. And right up there at the top of the list is the one we heard in the first reading tonight: the story of the call to sacrifice Isaac. This story has gripped the imagination of its hearers for thousands of years. So deeply embedded in the Christian psyche is it, that it is one of the nine readings set for the Easter Vigil each year when we hear the edited highlights of the story of God’s saving acts among humanity.

And yet, this story is terrifying. This story paints a very disturbing portrait of God. This story seems to say that God told an old man to murder his own son, and that God did this simply to satisfy his own curiosity about what the old man would do. On the face of it, such a God would not be worthy of our worship. Such a God would be a crazed sadist; one who could never be looked to as the source and model of our ethics. We’d lock up a person who did what this God is said to have done.

And yet this story won’t go away. It doesn’t seem to allow us to just relegate it to those seldom read and generally forgotten texts of terror. This one seems to catch on something in our collective consciousness and demand to be heard. This one seems to strike some chord in us, to ring true in some strange and unsettling way. What could it be?

Let me tell you what chord I think it is striking in me, and perhaps that will help you to see something of what it’s doing for you too. I don’t know that I can bring myself to believe that God actually did tell Abraham to kill Isaac, but I don’t have any trouble believing that Abraham could have thought that of God. Why? Well, partly because child sacrifice was by no means unheard of in the world Abraham lived in. But more importantly, because I know that lots of people, and I include myself at times, have experienced the demands of God as seemingly outrageous, irrational, contradictory, terrifying, and grossly unjust. In fact I would go so far as to say that most people who have sought to be faithful to God over any length of time have had such experiences — not usually on the dramatic scale of killing children, but terrifying and bewildering never-the-less. And, I think for many of us, it is because sometimes God does seem like that that this story in some disturbing way seems to be our story and won’t let go of us. But more than that, the story also points the way beyond its own terror, and that way beyond is also something that I think rings true for those who have lived the story.

Perhaps it shouldn’t seem so strange that relating to God might produce such difficulties. After all, relationships are generally fraught with danger, and the more that hangs on a relationship, the more intense and all-consuming it will become, and the more it will seem to erupt sometimes into tensions over unrealistic demands and expectations, and testing each other’s limits. If this relationship is really a personal one, as we evangelicals are so fond of saying, why wouldn’t we find ourselves reacting to God’s expectations of us in much the same way as we respond to anyone else’s.

And, it is true that God does not generally allow us to sit around in our comfort zones and just enjoy the cream off the top of life. God has a bigger agenda for the world and calls us to be a part of that. And sometimes it feels like the price is too big to pay. One of the things I’ve learnt about myself is that when it comes to my own life, I am innately conservative. I don’t like to put at risk things I presently enjoy, even if there is some possibility of something even better on the other side. For example, after Acacia was born and proved to be a very easy baby, I was reluctant to consider having a second, because I was enjoying my life the way it was, and while two might be better, it might be worse, so why take the risk? Why sacrifice something good on something so uncertain? And having begun to realise this about myself, I can look back and see that a number of the times when I have been most resistant to what God has been asking of me, it was the same thing going on for me. “I like what I’ve got. Don’t ask me to sacrifice it.”

But God’s expectations of us often ask sacrifices of us. The demands of radical love and peace and hospitality often test the limits of our willingness to risk our own comfy status quos to become something else, to enter into some new fuller way of living. This doesn’t just happen to us at an individual level. Isn’t this confronting us as a nation all the time? Faced with the potentially frightening prospect of large numbers of the world’s displaced and traumatised people wanting to come and share our country with us, the gospel call to our nation is to be a people who welcome the stranger and offer hospitality and refuge to the outcast and the downtrodden, but it seems that most of our population are experiencing that
as a call to go up to the top of the mountain and sacrifice our own children. We are experiencing it as the unreasonable and unthinkable demand of a God gone mad. This is a wonderful place to live. Why would we risk destroying it? What kind of God would call us to sacrifice our children’s future?

As disturbing and uncomfortable as it is, the answer is the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. This God always has a bigger agenda, and those who would follow this God are always called to sacrifice their personal comfort zones and their national interests in the cause of bringing about the redemption of the whole creation and the justice and peace of the whole earth. And we know that. In our liturgy week after week we rehearse saying ‘Yes’ to God’s seemingly unreasonable demands. Perhaps it is most explicit in the covenant prayer we use around Christmas time each year:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, …
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.

But as terrifying as that is, this story also contains the promise that God’s apparently unreasonable demands will not destroy us. When we offer all we have to God, in fear and trembling, the Lord does provide a way of new life. We offer up our personal comfort zones and we later find that life has become richer and fuller and more alive than ever. Perhaps if our nation can find the courage to sacrifice the securities we have enjoyed, we will find that God again provides new life; a society with a greater depth of compassion, love and vibrant community. For this unreasonable demanding God who asks the ultimate sacrifice of us, makes the ultimate sacrifice for us, not even withholding his own child to rescue the creation from its self-destruction and lead us into the fullness of life and love.


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