Monday, 3 July 2017

The Fire and the Knife

3rd Sunday after Trinity – Eucharist – 2.vii.2017
(Proper 8)

Genesis 22.1-14;
Romans 6.12-23;
Matthew 10.40-42

“God tested Abraham.”

That’s the way our first reading begins today. It’s a test about whether Abraham will give up that thing / that person who is most precious to him. How far will he travel? How far will he go? What is he prepared to do in response to a message he takes to be from God?

The traditional understanding of the story is to treat it as a test of obedience. God has given Abraham a son in his old age. He’d given up hope of children, but then he is blessed with the birth of Isaac. It’s a sign of God’s favour - and a promise that God will do great things with Abraham’s descendants. But then there is this test:

God 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.’

“So Abraham rose early in the morning…” We’re not told anything about Abraham questioning God. Nothing about the conflict you might expect to find in his heart or soul. No protest from Isaac’s mother, Sarah - I wonder if Abraham actually tells her what he is going to do; he certainly doesn’t tell Isaac. It’s all summed up in that one short word, “So.” God speaks. Abraham listens - and his response is immediate: “So Abraham rose early in the morning…”

It was a three-day journey. Abraham and his family had settled in Beersheba. The place where he is to offer his sacrifice is in Moriah - identified traditionally with the rock on which the Temple in Jerusalem would later be built. Abraham and Isaac travel with a donkey and their servants. They take with them the wood for the sacrifice. Abraham knows what he is going to do and he isn’t going to be foiled by finding there’s nothing to burn when he gets there. Then the servants are dismissed and Abraham goes on with only Isaac and the donkey. There’ll be no one to stop him. Isaac knows they are going to offer a sacrifice. They’d probably done it together before. He doesn’t know that he is to be the sacrifice.

Isaac said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’  8 Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together.

Then they arrive. They build the altar and Abraham binds Isaac and lays him on the wood of the altar. That word “binds” perhaps distracts us from the horror of what is going on. Binds is too soft a word. Abraham ties him up and is going to kill him. That’s the point. And he’s going to do it because he thinks God has told him to. Do we buy that traditional understanding that this shows the extent of Abraham’s obedience to God? That nothing can be greater than what God tells you - even killing your own son?

We live in a world where people do just that. Jihadist suicide bombers ready to blow themselves up to kill as many people as they can. Sometimes children used for the same purpose. Religious extremists who will take a van or a truck and use it to mow people down in the street before they get out with knives to kill still more. And they do it in the name of their religion. It’s not a new phenomenon. There’s the story in the Bible of Jephthah, one of the Judges of ancient Israel, who makes a vow to God:

If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house when I return victorious… shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.

Just two verses earlier we’re told that the “spirit of the Lord” had come upon Jephthah. But now here he is promising to make a human sacrifice. And Jephthah wins. He comes back from the battle - and out of the door of his house comes his daughter, dancing with joy to meet him. “I cannot take back my vow,” he says. And two months later he takes her life as a sacrifice.

And that is what Abraham also is ready to do. Abraham himself carries the fire and the knife as he walks with his son to the place where he plans to kill him. “Where is the lamb for the offering?” asks Isaac. And Abraham knows but doesn’t say. There’s a stained-glass window in St. John’s Church, (here in) Castleside which depicts the sacrifice of Isaac. The beauty of stained glass should not distract us from the horrific nature of the story. Another picture I know shows the fire on the altar already burning and Abraham holding a knife to Isaac’s throat - it is graphic and truly horrible.

But then an angel speaks - and Abraham hears. “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him…” Abraham has passed the test of obedience. Or perhaps it is a case that sanity finally prevails. Against the blindness of religious certainty, humanity finally gains the upper hand.

We need to hear the message of that angel. When you’ve convinced yourself that what you’re doing is right even though the consequences are dire and the damage you’re causing is dire, stop! Step back. Think again.

It’s something the politicians need to do when they’ve set their course and declare their determination to see things through regardless of the cost. It’s something that the leaders of nations need to take to heart when national interest becomes confused with self-interest and the end result is war, loss of life and the displacement of peoples. But it’s something we all need to act upon when we have become so convinced about our own rightness that we cause havoc all around us, break up relationships and even destroy ourselves.

“Do not lay your hand upon the boy…” says the angel to Abraham. But there is a terrible re-telling of the story by the poet Wilfred Owen as he wrote amid the horrors of the First World War:

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

“Offer the Ram of Pride instead…”
What is it that truly keeps us from hearing God’s Word and understanding his purpose? What gets in the way of our humanity? Can we not recognise the call instead simply to love - and discover truly what that means?

The window in St. John’s Church which depicts Abraham on the point of sacrificing his son is one of a pair. The other window shows Christ the Good Shepherd. It’s the Ram of Pride which Abraham finally needs to offer up. It’s the care of the flock to which Jesus calls us. And the words of today’s Gospel speak to us: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Whatever else Jesus may be saying in the words of today’s Gospel, he is certainly emphasising the importance of a ministry of hospitality. Make people welcome, and you’re making Christ welcome, and so you’re recognising something of what God is saying to the world.

Where will you find Christ? Jesus tells us:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…

I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these... you did it to me.

Look beyond what you think is right because it’s good for you. Look beyond the ways of thinking in which you might have become trapped. When you think you hear the voice of God, think again. But listen - because it is God who tells us that all the commandments he gives are summed up in just two: to love him, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.

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