God wants us to stop sacrificing others
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Pentecost 4, June 28th 2020
What is faithfulness? Isn’t it what we want most of all in a close relationship? Even in an employer-employee relationship, it’s the most valued feature, for it implies trustworthiness. The boss can assume things will be done, because a staff member is faithful. In a friendship, and especially a close friendship, faithfulness is everything. Consider these synonyms for being faithful in a relationship: it means being dependable, devoted, honest, steadfast, true, trustworthy, constant, confiding, genuine, supportive, enduring, unchanging, unswerving, unwavering. Using that list, think of what you get from and give to someone who’s dear to you, and there’s a lot to be grateful for.
What about faithfulness when it comes to God? Today’s Old Testament story is about faithfulness – what it means to be faithful to God, but it also says something about God being faithful, which is surely the most important characteristic of God.
The story is known as the Sacrifice of Isaac, or in the Jewish tradition, the Akedah, which means ‘the binding’. It’s a key story for understanding faithfulness to and from God, but it’s challenging.
There are few stories in the Bible that bring up our hackles us much as this story. Abraham taking his son up a mountain to sacrifice him is bad enough, but God requiring Abraham to do that, is even worse. And the fact that after Abraham proves he is willing to sacrifice his son for God, God retracts his request, doesn’t make God any more appealing. What sort of father would do that? What sort of God would require that?
There would be few things that we would be against more than the idea of child sacrifice. It’s hard for us to fathom how anyone could do that. In Abraham’s day though, it was common practice throughout the ancient Near East. But that was then and there – so different to here and now. It’s stories like this which make people reject religion, or at least want to throw away the Old Testament. Or some see it as showing that the God of the Old Testament is mean and nasty, compared to the God of the New Testament, who is nice.
Now let’s take all that rejection of child sacrifice and just hold on to it for a moment, as we look a bit closer at ourselves and see where we really stand in regard to this story. In my previous parish church, there was a memorial to a soldier. The soldier was a young man, 18 years of age – just above the age of a child. His name was Kenneth Wendt, and he was killed in the battle of Bullecourt, in France, during the First World War.
We might say that he was an adult, so it’s different to child sacrifice, but would we say that if Abraham had waited until Isaac turned 18? Would it be acceptable to us if Isaac was only 17, so Abraham waited with him on the mountain until he turned 18 and then told him he had a surprise for his birthday?
Abraham took Isaac up a mountain to sacrifice him for God, for what was holy, sacred. We might think that we no longer sacrifice people for God, but we still do sacrifice people for gods or their equivalent, i.e. for what we consider sacred, for what we consider our ultimate values. There are still many young people who are sent to die, to be sacrificed, for what we, or others, call freedom, or democracy, ‘our way of life’ or what is considered sacred. So our horror at what Abraham did, or was prepared to do to Isaac, is only a mirror for us, showing us what we have done and continue to do.
If we’re not sending young people to war, what about the young and not-so-young people who are
caught up in war, live in poverty, or work in terrible conditions so we can have our current lifestyle? Or when the church sacrifices the rights of gay people to maintain unity with those who think that’s okay? In our personal lives, what about gossiping to enhance our social standing? What about throwing statues or law professors in the river to maintain what we hold sacred?
In the film Gandhi, there’s a scene where Gandhi says he’s prepared to suffer for resisting the South African apartheid laws. Speaking to the Anglican priest, he says for that cause I am prepared to die, but my friend, there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. In other words, he won’t sacrifice another human being for anything. Yet, here’s a story, of God demanding a father sacrifice his son for him!
Well, Gandhi is right in his stance. And in him, we see a person who is truly faithful to God, because the reality is that God doesn’t require any sacrifice. In fact, God detests it. That’s what the story of Abraham and Isaac is telling us. To understand this, you just have to be able to read Hebrew – because when you read the story of Abraham and Isaac, you see there is not one, but two (or even more) God/gods in the story! A goody and a baddy! In the Hebrew, Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac by God, named Elohim (which means gods), but when he’s about to do it, along comes God named Yahweh (who was the One the Hebrews came to worship) and offers an alternative. The story is about Yahweh, the God of Israel being the true God, as opposed to the gods (which represent anything that demands people be sacrificed for its sake). Yahweh offers an alternative to sacrificing people. The story is telling us that the real God, the only God, requires no sacrifices.
So we may find ourselves a bit red faced, because either we rejected religion for encouraging sacrificing others, or we rejected the Old Testament, or its God (Yahweh), for doing so, when, it is actually we who continue to require/let others be sacrificed for us. Four thousand or so years after this story was written, wouldn’t it be great, if the followers of the religions in which Abraham is considered a father of the faith, accepted that the true test of faithfulness to God is to refrain from sacrificing others. Wouldn’t it be great if we lived out our faithfulness to God in that way?
There is a bit more to Yahweh offering an alternative to the ‘gods’ who require sacrifice. The story does emphasise a major difference between the God of Israel and the gods of surrounding cultures, but it’s also about the transition in Israel from practicing child sacrifice to animal sacrifice. It’s the beginning of the evolution in Israel’s understanding of God. Sacrificing animals is so much better than sacrificing children, or adults, unless you’re a lamb of course, so this change was not an absolute rejection of all sacrifice. Christians have always noted though, that Yahweh, the good God, the real God, provided the alternative of a lamb, and saw in that, a vision of the future, in which God would provide another lamb for sacrifice. That lamb of God was Jesus. Jesus allowing himself to be sacrificed for the desires of human beings, was God providing an alternative to human beings needing to be sacrificed for others. Or if we inserted Jesus into to the story of Abraham and Isaac, Jesus would be the lamb from Yahweh, caught in the thicket. Jesus offering himself is God offering himself, offering an alternative to human sacrifice. That’s what we acknowledge in the prayer before receiving communion, which begins with Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.. In saying that, we are acknowledging that not only do we sacrifice one another, but God makes it alright, for God has become the lamb we require to make things right.
So, we come full circle, beginning with what it means to be faithful. For us to be faithful to God is to not engage in sacrificing others. Hopefully, we can do that. But for God to be faithful to us, is for God to ensure that sacrifice is never needed, and God has already done that.