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Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
It happens almost every Sunday. Like clockwork, the person reading the scripture lessons will come up to me before the service and ask me how to pronounce a word from the Old Testament. They’ll say, “how do I pronounce, ‘Maher-shalal-hash-baz?’’’ Or, who was, ‘Tilgathpilsener’” Of course, my answer every week is, “I don’t know. But neither does anybody else!” I imagine the lectors are praying, praying that the lessons for the week they are assigned are relatively harmless. I remember being in church once and the scripture lesson was a roster of the ancient Israelite priests who were present for the dedication of the old Jewish temple. I mean, the reading was impossible. And I kid you not, the congregation broke out into spontaneous applause when the reader had made it through unscathed.
But, I don’t think anybody was applauding after this morning’s Old Testament lesson, disturbing as it is. See, it’s not just the hard names from the Old Testament that send fear into the hearts of our readers. It’s some of these lessons. I mean, can you imagine walking up here in front of a bunch of strangers and reading aloud a story about a man who is ready to slaughter his own son?
This story is often called the sacrifice of Isaac. It is one of the most distressing stories in the entire bible. God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac, the son whom he loves, and to offer Isaac as a burnt sacrifice. So, being dutiful to God, Abraham sets off with Isaac. Abraham carries the knife and the torch. Isaac carries the wood. Then Abraham binds Isaac, and just as Abraham is about to use the knife on his son, God intervenes, and provides a ram for the burnt offering instead of Isaac. Whether Isaac is spared or not, this is still downright horrifying. Imagine the trauma that Isaac experiences. And we put people in jail nowadays for what Abraham did.
Before we get there, let’s rewind a little bit in Genesis. Remember that God promised to Abraham that Abraham would be the father of many nations. That Abraham’s descendants would be like the stars in the night sky. That was the covenant, the agreement, that God and Abraham made. But throughout Genesis, this covenant is threatened. First, it’s that Abraham and Sarah panic about having a child, so Abraham has a child instead with Hagar, Sarah’s servant. This is the child Ishmael. The covenant is threatened because it’s unclear if Ishmael can be the rightful descendant of Abraham. But God promises that the family will go through Sarah. Covenant threatened, crisis averted. The next threat is that Abraham and his wife Sarah are very old. Long past the child bearing years. But Sarah gives birth to Isaac though she’s ninety years old. Covenant threatened, crisis averted. Here again the covenant is threatened on Mount Moriah. Because if Isaac is dead, then surely the covenant is dead also. At the end of the story, God provides a ram for the sacrifice instead of the son. Covenant threatened, crisis averted.
And I know what you are probably thinking. “So that’s some great background on the Old Testament. But who cares about all that? God told Abraham to kill his own son.”
We can throw all the theology we want at this story and still, we are horrified. The thought of a parent taking the life of their children is appalling. So we’ve got some cognitive dissonance to sort through. How does this story stack up with a loving, merciful God? How could God command such a thing to take place? How could anybody be so blind in their faith that they would go as far as Abraham did? Usually, we presume one of two things. Either Abraham is insane and should be locked away. Or, God is an absolute monster who commands child abuse. Then, we tell ourselves that we would never even dream of harming our children. We think that we modern people would never do anything so cruel. That was all Old Testament stuff, but we’re enlightened now.
First of all, we cannot lie to ourselves. Just like Abraham, we too burden our children and for our own dreams and desires. We do it all the time. I’m talking about when we force our sons to keep playing football, even though they hate it, because we dream of them playing in the NFL. When we bind our kids to sports, it can easily become about us instead of about them.
And I’m talking about the way we treat young girls; if the first thing we say to a young girl is a comment on their hair or their clothes, we are laying on them the burden like the burden Abraham laid on Isaac. The trauma we are causing young women by only referring to the way they look will haunt society for generations to come. These women carry an extra burden, because they have been taught for so long that their value comes from other people’s approval rather than from God’s love. I’m talking about how “running like a girl” is an insult. And when young boys think that losing to a girl is a sign of weakness, this cultivates a society of cruelty and competition. And God is always about cooperation.
I’m talking about the problem we have, as a society, with student debt. We want our children to go off to college in order to be financially successful even if that means taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt. Debts that they will be paying for decades. Make no mistake. We are Abraham. This story from Genesis is horrifying to read because it cuts too close to home. The sacrifice of Isaac holds up a mirror to who we are and what we do to our children.
But God, God is always willing to avert the crisis. God provides a ram for us in the thicket. Instead of continuing to burden our children, I believe there is something inside of us that needs to die, that needs to be sacrificed. That is our pride and our ego. That’s the ram in the thicket that God has provided for us.
Rather than rolling our eyes at yet another millennial who is living in their parents’ basement, perhaps we should ask why it’s so hard to get a job with a living wage, pay off the student debt, and get a place to live. Rather than forcing our kids to spring baseball, fall baseball, and summer training camp because we have delusions of grandeur, perhaps we ought to have more time to connect with our families. Because that’s all they really need, our love and connection. Rather than expecting boys to be smart and girls to be pretty, perhaps we should try out the radical notion that men and women are both created in the image of God.
I believe that God is calling us to sacrifice our pride. This is the ram in the thicket. As in the time of Abraham, God has provided this ram so that we don’t have to traumatize our beloved children. And so that we don’t have to go through the trauma of binding our own sons and daughters. God has provided. In fact, that’s what Abraham calls the place. Abraham names it, “the Lord will provide.”
By all means, we ought to be horrified at how Abraham nearly sacrificed his own son. But before we fall into the tired old trope about the angry and vengeful God of the Old Testament, we need to take a hard look in the mirror, to examine the angry and vengeful gods of our society. The gods of pride, the gods of ego. And before we make ourselves into saints and everyone else into demons, we must hear again the words of Jesus: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
The wood is laid, the fire is ready, the knife is held high. But the ram is in the thicket. When God calls out to us to drop the knife, will we listen?