There is a very ancient story that goes back 3-3,500 years into the ancient world of the Middle East. It speaks of Abraham, the legendary figure who is father to the 3 major monotheistic religions of the world today – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This ancient and enigmatic figure has stories of great faith and vulnerability told of him. The particular one that we encounter this week has always puzzled me – what is it this man thinks he is doing and what does this God he follows expect or even demand of him, of us?.
This Abraham has journeyed a great distance in response to this unknown God’s call upon his life. He is promised much in response to his faithfulness and trust – he will become the father of many nations and his children will be as numerous as the sand on the seashore and of the stars in the sky. A beautiful and rich promise and hope that seems hollow because his wife cannot conceive. In the terms of their culture he (they) seek to circumvent this obvious obstacle by conceiving a child, an heir, to his wife’s servant-girl, Hagar, and Ishmael was born. Finally Abraham’s own wife fell pregnant and he had a legitimate heir, Isaac, through his wife. This is the background to this strange story in Genesis 22:1-18.
At a point after Isaac is born and grows, God seems to have suggested to Abraham that he is to take this precious son and go to a particular mountain and offer this boy up to God. If you didn’t get the subtlety, he is to sacrifice the life of this precious gift to God to prove his faith. This seems like a somewhat barbaric requirement and I wonder what it means? Is it something in their culture that seems to normalise such a requirement or is it something in our culture that rejects or denies the notion of such sacrifice to a God we cannot see or easily hear?
Anyway, Abraham, heavy of heart goes about an obedient following of God’s demand and goes out with his son. They find the mountain and leave the servants behind. They climb the mountain and build an altar for worship, for the offering of an animal to this God. Young Isaac wonders where the animal is but dad tells him that God will provide – which is ironically true as he and Sarah have understood Isaac as a gift from God. When all is ready Abraham lowered his beloved son onto the altar and began to tie him down and prepare to sacrifice him to God. I find the reading of this story bizarre – that there is no indication of struggle from the boy… It is simply told in matter-of-fact terms. As Abraham is about to reach for the sacrificial knife, a voice calls out to stop him and the angel praises him for his faithfulness, telling him to let his son go. Abraham’s action has demonstrated that he is deeply faithful and trusting of this mysterious God whom he has chosen to follow. It seems, at times, like blind faith and blind faith, as we know can be dangerous. When Islamic terrorists fly planes into buildings to kill people to please Allah, we know it to be an incredible evil and this ‘blind faith’ is naïve, stupid and dangerous. But Abraham is blessed and God provides an alternative, a ram in the thicket. We are left with an odd feeling that this man, this great man would consider sacrificing his own dear son in the name of what? For the sake of what? It seems empty, devoid of meaning even if this ultimate test of faith and loyalty proves Abraham to be committed deeply to this God who owns everything and provides, as gifts, all we have.
We look somewhat condescendingly upon Abraham and his God who would require such commitment and sacrifice. We consider theirs as a world of strange mythology and superstitious fear, especially towards this God. They do things that we enlightened people would never dream of in our sophistication – or would we? We would never sacrifice our children to strange, mysterious gods, would we? We would never kill in the name of religion, God, faith or whatever we would like to name it? We would never agree to lives sacrificed in the name of faith or God or anything so menial as revenge, would we?
There was a somewhat naïve minister who ran a film of this story as the prelude to a Bible Discussion. He took the adults and his wife, the children. After a brief discussion he caught the drift – sacrifice and struggle are very real parts of our modern world of faith and life. Parents sacrifice their children on the altar of their ideology all the time – also on the altar of their fear. People sacrifice themselves and their families to the life of faith, service and justice often. Nelson Mandella sacrificed any normal family life or sustained marital relationship to fight the fight of justice. Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King jr, Romero… sacrificed life to serve the purposes of God’s Reign and fight injustice.
Beyond that, this young American pastor sat back and thought about how strange it was that we are willing to sacrifice people of the world in extraordinary ways on a daily basis but deny the story as anything significant to offer us. He says: How odd that we who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost.’
I wonder when we decided that faith has no cost – nor, for that matter, a life well lived? When did we stop recognising that sacrifice is not part of the deal? Of course sacrifice is an essential part of life and living. Partners sacrifice for one another. I have a plethora of stories of loving spouses who sacrifice much time, energy and love in caring for husbands or wives greatly diminished by illness, dementia or mental illness. I have observed the deep and profound sacrifice many parents make to offer their children every chance at life. I have observed the sacrifice of friends who care for each other deeply. We honour ANZAC’s and returned servicemen and women for the sacrifices they have made and we honour others who sacrifice life or safety to protect or save others. Why do we cringe when faith calls forth such sacrifice and energy in the name of love and justice for the sake of God and the world?