>“Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him.”
Do you find anything comforting or comfortable in the Gospel lesson this morning? Jesus is asking us to go beyond our safe, comfortable circle of friends and reach out to strangers. Didn’t Mom tell us not to talk to strangers? How about the Hebrew scripture? Pretty disturbing. And the passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome? The word ‘sin’ is mentioned ten times, that’s once in ten verses out of twelve, though one of the verses mentions ‘impurity’, and another mentions ‘shame.’
Sometimes we have to read and hear the uncomfortable words to hear what God and Christ say to all who truly turn to them.
Let’s see if we can find the good news among the bad.
How do we reconcile the loving God of the Christian scripture, the deity in the person of Jesus who bids us welcome prophets and little ones, people on the fringes of society, with a God that tells a father to kill his son? Let me answer that by asking this: do you really think God wanted Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?
The story begins with the sentence, “After these things, God tested Abraham.” These things were God’s calling of Abraham, his journey with Sarah into Egypt, passing his wife off as his sister to the Pharoah, and there was Sodom and Gomorrah, Hagar and Ishmael – how many tests can a person take? Abraham is rightly held up as a person of great faith, but he has his moments of weakness, and he has his shortcomings – passing his wife off as his sister? Twice? He’s an enigma. He pleads with God over sparing, fifty, then forty, then twenty, then ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, many perfect strangers, but he says nothing about sparing his son.
I was thinking that while God was testing Abraham, maybe Abraham was testing God. Or maybe it’s one of those moments when one is so frozen by fear, so horrified, that the shock leads to inactivity.
Our narrative is stark. We have no indication of Abraham’s state of mind. As soon as Abraham hears the command, he cuts the wood for the offering, takes his son, two servants and donkey and heads out for Moriah. He’s silent until they reach their destination three days later when he tells the servants to wait for them while Abraham and Isaac go up on the mountain to pray. Here, the narrator hints that Abraham prepared for the sacrifice methodically – first he builds the altar, then he lays the wood that Isaac has been carrying – maybe he stalling for time? Waiting for that call at 11:55 p.m. to stay the execution.
Then we have a heart-wrenching moment. Isaac notices that they haven’t brought a lamb for the sacrifice and asks his father about it. Abraham says, “God will provide.”
He raises the knife . . . it’s like watching a movie. You want to yell at the screen, “Turn around, Abraham! There’s a ram caught in the thicket! See? God does provide!”
This story has a happy ending. Abraham is stopped from murdering his son by an angel. Isaac grows up to become the father of a great people. This is the last test God gives Abraham.
Many questions are unanswered here. Did Abraham pass the test, or did he fail? Is his failure the reason why God no longer spoke to him, or had Abraham served his purpose? Did God want Abraham to stand up to Him with the same passion he used for Sodom and Gomorrah to ask why he was being asked to sacrifice his son?
I don’t have the answers; I have my own theories, as do we all, but I’ll let you decide in your own dialogues with God. It’s a copout, but I’m still wrestling with these questions and someday I might just have the answers – or not. I do know this. God only gives us as much as we can handle. He knows our hearts and minds and what we can or cannot do.
What we can surmise is that God surely understood Abraham’s feelings when He sacrificed his son, Jesus.
The truth of the matter is that we are all tested by God, aren’t we? Perhaps not in the dramatic ways that Abraham was put to the test. Why are there floods in the Midwest destroying lives and homes when God gave us the rainbow? Why does a complete stranger shoot and kill a family at an intersection? Why does a father kill his toddler on a road out in the country? Why do we still argue over gender? Why is race still such a hot button? Why is gas so expensive and why is there a global food crisis? These are tests of the heart, soul and mind. And in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus throws a challenge at us. He tells his disciples, and us, that whoever welcomes a prophet or little one welcomes him. We know from history and scripture that prophets are those noisy, confrontational types who tells us truths we don’t want to hear, and they don’t make the best of ends, but they open our hearts and minds to reality and how things are supposed to be. Think of John the Baptist, Stephen, Perpetua and her companions, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr. Little ones might be children or people outside of the norm of society, what we might call the ‘fringe element’ We are asked to welcome them, make them a part of our community, give to them as Jesus would give to us. It’s not hard to be welcoming. The effort comes in being welcoming those society thinks are not welcome to the table. Giving a cup of water to a little one, or a hot meal to someone who’s hungry, or listening, really listening to a message offered by a prophet – that’s easy enough. Doing it because we love God and we want to live out the Gospel – now that’s where it really is at. Righteous people aren’t holier than others, righteous people are you and me, in a covenant with God and Jesus, chosen, called, tested – sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t, but there’s always another chance to get it right – the right way that God wants us to take to the best of our abilities. Righteous people are people who say yes to God, even when it’s the most difficult thing they have to do in their lives.
And no matter what, God loves us and welcomes us into the Kingdom – prophets, little ones, the righteous, you and me.
I hope you find some comfort in that.