June 28, 2020
Last week, on Father’s Day nonetheless, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” That, of course, isn’t what we expect from Jesus or the bible. This week the theme of uncomfortable passages continues with God telling Abraham to go ahead and offer up his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Again, probably not among the passages we’ll want to read to our children at bedtime. Actually, if we spend much time with scripture we’ll find that there’s really no shortage of passages that have the effect of shocking or disturbing us in one way or another. Often, these are passages especially worth devoting some energy to or studying up on. Often there’s a fruitfulness to our struggle with them.
This week’s gospel passage is a continuation of last week’s in which Jesus commissions his 12 disciples to head out and proclaim the good news to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This week he tells them that those who welcome the disciples will be welcoming Christ himself, and to welcome Christ is to welcome God. He tells them this not before telling them that the ways of God will necessarily clash with the ways of the world. “Son against father and daughter against mother.” In other words, there’s a cost to this commissioning that followers of Christ are given. The world doesn’t often receive God well and to serve God will inevitably put you at odds with some of the world’s ways. The passage makes us think, how much of that are we prepared to handle and where are we encountering that righteous kind of conflict? Beyond that is the possibly more challenging thought that to receive us is to receive Christ and to receive Christ is to receive God. Religion is manageable when it is a series of rules, some dogma and some ethical codes to follow. It may not be easy but at least it is clear. It is something entirely different when, as Jesus suggests, it’s about embodying the very presence of God. That demands something more from us. It demands that we yield to God, that we make space, that we enter a dynamic relationship with a higher power. That’s hard in a different kind of way and it’s hard also because we know ourselves; we know our competing priorities and the fickleness of our faith. How are we supposed to embody God?
Here’s actually where I think that our Old Testament passage can be fairly instructive. It is likely that the Abraham/Isaac story was first read and heard in the ancient world as a story that distinguished Israelite faith from the faith of other cultures. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of all time and creation, unlike other gods, did not require appeasement from human sacrifices. Rather, this God asked for a different kind of sacrifice. This God asked for the sacrifice of trust.
Abraham putting Isaac on the altar is about more than a father’s willingness to give up his son. Remember, Isaac represents the future of God’s people and the trustworthiness of God. If Isaac is sacrificed, then, for all reasonable appearances, God’s promises are meaningless. There will be no descendants “as numerous as the stars;” there will be no “blessings for all the nations.” Isaac, the miracle baby, born to a woman who was never able to conceive and who at the time was far beyond childbearing years, represents God’s ability to keep God’s promises. If Isaac dies, then so does our faith!
Really, the story is less about the loss of Isaac than it is about the loss of God. The question for Abraham is: can you trust God even when you cannot make sense of God? Can you follow God even when you cannot see God?
Matthew’s Gospel begins with a series of begettings – a long geneology that we generally skip over because it seems less important than the next part, which tells of the birth of Jesus. But, to Matthew it matters, and to us it might too.
It starts with Abraham and it goes to Isaac, (and stay with me here!) but you have to wonder how Abraham could possibly have known that in the subsequent begettings Isaac’s line would extend to King David, whose line would extend through the prophet Jeremiah down to a man named Jacob who fathered Joseph (married to a woman named Mary) who in turn fathered Jesus?
How could he have known that his words to Isaac as they approached the altar were even truer than he thought, that indeed God would provide the sacrifice (not just a ram ) – the living offering would be nothing less than God’s very self in the person of the Messiah?
How could he have known that this Messiah would die at the hands of sinners and then rise again so that sinners might know the forgiveness and grace that adopts them into the vast family of God? How could he have known that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, and that they would include people from all times and all nations all colors and all types right down to you and me gathered at TCC and worshiping over the internet?
How could he have known? Well, in a word, he couldn’t. He couldn’t have known all that God was doing through him. He could only trust.
That’s what brings me back to this whole business of embodying Christ. It’s not about having all the answers with which to enlighten an ignorant world. It’s not about having it all together when others don’t, or being right where others are wrong.
Rather, I think it’s much more about trust. It’s about making space to be loved by God and then trusting in that love. Its about trusting God to do in us and through us what we cannot do on our own. It is about yielding to a bigger and better plan even when we don’t entirely know how that plan will unfold. It is about living with a sense that God is immeasurably good, and even though we may not be, that goodness will shine strong and bright when we step out in faith, show kindness to our neighbor, and offer what we can.