Proper 8 (June 26-July 2)
Texts: Genesis 22:1-14;
Matt 10:40-42; Rom. 6:12-23
PASSING THE TEST — LISTENING TO THE VOICE OF THE TRUE GOD
It takes some kind of faith in God to fly a plane full of people into a World Trade Center tower. It takes some kind of faith. The question for our time is, What kind? What kind of faith is it that causes a person to think that God would reward him for massacring thousands of innocent people?
It takes some kind of faith in God to take your only son — the heir that you thought you’d never get but finally received — it takes some kind of faith in God to take that boy up onto a mountain, bind him on an altar, raise the knife in your hand, and be ready to plunge it into his heart as a sacrifice to God. Yes, it takes some kind of faith. But, again, what kind?
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we have before us this morning one of the most important scripture passages in the Bible. It is one held dear by not only Christians and our Jewish friends, but it is also one held dear by our Muslim neighbors in the world. For they take Abraham as their Father, too, and they tell this same story about Abraham but with his son Ishmael who he had by his servant Hagar. In short, this is a passage revered by two billion of the world’s peoples, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. It is so important that we get this passage right.
What is at stake is precisely our faith in God. What kind of God do we worship in Jesus Christ? Here’s the million dollar question point blank: Is it a God who ever asks us to kill anyone? I know I’m treading on anxious ground here — o.k., perhaps not just anxious but shocking. I’ve just juxtaposed a terrorist act with a dearly held story from the Bible. And you may quickly object that the story isn’t really about Abraham killing his son. It’s about a testing of his faith.
But I’m hoping that after a year as your interim pastor you will trust me enough to ask some difficult questions precisely about this interpretation of the story as only about testing. For what kind of test is this, to ask someone to kill their son? The terrorists who slaughtered innocent people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, they firmly believed that God was testing their faith to have them sacrifice themselves to such a lethal mission. Do we say that they failed to hear God saying to them in the end that it was only a test? And, conversely, what if Abraham had failed to hear the voice of the Lord in the end of this lesson. What if he had gone through with the sacrifice?
No, I want to persuade you differently this morning that the whole point of faith is not to persevere in insane tests until God says, “Stop, I was only testing you.” No, the true test of faith, the whole point of faith, is to get to know who God truly is in the first place! That’s the point of the Biblical journey, isn’t it? To get to Know God? And taking the whole of scripture together this morning, wouldn’t you say that the God we get to know in Jesus Christ is not a God who tests people by asking them to kill?
And the journey through scriptural history also teaches us, much of it by trial and error, that we human beings have this inclination to false gods, to idols. The biblical story is filled with lapses of even the faithful making mistakes about who God is. The Gospel stories themselves show the constant misunderstandings of Jesus’ disciples. A main theme of the Gospel narratives, in fact, is that no one except Jesus can really understand the God who Jesus is introducing to them until after the resurrection. So should we really be shocked if Abraham and the author of Genesis 22 might be wrong about who God truly is in this story? Please stick with me a few moments.
Before we get to Jesus too quickly, we can see that the Hebrew scriptures lead us right up to the God revealed on Easter morning. Let me be very clear about this: I do want to say to you this morning that Abraham did, in fact, pass the test of faith. But not quite like the author of the story sees it — and so many subsequent generations of interpreters. Abraham passed the test not by obeying the first voice of God who asked him to sacrifice Isaac. No, I want to propose to you this morning that Abraham passed the test by finally hearing the voice of the true God at the end of the story, the voice, in short, that told him to stop the madness of human sacrifice.
Now, admittedly, that means we need to see the voice of God at the beginning of the story as a false god, an idol. That’s feels like a risky thing, no doubt. But let me explain to you why I think we need to take that risk. First, believe it or not, I think there’s an important clue in the text, one that the author might not even have noticed, or seen as significant. You can see it even in the English translation that there are two words for God in the Hebrew. Look for a moment at text in your bulletins. You see the word “God” in verses 1, 3, 8, and 9. But notice that at the climactic moment, the moment when God intervenes, it says “angel of the Lord,” “LORD” being in capital letters. The English translation does accurately reflect that there are two words for God being used here, and, in fact, the second one behind the word “LORD” is more of a name than simply the word “God.” The Hebrew word behind our English word “God” is Elohim, the most general Hebrew word for God, one, in fact, which is also regularly used to refer to false gods. When the First Commandment says, “Thou shall have no other gods before me,” the word Elohim is used to refer to the other false gods.
The Hebrew word behind “LORD,” on the other hand, became the special name for God given to the Hebrew peoples through Moses in the burning bush. Moses was trying to get out of going to Pharoah, and he tries to make the excuse to God that he doesn’t know what to call him. God replies, “Yahweh,” that is, “I am who I am.” And so “Yahweh” became the special name for God as the Hebrew peoples embarked on their journey of representing to the world the one true God who created the universe. What I want to say, then, about the words for God in the telling of the story in Genesis 22, is that this at least cracks the door open to seeing a distinction between listening to the voice of false gods at the beginning, telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, versus listening to the voice of the true God, Yahweh, telling Abraham to stop.
But here’s a second important point in our correctly interpreting this story: unlike us, almost four thousand years later, Abraham lived in a culture with many false gods who ask them to do precisely what Abraham thought he heard God ask him to do: to ritually perform a child sacrifice. This is so hard for us to comprehend because human sacrifice is so foreign to our Judeo-Christian culture for three thousand years now. We can’t imagine living in a culture where the gods regularly ask you to perform child sacrifice. So, if we are to entertain the notion that Abraham might have been listening to the voice of false gods at the beginning of this story, isn’t it helpful to alert ourselves to the anthropological fact that such false gods were very common to Abraham’s time? What is so shocking to us, simply was not so in that cultural context.
But, then, here’s the most important point, the one we’ve lifted up from the beginning: namely, that the entire biblical journey might be characterized as one of learning, in our own time and place, to hear the voice of the true God amidst the voices of all our false gods. And I contend that this is precisely what this story is showing us, if we learn to interpret it correctly. Abraham passed the test of faith in the true God when he finally heard the voice of Yahweh say in the end, “Stop! Don’t do it! Stop this madness of human sacrifice. Here’s a ram instead.”
We can support the idea that we’re on the right track when we hear the Hebrew prophets, like Jesus did, that the true God never even wanted any kind of sacrifice, in the first place, not even rams. It’s only a chapter ago in Matthew’s Gospel, in Matthew 9. We read it several weeks ago. Remember? Jesus very solemnly says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” Jesus is quoting the prophet Hosea’s succinct summary of a central prophetic point. Here’s the prophet Micah’s extended version:
[Yahweh says,] “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
“I want mercy not sacrifice.” This is a summary of the entire biblical journey of faith, because in it we learn to hear the voice of the true God of what God truly wants us to do. And implied in that is also learning to hear who God truly is. God is a God of mercy, and never about killing of any kind, even the religious killing of the past in every religion, the killing of ritual blood sacrifice.
And that’s the God we learn to see in Jesus Christ, isn’t it? We call him the “Lamb of God” because we see in him the end to all sacrificial killing. We learn to see more importantly a God of mercy — such profound mercy, in fact, that God was willing to give the Son to our thirst for killing in order to first reveal it precisely as our thirst, but then also to forgive it.
We could do a quick Bible study, but simply take my word for it: all the first Christian sermons we read in the Book of Acts make exactly this same point: namely, that we human beings are the ones with a thirst for killing; God’s thirst quenching is for life. In various ways, all the first Christian sermons say, ‘We human beings killed Jesus; God raised him from the dead..” This is the end, in the sense of fulfillment, of the entire biblical journey: that we finally come to hear in the voices of our false gods, asking us to kill, our own voices of lust for killing. And that we finally hear the voice of the true God as one who is one hundred percent on the side of life, forgiving us for our slaughters and leading us into a new way of life.
Abraham, almost four thousand years ago, passed this test. He heard the voice of the true God telling him to stop, don’t kill. Almost two thousand years after the voice of our risen Savior — forgiving us for our numerous slaughters, all those brought together at his cross — are we ready to pass the test, too? Are we ready to stop the killing? What could happen in our world if two billion people who claim Abraham as their father could finally recognize what this test of faith is all about?
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Atonement Lutheran,
Muskego, WI, June 26, 2005