Proper 8 (June 26-July 2)
Texts: Genesis 22:1-14;
Matthew 10:40-42

PASSING THE TEST - LISTENING TO THE VOICE OF THE TRUE GOD

Nearly ten years later, we still ask what kind of faith in God it takes to fly a jetliner full of people into buildings causing death and destruction from which our country has still not healed?

Many millennial before that, what kind of faith in God did it take for a man to take his only son -- the heir that he thought he'd never even have -- onto a mountain, bind him on an altar, raise a knife, and prepare to plunge it into his son's heart as a sacrifice to God?

This morning we heard one of the most important passages in the Bible -- one held dear not only by Christians and Jews, but also by Muslims. For they take Abraham as their Father, too, and tell a very similar story about Abraham. The difference is that in Muslim tradition, the story is told with Ishmael as the child about to be sacrificed -- Abraham's son with his servant Hagar. This passage is revered by two billion of our world's people: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. So it is vital that we get its meaning right!

What is at stake is our faith in God - what kind of God do we worship in Jesus? A God who asks and expects us to kill?

Some interpret this story as a test of how far Abraham would go to show his faith in God. But what kind of God would ever ask someone to kill his beloved son? The terrorists who slaughtered innocent people on nine-eleven truly believed that God was testing their faith -- they were on a holy mission. Did they fail to hear God saying in the end that it was only a test? What would have happened if Abraham had failed to hear the voice of the Lord and gone through with the sacrifice?

The point of faith is not to persevere in test after test until God says, "Stop, I was only testing you." The point of faith is to begin to understand who God truly is! That's the point of the Biblical journey -- to get to know God. And looking at our lesson 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?

The Bible is full of stories where even God's MOST faithful followers did not understand who the true God is. The Gospels are full of stories with the disciples misunderstanding. In fact a main theme throughout the Gospels is that no one except Jesus can really understand the God who Jesus is introducing to them until after his resurrection. So should we really be shocked that Abraham and the author of Genesis 22 might have been wrong about whom God truly is?

Abraham did, in fact, pass the test of faith. But not quite like the author of the story -- and many subsequent generations of interpreters -- think. Abraham passed the test by not obeying the first voice of God who asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham passed the test by finally hearing the voice of the true God at the end of the story, the voice that told him to stop the madness of human sacrifice.

To help us understand, we need to know that voice of God at the beginning of the story was a false god, an idol. The text gives us a clue. In Hebrew, there are two words used for God. In verses 1, 3, 8 and 9 the word "God" appears. The general Hebrew word for "God" is Elohim, which is also used to refer to false gods such as in the First Commandment: "Thou shall have no other gods before me." In this commandment, Elohim refers to false gods.

But at the climactic moment when God intervenes, it says "angel of the Lord," with "LORD" in capital letters. Tthe Hebrew word behind "LORD" is the special name for God given to the Hebrews through Moses in the burning bush. Moses told God he doesn't know what to call him. God replies, "Yahweh," that is, "I am who I am." At that point "Yahweh" became the special name for the one true God, Creator of the universe.

Going back to our story this morning, we are able to see a distinction between Abraham 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.

There is another point that helps us understand this passage: almost four thousand years ago Abraham's culture was filled with false gods that people thought were asking them to do just what Abraham thought he heard God ask him to do: ritual child sacrifice. If we consider that Abraham might have been listening to the voice of false gods at the beginning of this story, it's helpful to know that such false gods were very common in his time. What is shocking to us today was not shocking in Abraham's cultural context.

But today we are coming more and more to understand that the biblical journey is one of constant learning so that today in this time and culture we can hear the voice of the true God amidst the voices of false gods. This is what this story is showing us: Abraham passed the test of faith in the true God when he finally heard the voice of Yahweh say, "Stop! Don't do it! Stop this madness of human sacrifice. Here's a ram instead."

When we hear the Hebrew prophets in the same way Jesus did, telling us that the true God never wanted any kind of sacrifice, we begin to understand. Just a few weeks ago in Matthew's Gospel we heard that Jesus very solemnly told his followers, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" Jesus is quoting the prophet Hosea's summary of a central prophetic point. The prophet Micah explains it more fully:

[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." God is a God of mercy, who never asks us to kill -- even the ritual blood sacrifice that has occurred in every recorded religion.

That's the God we learn to see in Jesus Christ, the "Lamb of God" who put an end to all sacrificial killing. Jesus shows us a God of profound mercy who willingly gave the Son in order to reveal our thirst for killing. And then God forgave us.

Nearly four thousand years ago, Abraham passed this test. He heard the voice of the true God telling him to stop, don't kill. And now almost two thousand years after the voice of our risen Savior forgiving us for our numerous slaughters, all those brought together on 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 really all about?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, June 26, 2011