Sermon by Rev. William J. Kemp
Peace Presbyterian Church
Lakewood Ranch, FL
"The Lord Will Provide"
WOW! This is a story I could do without! I bet no one here would say it is their favorite Bible story! Sometimes the lectionary is a bit like your local multiplex movie theater. Under one roof you find movies are G – good for all ages; others are R – not appropriate for children.
It makes me appreciate why Thomas Jefferson took his scissors and cut out those Bible passages he didn’t think really belonged. Members of The Jesus Seminar have a reputation of doing the same.
For better or for worse, it’s one of the lectionary readings for today, though Presbyterians aren’t required to preach from the lectionary. There are two other passages, plus a Psalm, we could turn to, or we could ignore them all. Running away from it, however, will not solve anything. It’s better to wrestle with passages we don’t like than it is to ignore them. I’m just glad Father’s Day was last Sunday!
Would God command someone to participate in child sacrifice? Such a practice is clearly proscribed elsewhere in the Bible. “What shall I bring to the Lord, the God of heaven, when I come to worship him? asks the prophet Micah. “Shall I offer ...Calves? ...Sheep? ...Oil? Shall I offer him my first-born child to pay for my sins? NO! is the Lord’s resounding answer. He has told you ... 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)
No story in the Bible is more troubling or more subject to such a wide variety of interpretations. Traditionally the story is viewed as God testing Abraham’s loyalty. Just as Abraham was about to plunge the knife into Isaac, an angel of the Lord stopped him and said, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher / theologian, wrote a book called, Fear and Trembling, in which he imagines how Abraham might have felt. He pictures four different scenarios. (ii)
In version 1.0, Isaac clings to Abraham’s legs and begs for his life. When he looks at his father with sheer terror in his eyes, Abraham rebukes Isaac and screams, “Do you think it is God’s command? No it is my desire.” Here Abraham tries to protect God by blaming himself for the atrocious command. At least Isaac will not see God as a monster.
In version 2.0 Abraham and Isaac journey in total silence. Now Kierkegaard imagines the consequences for Abraham. He is deeply traumatized and psychologically scarred for the rest of his life. “He could not forget that God had ordered him to do this ... His eyes were darkened and he saw joy no more.” Perhaps in this very act of faithfulness, Abraham lost faith.
In version 3.0 Kierkegaard highlights Abraham’s tragic regret by committing an unthinkable murder. Abraham “threw himself down on his face, prayed to God to forgive him the sin of being willing to sacrifice Isaac, and that as a father, he had forgotten his duty to his son.” Here, Abraham concludes that he wrongly believed that God told him to murder Isaac.
In version 4.0 Abraham suffers a failure of nerve, an explicit act of disobedience and returns to his senses and sensibility. He refuses to act because he cannot bring himself to slay Isaac. “Not a word of this is ever said in the world, and Isaac never talked to anyone about what he had seen, and Abraham did not suspect that anyone had seen.”
If we’re not inclined to psychoanalyze Abraham, we probably theologize the story. The painting by Marc Chagall before you gives one common interpretation of the story. Not only does he place Sarah and the ram in the background, in the upper right hand corner you will see several people, including Jesus carrying his cross. Even if we are to see this story as pre-figuring Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, I wouldn’t be any more comfortable. If truth be known, I’ve never warmed up to the idea that God had to kill off his only Son in order to forgive me.
Personally, I’m as put off by the idea of God testing Abraham as I am by the idea that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I know of a theologian who says that every time someone tells him, “I don’t believe in God,” he responds by saying, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” Let me tell you about the God I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in a God who plays games with our lives by putting us into situations to “test us.”
If God is a loving parent as Jesus says, what loving parent would deliberately place a child in harms way just to see how obedient she might be? How would you feel about parents who would allow their teenage children to invite friends over for a party, then stock the house with a wide assortment of booze and drugs, only to leave the kids un-chaperoned just to see if all the good things they were taught took hold? That’s how I feel about a God who would put his children to such a test.
I have to wrestle with the scriptures at this point and it’s quite a match. Our story today clearly says, ‘God tested Abraham.” The story of Job begins with God entering into an unholy alliance with Satan to test Job to see if he was as righteous as everyone thought he was. And after the Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism, Mark tells us that the same Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by Satan (iii) That’s strong language. So, too, is the plea we are taught to pray–“Lead us not into temptation,” or more literally, “do not bring us to the time of testing.” (iv)
A text that gives me wiggle room in this wrestling match is from the Letter of James. Listen to The Message. “Anyone who meets a testing challenge head‑on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life. Don't let anyone under pressure to give in to evil say, "God is trying to trip me up." God is impervious to evil, and puts evil in no one's way. The temptation to give in to evil comes from us and only us. We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare‑up of our own lust.” (v)
A popular saying that always sends shivers up and down my spine says, God never gives us more burdens than we can bear! I know many who have been broken by the burdens they’ve borne. I guess that’s based on a verse from Corinthians: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (vi) That doesn’t say God sends the problem, but it does say God can redeem our problems. That’s the God I believe in–not the God who tests us, but the God who is always there to help us pass life’s tests.
Perhaps all the talk about God testing people is a metaphor for an indisputable fact of life --our faith is always being tested. Our faith is tested every time we hear the word cancer or experience the premature death of young person we love or encounter the warehousing of the aged who are more than ready to go home. Our faith is tested when a trusted relationship is broken, when we lose a job, when attacked by an enemy or when we hear tornados or floods, or firestorms. If God is in control, why does everything appear to be so out of control? That’s when it’s most difficult to live in faith and in faithfulness. Of course, it’s only a problem for those who take God seriously. If we weren’t believers, we’d still have to bear the burdens of life’s traumas, but we wouldn’t be burdened by trying to reconcile them with belief in a God of love and redemption, a God who “has the whole world in his hands.” But, at the same time, if we weren’t believers, we’d be denied the hope and the love that are born from keeping faith and living faithfully even in tough times.
So what can we take home from this troubling story? No matter how we interpret it or try to psychoanalyze Abraham, here is a man who at the beginning of his story turns his back on everything to answer God’s call. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (vii) He stepped out in faith, but it wasn’t long before he kept tripping over his own feet – taking matters into his own hands, trying to protect himself and securing his future. Remember, since Sarah was beyond the age of child-bearing, he was so untrusting of God that he took it upon himself to father a son by her slave, Hagar. Ishmael was his name. Now he appears ready to turn his back on his future, the future that mattered, the future only God could provide – Isaac, child of God’s promise.
At this moment, Abraham is between the proverbial rock and hard place. He can’t go back but neither can he see any way forward. All he has is God and God isn’t so obviously present. Then all of a sudden, when he least expected it, he heard a voice–STOP! And he saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns.
Indeed, the Lord does provide. Why are we so often blind to that reality? Could it be that we cling so much to what has been that we can’t allow ourselves to be open to what might be? Could it be that we worry too much about tomorrow – that it won’t be as good for our family, our nation, our church, as it was yesterday? Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.” (viii) A little worry is probably good for us or we wouldn’t act responsibly and the insurance companies would go belly up! But we are increasingly consumed by worry. We flitter from here to there, as the Psalmist says, “eating the bread of anxious toil.” (ix)
Anthony DeMello writes, “If you look carefully you will see that there is one thing and only one thing that causes unhappiness. The name of that thing is attachment. What is an attachment? An emotional state of clinging caused by the belief that without some particular thing or some person you cannot be happy … Here is a mistake that most people make in their relationships with others. They try to build a steady nesting place in the ever-moving stream of life.” (x) Jesus would say, “They build their houses on sand.” (xi)
Zits is a daily comic strip about Jeremy Duncan, a 16-year-old high school sophomore. Perhaps you saw the installment from this past Thursday:
(Image of Zits comic strip) (xii)
(Image of Zits comic strip) (xii)
No wonder we often feel tied up in knots! We won’t let go. The problem with clinging is that we delude ourselves into thinking that we are the providers and that delusion blinds us to the reality that God alone is the provider.
“In face of all of this, what is there left to say? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not hesitate to spare his own Son but gave him up for us all–canwe not trust such a God to give us, with him, everything else that we can need?” (xiii)
There are no “if’s” about it. God is for us and the Lord will provide – not always what we want, but always what we need!
(i) Micah 6:6-8
(ii) I’m indebted to a summary provided by Dan Clendenin posted 6/20/05 on www.journeywithjesus.net/cgi-bin/viewprintable?rand1=3
(iii) Mark 1:12-13
(iv) Matthew 6:13
(v) James 1:12‑14
(vi) 1 Corinthians 10:13
(vii) Genesis 12:1
(viii) Matthew 6:34
(x) The Way of Love
(xi) See Matthew 7:24-29
(xii) June 23, 2011, comic strip by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman
(xiii) Romans 8:31-32, J. B. Phillips paraphrase