This is an attempt to capture the spirit of the sermon preached June 29, 2014.
It is based on Genesis 22:1-14.
One podcast I listen to frequently is Unbelievable with Justin Brierbly. In a recent episode Krish Kandiah, author of "Paradoxology: Why Christianity Was Never Meant to Be Simple," says that his first ever college lecture in chemistry was on physical chemistry. In that lecture, the professor came in and spent the first fifteen minutes writing this huge and complicated equation on the board and explained how evidence suggested light can be both a wave and a particle at the same time. The professor said that that scientists had an option--they could ignore half of the evidence and say light is either a wave or a particle. Instead scientists decided to make a new category called wave-particle duality to describe what they found. This paradox of light being both a wave and a particle is at the heart of quantum physics and its strange but accurate description of the world at the microscopic scale.
Kandiah says that Christians had the same option when they came to understand Jesus as both a human being and as God. They could ignore half the facts and uphold Jesus as a great moral teacher or that somehow Jesus wasn't fully human. Instead Christians decided to hold these paradoxical views in tension and in the process discover a deeper truth about God and ourselves.
This Sunday's Old Testament reading tells us about Abraham nearly sacrificing his first-born son Isaac. I have to say this story unsettles me. Here we hear God saying, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you."
Yes. Abraham tells Isaac "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering."
Yes. At the last moment God stays Abraham's hand because God now knows he fears God.
Yes. Abraham passes God's test.
But I am still unsettled about God even testing Abraham in this way. It seems at odds with the God I know through Jesus. The one who tells us that we are to orientate ourselves to loving God and loving neighbor. I am unsettled by a God demanding the death of a child being the same God who calls us to love. This to me is a paradox. A paradox I as a Christian am called to live into.
One traditional way Christians have lived with this tension is to see the experience of Isaac and Abraham foreshadowing the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. One of the earliest accounts of this connection is found in the Epistle of Barnabas (Chapter 7) which was written by an unknown author around the time of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Other Church Fathers who made this connection include Melito of Sardis (From the Cantena on Genesis) and St. Clement of Alexandria (The Paedagogus, Book I, Chapter 5).
Perhaps your ears caught this connection as well when you heard Abraham say, "God himself will provide the lamb." Indeed this is one way we as Anglicans think of Christ and the nature of his death on the cross. It's why when the Bread is broken the Book of Common Prayer has us say "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us." We are connecting the sacrifice of Christ with the sacrificial lamb of Passover. Take a look at the list of readings for the Easter Vigil. You will see today's reading, Genesis 22:1-14, listed as an option. It is no accident we would recall Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac in the midst of celebrating the victory of Christ over Death. All of these liturgical connection make sense to me and indeed help me to grow spiritually and yet for me the paradox remains. I continue to be unsettled.
Some scholars would point us in another direction. For example the Encyclopaedia Judaica has an entry on Akedah, or the binding of Isaac. This entry in a Jewish Encyclopedia sees this story as explaining why the custom of child sacrifice was replaced with the sacrifice of a ram or perhaps was told in protest of human sacrifice. From this point of view, the original hearers of this story would not be shocked as we are by God's commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his first-born son. That would have seemed ordinary. No to the original hearers of this story the shock would have been God saying the hand of Abraham and offering a ram in Isaac's place. I understand this and it makes a certain bit of sense to me yet I am still unsettled. Without this historical knowledge I would not likely have seen this as God ending the practice of human sacrifice.
But perhaps the tension of the paradox can find meaning for us here. Perhaps a deeper truth is available to 21st century Christians if we envision a God of love speaking to us about the way we offer up our children for sacrifice today in our culture. Perhaps we can imagine God desiring to intervene on the behalf of children today who are forced into human trafficking. A problem that by the way is not just a third-world problem. Indeed our neighboring city of Toledo ranks high in the country for human trafficking. There are of course also the multitude of ways in which we strip the innocence of childhood in our culture. I'm sure I do not need to go into details with you but just look at the way children are sexualized in our media.
Perhaps these problems seem too big for us, too ingrained into the fabric of our society. Perhaps we feel we just have to accept the sacrifice of childhood innocence as a byproduct of a modern and free society. I think that the story of Abraham and Isaac would tell us otherwise. It reminds us of God intervening in a specific instance and thus saving Isaac from the "accepted reality" of the society he was born in. Perhaps we too can find God intervening in our lives. Calling us to challenge the norms and change the life of one individual child. For this is how God's love is made known to us. One person at a time.