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Venturing up the Mountain

September 10th, 2010 No comments

“Venturing up the Mountain” (Genesis 22:1-19)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 18, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This sermon is adapted from a seminary assignment, and is used here as a “sermon from the heart” as part of a “difficult passages of the Bible series.”

When I was in fourth grade, one of my cousins gave me the book, Coals of Fire, by Elizabeth Hershberger Bauman. It’s billed as a “Children’s Peace Classic Since 1954.” I was a fourth-grade boy and didn’t have much use for books, but one day I opened it and was instantly drawn in like the crowds who gathered to hear Jesus speak.

Inside I found powerful stories that brought to life what my parents had been teaching me about the peace heritage of my faith tradition; about the power of love to speak grace and peace and life over the clamor of hate and violence in the darkest, coldest corners of the world; about the cross’s victory over the sword.

My favorite story was about Peter, an old Mennonite minister who had lived a difficult life of persecution in the town of Emmenthal, Switzerland. One night, a group of men decided to try to provoke Peter. They approached the darkened dwelling, slipped onto the roof, and began silently removing thatch that protected Peter’s home.

Soon Peter woke and realized what was happening. Thinking quickly, he woke his wife, and they prepared a meal. Peter went outside and said to the men: “You have been working hard and must be hungry. Come in and join us to eat.” Peter prayed for each of his “guests” and for their families. When he had finished, the men could not touch their food; instead, they slipped back outside, re-thatched the roof, and ran off into the night.

I could almost touch the power of love in this story. Lives were transformed. Relationships were healed. Wrongs were set right. I thought that this story, and those of other women and men like Peter must have been the faith of my ancestors, the people they were, the man I hoped, by God’s grace, one day to become.

But I didn’t enjoy all the stories in this book. There were some I preferred to skip most passes through the book. One was the brief story of Maximilian, who was drafted into the ranks of the Roman army. Maximilian explained that he could not serve in the army because he was a Christian. Rome’s response was swift. Maximilian was beheaded at the age of 21 and buried in Carthage.

There was no transformation, no peace, no triumph of love. Just the cold flash of Roman steel, and then the grave. The story didn’t inspire me. I didn’t like it. Something didn’t sit quite right.

The Old Testament reading for this morning has inspired and challenged people of faith for millennia. Almighty God’s miraculous provision just as all promise seems broken and all hope lost is strength even in our darkest hour. The unwavering faith of Abraham and Isaac as they travel up the mountain and into the clouds of an unseen and foreboding future is the sort of mettle most of us could only wish for. Abraham’s quiet, confident obedience calls to our minds an ancient and mighty faith lost to our memory centuries ago.

We long for this kind of faith, and like it or not, we’re drawn into this story and find ourselves journeying up the mountain, risking everything, hoping against hope. But I usually can’t find my way all the way to the top. Like Isaac, I get the feeling that something is missing, that something is wrong. I don’t like it. Something doesn’t sit quite right.

Of course, we know what it is. We all sense it. The idea of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son – his promised son – because he’s not quite sure, a little uncertain, perhaps insecure, about Abraham – is offensive to our sophistication, our sensibilities, our basic notions of right and wrong. This is not the mark of a covenanted relationship. It hurts all the more because we see it far too often: psychological and physical abuse, emotional manipulation, cruelty born out of insecurity.

And Abraham is passive. He doesn’t challenge this darkness of God Almighty, as he did when the Lord threatened to destroy the wicked city of Sodom.

“Suppose there are 50 righteous in the city,” Abraham had said at the time. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked. . . Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?!” “No, the Lord said, for the sake of fifty, I will not destroy it.” And Abraham said, “What of 45 or 40, 30 thirty or 20, or 10?” And each time, the Lord responded to Abraham’s boldness by promising to spare the city for the sake of the righteous.

But this time, on the way up the mountain, there is no bartering, no questioning, no negotiating. “Blind obedience, blind faith” we might call it. Worst of all, I can hear that deafening cliché ringing in my ears, that platitude that silences the honest and open questions that call forth strength of conviction and character, and chides, “You just need to have faith.”

That’s not the faith I want, and it’s not the God I want. I don’t want to pray to a violent, capricious, insecure God. I don’t want to abide in the presence of a deity of death. I don’t want to preach the Gospel of a manipulative God. I don’t want God to let Maximilian die at the hands of the Romans. I want the depth of his faith to inspire and transform them. I want love to win! I want Abraham to claim God’s promises and challenge God. I want him to stick up for his only son. I want God to be the Lord of Life!

The people of Israel, God’s firstborn and only, saw this story unfold in their own history. God acted with freedom and grace, awe and wonder to liberate the people of Israel from Pharaoh’s iron fist. Promises were made. Covenants were established. God had chosen God’s people. God created a community of justice and compassion, a free people worshiping a free and sovereign God.

But it didn’t sit quite right for the people of Israel. Abraham’s descendents didn’t always want to choose the God who had chosen them. Wilderness life was difficult, and journeying was trying. Oh, how they pined for the security, predictability, and settledness of Egypt, with their predictable gods under the Pharaoh’s control! Unlike Isaac and Abraham, they couldn’t journey up the mountain and into a clouded, uncertain future that only God would design. They wanted security and control. They wanted to settle. They wanted to possess God’s freedom and subdue it.

So they got their king and tethered God to him, and they settled. In many ways, they prospered. Enemies were subdued. People grew wealthy, old, affluent, and comfortable. And at last, Solomon built his temple, the crowning achievement that would guarantee Israel’s prosperity forever.

The free and holy God of the Exodus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was finally subdued and domesticated, confined to a room in the temple where kings and priests could keep an eye on their deity and call on him when the nation went to war. God was finally refined into the God Israel desired and could possess. They had finally removed the mountain in Moriah, together with God’s freedom and sovereignty, and people could get on with their lives because the way forward was clear.

Reason and enlightenment arrived, we might say. Progress was made, but at the expense of imagination and revelation. Religion became static. The community of freedom, justice, and compassion was traded for order and security. For many, it was like traveling back to Egypt’s bondage, and Israel’s prophets were not sparing in their critique of this idolatry of making God be the God we are comfortable with. Abuse, manipulation, cruelty born out of insecurity. We are all too familiar with it.

Indeed the story of fitting God into the categories that serve human interest repeats itself in many times and in many faiths, with the same consistent results – Rome, the Empires of Europe, the Lords of Latin America, Al-Qaeda. I myself would very much like to rewrite this story of Abraham and Isaac and bring Maximilian back to life to fit my preferred categories. And just a little over a year ago, Thomas Nelson Publishing released the American Patriot’s Study Bible, a conflation of nationalism, military triumph, and the Gospel of Christ. Recent polling of Christians about their support of torture confirms the same results of possessing God – abuse, manipulation, cruelty born out of insecurity.

Maximilian would not follow Rome’s domesticated God, but chose the way of fire and water and ventured up the mountain with Abraham and Isaac. It is this journey that receives special mention in the famous “roll call of faith” in Hebrews 11. The preacher in Hebrews knew his congregation and sensed that something didn’t sit quite right in their walk with God, and so with this roll call, he weaves for us an image of a cord of word and flesh, brought from above at great price by God’s only begotten Son. It is the rope that leads up the mountain, into the cloud of uncertain futures, where the free and sovereign God of our salvation is waiting to lead us on.

I think the preacher in Hebrews grasped something of the true meaning of God’s freedom and sovereignty; he grasped the true mettle of Abraham and Isaac’s faith. It was not the doormat faith of easy Sunday School answers, but it was forged in covenanted relationship, and steeled in the search and struggle for conviction. Abraham could take the rope, could venture up the mountain because he knew he walked with a free, sovereign, and just God, who would provide.

This is the cord of confession that spans the generations, bonded by the hands of those who have risked all to grasp it before. The preacher dares us to become these people, to grasp the cord ourselves and venture up the mountain, to make that rope complete. “Yet all these,” he says, “though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made complete.” This, I think, is the faith of our ancestors, the sort of people they were, the sort of man, I hope, by God’s grace, one day to become.

Thinking About the Binding of Isaac

September 10th, 2010 No comments

Thinking about the Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22:1-19)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
July 18, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This sermon is a “sermon from the head” as part of a “difficult passages of the Bible” series.

Do you remember your first impressions of this passage?
What did you think of this story of the near sacrifice of Isaac?
Were you appalled? Reassured? Disturbed? Confused?
How does this story strike you today?
How does this story speak to you today?
Is this portrayal of God consistent with who you have experienced God to be?
How have you heard this passage interpreted?
Have these interpretations comforted you?
Have they unsettled you?

How do we make sense of a passage that has evoked so many questions and speculations over centuries upon centuries in both Jewish and Christian thought?

Perhaps you have heard the interpretation that this passage explains how God forbade the practice of child sacrifice that would have been prevalent at that time, and instead instituted the practice of animal sacrifice. It is curious, then, that there is then no statement that explains that henceforth Israel offered animal sacrifices instead of their children, for the Old Testament offers numerous statements like this, such as in Genesis 32 when Jacob wrestles with the person at Jabbok, and he is struck on the hip socket and his hip was put out of joint. Verse 32 states “Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle”1 One wonders why there is no such statement here after the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac.

There is also the sense that nothing in the text suggests that God’s command is anything but good. The text raises no questions about God’s command or Abraham’s obedience, in fact, Abraham is commended and rewarded for obeying.

Does this interpretation, suggesting that this passage is included merely to dismiss human sacrifice, seek to defend God, to protect God? Does it dismiss us from having to deal with the questions that this packed, or perhaps even problematic, text raises? Does it let the text have its full voice or does it simply provide easy answers to a text that is anything but easy?

Or perhaps you resonate more with many contemporary Christian commentators who see the passage as a horror story, wondering which is worse, the thought that God demanded such a horrific thing to begin with? Or the fact that Abraham was willing to carry out this command to its gruesome and bloody end?

It is curious that the biblical writers, both in Genesis and in the broader biblical evaluation of this story, do not see this story in such a negative light, they did not critique this story as we do. Do you think that the Israelites would have continued to tell this story if they would have seen it as so horrific?

Is it possible that we read our own perceptions and cultural morals into the story? Were the principles that are so obvious and self-evident to us now, were they evident to our ancestors of the faith? Do we read this story through the same lens that others have?

How have those who love the Bible and take the text as seriously as we do, how have they understood this passage from Genesis 22? Voices from the past can give clarity to our own understanding, to provide us with a wealth of knowledge, to help us see the many ways that people have experienced God moving in their own lives, to let us know that others have wrestled with the same questions that we do, to help us to gain new understandings and insights from the Scriptures that we all hold dear and seek to embody in our lives.

Most likely from the first time that this story was told and onward, people have been seeking to make sense of it, to understand how this text speaks to us in our lives, to answer the questions that the text leaves unanswered. For example, when you envision Isaac here in this passage, how old is he? Is he a baby? a child? a teenager? an adult? The text suggests he was old enough to speak in complete sentences and old enough to carry the wood, but other than that, there is no answer given. Some believe that he was a child, no older than 15. Others, that he was an adult, as we are told in the very next story in Genesis that Sarah died at the age of 127. If she died right after the binding of Isaac, and was 90 at the time of his birth, that would make Isaac 37 at the time of this event.

Which leads us to wonder, did Isaac know what would happen when they reached the top of the mountain? Did he kick and scream and fight for his life when Abraham placed him on the alter and raised the knife? Many have certainly said as much in their retelling of this story. Or did Isaac know what was taking place? Did he offer up his own life willingly as a sacrifice to God? Some have believed this to be the case, that this was just as much a test of Isaac as it was of Abraham, and that both father and son were proven to be completely undivided in their obedience to God.

Some have even wondered whether Isaac was actually killed on the mountain and then later resurrected, as the story speaks of both Abraham and Isaac climbing the mountain, but verse 19 only mentions that Abraham returned to his servants. Was this story perhaps included to proclaim the power of God who is able to resurrect new life despite even the powers of death and destruction? Indeed, Many in the early church certainly saw a connection between the figure of Isaac and the person of Jesus Christ.

These are but a few of many things that we can only wonder and speculate about in regards to this story, for there are many things that the text leaves unanswered. There are no easy answers for a text that is far from easy. We don’t know why Abraham did not protest God’s command as he did before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We don’t know what either Abraham or Isaac was thinking at the time of this incident. “We don’t know why God claim[ed] the son in the first place nor finally why [God removed] the demand at the end.”2 Many have speculated, but it may be that we are not able to come to any definite conclusion, much to our chagrin and discomfort. The passage raises questions that it simply will not explain. It holds in tension two dimensions of God’s character: that the same God who tests us is the very same God who provides for us. Without any explanation provided, “the text leads us to face the reality that God is God.”3 God is beyond our comprehension. God will not fit neatly into our neat and tidy categories, our safe and comfortable expectations. God is fully and completely sovereign. How will we let God be God, trusting, like Abraham, that God is working God’s purposes out regardless of our ability to always and fully comprehend?

Notes:

1 NRSV
2 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation Commentary Series) page 187.
3 Ibid., 189.