Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Third Sunday of Lent 2016
Start Date 28th Feb 2016 10:00am
Description

The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
In this series of sermons at Matins during February, I have been following the story of Abraham and Sarah, using a text by the Australian writer (SPCK 2015), Meg Warner, which parallels the patriarch's journey with the one that we make in Lent.

For this address, I will also be drawing on the work of Michael Sadgrove, former Dean of Durham and his fine book: "Lost Sons: God's long search for humanity" (SPCK 2012).

The story of "Abraham and the binding of Isaac" evokes some primeval emotions, with sympathy for both the son and the father. It still features prominently in modern Hebrew poetry to which I will return in a little while.

A proper reading of the text requires what the Danish 19th-century philosopher Soren Kirkegaard calls a 'teleological suspension of the ethical', that is, we have to suspend our judgement about Abraham's behaviour until we reach the end of the narrative.

But of course the first question we have to ask is why include such an offensive story at all in the Canon of Scripture? A text in which God seems to be encouraging, if not demanding, Abraham to sacrifice his son. Sadgrove writes: "The conventional (but now discredited) reason … is that it is an aetiological tale, told in order to explain why Israel had renounced (or had never taken up) the practice of child sacrifice that was pervasive in the surrounding cultures".

That said, the focus of Jewish and Islamic reading (where it is applied to Ishmael) is the binding, the Aqedah, a solemn conviction: doing the will of God against all reason and instinct. For Christians this is applied as an archetype of how God the Father acts in 'binding' his Son to the cross.

So let's take a closer look at the Text:
*    So Abraham rose early in the morning: recalls that 'bad things' happen when Abraham rises early – the same 'cue' is used in 21.14 when Hagar and Ishmael are banished.

*    2 'Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love': the pathos is piled on – your son, only, love. This is the child Abraham and Sarah had waited so long for. No wonder Kirkegaard's book on Abraham and Isaac was entitled Fear and Trembling.

*    Only son highlights both the nature of the sacrifice Abraham was being called on to make, and also the fact that this is a lie – he had another son for whom he cared deeply, Ishmael. Remember, when Hagar is sent away we hear that 11'The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son'. In Genesis 25.9 is the memory of both sons recovered, when they come together to bury their father.

*    The distant place, the walking side-by-side, the silence all heighten the tension.

*    8Abraham said, 'God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.' This is not a test of faith – "will God provide for the sacrifice because Abraham knows that will be Isaac?" Rather this is a test of obedience, will Abraham wield the knife?

*    The climax is reached at: 10'Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son'. Note, this is not murder, but child sacrifice, precisely one of the customs against which Israel defined itself.

But if the truth be told, the ethical dilemma that we suffer – 'what kind of monstrous God could even suggest the sacrifice of a child?' – was probably not in the mind of the writer. Like Job, it is not for mortals to question God's will, rather it is a matter of obedience. Judges 11.29-40 tells of Jephthah's foolish vow and sacrifice of his daughter. It is the Hebrew bible's dramatization of Jesus' New Testament words: "Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me".

And let's be clear: Isaac is purely incidental to the narrative, immediately after the denouement he disappears from the storyline – Abraham returns to his young companions (apparently alone).

Ironically, this means that Isaac has been 'sacrificed', he has been the offering made by Abraham to prove his obedience to God. And once offered is no longer significant in the text. For the tradition, it is the securing of Abraham's obedience, the reaffirmation of the promise and the line of inheritance which are important, not what actually happens to the son.

But this text has a particular significance for Christians in our Lenten preparation. With Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, Genesis 22 has a unique place in the liturgy of Good Friday: the lonely walk, the young man carrying wood, the binding, the sacrificial lamb, the father who does not withhold his only son.

Michael Sadgrove writes: "Good Friday tells us that God is obedient (if we can put it this way) to the logic of his own love for the world, just as he compels Abraham to be obedient to the God he has learned both to fear and to trust. That is to say, God does not require of Abraham what he is not willing to require of himself, the sacrifice of his own son whom he loves".

*    John 3.16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son.

*    Romans 8.32: He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?

I want to end by returning to the enduring power of this story in modern Israeli culture.

Amir Gilboa was born to a Jewish family in Radziwillow in Ukraine. He emigrated to Mandate Palestine and in 1942 he fought in World War II in the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, later fighting in Israel's War of Independence.

His poem, 'Isaac', combines the traditional biblical themes with an underlying narrative of the Holocaust, and reminds us that however Christians appropriate this text for Good Friday, for Jewish readers it has a life and a power of its own.

And this is despite the Lord's words of assurance:
'Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.'

In other words, what is being articulated here first and foremost is Abraham's uncertainty, the fragility of his position and his doubting of God's promise to him. The Lord had promised that he would be the Father of a Great Nation, but how on earth would that happen if he didn't even have a son and heir, and his natural successor, Lot, had gone AWOL?

Importantly, perhaps, for us it is not Abraham's great faith which elicits the promises of God, but rather his doubt and uncertainty. God's assurance arises precisely because of Abraham's questions not in spite of them. Only then is the true depth of Abraham's faith recognised: 6And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

And the assurance that God gives is striking in its character. You may well recall that the original covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai was a bilateral one: you keep your side of the bargain, and I'll keep mine. Exodus 19.5 set it out:
Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.

Whereas the covenant made here with Abraham is entirely different, it is unilateral. I, the Lord, will keep my covenant not matter what:
'Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.'

No ifs, no buts, no maybes. Unconditional. The assurance of God's faithfulness.

So as you make your Lenten journey, do not be put off by the paucity of your offering, nor daunted by the apparent spiritual strength of others. Like Abraham, there may be a foundation of doubt and uncertainty first, before faith comes later. Rather, know that God's love for you is unconditional and his faithfulness endures for ever.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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