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Sermon by Dr Richard A. Davis preached at St Ronan’s Presbyterian Church, Eastbourne, Lower Hutt, New Zealand

29 June 2014

Lectionary Readings

  • Genesis 22:1-14
  • Psalm 13
  • Romans 6:12-23
  • Matthew 10:40-42


Today’s Old Testament reading tells the infamous story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.

It was said of Thomas More’s short book Utopia that it takes an afternoon to read and a lifetime to understand. Our story of Abraham and Isaac takes only a moment to read and is perhaps not understandable within our lifetime, this is because to understand this story requires nothing less than to understand God.

We might not be able to understand God, but perhaps we can understand something of Abraham. To learn about Abraham is not only helpful in grappling with today’s reading, but because Abraham is upheld as the father of three faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the quest for peace in the world today demands we understand each other’s faiths and where they came from. And Abraham remains central to this task.

Abraham is a towering figure of the Bible and world religions. But in studying this passage the esteem in which he is held seems to be very strange, for the actions Abraham displays here are as much worthy of being condemned as being praised.

So curious is this tale that the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote a whole book on this story entitled Fear and Trembling.

But Kierkegaard, even though he was a great philosopher, and knew his Bible well, is hardly of help to the preacher who wishes to explain his passage. The more Kierkegaard looked into this passage the less he understood it. In the end he concluded that we can only admire Abraham, not understand him.

But in his various stories and retellings of this text, Kierkegaard did offer one warning to the preacher and to you!

He tells the imaginary story of a preacher who, in preaching this text, convinces someone in the congregation that Abraham ought to be emulated, and so the parishioner goes home and kills his most precious son. The preacher then visits the poor man in prison and exclaims: “You despicable man, you scum of society, what devil has so possessed you that you want to murder you son?”

In a sense this is simply Kierkegaard’s dark humour. In another sense, he uses this story to point out that what Abraham did is not ethical and that as much as he is upheld a faithful man we should in no way emulate him. Here is the paradox of Abraham for Kierkegaard.

The passage, as read today, is a puzzle, but it is perhaps best seen as the end of a process Abraham has been through.

We must remember God’s promise that Abraham and Sarah, even though they were old, were promised uncountable offspring. God’s covenant with Abraham, was that God would give him ancestors as numerable as the stars in the sky. It is against this promise that Abraham’s action and faith can be understood better.

Among characters of the Bible it is Job who is best known for his patience. But I’d say that Abraham and Sarah should be the ones credited with patience. Abraham was promised numerous offspring several times and they never seemed to arrive. The first time was way back in Chapter 12 of Genesis and Isaac isn’t born until Chapter 21. We don’t know how many years that was, but Abraham was already 100 years old by then.

Yet, suggesting that Abraham was patient might be a little inaccurate. He did not fully trust God and took matters into his own hands to survive his trials and ensure that he had an heir.

In Chapter 12, for example, Abraham, (then known as Abram), left for Egypt to escape a famine. Thinking he might be killed by the Egyptians who might desire his beautiful wife Sarah (then known as Sarai), he made up a story that they were brother and sister so that they would both be safe. Weird? Perhaps. But the point here is that he did not exactly trust God’s promise that he would father a great nation. Would God really allow Abraham to be killed before his promise could be fulfilled?

Later, in another example, Abraham and Sarah, impatient with God’s timing, decide that Abraham should try having children through their slave-girl Hagar. This does not go well. Even while Hagar was pregnant with Abraham’s son Ishmael, there is strife between the two women. And then God says to Abraham, “Yes I will bless Ishmael, but the son you shall conceive with Sarah, is the one I will make covenant with.” So God effectively says that you tried to get around my plans for you, but you will follow my way in any case.

Eventually Isaac was born to Sarah and Abraham. After decades of waiting for a child of their own, Isaac was their blessing and their hope. They loved Isaac.

Then God asked Abraham to kill him. To sacrifice Isaac would mean the end of their hopes. There seemed to be a contradiction here as God promises offspring yet requires that their long-awaited son be sacrificed. But what appears contradictory to us is not contradictory to God. We may be tempted at some point to cling to the things we like most – the promises of God and not the challenges, the rewards, and not the trials.

This temptation is hard to resist. We may prefer to focus on God’s blessings and what God promises and gives us, rather than God’s trials and what God requires of us. Can we instead remember that God is in control even when he tests us?

Abraham appears to be prepared to sacrifice his future blessings of his children’s children and further generations in his faithfulness to God. If he had sacrificed Isaac we might not be here now. In effect it would have been the end of history, with no Jacob, no Joseph, and no Moses.

This raises questions for us about what we sacrifice and to what. Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his child in obedience to God. What do we sacrifice out of command for God? And what do we sacrifice to other gods?

Last week I was at the launch of a new book by Professor Jonathan Boston and Dr Simon Chapple entitled Child Poverty in New Zealand. Based on their long research of public policies to help children they have written a timely book about an issue all New Zealanders should take seriously this election year and beyond. But let’s not be fooled; solving child poverty will not be easy to fix, even with a change of government. To lift some 285,000 children out of poverty will require nothing less than a fundamental change of heart among New Zealanders. For too long we have accepted child poverty as an acceptable sacrifice for our way of life.

In the time I grew up, parents, mine included, made sacrifices so that their kids could have a better life. This was a common theme in the post-war depression and post-war periods. Parents were determined to give their kids a better life than the one they had. This meant they were prepared to make sacrifices for them so that they could go to university and have experiences that they never had the chance of having.

But in recent years something has changed. Many kids are now worse off than their parents. And many kids fear inheriting a New Zealand with entrenched child poverty, gross inequalities, and a massive environmental debt they did not incur themselves.

I’m not wanting to blame individual parents here, but one way of describing what has changed is that just as once parents sacrificed their present for their kids’ future, nowadays, as a society, we seem prepared to sacrifice the future of our children. This is, I suggest one way in which to understand how it’s now tolerable that as a society we are doing so little about climate change and child poverty.

But to what have we sacrificed our kids? Several things, perhaps, but it is almost certainly our own present. We, like the younger Abraham, have decided to take things into our own hands rather than depending on God’s promises to us for peace and a life in all its fullness. In this quest for a human-made future we have set aside God’s plan and timing for us.

In general, we can say that whatever justifies not spending more on our children is an idol we have sacrificed them to. If, for instance, we say that we cannot afford to fund policies that will help alleviate child poverty, we sacrifice our children to what we’d prefer to do with the money.

Abraham knew better. A lesson he learned the hard way was this: if you are going to sacrifice your child there can be only one reason for doing so – that the one true God requires it. Only that can justify the sacrifice of a child, nothing else – ever.

But as we know God didn’t require the sacrifice of Isaac, only that Abraham be willing to do so. Abraham, by showing that his obedience to God is greater than his love for this son demonstrated his fear of God.

In this way we can see that in the end the story is not really about the sacrifice of Isaac, but the sacrifice of Abraham’s own will. Having made so many attempts to secure his future in his own way he finally comes face to face with the reality that wanting to have his own way requires disobeying God. God forces Abraham to face the reality that his own actions are not enough to secure both God’s favour and his earthly reward.

In the end of the story Abraham names the place of the sacrifice ‘The lord will provide’. Was Abraham talking about God’s provision of the ram? God provided much more than that. It was at this place that Abraham finally came to see that God not only provided him with an heir, but also that God had been faithful to him all along.

Abraham endured much, including the test of sacrificing his only son for whom he waited decades. We don’t know whether God would have given an heir to Abraham earlier had he demonstrated more faith in God’s promises. God’s timing is something that remains obscure and a mystery to us. But perhaps Abraham would not have endured so much if he had simply trusted God to be faithful to his covenant.

Throughout his life, God remains faithful to Abraham. And to his credit, Abraham was finally obedient to God. By faith, he passes the test of God.

May we also be willing to submit to the tests of God, and through faith endure them, and in doing so work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.