After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “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.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt-offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
[Jesus said:] “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
I have three granddaughters.
They are the most beautiful, the cleverest, the most amazing children on the planet.
I had heard people talking about grandchildren and how amazing they are, but I didn’t understand til I had grandchildren how wonderful they were.
When they say “grandad”
“Watch grandad” or “grandad…grandad…grandad…”
My heart just melts.
And how I got so lucky as to have the smartest and most beautiful grandchildren in the world, I don’t know.
Or it is just that every grandparent sees how smart and beautiful there grandchildren are…
And when you are a parent, when you are a grandparent, the thought that anything could happen to your little ones… Any danger, any threat, any sickness, any disaster…
Is beyond all comprehension….and nothing scares me more in life than something could happen to my children or grandchildren…
And so with modern sensitivities it is almost unfathomable for the modern mind to compute the old testament story for today…
The story where God asks Abraham to take his only son, Isaac up the mountain to sacrifice him. And the scripture says that it is a test.
A test. And when we read the story, Abraham does what he is told and he obeys God, seemingly unquestioningly, and when he gets to the top of the mountain, he binds Isaac and puts him on the altar and raises the knife, and God talks to him and tells him not to harm Isaac. God tells him that now he knows that Abraham trusts him.
So, Abraham finds a ram and offers up the ram as a sacrificial offering instead.
I have been going to church all my life. I have heard and read this story many times. For years I was told and I believed that it was all about obedience to God.
That God never planned for Isaac to be killed…that God knew all along, but it was a test of Abraham’s obedience, and Abraham passed the test.
And so, I should be obedient to God. Whatever God asks I should just do unquestioningly.
When I was first at Knox College there was an old retired Irish minister by the name of Tom Mulholland. He would sometimes fill in at the church where I would worship. He would sometimes joke with me, whether I had learned about “the teleological suspension of the ethical.”
I did not know what that was. It was some kind of theological jargon, but I had no idea to what he was referring. I don’t even know whether he knew himself, or was just throwing out a phrase because it sounded weird and different.
But I did find out later when I was studying this passage of scripture that the Danish philosopher, theologian and writer Soren Kierkegaard used this phrase to refer to this particular story of Abraham.
Telos. That is t-e-l-o-s is the Greek word for “end.” And so for Kierkegaard, he talked about the Teleological suspension of the ethical, in the idea that through faith sometimes we do an unethical action because the outcome or end result is better. Only God knows this, so we step out in faith and believe that when God asks us to do something crazy and unethical, that we can suspend the ethical because the end, the telos, is better.
Kierkegaard was so enamoured of this story about Abraham and Isaac that he wrote a whole book about.
Kierkegaard even postulated or imagine four different responses Abraham could have had to this event.
In the first scenario as Isaac is grabbing at his feet and begging for mercy Abraham tells Isaac that it is his own father, Abraham who is doing this to him, because Abraham does ont want Isaac to lose faith in God.
In the second version Abraham himself goes through with the obedience and Isaac is spared, but Abraham himself is psychologically traumatized and scarred and he lost his faith and never recovered his joy.
The third version has Abraham after the event is over praying for forgiveness and repenting of that fact that he was willing to do it, willing to kill his own son. To be unethical. He wonders if the voice of God was something he just imagined.
And version four, it is Abraham who actually cannot go through with it and kill his son. Abraham cannot trust God enough to even try to go through with it.
So, Kierkegaard spends a lot of time over the psychology of what it might mean to do something unethical but something that might be for the greater good.
And the thing is, that when you are doing it on the command of God, you don’t really know if it is right or wrong, or whether it is really of God or not, because you are stepping out in faith.
However, Kierkegaard knew that ethical systems often meant that rules that were meant for the greater good, actually sometime hurt people.
Therefore, he postulated that since God can see the future, therefore faith might take the direction of suspending the ethical with God’s greater goal in mind, even though we humans might not know that goal.
To me, it sounds a little bit like “the ends justifies the means.”
I do believe that Jesus challenged the ethical systems of the day, but for me it doesn’t seem that Jesus acted in ways that were unethical for a greater good. For me it was more that he challenged the accepted understandings of the rules.
In fact, for me Jesus gives the impression that the rules are less important than love.
Love and relationships are not about a fixed set of rules that define things.
Love and relationships are fluid and dynamic and so in order to truly love somebody it is almost impossible to put that into a rule or a set of rules which holds in all conditions.
And Jesus seemed to criticize the rules in his day, because they often hurt people. Sometimes the little ones.
So, I want to go at this story of Abraham and Isaac in little different way.
I want to approach this story as part of the bigger narrative in the scriptures that God is not violent.
Jesus himself came and preached non-violence and was non-violent. And Jesus himself said that if you want to know what God is like, then look at the son. Look at me.
Jesus himself did not repay evil for evil, and loved even the people that tortured and killed them, and forgave them and had compassion on them.
And so, for me there is this larger narrative that runs through all of scripture.
And it is simply this. We humans do not understand God, who is more loving, more forgiving, more understanding, more compassionate that we know….but as the narrative unfolds in scripture we are ever learning more and more about God, and Jesus is the revelation.
And in the Old Testament especially we see people and their understanding of God and they often don’t get it.
And it is often not the text itself where the grace of God is but in the subtext.
There are moments when we see what I call Jesus shining through and there are moments of aha, when we see more clearly the nature of God and we take one step closer to understanding God.
And this story of Abraham and Isaac is one of those “aha” moments where the subtext, is more important than the text.
This is a moment when God is understood to be less violent.
And so, what we have to do is throw out our modern sensibilities for a moment about our children and grandchildren and how wonderful and precious and amazing they are, and how if anything happened to them it would be the worst thing in the world.
Not that parents didn’t love children back in the day, but we live in a very different world today.
Even two hundred years ago over a third of children born didn’t make it to the age of five in Canada. They died in childbirth or of a disease or an infection.
Going back four thousand years in the middle east, the culture and life expectancy was so different that the horrors we think of with little children were much more commonplace.
And four thousand years ago in the Middle East in a very pre-scientific world, one of the common practices was child sacrifice.
And often the child sacrificed was the first-born.
In that context you take the story of Abraham and Isaac and tell it to people, many of whom think that to appease the gods you would have to sacrifice a child, this is a radical story.
Today we hear it as a radical story about a man who was willing to sacrifice his son for God.
But in those days, it was a radical story about a God who didn’t need a child sacrificed.
Abraham was an example not because he was willing to kill his son, but because he listened to God and didn’t kill his son.
And so, we have a very major advance in the understanding of God. That God did not need human blood to appease him. God did not need death and did not author or command death.
And this would be a struggle for people to come to terms with. And yet, when Jesus comes, Jesus takes it to another level. God needs no sacrifices. Jesus has come to end all sacrifices and show that God is non-violent.
In fact, God is so non-violent you can kill his own son and God will not take revenge, God will forgive. God will still love.
But imagine you are the first person in your tribe or group to not sacrifice your son. You come down from the mountain with a story that God doesn’t want human sacrifice. Maybe that took a courage in Abraham’s day to challenge the accepted doctrine of the day.
Who were the people who championed the rights of women and said that they were equal in the sight of God?
Who were the people who challenged slavery and said that it was not God’s will?
Who are the people who are challenging a traditional view of marriage and relationships and are paving the way for gays and lesbians to be fully accepted in the church?
Who are the people promoting ecumenical and interfaith dialogue?
Who are the people who are saying that the story of Jesus is not about avoiding hell and getting to heaven, but about bringing God’s heavenly way of life here on earth?
Who are the ones advocating for the little ones? The powerless or the minorities or those who are different?
Every time there is a new understanding of faith, those who try to bring it in, or raise it, or preach it, are often persecuted.
I think for all his faults Abraham needs to be commended for his faith, not because he was willing to kill his son, but because he was the one to show us that God doesn’t want to hurt the little ones.
God doesn’t want to hurt the little ones. That seems so obvious, but the reality in this world is that we still sacrifice our children to the gods of this world.
We still hurt the little ones.
One way we do it is we send them off to war and say it is necessary for them to sacrifice their lives for the good of the country or for a noble cause.
A week ago, at poker night, there were four men sitting around the table playing poker and somehow they got sharing stories about their dads.
And all of them had stories that were not good. Stories of physical abuse, stories of mental abuse. Stories of dads who were not present physical and/or emotionally, stories of dads who were unfaithful to their mothers, or dads who downright selfish.
And all of these are ways that parents have sacrificed their children for the sake of their own goals.
It isn’t that we don’t sacrifice children or little ones these days, it is just that we do it differently.
We sacrifice hundreds of thousands of children in this world who die of malnutrition, disease or starvation.
We think that because they are not our children, they don’t count the same. Maybe we think there is not much we can do, but it is true that children and little ones are sacrificed.
You know, two years and two weeks ago a fire broke out at the Grenfell Tower complex in West London.
It caused seventy-two deaths and about the same number were injured.
The Reverend Alan Everett of the church St. Clement’s Notting Dale was woken up by another priest who lived in the tower. Rev. Everett went to his church and opened the doors and got the water running. Water was there for thirsty people running out of the fire. It was there to wash away the tase of smoke.
Water was there to make tea and coffee to help soother traumatized souls.
The church that night ministered by giving a cup of cold water to the thirsty and to the little ones.
The tragedy of the Grenfell tower fire and the terrible loss of life is that it didn’t have to happen. It happened because the exterior cladding did not comply with building regulations and spread the fire.
It happened because the big people in the world were making a buck and the little people were kind of expendable.
Father Robert Thompson an assistant priest and also a local councillor summed up his feelings in his Sunday morning sermon:
“The people on the lowest incomes of this parish simply do not feel listened to, either this week or in previous years, by those in power. Worse than that, what the whole issue of the cladding and the lack of sprinklers may well highlight is that some people in our society have simply become excess and debris on our neoliberal, unregulated, individualistic, capitalist and consumerist society.”
Today, we protect our own children and our own grandchildren, but the little ones in society are often the scapegoats.
The prisoners, the poor, the homeless, the addicts, the prostitutes, the hurting, the sinners, the unemployed, the ones on AISH, the refugees, people whose body doesn’t fit the type we call beautiful. People who are different, culturally, racially or religiously, or any other minority.
And yet Jesus talks about caring for the little ones and welcoming them.
In fact, the way I read the text it isn’t just about us rich people giving charity to the poor and powerless…
It is about being welcomed by others, and welcoming those prophets who tell the truth about the little ones and how they are oppressed.
In Jesus’ day, the ones who were spreading the gospel were the little ones. It was often the poor and the marginalized who were taking the good news of God’s love for everyone, to everyone.
They didn’t have much money or resources. They had the Holy Spirit and love.
Maybe we need to re-examine our relationship to power, and our comfortable pews. Maybe the church declining and devolving and moving to the margins of society is not all bad. Maybe it is better to speak from a place of non-power, vulnerability and humility.
And maybe we need to recover ministry as the little acts. The acts of a cup of tea, a friendly call, a listening ear, a coffee cake or cookies, a safe place, a warm fire, a friendly hug and a place at the table.
Maybe the most important people in our churches are not the ones who articulate theology but bring a smile to the elderly, the lonely, or the street person who shows up at the door.
I am reminded that when we are welcomed, Jesus says that he is welcomed.
“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.”
What would happen if we took that seriously and literally. That we would be mirrors of Jesus. What would our lives be like and our church be like if we thought that truly Jesus was and is visible in us in our interactions, our relationships, our marriages, our workplaces our conversations, and even in our conflicts.
I think we might be more welcoming, more loving more inclusive, more forgiving, more graceful. I think we would think more about the little ones. Maybe instead of modelling our lives on the big ones, the rich and famous, we would seek out the little ones and listen to them and include them, and learn from them…
….for whoever welcomes them welcomes Jesus.