The First Reformation
Some time later God tested Abraham; he called to him, “Abraham!” And Abraham answered, “Yes, here I am!”
“Take your son,” God said, “your only son, Isaac, whom you love so much, and go to the land of Moriah. There on a mountain that I will show you, offer him as a sacrifice to me.”
Early the next morning Abraham cut some wood for the sacrifice, loaded his donkey, and took Isaac and two servants with him. They started out for the place that God had told him about. On the third day Abraham saw the place in the distance. Then he said to the servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I will go over there and worship, and then we will come back to you.”
Abraham made Isaac carry the wood for the sacrifice, and he himself carried a knife and live coals for starting the fire. As they walked along together, Isaac spoke up, “Father!”
He answered, “Yes, my son?”
Isaac asked, “I see that you have the coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”
Abraham answered, “God himself will provide one.” And the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place which God had told him about, Abraham built an altar and arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son and placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he picked up the knife to kill him. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, “Abraham, Abraham!”
He answered, “Yes, here I am.”
“Don’t hurt the boy or do anything to him,” he said. “Now I know that you honor and obey God, because you have not kept back your only son from him.”
Abraham looked around and saw a ram caught in a bush by its horns. He went and got it and offered it as a burnt offering instead of his son. Abraham named that place “The Lord Provides.” And even today people say, “On the Lord’s mountain he provides.”
Galatians 2:16 King James Version (KJV)
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.
A Poem by Robert Louis Stevenson entitled
Whole Duty of Children
A child should always say what is true
And speak when he is spoken to,
And behave mannerly at the table;
At least as far as he is able.
Robert Louis Stevenson – A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)
Honesty is the best policy goes the old saying.
Aesop has a number of fables about lying and telling the truth.
One of the most famous is about a shepherd boy who was watching the sheep and one day cried out “Wolf, wolf.”
All the villagers came to defend the sheep but there was no wolf and the boy thought this was funny.
The boy did this on more than one occasion, until one day a wolf actually did come. The boy cried “wolf, wolf” and the villagers , thinking that the boy was lying didn’t come and the wolf ate the boy.
In the story of Pinocchio, Pinocchio’s nose grows when he tells a lie.
And these are stories that teach us about the value of truth.
In real life we all learn about the value of truth and we learn about the subtle and non-subtle ways to lie.
No human actually knows all the truth. And every human lies in various ways. In fact there may even be times when lying is a good thing,
Who would tell a mother that her newborn baby was ugly?
I would lie through my teeth to protect my children or grandchildren from someone who would do them harm.
But when Jesus says the truth will set us free, he makes this very good point.
That if we want to be free to be the people God created us to be we have to dedicate ourselves to seeking truth.
Truth is reality.
Therefore the more clearly we see the reality of the world the better equipped we are to deal with the world.
Scott Peck, the author of the book “the road less travelled” says that our view of reality is like a map. The better we construct the map, the more accurate it is, the truer it is, the better it is for us to know where we are and where we are going in life.
The problem is that we are not born with a map. We are born with a blank slate and we create these maps of reality in our heads as we grow up.
It is not easy, because there is so much information and there is also so much false information.
And these maps of reality are not just about what is so-called objectively true, like math or science, although one could argue even that math and science are not completely objectively true,
But our maps of reality deal with values and emotions and perceptions and culture and faith and all sorts of things that one cannot prove to be true or false.
But as we mature, our map grows and changes. Sometimes we learn something and the whole map needs to be redrawn.
Imagine a world that thinks the earth is flat. One day someone decides that the world isn’t flat and proves it by sailing round the world.
All the maps have to be changed.
Sometimes something similar happens in a person’s mind.
Sadly there are times when humans decide that there map is complete and it won’t be changed any more. Some people reach adolescence and subconsciously or even consciously decide that their map or reality is complete and doesn’t have to be changed any more.
Scott Peck suggests that most people by the end of middle age have given up changing their maps of reality
It is just too much work. Their map works for them. They don’t want to change.
There are those who say the Holocaust didn’t exist. There are those who refute the claims of science and say the world is only about six thousand years old. There are those who say that climate change is not real.
In face of overwhelming scientific and historical evidence some people will refuse to change their maps of reality.
So how much more so will it be difficult to change a map of reality when the subject is spirituality or faith? For us who have faith, the same process happens.
We grow up, we maybe go to church, we hear bible stories and we hear sermons and we develop faith. We learn and grow and change. We believe and change our beliefs. We pray and worship and sing praises and take up crosses and turn the other cheek and love one another and participate in congregational life.
And some of us get so far in our faith and we say that is it. We have our map of faith and it is complete and done. I have the truth and that is it.
And some of us stop changing and growing and learning in faith.
However, every once in a while something radical happens and it can cause us to completely rethink and redraw our map of faith.
About 500 years ago, a confluence of events led to something we call the Reformation where many Christians broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and redrew their maps of faith.
One of the major beliefs that changed was the idea that salvation is something that we have to earn, by doing good works, by giving to the church, by paying the church to forgive sins, and by confessing to a priest.
The Reformation proclaimed that Salvation is a free gift of God, and all we have to do to have it is receive this gift through trusting God.
But the map of faith was changed in other ways.
The Reformation reclaimed scripture as the foundation for our truth about God.
The Reformation put scripture into the hands of the lay people.
The Reformation took power away from the clergy and claimed that the work of God was for the whole people of God and not just for clergy
The Reformation even was somewhat political claiming that power should not be in the hands of one person like a priest or a bishop or a Pope, but should be the shared responsibility of a group of people, to avoid tyranny.
And maybe one of the truths of the Reformation, that is a very old truth, and I think a very current truth is that we are sinners and need to repent.
And I am not thinking of repentance as a way to get to heaven after you die.
I am thinking of what Martin Luther thought of as true repentance according to David Lose, Senior Pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, who is also a professor of preaching, and a leading scholar in biblical interpretation.
I quote: “True repentance is a kind of truth-telling that allows you to be honest about how you are deceiving yourself, or how you are letting the world deceive you (or both), that gives you the opportunity to think and speak and act differently. Or to put it another way, to live in freedom.”
And so I want to take us back hundreds of years, even thousands of years to another story.
A story about truth-telling and about Reformation. A story that truly is hard to believe.
It is the story of Abraham, who took his only son Isaac up the sacred mountain, to offer him as a sacrifice to God
And this offering is the express command of God.
On the face of it, it seems so hard to understand. After all was not Isaac the fulfillment of the promise of God to make out of Abraham and Sarah a great nation?
Wasn’t Isaac God’s miracle to them?
What is going on?
Here is the context. The common worldview at the time of Abraham was that God or gods were severe demanding deities and the only way to make headway with deities was to offer them a sacrifice. And with sacrifices, the rule of thumb was, the bigger the sacrifice, the better.
It was believed that a sacrifice needed blood to be shed.
Many cultures practiced human sacrifice as a way to appease gods or to get gods to act on one’s behalf.
The imagery that was common for God, was that God was a King sitting on a throne and was absolute ruler and dictator and if you didn’t do what God wanted it just might be “off with her head.”
And the common belief also was that God or gods could be selfish and capricious and even mean and nasty and there wasn’t much that one could do about it. Stay out of their way and try not to attract attention, but when needed offer a big sacrifice.
That was the worldview at Abraham’s time. And imagine if you would about 3000 years ago putting up your hand and saying:
“Excuse me, I actually think we are made up of tiny little things called atoms which really are almost eternal.
And I think that the world revolves around the sun.
And I think the world isn’t flat but is actually round like a ball…
And I think actually that God is nice and loving and doesn’t hurt people..”
It is a pretty big deal to try and challenge the worldview that is held by most in society.
And let us be completely honest for a moment. Whoever and whatever God is, no one person has a complete understanding of who and what God is.
That is why we always try to remain open to change and learning.
The more I study and learn about God, the more I realize I don’t know about the mystery of God and that God is bigger and more gracious and more loving that I can comprehend.
And while that may be true for faith that God is a big mystery that we can never fully unravel, science too is about realities that often are never fully unraveled. We have names like Gravity and light and electricity and magnetism and evolution and physics, and even thought we know way more than we ever did about these phenomena they are still mysteries and there are things we don’t understand and sometimes we just have theories about how it really works.
So along comes the story of Abraham and Isaac and God.
It is a story to try and take a layer of the mystery of God.
So according to the story God asks Abraham to take his son Isaac up the mountain and sacrifice him.
And that would be standard theology. That was what was expected of a god.
There is a little foreshadowing when Isaac asks, where is the lamb, and Abraham tells what he thinks is a white lie but is an unknowing truth. “God will provide” he says.
When he gets to the top Abraham prepares everything for the sacrifice and ties up his son Isaac and raises the knife and miraculously his hand is stayed and God shows him a ram caught in the thicket.
It was commonplace in Abraham’s day for a man to take his son or daughter up the mountain to sacrifice to a god. What was uncommon is that the child comes back down the mountain with the father.
It was a story to challenge the belief about God, that we have to sacrifice to please God,
And instead of sacrificing to please God, God provides for us.
Think of that. God provides for us. God is for us. God is not a capricious dictator playing with us for God’s pleasure.
God is leading us to a new understanding that God is about love and care and mercy and forgiveness.
Maybe this was the first Reformation, where the idea and understanding of God radically changed and a whole new people grew up with a different understanding of God, that God was for us and not against us.
That God rescued us and saved us and forgave us and cared for us.
There have been people that climbed up the mountain called power and in so doing sacrificed family or others.
There have been those who climbed the political mountain, or the corporate ladder, or the entertainment mountain, or the sports mountain
And some of them sacrificed loved ones along the way.
I too have climbed mountains to false gods, sacrificing values or morals or family or friends or others.
Because I am a sinner.
And that is why the truth sets us free. It sets us free to see what mountains are worth climbing.
It sets us free to see that we don’t have to sacrifice others, or family or values or morals to be whole and happy.
It sets us free to continue to change and grow and learn, and never be content that we know it all and have all the truth.
Two thousand years after Moses a man named Jesus came along.
This too was a revelation and a reformation. He did away with the whole sacrificial system.
You don’t need anybody’s blood, not even of a pure lamb to get God to love you.
God loves you already.
In fact Jesus says, I am going to act like an innocent lamb and you can kill me, and you will see that even though you kill me God loves you.
I am the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world because whatever you do to hurt me I only give back love.
I don’t hate or take revenge or do violence.
I love and I forgive
There is a beautiful scripture that I read from the King Version of the bible.
I will read it again editing it slightly to have inclusive language:
Knowing that people are not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
Almost every other translation since the King James Version has translated this passage differently
Most go something like:
yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.
Most translations say it is our faith in Jesus that makes us right with God, but the King James Version translates it literally and it reads that we are made right by the faith of Jesus.
The Reformers put a big emphasis on our faith. You have to have faith.
So much so, that some scholars Like N. T. Wright, leading new Testament scholar and retired Church of England Bishop, argue that we Reformed Christians made faith into a work.
And instead of our faith being trust in Jesus and a relationship with Jesus, we demanded of Christians that faith be assent to particular doctrines about Jesus, therefore making God’s love conditional on believing certain doctrines.
The great truth of the Reformation 500 years ago, was.. that is was not our doing, but God’s doing. It was Jesus acting for us. God providing for us…
God reaching out to us in grace, loving us, even though we are sinners…
The Spirit moving in us, empowering us…
God is not asking us to believe certain things or do certain things in order for us to be loved.
Instead God invites us into a relationship with God, with Christ, with the Spirit, who already loves us, who already provides for us.
God’s love, I believe, is real and is true.
Jesus, way of love I believe, is the real truth of how humans should live.
The Spirit of love is the Spirit, I believe, that can live in every one of us, who leads us into truth.
Almost 500 years ago Martin Luther said: Here I stand. I can do no other.
He lived his truth.
And all we do is say: Thank you God. Here we stand. We are with you. We want to live the truth that you are love.