Sunday, June 26, 2011

What Was a Pickup Truck Doing in the Bushes?

Get it? A ram was caught in the thicket. Yeah? No? Never mind.

This is a crowdsourced sermon, thanks to my friends on Twitter: Barbara Vaughan (who lent me her sermon on this subject), Candi Vernon, Kathryn Johnston, Ben Robbins, Kirk Jeffery (who also blessed me with sermon materials), and A Williams, among others. Also thanks to the writing of Mary J. Scifres of "Ministry Matters."

The good parts of what follows are thanks to them. Anything sub-par is the result of my own effort.

Romans 6:12-23
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Matthew 10:40-42
“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.”

Genesis 22:1-14
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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

It wasn’t an unreasonable request, at least not for that day and age. Human sacrifices, and especially infant sacrifices, were common in the Philistine culture which surrounded Abraham. Human sacrifices evidenced a deep devotion to this or that god, or a deep desperation to appease whatever malevolent deity was causing this drought or that disease. When someone wanted to really prove their faith, they performed a human sacrifice.

But up until now, it had always been “those people” who sacrificed their children. “Those people” who spilled innocent blood to satisfy the thirst of their idols. Now, YHWH was calling upon Abraham to do the unthinkable, the unimaginable, something so out-of-character for YHWH that, had it happened today, we’d all be left wondering if God’s website had been hacked.

It’s too easy, I think, to read this text as if Abraham jumped out of bed, gathered his supplies, and toddled off into the distance whistling, as if this was just another day in the life of a sojourning follower of the Almighty. We know the outcome of this familiar story, and because of this we too easily skip over the difficult-to-comprehend bits, celebrate faithfulness, and pass the plate.

And I do not want to present myself as someone who knows exactly what’s going on with this story. By now, I hope you know me better than that. This is one of those passages that refuses to be easily explained. It’s like a bag of coathangers, all pointy corners and things that don’t fit together. God is not acting like God, Abraham isn’t acting like Abraham, at least not the Abraham who so boldly bargained with God for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. And Isaac? He doesn’t act like any teenager I’ve ever met.

All I have is an idea.

Don’t forget that Abraham was far from perfect in his devotion to God. He had lied to the King of Gerar, Abimelek, passing Sarah off as his sister in hopes of saving his own hide. And rather than suffering for it, he profited! Later, he sent Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert, neither knowing nor particularly caring how they would survive. Perhaps in finally seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise in Isaac, knowing that his legacy is secure, Abraham grows too comfortable among the Philistines. Maybe, just maybe, Abraham has put his faith, his hope for the future, his trust for the future in Isaac rather than in God.

Perhaps, to Abraham, Isaac has become an idol. And we know how God feels about idols. They must be pulled down, destroyed, utterly wiped away. Abraham knows this, too. And perhaps, when God spoke to Abraham, deep down Abraham knew that this disaster, this horror, was his fault.

So when Abraham gathers his supplies, loads the donkey, and wakes up Isaac and the servants for this road trip, he does it with a heavy ball of dread sitting in his gut, doggedly going through the emotions in the same way someone would if they’re going to the doctors office to hear a bad test result, or to the funeral home to make arrangements.

They walked for three days. I wonder if, as they made camp every night, Abraham was hoping that God would come to him in the night, giving him an opportunity to bargain, to renew the covenant, to seek forgiveness, anything.

But the only time he hears a peep out of God is on that third day, when he looks up and sees the mountain, and knows that this is where his child will die.

But all the time, over all the miles, the nagging certainty had to be there. YHWH had made a covenant with Abraham! A solemn vow, in blood! His descendants would suffer four hundred years of slavery, but come out from bondage to become a great nation. The idea that God would break a promise was preposterous!

But there is the mountain.

And Isaac, how on earth could he have been silent for so long about this whole thing? Here he was lugging a huge load of wood, with his dad carrying a torch and a knife… maybe in the rush the old man had forgotten the “animal” part of the animal sacrifice?

Maybe he was so quiet for so long because he was trying to figure out a way to gently broach the subject without making his dad angry. But finally…

“Um, Dad?”

“Yes, son?”

“Um, like, for this sacrifice thingie? We got, like, wood, we got, like, fire, we got, like, that totally awesome knife… but, like, um, there’s… there’s no lamb. I mean, it’s totally cool if you like forgot it, OK? I mean I just was only asking.”

Perhaps Abraham just says this to have a response, or maybe he’s just realizing it himself: “God himself will provide…”

Then the wood is stacked, Isaac is bound and laid across the altar (without, apparently, any argument or struggle!), and Abraham raises the knife. The altar that Abraham had built up in Isaac had fallen, and it, along with Abraham’s hope for the future, and God’s promise of countless generations, was about to be destroyed…

In many ways, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac foreshadows God’s later sacrifice in Christ, and Christ’s willingness, like Isaac, to undergo that sacrifice. In fact, the writer of Hebrews contends that Abraham fully expected to kill Isaac, and quite confidently expected God to raise Isaac from the dead, because if God was to keep covenant, something drastic would have to happen.

And, of course, God provided. Not just a voice from heaven and a ram as a sacrifice in place of Isaac, not just proof that Abraham was, indeed, committed to YHWH, but a lesson in just what God wanted from Abraham and, by extension, all of us.

What did God want from Abraham? Abraham discovered that his faith in God required more than emotional agreement, more than mental assent, it required active involvement. God wanted Abraham. God wanted every bit of Abraham. Abraham passed God’s test because he demonstrated that he could do the hard thing, even when it made no sense. Even when it meant giving up everything. Somehow, when there was no hope left, no turning back, Abraham believed, and it was that belief which made him right before God.

In the book of James, the second chapter, we read that Abraham’s “faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.” From this, James concludes “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

I think one lesson for us today is that it’s OK to not know the answers. Keep asking. It’s OK to not even be sure where we’re going. Just go.

After all, God’s plan is not destruction. . . God’s plan is resurrection. Isaac was snatched from the jaws of death, and Abraham was snatched from the depths of despair. It is easy to assume that God demands destruction when our backs are against a wall, and there are no options left. It is easy to assume that God is testing our faith when our lives are in shreds. But in Abraham’s story, and in our own, God’s loving promise – not our assumptions – is the common link, the steadfast thread that we can grasp when all else fails or the path seems hazy. Holding on to that promise of love and life is always our calling!

And for that we say, thanks be to God.


  1. John - nice job pulling all the strands together. Thanks for was good to read. Wish I could have heard it!

  2. Good storytelling parable. Following blog story as well.
    I m not in mainstream Christianity /church. Why?

    I like your Christ
    I do not like your Christians
    Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.
    -Mohandes Gandhi

    How many of you mastered the delicate art of being non-judgemental in your daily path as religious clergy and mortal man in life? Notthis thing is more irritating than seeing people not practicing being non judgmental...but claim they are liberal.
    The narrow window allows only a small handful to to pass thru
    this test.
    Many in my eyes have failed this important test.
    Many are quick to be like Abraham blindly willing to do to get to self righteous in their work for religion. Our world wars and terrorists battles are all no different than Abraham. As to a soldier and a Muslim face to face in Middle east. To judge is to righteous, to kill opposed religion is righteous. It is .ok to judge. It us so pervasive, insidious this disease of judging others .... It is accepted among your peers . No wonder people are leaving their faiths ...among your peers surely in vain can you attest to thus innocence..none of you as a group looked disdainfully at others , labeling, commenting.... Christ Hung out with a prostitute abou to be stoned. Be socialized with the disabled, on and on. Never he looked down his nose on others.