A Terrible Test of Faith
A sermon preached by the Rev. Roger Scott Powers
at Light Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore
on Sunday, June 29, 2014.
The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible. And yet, in my fourteen years of parish ministry, I have never once preached on it. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone preach on it!
It's understandable. It is a troubling story! The difficulty with it is lifted up in Anne Tyler's 1991 novel Saint Maybe, when a teenage girl objects to her uncle's insistence that she go to church. First she finds fault with Jesus' cursing the fig tree. Then, she continues, "Or Abraham and Isaac. That one really ticks me off. God asks Abraham to kill his own son. And Abraham says, 'Okay.' Can you believe it? And then at the very last minute God says, 'Only testing. Ha-ha.' Boy, I'd like to know what Isaac thought. All the rest of his life, any time his father so much as looked in his direction Isaac would think –" at which point her uncle interrupts her.
That teenage girl voices the sentiments of most of us when we hear this story. What kind of a God asks a parent to sacrifice a child? And what kind of a parent goes along with such a request without question or protest?
The story is so horrific that according to a Yiddish folk tale, even the angels wouldn't do God's bidding. The tale goes something like this: "Why didn't God send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task. Instead, the angels said to God: 'If you want to command death, do it yourself.'"
The story that Christians know as "the sacrifice of Isaac" and Jews know as "the binding of Isaac" raises a number of difficult questions.
Is Abraham lying when he says to his two servants, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." Does Abraham not want the servants to know what God has told him to do? Or does Abraham believe deep down in his heart that in the end God will not let him go through with the sacrifice of Isaac, and that they both will, indeed, return?
When Isaac asks his father where the lamb is that they are to sacrifice, Abraham replies that "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering." Again, is Abraham lying to his son, so that he won't know what is about to befall him? Or does Abraham genuinely believe that God will, indeed, provide a lamb for a burnt offering to take the place of his son?
When Abraham eventually binds Isaac and lays him on the altar, on top of the wood, does Isaac not resist? At that point he must clearly see that he is to be the intended sacrifice. Does he remain completely passive or does he fight against his father's efforts?
Finally, when Abraham raises the knife and is poised to kill his son, are we to believe that he actually would have gone through with it had he not been interrupted by an angel of the Lord at the very last second? Or was Abraham calling God's bluff, never intending to go through with the sacrifice?
And where is Isaac's mother, Sarah, in all this? Does she know why Abraham and Isaac left home early one morning? Does she know that they will be away for days? Or does she remain in the dark, completely unaware of what is going on?
The story of Abraham and Isaac raises all kinds of questions, but offers little in the way of answers. All we can say is the story represents a terrible test of Abraham's faith, a test that he passes, fortunately without having to kill his son. An angel of the Lord intervenes to stop him, saying "Abraham, Abraham! 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."
It is one thing to be willing to give up one's own life for one's faith, as difficult as that might be. It is quite another to be asked to sacrifice the life of another – in this case, an innocent child – to prove one's obedience to God.
Some commentators are critical of this story, calling it an example of divine child abuse, religious violence at its worst. And yet, others point out that the story ends on a note of grace. In the end, Isaac is spared. He is not sacrificed. A ram is provided to take his place. Perhaps the original purpose of this story was to put an end to child sacrifice!
Indeed, if we search the scriptures, we find a number of references to child sacrifice.
For example, in Second Kings, when the king of Moab saw that he was losing his battle against the Israelites, "he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering" in order to please his god and turn the tide of the battle. And in Jeremiah, God rails against the people of Judah for building altars to other gods and engaging in child sacrifice: "They go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire— which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind."
In fact, Moses warned the Israelites about this long before they reached the Promised
Land, while they were still wandering in the wilderness: "When the Lord your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, "How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same." You must not do the same for the Lord your God, because every abhorrent thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods."
So, the message of the story of Abraham and Isaac may very well be that Yahweh, the God of ancient Israel, is not like other gods that require the sacrifice of children. Under Yahweh the practice of child sacrifice is prohibited, replaced instead by the practice of animal sacrifice.
Now you may be wondering what all this has to do with us. It's the 21st century, after all! We don't engage in child sacrifice today! Or do we?
The Children's Defense Fund tells us that a child or teen is killed or injured by a gun every 30 minutes in our country. That's 50 children and teens every day, 350 every week. Gun violence saturates our children's lives. More children and teens die from guns every three days than died in the Newtown massacre over a year ago. Black children and teens are nearly 5 times more likely to be killed by guns than white children and teens, and 8.5 times more likely to be injured by them. The number of children under age five killed by guns in 2010 was higher than the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty that same year. Since 1963, three times more children and teens were killed by guns on American soil than U.S. soldiers killed in action abroad in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. U.S. children and teens are 17 times more likely to be killed by a gun than their peers in 25 other high-income countries combined. And yet, our country is awash in guns. The most recent estimate of U.S. civilian gun ownership is as high as 310 million, about one gun per person.
Are we not sacrificing our children on the altar of gun rights, putting our love of guns over our love of children? Isn't it time we protected children instead of guns? Aren't our children of more value? Aren't they more precious to us than any gun could ever be?
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been concerned about gun violence, and has consistently spoken out about it for three decades, as have our sisters and brothers in virtually every other faith tradition. An overture passed by our denomination's recent General Assembly in Detroit points out that "our denomination's efforts to affect change have been largely focused outside ... church walls on advocacy efforts toward gun-shop owners and legislative change. Sadly," the overture says, "in 2013, we have seen how unwilling our legislators are to carry out the will of the American public regarding background checks and other laws that would restrict the ownership of assault weapons and ammunition. We believe that we need to provide a stronger witness in the world by living out our commitment to nonviolence within our buildings and equipping our members with resources to effect change in their local communities."
The overture notes that "recent expanded provisions in concealed carry laws in many states now allow guns to be carried into places never before considered appropriate, including into houses of worship. It is important that our churches, at the grassroots level, stand firm against the deception that more guns in more places makes us somehow safer and more secure. Gun manufacturers and guns rights advocates routinely claim that more guns in the hands of 'good guys' will make the world safer. However, statistics actually show that where there are more guns, there is more violence. It is time for the faith community to have its say."
What can we do beyond continued legislative advocacy in Congress? The General Assembly encourages Presbyterian congregations and other church entities "to declare their particular premises and gatherings to be gun-free zones . . . and to publicize this policy by prominently displaying appropriate signage." It also encourages "individual Presbyterians to bear witness to the gospel value of peacemaking and to build safer and more secure communities by advocating for similar gun-free zone policies in their workplaces, schools, neighborhood businesses, and gathering places."
Our God -- the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – does not require the sacrifice of our sons and daughters. Our God is the God of life, not death. Our God calls us to choose life so that we and our children may live. May we answer that call in all that we do. Let that be the test of our faith! Let us choose life! Amen.