Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? The traditional way to read this story that God wanted to test Abraham’s faith, to see if he was really willing to sacrifice his son to God… Does that sound like the God that Jesus talked about? Does that sound like the God who is love?
Not so much.
Many contemporary scholars read it rather differently. They see this story as a pivotal point in human understanding of God. It was a time when human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of the first born was a common practice. Abraham may have seen this happening all around him, may even have been encouraged by other people. A father taking his son into the hills with the wood for a burned sacrifice may have been common. What was not common was the same father coming back with his son.
Abraham’s faith enabled him to see that God did not require human sacrifice. The test, if we want to call it that, was not whether Abraham had enough faith to sacrifice his only son but whether Abraham would realize that his idea of God and God’s will were culturally defined.
The original text is a little puzzling in its use of different names for God. The ancient texts seem to have come from at least two different parallel traditions. One of these traditions used the name Yahweh for God, the other used El or Elohim which was a name used by other tribes. When the traditions were edited together sometimes the two names get mixed up. In this story, the earlier references to God are all Elohim and the latter are Yahweh, the name that Moses used. Perhaps this is deliberate. Perhaps the editor is letting us now that the old understanding was that God wanted child sacrifice, but the new understanding, the understanding of Yahweh is that animal sacrifice is enough.
When they came to the place that Elohim 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 Yahweh called to him from heaven…
Did God change his mind? Or did we change our mind about God?
Later the prophets began to challenge the system of animal sacrifice. For example, over a thousand years after Abraham, the 7th century prophet Micah said,
‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ (Clearly he expected the answer “No”!)
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6. 6-8
We can see Jesus as the final sacrifice, the shedding of blood which made all shedding of blood unnecessary. Unlike Isaac, Jesus went to his death knowingly. He chose to follow the path of non-violence and love to the bitter end. The New Testament writers often say that he was obedient to the end – even though continuing to follow his own teachings and maintain his own integrity was a path that led to his death, he continued. He laid down his life intentionally.
This was a sacrifice in which God provide the meal. Instead of the sacrifice being the slaughter of a person or an animal in order to make a meal fit for a God; God provided the food to make a meal fit for humanity and God to share. Jesus was the lamb of God – the offering without sin. In another metaphor, Jesus is the bread of heaven – manna sent from above.
In Jesus the whole system of sacrifice got thrown on its head.
Just as Abraham found a new understanding of God, so Jesus showed us a new way to see God. A God who doesn’t require the slaughter of animals to be reconciled to us. A God who doesn’t need to be appeased. A God who is loving, not angry.
In the reading from Romans this morning we see Paul struggling to put words to his new understanding of God. It used to be about the law. Studying and keeping the law was what he thought God wanted. But now he sees that God’s grace has abolished the system of law, just as in the time of Abraham, God’s grace abolished the system of human sacrifice. But if the law is no longer the way to God does that mean he asks, that we should sin? No, we get to experience a new life, the path of sanctification and to accept the gift of God, not a ram in the thicket, but eternal life in Jesus Christ.
This was an entirely new way to think about God and about our relationship to Godself.
And in the last century we have come to another new understanding of God. No longer do we see God sitting somewhere outside Creation. We have been above the clouds, we have been above the sky and God is not there. God is not someplace else. God is here.
And we have come to see that the Christ, whom we know as manifest in Jesus, is also manifest in creation. He is the Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end. In him all things were brought into being and in some marvelous way that we can’t comprehend, in him all things will be brought to completion. He is both the source of the ever-expanding universe and the infinity of its expansion.
So now we seek to understand this new conception of God, manifest in the cosmic Christ. Later this year we will have the honor of hosting an art installation which explores the manifestation of Christ in Jesus and in the Cosmic Christ, and we will also enjoy a weekend with the renowned theologian, Matthew Fox, focusing on this new understanding of God.
So this morning I want to ask you, is your God too small?
Most of us grew up with ideas of God that we got from our families, from Sunday School, or from the general culture. Many of those ideas were unexamined and quite possibly conflicting. As we tried to sort them out in our young brains, we may have made assumptions and beliefs that were really not true. And some of those ideas can lead us, like Abraham, into completely wrong and even hazardous actions.
It is not too late to change your understanding of God. It is not too late to update your operating system.
Is your God still demanding human sacrifice? Or is your God working in and through you to bring about not only your own sanctification – your own reconciliation with the holiness of Spirit – but also the redemption of Creation?
It is not too late to have a new experience of God. This very morning God draws close to us and we draw close to God in the mystery of the eucharist. Let us open ourselves to meeting God in a new way. Let us invite God to open our minds and teach us new things about Godself.
Let us come into God’s presence with boldness.