john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Passing the test - listening to the voice of the true God

    Bridestowe and Lydford Communion Services,

    This is my Anglicised and personalised version of Paul J. Nuechterlein's sermon of the same title, delivered at Atonement Lutheran, Muskego, WI, June 26, 2005 [1]

    Genesis 22:1-14

    Some talk this week of the forthcoming tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America, led me to consider these things....

    It takes some kind of faith in God to fly a plane full of people into a World Trade Center tower. It takes some kind of faith. The question for our time is, What kind? What kind of faith is it that causes a person to think that God would reward him for massacring thousands of innocent people?

    It takes some kind of faith in God to take your only son - the heir that you thought you'd never get but finally received - it takes some kind of faith in God to take that boy up onto a mountain, bind him on an altar, raise the knife in your hand, and be ready to plunge it into his heart as a sacrifice to God. Yes, it takes some kind of faith. But, again, what kind?

    The story we heard from Genesis this morning one of the most important scripture passages in the Bible. It is one held dear by not only Christians and our Jewish friends, but it is also one held dear by our Muslim neighbours in the world. For they take Abraham as their Father, too, and they tell this same story about Abraham but with his son Ishmael who he had by his servant Hagar. In short, this is a passage revered by two billion of the world's peoples, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. It is so important that we get this passage right.

    What is at stake is precisely our faith in God. What kind of God do we worship in Jesus Christ? Here's the key question point blank: is our God a God who ever asks us to kill anyone? I know this is a very difficult subject to cover. I realise that I've just compared a terrorist act with a dearly held story from the Bible. And you may quickly object that the story isn't really about Abraham killing his son. It's about a testing of his faith.

    But I'm hoping that you will trust me to ask some difficult questions: challenging the idea that this story is only about testing. For what kind of test is this, to ask someone to kill their son? The terrorists who slaughtered innocent people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, firmly believed that God was testing their faith to have them sacrifice themselves to such a lethal mission. What if they failed to hear God saying to them in the end that it was only a test? And what if Abraham had failed to hear the voice of the Lord at the end of this lesson. What if he had gone through with the sacrifice?

    I want to try to persuade you this morning that the whole point of faith is not to keep taking part in crazy tests until God says, "Stop, I was only testing you." No, the true test of faith, the whole point of faith, is to get to know who God truly is in the first place! Surely that's why we take an interest in scripture, isn't it - to get to Know God? And taking what you already know of scripture, wouldn't you agree that the God we get to know in Jesus Christ is not a God who tests people by asking them to kill?

    Our journey through scriptural history also teaches us, often by trial and error, that we human beings have an inclination to false gods, to idols. The biblical story is filled with lapses of even the faithful making mistakes about who God is. The Gospel stories themselves show the constant misunderstandings of Jesus' disciples. A main theme of the Gospels, in fact, is that none of Jesus' followers can really understand the God who Jesus is introducing to them, until after the resurrection. So should we really be shocked if Abraham and the author of Genesis 22 might be wrong about who God truly is in this story?

    Now, we understand that the Old Testament leads us right up to the God who was revealed on Easter morning. Let me be clear about this: I want to say very clearly to you this morning that Abraham did, in fact, pass the test of faith. But the question is, what kind of faith? A faith not quite like the author of the story sees it - and so many subsequent generations of interpreters. Abraham passed the test not by obeying the first voice of God who asked him to sacrifice Isaac. No, I want to propose to you this morning that Abraham passed the test by finally hearing the voice of the true God at the end of the story, the voice that told him to stop the madness of human sacrifice.

    Now, admittedly, that means we need to see the voice of God at the beginning of the story as a false god, an idol. That's feels like a risky thing, no doubt. But let me explain to you why I think we can take that risk. First, I think there's an important clue in the text, where there are two words for God in the Hebrew. In the verses [1, 3, 8, and 9] where God is telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the word "God" is used. But at the climactic moment of the story, it says the "angel of the LORD" intervenes, "LORD" being in capital letters. Now, the Hebrew word behind our English word "God" is Elohim, the most general Hebrew word for God, one, in fact, which is also regularly used to refer to false gods. When the First Commandment says, "Thou shall have no other gods before me," the word Elohim is used to refer to the other false gods.

    On the other hand, the Hebrew word behind "LORD▓ became the special name for God given to the Hebrew peoples through Moses in the burning bush. Moses was trying to get out of going to Pharoah, and he tries to make the excuse to God that he doesn't know what to call him. God replies, "Yahweh," that is, "I am who I am." And so "Yahweh" became the special name for God as the Hebrew peoples began their journey of representing to the world the one true God who created the universe. So the two different words for God in the telling of the story of Genesis 22, suggest that it was the voice of false gods at the beginning, telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, and the voice of the true God, the LORD, Yahweh, later telling Abraham to stop.

    But here's a second important point to help us untangle this story: Abraham lived in a culture where human sacrifice was common. A culture with many false gods who ask people to do just what Abraham thought he heard God asking him to do: to ritually perform a child sacrifice. This is so hard for us to understand because human sacrifice has not been part of our Judeo-Christian culture for three thousand years now. We can't imagine living in a culture where the gods regularly ask you to perform child sacrifice. But if we realise that false gods demanding human sacrifices were very common to Abraham's time, then that helps us to understand that Abraham might have been listening to the voice of a false god at the beginning of the Genesis story. What is so shocking to us, wasn't shocking at all in that time and place.

    But the third and most important point is this: that the key to our understanding scripture and the key to our faith is our learning, in our own time and place, to hear the voice of the true God amidst the voices of all our false gods. This is what this story is showing us, if we read it correctly. Abraham passed the test of faith in the true God when he finally heard the voice of Yahweh say in the end, "Stop! Don't do it! Stop this madness of human sacrifice. Here's a ram instead."

    Once we start looking we find that scripture is full of stories which suggest the end of sacrifice. The Hebrew prophets asserted that the true God never even wanted any kind of sacrifice, in the first place, not even rams. In Matthew 9 Jesus very solemnly says, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'" Jesus is quoting the prophet Hosea; and here is what the prophet Micah said along very similar lines:
    [Yahweh says,] "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 ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" 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]
    "I want mercy not sacrifice." This sums up the entire biblical journey of faith, because in it we learn to hear the voice of the true God, of what God truly wants us to do. It helps us in our learning to hear who God truly is. It helps us understand that God is a God of mercy, and never about killing of any kind, even the religious killing of the past in every religion, the killing of ritual blood sacrifice.

    And surely that's the God we learn to see in Jesus Christ, isn't it? We call him the "Lamb of God" because we see in him the end to all sacrificial killing. We learn to see more importantly a God of mercy - such profound mercy, in fact, that God was willing to give the Son to our thirst for killing in order to first reveal it precisely as our thirst, but then also to forgive it.

    All the first Christian sermons we read in the Book of Acts make exactly this same point: namely, that we human beings are the ones with a thirst for killing; God's thirst quenching is for life. In various ways, all the first Christian sermons say, 'We human beings killed Jesus; God raised him from the dead.." This is the end, the fulfillment, of the entire biblical journey: that we finally come to hear in the voices of our false gods, asking us to kill, our own voices of lust for killing. And that we finally hear the voice of the true God as one who is one hundred percent on the side of life, forgiving us for our slaughters and leading us into a new way of life.

    Abraham, almost four thousand years ago, passed this test. He heard the voice of the true God telling him to stop, don't kill. Almost two thousand years after the voice of our risen Saviour - forgiving us for our numerous slaughters, all those brought together at his cross - are we ready to pass the test, too? Are we ready to stop the killing? What could happen in our world if two billion people who claim Abraham as their father could finally recognize what this test of faith is all about?

    [1] For a number of years now, I've been learning how to preach from the work of Rene Girard and the theologians associated with his mimetic theory. Paul Neuchterlein's Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary have become my first point of reference most weeks in sermon preparation and I am deeply indebted to him for his extensive and ongoing work on that site. I feel that I'm at the stage now where I can express Girardian analysis of biblical passages in my own words, clearly and confidently, to congregations, and in preparation for preaching on this classic text, I was all set to do so. However, when I read this sermon of Pastor Neuchterlein's, I just thought: he's done it perfectly, I really couldn't better that, so why try; and decided simply to adjust it for the ears of my English listeners, and customise it for my voice. As ever, I'm extremely grateful.