Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Genesis 22:1-14+Psalm 13+Romans 6:12-23+Matthew 10:40-42

What are we to do with this reading from Genesis? We have seen over the past couple of weeks how God fulfills the covenant with Abraham by giving him a son, Isaac, long after Sarah was of an age to bear children. We heard Sarah’s laughter. We witnessed Hagar’s cries as she and Ishmael were banished from the community. All of this happened, and yet we are to believe that the God who promised Abraham that he would be the father of nations would then threaten to take it all away? What kind of cruel, heartless God is this?

Many scholars of the Hebrew bible will tell you that this story of the binding of Isaac is actually here to illustrate the goodness of God. Many of the local tribes in the land of Canaan practiced child sacrifice, demanded to appease an angry god – Moloch or Baal. That an angel of the Lord called out to Abraham to stay his hand is evidence that this God, the God of Abraham, is a different kind of God. This is a God who does not demand death in order to give life.

It still seems an awful and sadistic way to establish this point.

But this isn’t the only baffling part of this reading from Genesis. At the very beginning of the chapter, God calls to Abraham and tells him to take his son, his only son (22:2), and go to Moriah to sacrifice him. But we know that Abraham has another son. Ishmael, banished along with his mother, is a legitimate heir to Abraham. We have seen how God made a promise to Hagar that her son Ishmael would father multitudes. So right off the bat, this story doesn’t add up.

From the first time we encounter Abraham in Genesis 12, God is promising to make a great nation of him, with descendants as countless as the stars in the sky. And yet here, in this part of the narrative, the angel of the Lord says, “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore” (22:16b-17). Was the covenant not good enough for God? Why this test?

And where was Sarah? Can you imagine that Abraham would have told her about this plan? Can you imagine what her reaction would have been? No, Sarah appears nowhere in this account. The next time she is mentioned, at the beginning of the next chapter, she dies. I would not be surprised if it was from a broken heart.

Which brings me back to my question: what are we to do with this text? I believe there are a couple of things we can wring out of this.

First, Abraham comes to us through the centuries as larger-than-life, fully trusting in God and faithful to the promise. But if you actually read the ten chapters between God’s first call to Abraham and this one, it’s been a bit more complicated than that. He went down to Egypt to escape a famine and gave his wife, Sarah, to pharaoh to save his own skin, passing her off as his sister. When pharaoh found out, he basically paid Abraham off to get out of town. This is where Abraham’s wealth came from, and maybe even Hagar, too. He did not trust that God would provide an heir through Sarah and so, at her urging, took Hagar and she became pregnant. He once again passed Sarah off as his sister and gave her to yet another king, and that ended with even more wealth for Abraham. So to say that he perfectly trusted is not entirely accurate.

So maybe asking him to sacrifice his son, the promised fulfillment, was (as the text says) a test. Because God could not lay the foundations of the covenant on someone who was not fully and completely sure that God would provide. The angel of the Lord affirms that Abraham has passed the test, “‘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” (22:12). The terrifying price that Abraham had to pay for God to fully trust him was to demonstrate a willingness to do everything God commanded, no matter how steep that price.

The second thing to remember is that, while God provided a ram in lieu of Isaac, God did not do such a thing for God’s own son. God’s only son. Tradition has it that Mount Moriah, the location of the binding of Isaac, is also the where Jesus was crucified.[1] God did not, in this case provide a substitute. The self-sacrifice of God was the ultimate outpouring of love for humankind, the eternal covenant made with us, that death is not the end. That our sins are not held against us. That we are justified, made right we God, and given eternal life.

In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes that we were once slaves to sin. And sin leads to death. But we have been freed from the bonds of sin and death so that we might have life. But this life is not just ours to hold for ourselves. It is for all of God’s creation.

We are the beneficiaries, the heirs of the promise, of the liberating, life-giving love of God given us in Christ Jesus. We do not need to prove our worthiness. We do not need to hoard it. It is not in limited supply. It is not pie. It is limitless and abundant. Our job is to share it as generously as it has been given us.

“Jesus said, ‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’” (Matthew 10:10). Later in Matthew, that welcome is part of the final judgment, when the faithful don’t even know that it was Jesus whom they welcomed as a stranger (Matthew 25). Yet in welcoming him, they were welcoming God, the one who sent him. In feeding and giving drink and visiting in prison, they were serving Jesus and in turn serving God.

This is the life of faith. God does not test us with calamities or demands. We are freed from having to earn God’s love through the power of the cross.

And how are we to repay God for such great love? We can’t. Not really. But God doesn’t ask that of us. Love God. Love neighbor. That’s it.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

that were a present far too small.

Love so amazing, so divine,

demands my soul, my life, my all.[2]     

[1] Other traditions have it at Mt. Gerazim, the holy mountain of the Samaritans. Muslims believe it was in Mecca.

[2] When I survey the wondrous cross. Text: Isaac Watts. Tune: Hamburg by Lowell Mason.

ASEPSermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 28, 2020 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas