Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 07/02/2017

Maybe this has happened to you, maybe not: You’re in a church gathering and the person up front says, “God is good,” and the people gathered respond, “all the time.” Then the leader says “All the time,” and the people respond, “God is good.” It happens pretty much any place youth are gathered, Fortune Lake for example; I’ve experienced it at Synod Assemblies as well and I hate it. I know it’s mostly just a feel good, welcoming kind of line, often used mostly to get people’s attention and bring them to order so the meeting or whatever can begin. I know it’s not intended as a profound theological statement.

For me though, and maybe I’m too cynical, it just rubs me the wrong way as it seems to reduce God to a huggable stuffed animal or something, maybe a cute little puppy dog. No depth in other words, not a God who is really present in and for the sometimes messy realities of life. Plus, it doesn’t take into account a text like today’s first reading where God commands the sacrifice of a child.

The polar opposite of this is the line from Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B. which is a retelling of the story of Job; it won the Pulitzer prize and Tony awards back in the late 50’s, I read it in seminary as part of class on Job. The refrain that is repeated several times is, “If God is God He is not good; if God is good He is not God.” I don’t like that either because it’s too cynical. The story of Job is about unjust suffering, which God allows to happen, so you can see where the line is coming from. It is provocative which I’m sure is the author’s intent, but it too rubs me the wrong way focusing too much on what you might call the dark side of God.

In today’s first reading we do get a dose of the dark side of God with the command to Abraham to sacrifice his long awaited son Isaac, the child that God had promised many years before. It’s one of the most disturbing texts in the entire Bible both with God’s command to kill the child and with Abraham’s willingness to do it. You don’t know which one to be more bothered by but it’s definitely not evidence of God is good all the time. There is a happy ending to this just as there was a more or less happy ending to last week’s abandonment of Hagar and Ishmael. Isaac doesn’t wind up being sacrificed but the questions about both God and Abraham persist.

It’s important to remember though that we do deal with a huge cultural divide in considering this text. We’re justifiably offended by the notion of child sacrifice but a sacrificial system was an accepted part of the ancient context from which the text comes. The first born son was believed to belong to God and must be offered to God in some fashion. In most cases it was more of a symbolic act, sometimes with the child being “redeemed” or bought back by an offering of money or with the ritual substitution of an animal kind of like what happens in today’s story. However, even acknowledging the great cultural divide and the fact that it didn’t result in the death of a child doesn’t eliminate the questions and challenges of the reading; they’re still there and it’s still disturbing.

Let’s start with the God questions. What this story does is to bring to the front a conflict or even a contradiction within the person of God. It highlights the conflict between the two statements I cited, “God is good all the time,” and “If God is God He is not good; if God is good He is not God.” What happens and what is troublesome is that the promise of God is nullified by the command of God. The promise of God to Abraham is that through Isaac your descendents will be named. The command of God to Abraham is that Isaac must be killed as a sacrifice. If the command is carried out, that means that we’re back to square one, back to barrenness, the promise becomes some kind of grand hoax. It doesn’t make sense and it leaves us with an image of an unfaithful God. There’s a Yiddish folk tale that asks the question “Why didn’t God send an angel to give Abraham the command to sacrifice Isaac? The answer is that the angel told God, “If you want to command death, do it yourself.”

Then there’s Abraham. One of the first sermons I ever preached was on this text. I don’t remember much of what I said but the tag line I used was, “Say it ain’t so God, say it ain’t so.” The church was on the South side of Chicago, my supervising pastor was a White Sox fan, and the line, “Say it ain’t so Joe” was supposedly said by a little kid to Shoeless Joe Jackson regarding the Black Sox scandal in 1919 when the White Sox were accused of fixing the World Series. I was throwing a bone to my supervisor, and he liked it.

My point though, was that I wished that or something like that was what Abraham had said to God when given the command to kill his son: “Say it ain’t so God, say it ain’t so.” But he didn’t. He showed no emotion at all. He had questioned God before about other things, about the validity of the promise of offspring, about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, so it wouldn’t have been out of character for him. But, according to the text, this time, following the command to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham said nothing and just proceeded to go about the necessary preparations for making a burnt offering.

I want him to say something, I want him to challenge God, but it may be that Abraham’s silence makes the story more compelling; more troubling too perhaps, but more compelling. His silence draws us in, leading us to wonder about what Abraham is thinking, what Isaac is thinking as they walk along. There is conversation between the two, but it’s all pretty matter of fact, the innocent questions of a trusting son to his father. You could argue then that the whole story is intentionally provocative, intended to upset us, inviting us to ask questions, almost demanding that we respond.

Abraham’s obedience to this command of God is part of the reason that he is often held up as a paragon of faith. The most common interpretation is that the command to kill Isaac was a test of Abraham’s faith, a test that he passed; he trusted in God. In the manner of a Jewish rabbi though, one could probe into this text and ask if it’s possible that the Lord was disappointed in Abraham’s unquestioning obedience? Is it possible that the Lord was looking for some push back, expecting Abraham to intervene on behalf of his son, wanting him to be a good and protective father?

With that scenario, God’s last minute intervention, in addition to saving Isaac from death, also saves Abraham from himself. It becomes a dramatic act of grace, an act more in line with “God is good, all the time.” Seen that way, the dark side of God isn’t quite so dark but again, remember that I’m just poking around at the text from a different angle, not making any absolute statements, but treating the story as something of a parable which might actually be the best way to approach it. It does seem possible though, that God was disappointed in Abraham, possible that Abraham did not pass the test.

I think that the possibility that God may have been disappointed does have some merit, raising as it does, questions about how we define faith. Do we worship a God who expects the kind of blind faith that Abraham displayed or is it a God for whom part of faith is to sometimes struggle and have questions? We tend to think that those who have great faith are the ones who say they never have any doubts as doubt is seen as the opposite of faith, but there is plenty of biblical evidence to the contrary and also evidence among those who the church has identified as saints; they too have had their times of struggle.

There are plenty of reasons to hold up Abraham as an example of great faith, but strangely enough, this story may not be an example of Abraham at his most faithful. God did learn something about Abraham here and he does reckon Abraham’s response as a faithful one, but you can still ask if that’s really the kind of faith God wants from us.

In the end, God does intervene, Isaac is not sacrificed, God does provide and so the command does not nullify the promise. However, that does not resolve all the questions inherent in this text. It still more or less leaves us stuck between the two statements I started with, “God is good, all the time” and “If God is God He is not good; if God is good He is not God.”

It’s not exactly a feel good story for a summer Sunday, raising lots of questions as it does and providing few answers. It gets even more complicated and raises even more questions if it’s seen as a foreshadowing of the foundational story of our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus, the beloved Son of God. It’s not an easy story; it’s one that challenges us and causes us to struggle for answers until we can only acknowledge that there is a sovereignty to God that is beyond human understanding. Then…even as we question, we trust that God’s will for us is good and…that out of love for us, God does provide, sometimes in ways that don’t make sense to us, and so…we worship.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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