In the service today we tell a profound and important story. We tell the story of what we have discovered about God together, by being children of Abraham, and by being Christian. We tell the story of a God who doesn’t want us to burn sacrifices or commit violence in his name or in any name – but a God who comes to us ready to sacrifice himself for us and to suffer violence, if necessary, for our sake. The story of God is turned upside down.
In this service, as we hear the story of Abraham, and as we celebrate the Supper of Jesus, we hear what we have discovered about God. As we move from the sacrifice of Isaac to the sacrifice of Jesus, we tell the story of our faith. And this is actually a story vital for our lives and for the life of the world.
The story of the near sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most difficult stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, hard to hear and hard to bear. The people we probably despise most in our society today are those who hurt children. We find it really hard to understand or forgive those who are paedophiles, or those who take young people and turn them into suicide bombers in the name of God, or those who torment and abuse their children or anybody’s children in any way. So what do we make of a story about a man who was, it seems, ready to take his own son, and burn him to death on an altar, because God told him to do it? I think our first instinct is not to praise Abraham for his trust in God, but to wonder how he could ever have thought this was a good idea…
One way of reading this extraordinary story is to understand it as the moment when people saw that God is not what they thought gods were like. They saw that God is not ever again going to ask us to make a sacrifice of anyone, to commit violence in his name, to shed blood or light fire to please him, but a God who has already promised to give us life and to go on loving us come what may. The God Abraham came to know was, it turned out, quite different from the old gods, from the kind of gods who still sometimes haunt our world, but who are not worthy of the name.
We can still find people today, and we can still find voices within ourselves sometimes, who think that God is a kind of idol in the sky whom we can manipulate or plead with or get to change his mind, or who demands that we ‘pay a price’ for his love. That’s how the Romans thought of their gods – like many people of their time and others – and they set about keeping their gods happy with blood and sacrifice and offerings. It was a kind of transaction, like buying insurance or sound investments. The bigger the sacrifice the better the bargain. In so many cultures the story runs that the more we sacrifice to the gods, the more we can buy God’s favour. Slaughter two doves and you can be forgiven that small sin that’s preying on your mind. Sacrifice a bull on the altar and you might get wealthy. Sacrifice your son and you could ask for just about anything. Sometimes you might catch yourself even now praying something like, ‘God I won’t do that thing again, if you will just let this appointment with the doctor go well..’. or even ‘I’ll give up smoking if…’ This kind of bargaining is somehow deep down within us – and sometimes it comes to the surface. But the story of Abraham and Isaac – and the story of Jesus – both say loud and clear – that this is not how it is with God. God doesn’t need you or want you to bargain or plead. God has already promised to give you life in abundance and to be with you come what may, even to suffer the violence and the fire instead. God does not ask you to sacrifice the things and the people you love, but only to believe what he has promised, that God’s love is securely yours.
Sometimes, reading the Hebrew scriptures you can be forgiven for thinking that God needs a lot of feeding. There’s one scholar who has added up what all those passages about sacrifices offered to God amount to – and it’s a lot of meat. He says, it looks as though, God has the appetite of a body builder, as though God needs us to keep him happy by constantly feeding him. But the truth is that the whole story is telling us that the God of Abraham, the God who belongs to all the children of Abraham; Jew, Christian and Muslim, does not demand the sacrifice of our children, does not ask for violence and blood and fire, but has promised instead to come among us as we eat around the table. It’s not that we are to feed God with sacrifices. We are not God’s kitchen. But we are instead the guests at God’s table and God even provides the food. The story is a turning upside down of what people used to think and what, sometimes with a bit of ourselves, we still think, about God.
It’s fascinating that all three of the great world faiths see the story of Abraham as a kind of turning point in the story of God’s ways with humankind. For Christians we probably mostly think of Abraham as the one who trusted God – and it was counted to him as righteousness. He trusted God to lead him and his family on a long journey, trusted God to be with him even in another place, trusted God to build a great people out of two old codgers, well past it. For Jews, Abraham was the one who obeyed God’s command to sacrifice Isaac because he knew that whatever God was up to it would always be about bringing back those he has chosen from the edge of death. In one Jewish interpretation this story about the sacrifice of Isaac is about God giving Abraham a chance to show his unstoppable conviction that God won’t go back on his promises. God has promised to be with his people – and he won’t break his promise. He knew that Isaac wouldn’t die. There’s no more need to placate God with sacrifices – and the idea that the taking of anyone’s life could be glorifying to God is resolutely left behind. Violence is not holy and never will be again. Sacrifice is neither necessary nor wanted. God is with us, and always will be, no matter what we do. God is not to bought or manipulated. God will be constant and present and making us welcome. God will always find another way, a different way from violence and sacrifice. And for Muslims, the story of Abraham is chiefly a story about a man who turns away from idolatry, from the kind of laziness that reduces God to someone in our power, someone we can manipulate or impress with what we do. God is not in our power, but we are in God’s hands and held there in never-to-be-defeated love and justice.
All three of our world faiths turn away from the idea that God demands from us any kind of violence. God does not want the violence of sacrifice, does not want any kind of cruelty in his name, not even the abasement of our own lives. God does not ask us to feed his divine ego by making sacrifices to him, but instead, it turns out, God gives love to us in overwhelming measure.
The story of the almost sacrifice of Isaac reveals that no more, and never again, does God want the sacrifice of human life in any kind of sacred cause. God wants and needs nothing from us, but only seeks to give to us out of sheer grace. The story of Isaac is the end of one view of God and the revelation of another. No more sacrifice, says God. No more trying to please God. You don’t need to do that. My promises are sure. This means that in all our lives, in yours and mine, God does not need or want to make any kind of pact with you. You don’t have to earn the right to hear the promise. It’s just yours, already.
If we go back in the story to the moment where Isaac’s birth was promised to Abraham by God, the bit where Sarah laughed behind the tent, there is a story of a meal. Three divine visitors come to Mamre and eat with Abraham. He entertains these angels, washing their feet, and serving them bread and wine. In the story of Jesus too, in the story we tell today at our table, there is another story of washed feet and bread and wine. And this time, with bread like bread shared in the desert with Abraham, Jesus says ‘This is my body’ given for you. God wants neither our bodies or the bodies of our children offered to him – not at all. Instead God comes to us in the body of Jesus and offers that body to us. The altar of human sacrifice is no more, the altar of violence and fire is abolished, but the communion table, the fellowship meal, the gift of God’s life for us, is set before us. The story is turned upside down.
I love my daughter so much that I would probably defy even God to protect her. But I have learned that God would never ask me to do anything but care for her. And I have learned that as a daughter of Abraham, within the community of God’s people, my life is precious to God. At this table it is God who feeds me, God who offers me food for the journey, God who reaches out to welcome me and love me. Just as it was at Mamre, when Abraham shared food with angels, so it is here. God’s promises are spoken and they will never be broken.
We are called to live this story of God in a world still broken by violence, still needing the promise of love. There is violence of a kind in all our lives at times, but here it can be set down. The fire is not needed, not even for a ram. Here there is bread and wine and God’s eternal promise that God is with us, serving us with the food of life. There is no altar here. But there is table, prepared for a feast. And the body is no sacrificial animal, but the body of Christ. Come and eat, for here is life, Amen.