A Sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries
Christ Church St Laurence – 2 July 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen. From the 22nd Chapter of the Book ‘Genesis’: God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And Abraham said, ‘Here I am.’ “God tested Abraham” is surely one of the great understatements of Holy Scripture. The fact is that God had already tested Abraham. Announcing to aged parents that they would suddenly have their first child was in itself a test of faith. Sarah laughed when she and her 99-year old husband were given this unexpected news, while most people in a similar situation would probably cry. Sarah laughed on account of the absurdity of this earlier test of faith. There is nothing absurd, much less humorous, in God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his long-awaited and only son. We are not told whether Sarah had any knowledge about Abraham’s plans for that day. However, we can be quite certain that Sarah would not have laughed on this occasion. The sacrificial offering of Isaac was not absurd. In Abraham’s world, it was certainly not unimaginable. Similar barbaric acts were practiced in the hope of placating or satisfying angry and violent gods. The fact that child sacrifice was still practiced at the time of Abraham, at least in the pagan world, is reflected in its strict prohibition in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And Abraham said, ‘Here I am.’ The story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is, on many levels, deeply disturbing and horrific. Of course, the reader is not meant to focus on, much-less celebrate, the unsavoury aspects of this dramatic narrative. Surely, we are meant to focus on the fact that God has led Abraham through years of uncertainty; and yet Abraham has remained faithful. God kept Abraham waiting for farfetched promises to be fulfilled, but Abraham remained faithful. Although it may be unpalatable, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, powerfully affirms that this man would have remained faithful to God not matter what. As 21st Century people, we do not live with a concept of a cruel, sadistic and vengeful God. Science and knowledge have taken away a great deal of the fear and mystery of our universe. Most of us don’t believe that cyclones and earthquakes are the work of God deliberately inflicting suffering on creation, although there are still Christians in our world who seem to delight in preaching that message. The account of Abraham’s journey to the mountain top does not suggest that he was terrified of God, but simply that Abraham would do anything that God asked of him; even to commit a gruesome act that would hurt no one as much as himself.
2 Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.’ This was very true of Abraham’s situation. The sacrifice of Isaac was not to take place moments after the request was made. Abraham was accustomed to journeys; he knew what it was to be forced to wait. The sacrifice of Isaac began with an agonizing three-day journey. This excruciating expedition would have afforded countless opportunities for Abraham to turn back; to yield to his own desires. Instead, he continued this unenviable journey with a terrifying destination. All of this echoes a much later story about the sacrifice of an only son; another drama in which hope is restored after three days. Remaining faithful for three excruciating days, was surely Abraham’s greatest test of faithful endurance. Abraham is rewarded for his incredible faithfulness, but it is not simply a matter of his only son’s life being spared. Through his encounter with God, probably on ‘Mount Moriah’, Abraham was forced into a radical new understanding of his God. The God Abraham encountered in that place was not a God of violence, but a God of Love. Even in our own time, we see people of distorted faith drawn to the most rigid and violent forms of religion, including extreme forms of Christianity. A God that offers boundless love, acceptance and freedom cannot demand to be obeyed. As Abraham descended from the mountain, he must have questioned his own faith system. His relationship with God, would now be built on grace and love, rather than fear. In some ways, the journey down the mountain would be just as unsettling as the one that preceded it.
During this past week, much has been made of the predictable results of the recent national census. The number of Australians indicating ‘no religion’ has risen sharply—even since the last census—and is now the largest group in the Australian religious landscape. Some social commentators have already suggested that science and knowledge have replaced fear in God. Intelligent people, it has been said, couldn’t possibly commit themselves to a flawed and superstitious faith system. There are now more Buddhists in Australia than Presbyterians, and Anglicans make up only 13 percent of the population, compared with 41 percent in 1921. Statistics are fascinating, but what does a number really tell us about faith? 41 percent of Australians may have claimed to be Anglicans (or ‘C of E’) in 1921, and yet we know that 41 percent of Australians did not attend Anglican Churches on a regular basis. Nominal church affiliation is not necessarily a bad thing, but we see throughout Scripture that deep faith requires total commitment and conviction if it is going to last the distance. Søren Kierkegaard was a 19th Century Danish philosopher, theologian, poet and social critic. Almost 200 years ago, Kierkegaard lamented the negative impact of nominal church affiliation. He said that, ‘the problem with the church in Denmark was that everybody, being inoculated with a small dose of false faith, having all been baptized into the state church, where God had become the patron of the government, thought they had faith. A small dose of faith had vaccinated them against infection by the real thing!’ In the west, we still have vaccination, but we don’t really have churches of the state anymore. Perhaps, this is for the best. If the testing of Abraham teaches us anything, it is that faith cannot be a comfortable ad-on to life. Faith is not about splashing around in the shallow end of the pool. Faith is also not about living in fear and terror of a vengeful God. Any faith system built on fear 3 will ultimately eliminate itself. Faith, as we understand it, is about responding with love to boundless love offered unconditionally. Faith is about continuing on a mysterious and often excruciating journey; trusting that the final destination will be worth the effort. St Augustine famously said: Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.