Genesis 22:1-18; Mark 15:33-39

5th Sunday after Trinity

St Barbara’s 30.06.2024

Rev Tulo Raistrick

Do you ever pick and choose which news items you read about? On a somewhat superficial level, I will read all the articles about the England cricket team when they are doing well, but I will ignore them when they are doing badly. Or during this election campaign, I have found myself switching off the news when particular candidates I don’t agree with come on, to avoid my levels of irritation rising. And then there are those stories in the news that are just too uncomfortable, too unpleasant, too disturbing, for me to want to engage with, stories of suffering and emotional trauma.

Well, I have to admit I feel some of those feelings when I read the story of Abraham and Isaac that we heard this morning. I would rather avoid it, turn the page, find something else to look at. Its a story that leaves me feeling distinctly uneasy, and I confess I haven’t found this an easy sermon to write. Here is a story of God choosing to test Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his only son. To make it clear how big an ask this is, God reminds him, that this is “your son, your only son, the son whom you love, Isaac”. Isaac was the miracle child to Abraham and Sarah, the child they had long-thought they would never have, having got too old. It was impossible to think that this precious gift, this gift from God, should now be killed, and at their own hand.

And yet even though Abraham is given no explanation for this command, he goes about the act: a three day journey into the wilderness, a climb to the top of the mountain, his son carrying the wood that will be used to burn his body, a knife drawn and ready to strike. And then, at the very last second, divine intervention. Abraham’s hand is stayed by the voice of God, and a ram is provided for the sacrifice instead. That last minute reprieve still leaves me wondering what the emotional impact on father and son was, why such an act could possibly happen. In today’s world, social services would rightly intervene, the child taken into care, the father had up in court.

And yet this story has always been a significant story in Jewish tradition. Known as the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, it is recited daily as part of Jewish morning worship. The many Jews who became Christians shortly after Christ’s death and resurrection would have known the story inside out. So how did they understand the story in terms of their new faith in Christ? Did the story of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac have any relevance to them now?

Well, we know that it did speak to them in two particularly clear ways, because we find references in the New Testament writings to this very story. In the letter to the Hebrews, Abraham’s act is cited as an example of faith and obedience. We are told, “By faith, Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises that God would create many descendants through Isaac, was ready to offer up his only son… He believed that God was able to raise someone from the dead.” Here was someone, the early Christians believed, who was willing to put their trust in God’s ability to raise his own son from the dead.

The early Christians didn’t look on all the actions of Abraham and unconditionally applaud them. They recognised there were failings, character faults, and in this story, perhaps an alarming lack of restraint, but what they did see was a belief that no matter what, God could still overcome, could still bring life from death.

We too can look back on inspiring figures and appreciate them and value them, even whilst acknowledging human failings. It may be members of previous generations of our families. For me, my grandfather was an inspiration, even though I discovered that he wasn’t perfect. His example was still worth following, despite his flaws. Maybe you can think of people who inspire you, even though you know their flaws as well as strengths.

So here also with Abraham. Here was someone whose actions were shaped by his belief that God could raise his son from the dead. For the early Christians, they could take that as an inspiration and ask themselves: how could they, who were witnesses to God raising his own Son Jesus from the dead, live differently as a result of that astounding truth?

As they wrestled with poverty, famine, opposition and persecution they held on to that truth: indeed they proclaimed that the power that raised Christ from the dead was now at work within them. Believing in God’s power to raise his son from death gave them hope and confidence in the dark places they found themselves in. That no place was too dark for the light of Christ to penetrate. There was hope because there was always light.

Today, wherever you may find yourself, Christ’s resurrection still proclaims that darkness will not prevail. Whether wrestling with illness and physical pain, or depression, loneliness or relationship breakdown, or hidden addictions or crippling debt, or simply feeling like one has lost one’s zest for life, the resurrection of Christ shows us that all these things are temporary. That God’s life and love prevails. To live with that belief gives us hope, and even gives us joy. I wonder, do we need to allow the light of Christ’s resurrection to penetrate into our lives this day?

But if the early Christians understood the story of Abraham and Isaac as a foreshadowing of resurrection, they also saw it as a foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice and death. For like Isaac, Christ was his Father’s only son, the one of whom the Father said “This is my son, whom I love” at his baptism. Like Isaac, Christ would climb a hill, but this time it was the hill of Calvary. Like Isaac, he would carry upon his back wood for the sacrifice, but this time it was the wood of the cross. And like Isaac, he would trust and remain obedient to his father, even when faced with the imminence of death. The early Christians would have seen the parallels in the two stories.

But there the stories diverge. With Isaac, God provides a ram, caught in a thicket, as a substitute, and Isaac’s life is spared. God intervenes. With Christ, Christ is the ram, or as John the Baptist puts it, the “lamb of God”. He is the sacrifice. God does not intervene. Christ calls out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Isaac’s life is spared. Christ’s is not.

The early Christians drew on this imagery. The apostle John puts it in his account of Christ’s life: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” and the apostle Paul, writing to the church in Rome, wrote: “God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”

Such is the love of God for his world, that he does something that he would not ask of Abraham or anyone else, to give up the life of his one and only son. And such is the love of Christ for his Father and for us, he does so willingly. Abraham and Isaac had been held up for generations for their obedience and faith. But here are God the Father and God the Son going so much further. This is love to the point of death and beyond. Those early Christians realised: Christ’s sacrifice goes to the very heart of our faith.

To understand the love of God for his world, to understand the love of God for us, we need to keep returning to this act of sacrifice. Its why Jesus said in breaking the bread and drinking the cup, do this in remembrance of me. Its why receiving communion is such a central part of our services each week.

There is still much in this story of Abraham and Isaac that leaves me feeling uneasy. Its a story that comes from 3,000 years ago, after all, at a time when human sacrifice was normal religious practice, so maybe I should not be surprised by that, but the response of the early Christians to this story may help us to focus on that which is most important.

For they understood it as both a foreshadowing of God’s immense sacrifice through the cross and of a call to believe in the resurrection. A story that had been passed down from generation to generation for a thousand years suddenly was found to have a significance and truth that could not possibly have been imagined. And so for us too. Once more we are called to wonder and give thanks for the love of God for us in Christ on the cross, and to live in the hope and light of his resurrection.