It’s always a bit frightening to preach on this text. Many of my colleagues and I have been in conversation for weeks about how to talk about this scripture, the so-called “binding of Isaac.” It’s curious and complicated and scary and it’s hard to figure out what to say. So I’ve been dreading having to address this story for a long time. Months really.
And then I received the email that Melissa and Jeremy wanted to have Charlie’s baptism this morning. As if this isn’t hard enough already. Now, we have to discuss this disturbing tale of what appears to be divinely-ordained parental abuse at that same time that we are celebrating a child’s entry into a faith that is supposed to guide his steps towards peace and forgiveness. So, as you might imagine, I struggled with this a bit. I even considered telling Charlie’s family that today might not be the best day for his baptism.
But then I opened up to the Spirit. I wondered how God might be calling to us during this seemingly coincidental collision of events. Maybe there was a divine hand at play in bringing this scripture and this baptism together. Maybe looking at Abraham’s actions could even shed some light into the darkness of our world.
Baptism is our ritual of initiation. It’s one way that we declare and demonstrate our love for God. It’s been that way for Christians for centuries and, most of us probably think of it as the way “we’ve always done it.” But of course that’s not true.
Humans have sought out and developed rituals throughout human history. We’ve struggled to find ways to appease forces we did not understand. Early humans feared weather and darkness and hunger and enemies and tried everything they could to ward off the evils of their world.
They tried everything they could. Including human sacrifice. Including child sacrifice.
One of the scary things about ritual and religion is the way that we can convince ourselves that we’ve witnessed desired outcomes. If there is a violent storm that ends after someone dies, human minds search for the simplest explanation and find a correlation. Early humans saw sacrifice as a way to soothe angry gods.
When we hear Abraham’s reaction to God’s request, we’re baffled. After he heard “Take your son and offer him as a burnt offering,” Abraham rose the next day, apparently without questioning. We’re confounded because this idea of ritually sacrifice a person is so foreign to us. But it wasn’t unheard of for Abraham. Remember, this faith, this religion of YHWH, was just finding its feet. It was new and Abraham is just figuring it out. But other religions and cultures around him were been practicing such sacrifice. Humans had convinced themselves that the death of one can save the lives of many.
And Abraham had already given up his firstborn child. There’s a story that comes in the middle of our scripture today that we talked about it last fall. You’ll remember that Abraham’s wife Sarah was unable to conceive a child for many years and, at her request, her servant Hagar fathered Abraham’s son Ishmael. After Sarah became pregnant in her old age, she told Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. Just a few verses before today’s reading, we’re told the tale of Abraham taking them into the wilderness and leaving them to die. Even though he was distraught, he followed through with this action. Fortunately, God was there to care for them. Our Muslim cousins see that moment as a pivotal event in the founding of their faith.
But at this point in our story, Abraham may still be feeling the pain of losing Ishmael. And now he’s being asked to give up Isaac.
Interestingly, the original Hebrew has God saying “please” although most English translations leave that out. Does that change how you hear it? Is it different if God requesting verses commanding that Isaac set his son on fire? Does it make it any easier to hear the story?
No. It doesn’t help me either.
Another interesting note about translation: there are two different names of God being used here. Most scholars agree that the Hebrew Bible has had about four different sets of editors. Two of them are evident in the ways that they refer to God – they’re called the Yahwists and the Elohists because they each use a different name for God. I’ve tried to reflect their work in our copy by using “the Holy One” and “God” in our translation. You might notice that “God’ (a translation of Elohim) is used during the scary parts of the story while the “Holy One” (translation of YHWH) is used during the hopeful parts. There is some speculation that this shows a shift from an old god to a new or that it signifies a fundamental change in the personality of Abraham’s god.
These theories give me a little bit of comfort but it’s still a really difficult story in our faith. It’s a story to struggle with and to question; one that makes us consider and question god’s demeanor and character.
But it’s also a story that records and reflects a fundamental shift in humanity. Through Abraham’s experience we see a shift away from the other religions around him. We see a definitive demonstration that human sacrifice is wrong. God is declaring that there is no need. God is calling for it to end.
This moment is only the beginning of that shift. Abraham replaces human sacrifice with animal sacrifice. In coming weeks, we’ll hear from the Hebrew Prophets that lived and wrote centuries later and they will declare that God requires no blood sacrifice. Amos and Micah will raise a shout for justice, they will cry out that the blood of thousand rams means nothing to God when humans are at odds with one another.
The evolution of sacrifice is a central story in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. As humans seek ways to appease God, poets and prophets sing songs of peace and equality. As we hear this story calling for and end to sacrifice, we look to our modern world and see the ways we continue to convince ourselves that the death of another with save the lives of millions. As we read this ancient story of ritual, we consider our sacrament of baptism.
As Rick said in the introduction to Charlie’s baptism, today gives an opportunity to reflect on the baptismal vows that we made – or that were more likely made in our name. In our tradition, we revisit these promises often; we ask our confirmands to renew them in their own voices and new church members speak vows that reflect the same spirit. Even though not all of us have chosen baptized, we have been called to make promises that reflect our walk together.
We promise to renounce the powers of evil – the evil that causes us to believe that sacrifice and vengeance are pleasing to God. We need to rise above our fear and see that our struggles will not be cured if we offer the blood of our enemies as a sacrifice on the battlefields, or if we offer our own children as soldiers and warriors, sent to die.
When evidence shows St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley openly declaring that he will kill an unarmed Anthony Smith before fatally shooting him five times. When the judge trying the case states that it’s right to assume an “urban” suspect is armed. We must promise to renounce the evils of white privilege and supremacy that seek to offer the sacrifice of brown bodies and black lives on an altar claiming to be law and order.
Our vows ask us to accept new life in Christ; a life that steers us away from vengeance and calls us instead to offer our left cheek after we’ve been struck on the right. A life centered in Christ preaches a forgiveness so radical that it’s demonstrated from the cross by one who willingly goes to death at the hands of corrupt oppressors in order to shed light on the darkness of our world.
Professing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior means that we follow Christ down a path that is fundamentally different from the ways of our past. Christ saves us from our own sins. The Crucifixion is not a final sacrifice because it satiates God’s bloodlust, it’s final because it exposes the fallacy that God has ever wanted or needed blood sacrifice.
Baptism is the first step on our spiritual journey; it marks this shift in our thinking. Instead of asserting that God desires blood, we mark the divine sign of acceptance with water. We place our hopes that this child will continue to help our world and our faith evolve and grow closer towards God’s kingdom – the world our Creator wants for us, on earth as in heaven.
Baptism is not a one-time event. This is a journey that we vow to continue; to keep growing and learning the ways that our ancestors of faith did and to never stop questioning our assumptions of God so that we can continue growing closer to the true God.
And it’s a journey that we vow to make together. Walking together and supporting each other as a congregation and as a church, we rely on the grace that God has given us to keep trying to do better.
It’s always a bit frightening to preach on this text but I’m actually glad that I couldn’t avoid it this week. And I’m thankful to Charlie’s family for allowing us this opportunity to celebrate with them and to remember our own baptismal vows so that we may be unbound from our sinful ways of vengeance and violence.
And so I ask you…
Do you promise, by the grace of God, to be Christ’s disciples, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best you are able? If so, please say “We do, with the help of God.”
Gracious God, you have filled the world with joy by giving us the gift of Jesus. Bless us today. May we be filled with joy; may we never be ashamed to confess a personal faith in you. Give us strength for life’s journey, courage in time of suffering, the joy of faith, the freedom of love and the hope of new life; through Jesus Christ, who makes us one. Amen.