“Who and What are You Sacrificing on the Altar of Your Life?”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Delivered on Sunday, July 2, 2017
This morning’s Gospel has all the makings of an easy sermon. If I were a wiser preacher, I would focus on the gospel reading, where Jesus tells us, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Despite being called “God’s frozen chosen,” we Episcopalians are good at welcoming people. Episcopal Church signs across our country state, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” But so does the local grocery store and the post office. It is not enough to welcome. If we are to be the church, we must challenge, transform, strengthen, comfort, heal and offer hope.
So, I am going to follow the advice dispensed by a friend and colleague, Barbara Brown Taylor, who notes that a preacher should always focus on the most difficult text read in church, as the congregation can figure out the others on their own. Thus, this morning, with your permission, I would like to look at the story from Genesis, known as the “sacrifice of Isaac” or to Jews as the “Akedah” or the “binding of Isaac,” because it is one of the most problematic texts in all of the Bible. Scholar Phyllis Tribble calls it a “text of terror.”
Before I begin, let me state the obvious: this is not a great text for parenting! Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis once said, “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think that whatever else you do matters very much.” Abraham could have greatly benefited from her advice. I once even heard of an Episcopal priest who bound his eight-year-old son on the altar and reenacted this scene for his congregation. What was he thinking? I wouldn’t be surprised if that preacher’s kid probably never again darkened the door of a church!
The story that we are addressing is enough to leave any parent horrified as we read how God instructed a father to slaughter his own son on an altar. The text is violent and disturbing. For that very reason, it has been studied and debated across the centuries by countless Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars.
Artists such as Rembrandt, Cranach, Caravaggio, Donatello, Titian, Tiepolo and many others have been captivated by the story and painted it in graphic detail. The Quran also tells this story, but the Quran never mention’s Isaac’s name. Instead, Muslims believe that it was Ishmael, Abraham’s son born from Hagar, who was nearly sacrificed by his father.
You know the story. Abraham was about 100 years old. His young wife, Sarah, was only 90. They had been blessed in their old age to have a son – Isaac – long after Sarah had passed the age of being able to bear a child. If ever there was a miracle baby, it was Isaac. His birth was clearly a divine act. So, it is absolutely startling when God instructs Abraham to take his most precious possession and sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah.
The traditional interpretation of this story has always been that God was putting Abraham to the test. God was trying to see if he was still completely submissive to his divine authority. So, just as God commanded Abraham to pack up his family and move to Canaan, a place that he had never been, using the Hebrew words “Lech lecha” or “Go forth,” so, too, God says “Lech lecha” or “Go forth” and “take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love,” – note that this is the first time that the word “love” appears in the Bible – and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him as a burnt offering…”
Now, just as heeding God’s first command to leave his homeland and migrate to Canaan meant Abraham had to cut himself off completely from his past, God’s second command to sacrifice his only son – since Ishmael had disappeared into the wilderness – meant that Abraham had to cut himself off from his future. For Isaac represented God’s promise that from Abraham’s seed Sarah and he would be parents of a great nation.
Without so much as a murmur, Abraham rose early in the morning, packed provisions, saddled his donkey, cut wood for the burnt offering and took two servants and his son and set out on a journey. Now, a father and son journey is not so unusual. But we have to remember that when God said that he was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argued with God in the longest passage in the Bible of a human speaking with God and bargained that if God found even ten righteous people in the city, God would not destroy it. Abraham didn’t even know the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, yet he took issue with God. But here, when it is his own beloved child who was to be destroyed, Abraham is silent and makes no defense. How strange!
So, Abraham traveled for three days, and God saw that his faithfulness was firmly committed and not just some momentary burst of effervescence, like when we let God know that we will pray more or come to church every Sunday for a year or – hold onto your pew cushions – we are going to invite three friends to church with us or increase our pledge by 50 percent, and then we just forget all about it. No, Abraham was firm to his faith. He was committed. When they got to the mountain, Abraham instructed the servants to stay behind, adding, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Notice, he says, “We will come back to you.” For a moment there is hope that maybe Abraham knows something that we do not know or trusts that God has a plan or believes that God can resurrect Isaac even if he dies. Or perhaps Abraham was just being economical with the truth.
Now, there is almost no dialogue in this story and no feelings are shared, and that is part of the genius of this story. We have to supply the dialogue, and we have to wonder what Abraham and Isaac were feeling and what Sarah would be feeling , if she had any remote idea as to what her husband was doing. Then, Isaac asked the question of questions, noting, “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb….” Two thousand years later, John the Baptist will pick up on this when he sees Jesus and tells his followers, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29, 36)
But I digress. When they came to the spot that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar, stacked the wood and bound Isaac. Then he drew his knife and was about to kill his son when an angel intervened, saying, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now, I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.”
Then an amazing thing occurred. Abraham spied a ram caught in a thorn bush. He laid down his knife, replaced Isaac with the ram and sacrificed it. We have to wonder, “Was the ram always there? What prevented Abraham from seeing it before?” Something inside me tells me that when we obey God and submit our will to God’s will, we see things differently. Sometimes, we realize that the answers to our most troubling problems were right before our very eyes, but we were prevented from seeing them. I don’t know if you have ever had that experience, but I have. When we get our wills aligned with God’s will, we see the whole world differently.
Now, the idea of a child sacrifice is utterly foreign and horrifying to us, but it wasn’t to Abraham and those in his day. A lot of biblical scholars and spiritual writers believe that this story was a firm warning by God to end all child sacrifices. Henceforth, the Jews only sacrificed animals to atone for human sins. And it was on Mount Moriah that the Jews built their Temple and sacrificed animals for centuries. But others see this as a tale of radical obedience with Abraham being the exemplar of faith. So, in the letter to the Hebrews we read, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac…his only son…For he reckoned that God had power even to raise from the dead…” Wow!
We may wonder, “What did Abraham tell his wife when he returned home?” We don’t know. What we do know is that Sarah died soon after, perhaps from a broken heart or perhaps troubled by her husband and the God whom he worshipped. What relationship could Abraham have had with his son after such a monstrous undertaking? We hear nothing further about Isaac until he was on his death bed, paralyzed, half blind and almost deaf. Surely, he must have been traumatized by what took place. I think of Bette Davis, who wrote in her book The Lonely Life, “If you have never been hated by your child, you have never been a parent.” I am sure that you can relate. Abraham clearly gave Isaac lots of reason to hate him. And interestingly enough, there is no record in the Bible of God ever speaking again to Abraham. Perhaps Abraham was not hearing God’s voice after all.
But before we get all haughty or dismiss this story altogether, we might ask ourselves what and whom we as parents and grandparents and individuals blindly sacrifice on the altar of our own lives. Do we not sacrifice our health to gain wealth? Do we note sacrifice vital time with our children and grandchildren and our spouses as we build our careers and seek success even at the cost of ruining our marriages or hurting and neglecting our friends and families?
Rabbi Norman Cohen writes:
We are all like Abraham; so involved in our outside world – our careers,
interests, or principles – that we do not or cannot see that it is our child,
or spouse or parent that is bound on the altar. We are so adept at
sacrificing that which is truly important to us on the altars we have
erected that we may ask whether we are capable of hearing the cry of
the angel before it’s too late.
Let me tell you a story. In my first church, parents of a teenager in our youth group gave their son a car. One day while his father was away on one of his many business trips, their son cut the top off his car and transformed it into a convertible. How creative! There was a just one problem. The family had no garage. So, while the father was away, it rained one of those huge rains that would have impressed even Noah, and the car filled with water and was ruined. When his father returned, he was furious. He wanted to kill his son. I was asked to mediate. That’s the telephone call that every priest is just waiting to receive. I soon discovered that what the son wanted was not a car or a big home in Nashville’s fanciest suburb. He merely wanted a father, time with his dad, time with the man who sacrificed so much to provide so well for his family that he neglected to give them the one thing that they wanted most — himself.
So, who and what are you sacrificing on the altar of your life? Let us place this story for a moment beside the paschal mystery – the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion and Resurrection. We Christians know something about a Father being willing to offer up his only Son, his beloved son, to death. Three times in John’s Gospel, Jesus is called God’s only son or my beloved son.
Like the ram or “lamb of God” that was allowed to replace Isaac at the last moment as a living sacrifice, so, too, Jesus was allowed to take our place in order to atone for our sins. I don’t know about you, but my sins are so massive that I could never make up for all the things that I have said or left unsaid or have done or have failed to do and set things right by doing lots of good deeds. Only Jesus’ sacrifice can atone for me, and I suspect for you all as well.
Hence, Christians for centuries have seen in this horrifying and bizarre story a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death, which has transformed our lives. In both stories, God provided the lamb. In both stories, the son carried the wood for his own sacrifice up the mountain. Like the ram caught in the thicket of thorns, Jesus died with a crown of thorns on his head. For Jews the ram’s left horn signifies mercy and grace. For Christians, the crucified Christ signifies mercy and grace.
I leave you not with answers, but with questions. Who and what are you needlessly sacrificing on the altar of your life? What damage are you blindly allowing to take place? Will you trust that if you leave here committed to align your will as faithfully as possible with God’s will that God will open your eyes and help you to see that the answer to your greatest problem is much closer than you think? It might just be right in front of you. Thanks be to God. Amen.