On this Sunday the church reads Hebrews 9:11-15 for the epistle reading and John 8:46-59 for the gospel. Unless of course one divorces oneself from the ageless voice of the church and her preaching and follows 1970s Rome, when you won't hear this at all in any of the three years in the cycle. Modern versions of the traditional lectionary add an Old Testament reading to the Epistle and Gospel for the day, which is Genesis 22:1-14. This is the story of Abraham and Issac and the near sacrifice of the one by the other, consigned in the three year new Roman cycle to Lent 1, Year B -- kind of reads like a shipping parts list. Our practice of having a lectionary at all derives from the synagogue, where the lectionary is based on a reading of the Law (Torah) through the year, beginning after the Biblical New Year in the Fall, with a related reading from the Prophets (Haftorah) assigned to each Sabbath's Torah portion; special selections are made for the festivals established in the Law. This became a reading from the Gospels with a related reading from the Epistles.
Genesis 22:1-14 is called The Binding of Isaac, or the Akedah, in the synagogue worship. The story is read twice, once in its regular place as the Torah is read through the year, which is the fourth regular Sabbath, Vayyera, and also as the Torah portion for the second day of New Year's, Rosh Hoshannah, which is vitally connected to the Torah portion for the first day of New Year's, Genesis 21, and the associated prophetic reading (haftorah) 1 Samuel 1-2:10 ending with the Song of Hannah, the first Magnificat.
Jewish and Christian teachers alike hold forth the Akedah as a supreme example of obedience to the will of God. And so it is. And so remote it can seem when obedience to the will of God is asked of us. When obedience is asked to something that makes no sense to us, that can even seem so wrong to us that it cannot possibly be from God. When it seems to dash, as it did to Abraham, all the promises made and kept so far, only to come to this? When it seems that all the gifts of God were cruel hoaxes, one's heart shattered in the cold body of a dead spouse, in seeing a loved one adrift and struggling between God's wisdom and the world's madness, or in any of the thousands of other things that can come in life as if, we wonder, there is no God of the preachers.
Who of us would not rather cry with the Psalmist whose verses give us the name for this day?
Judica me Deus et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta: ab homine iniquo et doloso erue me.
Judge me God, discern my cause against an unholy people: from the unjust and deceitful man deliver me.
Who of us does not cry with the Psalmist, how can this be, how can this happen, when bad things happen to good people indeed, where is God, why doesn't he stop this, why does he allow this; has he caused this?
Quia tu es Deus fortitudo mea: quare me repulisti et quare tristis incedo dum affligit me inimicus?
For thou O God art my strength: why hast thou repulsed me and why do I go about in sadness while the enemy afflicts me?
Is that it then? Suffer the loss of everything, even what and who is most dear, even what seemed to have been given by the very God who now seems to take it away? This is God? This is religion? Yet, isn't that exactly what the human idea of religion is in ordinary life apart from dire moments? We must do something to please God, to be right with God, and religion tells us what those works are, be they works to lead a good life, be a good person, offer worship -- whatever, here are the works you must do. In Abraham's time child sacrifice was not at all uncommon and the wonder might be not that a god would ask it, but prevent it. But before we congratulate ourselves on our enlightened modernity, let us ask was not the idea behind it the same idea behind our drive to find purpose in our works, that surely if I do these things everything will be OK with me and I will be OK with God? The truth is, we may have given up child sacrifice, but not the idea behind it.
The rabbis point out that the word God uses to tell Abraham to "offer" up Isaac is not the word used to signify the slaying of a sacrificial victim, and is more akin to "lift" him up, showing that God never had the intent to accept or even ask for human sacrifice. But did Abraham know this? It is not whether he did or didn't, but that he didn't ask the question! He didn't second guess God, he didn't open a theological seminar, he was simply willing to do it if that is what God wants without trying to settle it with God beforehand about the "if". In a word, faith -- and thereby offering on that mount that would become the Temple Mount the only thing that matters. So we can now pray:
Emitte lucem tuam et veritatem tuam: ipsa me deduxerunt et adduxerunt in montem sanctum tuam et in tabernacula tua.
Emit thy light and thy truth: for they have led me and brought me to thy holy hill and thy dwelling place.
That faith in God is not our work either, it is his, it is his light and truth which have led and brought us to where we can now say:
Et introibo ad altari Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
And I will enter unto the altar of God: unto God who makes joyful my youth.
Confitebor tibi in cithara Deus Deus meus: quare tristis es anima mea et quare conturbas me?
I shall yet praise thee on the harp, O God my God: why is my soul in sadness and why dost thou trouble me?
God had indeed provided the Lamb for sacrifice, the Pashal Lamb who soon will celebrate the last seder of the old covenant and the first mass of the new, giving us until he comes again his pledge and testament, the body and blood, separate as the sacrificial victim he will then be, God sparing nothing, giving everything, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, passing over those with his blood no matter their sins, saving them from the destruction they merit and giving them life with him now and into eternity. The God who seems to ask everything of us is the God who in fact gives everything to us. It is he and not we who spares nothing and sacrifices everything. Child sacrifice is outrageous, and most especially so because it is the most outrageous way in which we think we serve God when in fact we thereby make ourselves our god by trusting in our works rather than his. How often we go unto his holy mount, his dwelling place, fearing the worst when he offers the best.
Spera in Deo quoniam adhuc confitebor illi: salutare vultus mei et Deus meus.
Trust in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the salvation of my countenance and my God.
The God who so loved us has so loved those whom we love too. He loves them far better than we do. He who spared nothing for us spared nothing for them too. Our love is imperfect, strewn with good and sometimes bad intentions, with actions that sometimes turn out to have been the right thing and sometimes not, with inaction that sometimes turns out to have been the right thing and sometimes not. Yet we can love, because he loved. We can act even knowing it will be imperfect, because we know he has acted perfectly. We can do good works, not in a bondage driven life to be saved or to save others or to please God, but in freedom because we are saved and God is pleased in Him in whose blood we are sprinkled. We need not fear what God will ask of us, even when our hearts are breaking, our souls filled with fear, and our eyes full of tears, because he will not ask us or those we love to be the sacrifice. Like Abraham we need to skip the ifs, trust in His word and do what it says. He will provide the lamb for us as he did for our father in faith Abraham; he has provided the Lamb, Agnus Dei, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world -- dona nobis pacem; give us peace.
In Gottes Namen.
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