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Hard Stories

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We’re not used to dark stories from the Bible - and this one in the life of Abraham takes us by surprise. Only a little while ago Sarah was laughing at the absurd prospect of bearing a child; last week Sarah was jealous of Ishmael as a rival to Isaac. Isaac has arrived, grown somewhat, and become beloved of his father and mother. Into this happy family comes the word of the Lord to Abraham demanding he take the boy and sacrifice him at Mt Moriah. Whatever else we may say about Abraham, he takes God seriously and in this instance he follows God’s dark and terrible instructions to the letter. Abraham never labels what God has asked him to do as dark and terrible, but think of it this way. If I took my son - about 8,9,or 10, laid him on an altar, grasped a knife in my hand to kill him, how could I ever look my son in the eye after that? How could he ever look at me? Would he ever trust me? Our relationship is doomed. I would always be the one with the knife ready to take the final blow and have ended his life, the one who didn’t care. When something like this comes between father and child, or for that matter between mother and child, it is a terrible consequence.

The picture we like to draw of God these days is one of a kindly old gentleman. I know we’ve said many times that’s not how God is, that God is not a benign father figure - but deep down we’ve never given it up. God is good. God is gentle. God is never wild, irrational, or manic. God is more like smooth smiling John Keys than that grim sour puss Helen Clark. We know that - and it has to be so, because like John Keys Jesus is a working man made good. Jesus is not some crazy, bearded loon. God is light, not darkness, and in God there is no darkness at all. We know that. But here we are, faced with a story in which God has a very dark side, in which God is irrational and almost manic. I nearly called my sermon the madness of God, thinking of madness as losing touch with reality, with sense, with life, with love and retreating to delusion and fantasy. What is God doing wanting to have the child of his gift and promise sacrificed? And there is not even Ishmael to fall back on. Ishmael is long gone.

Now the easiest thing to do about this difficult passage would be to remove it - but sadly it is firmly fixed in all the texts we have and if we took the twink to it, it would simply reveal our prejudice. We could ignore it, which is what many people will probably do. Preachers will take one look at today’s readings and go on holiday or make a retreat. It becomes one of those passages to which it is convenient to turn a blind eye. Nevertheless, the best we can do with it, and the honest thing, is to have a go at understanding it. One place to start is to put this story in the context of Israel’s neighbours - what we call the Ancient Near East. Israel’s neighbours practised child sacrifice. The gods were only satisfied with your dearest and best. There was no way of getting them on your side unless it hurt. When the chips are down and your enemies are at the city walls child sacrifice might be the only thing left. However, this story of Abraham and Isaac that comes so near to accepting child sacrifice in the end rejects it. Yahweh will not be appeased or influenced by the death of a child, not even an only son. This might be the point of the story - to close the door on child sacrifice.

Another way of understanding Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice Isaac in the name of God is to see it for what it is - a dark and terrible drama. I’m not sure that it actually happened, the story is too perfectly constructed for real life; if this story had been in the gospels we would call it a parable, a story with an underlying meaning - like the temptations or the transfiguration. You should probably look at this story as a work of literature, as a drama. It shows Abraham obeying a forbidding and awesome God, it shows him entering into the blackness and finding a way out in the heart of it. This is not the reality of ordinary and common life, this is dark drama. We have always had dark drama from poets and dramatists, which is what the people who condemn this passage may forget. About 500BC Sophocles wrote a play called Antigone. Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and she is doomed, and cannot escape her fate. It’s a dark play, a tragedy, and at every turn we wish it were not so. Antigone is probably not a good example of a dark drama to use; there are other more contemporary examples. I thought of Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Six children are chosen, only one makes the grade. The other five are sacrificed or destroyed, sent off to the outer darkness they hardly deserve. Even though Roald Dahl wrote it as a children’s story Willie Wonka is a very dark drama. Harry Potter is another dark drama, Harry battles Lord Voldemort and his minions. Voldemort wants Harry Potter on his side to gain his strength - but think of all the deaths in those stories of people who give their lives for the sake of Harry. Harry realises it, and does not like it, and knows he does not deserve it. JK Rowlings has written a dark drama in Harry Potter.

A dark drama is a story which explores the nature of reality or of God. It looks at the possibilities, at the contrasts; it looks at the pluses and the minuses. Is God darkness or light? Is God just and fair? Is God sane or manic? Is God weak or strong? The dark drama of the sacrifice of Isaac deals with a very simple question about God, but one which is very important, and which needs to be settled right at the start of the history of Israel, for the answer to this question will shape their whole destiny. The question is: Does God take or does God give?

Gods take. They don’t give. It’s as simple as that. Our very being knows it. Walk through the hospital wards and you will find people who know that God has taken away their health and well-being because of some bad they have done. Gods take - that is what defines a god, the ability to take. The gods of Greece and Rome took beautiful women, made humans jump through their hoops, and the higher up the scale the god was the more they could take from you. A little god might be content with fruit and nuts and a leg of lamb at Christmas time. A big god, a powerful god wants more than that. They want money or a temple. They want what it hurts you to give. If Russell wants to get on he will have to give his Jaguar to the Lord. We all know that. Gods take. And god, the supreme god, the one that stands at the very top wants to take the one thing that matters: life. Life is what that god demands. This god is not content with nuts and raisins or even money. This god is going to take our life, our hopes, all we hold dear. That’s how we know this is the supreme god. Winner takes all. Naturally Abraham has to give up Isaac to this supreme god, if that god demands it. Gods take. All the gods take: Ba’al the god of success, sex, and fertility, the god of the sea, the god of the mountains. The gods of Israel’s neighbours take; all gods take.

There is one thing, though, which the gods of Israel’s neighbours do not do: they do not give. Somewhere there grew up in the mind of the people of Israel a radical, distinctive conviction that God gives. God has given the world in creation. God has given rescue from evil in Noah, God has given a nation in Abraham’s promise. God doesn’t take, God gives. Israel, out of all peoples, comes to believe that the nature of God, the fundamental reality of God, is that God gives. And, if you wanted to, or needed to, express the truth that God gives and does not take, you would be forced to tell a story much like Abraham and Isaac. You would need to tell how the supreme god Yahweh, who has every right to claim and demand life, precious life, greatly loved life, did not do so. You would need to tell how in the middle of the darkness God does what our God will always do: give. God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son. And so the story will end with the triumphal anthem of faith: It is said to this day, on the mount of the Lord it shall be provided. Wherever God is, it shall be provided.

This is not a story to escape from, this is a story to embrace. The pain and darkness of a god who takes our life; the joy of a God who gives it.

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