This story from Genesis is known by Jewish rabbis as the Akedah – the near sacrifice of Isaac. It’s one of the more disturbing readings of the Torah. The idea that after Abraham turns out his firstborn son and his mother God would make the demand on Abraham to offer his son, his only son, whom he loved as a burnt offering is just too horrific to wrap our heads around. And the way it is told is absolutely cringe worthy! A three days journey before you leave behind the servants and continue on … Abraham knowing all the while what he was going to do and, from the questions Isaac raises, it’s unlikely he has any idea of what is going to happen. It’s just nauseating! What kind of God would do such a thing?
Needless to say, the difficult scriptures are the ones which generate the most discussion. This passage is right up there with the whole book of Job insofar as the amount of rabbinic commentary. There is much going on here but there are two things which are commonly held about this story. The first is that God is testing Abraham. There appears to be some question as to whether Abraham trusts in God completely or whether he has become overly attached to his son Isaac – in essence making Isaac an idol of sorts. The second objective of this story is to explain the etiology or root cause of why the Israelites did not sacrifice children as was common in other ancient cultures around the Near East and indeed around the world. The prophetic tradition of the Bible upholds the abhorrence of child sacrifice for the Israelites and this story provides the background of why the Israelites are different from their neighbors.
In this story, God has asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. There are two kinds of sacrifices in the Jewish tradition. A regular sacrifice, like the Passover lamb, would be ritually offered to God and also become part of a sacred meal. A burnt offering is giving completely and totally to God – put on the altar and burnt so that you could not take back any of it. It is the latter which God demands of Abraham.
Now the narrative says that at the last minute, Isaac is spared and a ram is offered up in Isaac’s place as the burnt offering. But I think if we look at this from an emotional and spiritual angle, there were other things offered up and burnt on the altar that day. Certainly the trust Isaac had in his father was destroyed that day! Think about it … if you were Isaac, would you trust the old man after this?? Not so much. I can only imagine Sarah asking Isaac how the trip with dad went … “Oh, he just tried to sacrifice me, but other than that, it was fine.”
When you look beyond the end of today’s reading, there are some things which support the idea of the death of the father/son relationship. There is no mention of Isaac leaving the mountain in the narrative – although we know he does because he shows up later in the story. I know if I had been Isaac, I would have bolted off of that mountain as soon as I was freed! The story says that Abraham returned to the two young men he left behind and they went down to Beer-Sheba and Abraham lived there. There is no mention of Abraham returning to Sarah after this incident and the very next part of the story records Sarah’s death. It is said that Abraham went up to mourn for Sarah – indicating he was not there when she died. Abraham buries Sarah in a cave at Machpelah near Hebron … but Isaac is not mentioned at all. It appears he is not there for his mother’s burial. We hear that Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac, but we do not hear any direct communication between Abraham and his son over this – it is all done through Abraham’s servant. Finally Abraham dies and we do hear that Isaac and Ishmael together bury Abraham in the cave at Machpelah next to Sarah. The text implies that something changed between Abraham and Isaac that day on Mount Moriah and their relationship was forever changed … the way they had related to each other was burned on that altar that day. This raises a question for us: What might God be asking you to give up as a burnt offering so that you might grow closer to God in Christ? It’s a difficult question because there are all kinds of things which can kidnap our wills and affections.
Today is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul – the pillars of the Church. Both of them had to make many burnt offerings in their lifetimes. They left their jobs to follow Christ, they left their security that offered, and eventually they were both martyred in Rome for their faith. But there were metaphoric burnt offerings they made – a major one being their prejudice against Gentiles. As observant Jews, Peter and Paul had to let go of the idea that Gentiles were excluded from Christ’s message – and a deeply ingrained prejudice is hard to offer over to God. But it was a kind of burnt offering which was given over so that the gospel could reach to the ends of the earth.
Yesterday at the Frederick Pride Worship service, we heard Frank Schaefer speak. If you've been following church news, Frank is the United Methodist minister who was defrocked for performing a same sex wedding for his son. As he told the gathering yesterday, of his four children, two of his three sons are gay and his daughter is lesbian. He said his youngest son had to “come out as straight!” He shared his journey of how his children led him to become an ally for the LGBT community within the United Methodist Church. He also spoke of his very real fears. After performing the wedding for his son, he expected to be fired from his job. He did not expect that six years after doing this wedding, charges would be filed against him and he would be put on trial and be stripped of his right to serve as a minister of the Gospel. He spoke of the fear of losing his call which meant losing his income, the family’s health insurance, and having no means by which to make a living. This trial didn't just end up about him, his own LGBT children were called to testify and be cross-examined. The whole family was put through a terrible ordeal. Frank knew he would be asked whether or not he would do another same sex wedding. He knew the church wanted to hear some kind of equivocating answer like, “Well, I can’t answer that because it would depend upon the circumstances and context.” That would have been the answer that might have protected his position … but it wasn't the truth. When Frank testified, he put his trust in God alone, threw away his notes and spoke from the heart about how the church has sinned in rejecting LGBT people and that he would never turn his back on this community because of his call to be a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel rooted in love. Frank made a burnt offering that day of his livelihood, his call, and the security of his family. During this time, he was able to sustain the family on his speaking honorarium and, when the insurance ran out he told us, “Obamacare kicked in and we now have better insurance coverage than the United Methodist Church ever offered our family!” Frank offered everything as a burnt offering … and on that mountain the Lord provided.
Not all of us are called to make such dramatic burnt offerings; however, we all have things in our lives which get in the way of following Christ more freely and fully. As a parent, I know the temptation to be overly involved in my children’s lives and over identify with them to the point of obsession. Admittedly, there is a fine line between caring and obsessive parenting. Perhaps Abraham’s issue was an obsession with Isaac – even to the point of rejecting Ishmael. It’s not that I would be offering up my children as a burnt offering so much as it is offering up my obsession with them – giving that completely over to God and taking nothing back.
Maybe what has captured you is your work – an addiction highly rewarded in our culture but one which can destroy significant relationships with spouses, partners, children and friends. When work gets so intrusive that I don’t have time for friends or family, then maybe it’s time for the way I relate to my work to be given over as a burnt offering.
Very early next Sunday, our mission team will be leaving for Indianapolis to work with some of their vulnerable citizens. You all are making a burnt offering in doing this. First you are offering up your time which is a burnt offering of sorts because you cannot take it back! Second, you are offering up yourselves in service and you will be changed in that process. You cannot take that service back and you will be different in some way when you return. That is the nature of a burnt offering.
God does not wrest things out of our hands against our will in order that we might be more like Christ. We have to be willing to give over completely that which impedes our ability to live freely and fully for God in Christ. What will you give over completely as your burnt offering?