Faith sermons Suffering

The Existential Faith of Abraham

“After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.'” Here begins one of the most disturbing stories in the Old Testament. God asks Abraham to kill his son. In the end (spoiler alert!) he doesn’t have to . But what sort of God demands that – and what sort of person is prepared to do it? Is this simply an appalling story we should ignore – or does it plumb the profound depths of human experience at the limit?

This is a dark, mysterious story. It seems to come from a long, long way away: many miles away from our experience. It’s a time where the right of the father to the life of the child was absolute and unchallenged, and where human sacrifice was far from unknown. Not only distant, but troubling. God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son, the one through who God’s promise might be kept. It is troubling and difficult on so many levels – would we not be better off just ditching it as an embarrassing memory from a time and place unutterably remote from our own?

Nothing I can say can un-strange, un-jar this story. But I don’t want to ignore it. It has a central place in our tradition. It is a key story which has shaped our faith, and I think it asks two questions: Who is God? And how do we respond?

One of the ways that it is culturally strange to us is that it would never occur to us to sacrifice our child. The idea is abhorrent. But to the cultures surrounding Israel, it was quite common. Children weren’t seen in the same way that we see them, as people with rights. In fact this story stands at the beginning of a long tradition which says that children aren’t your possessions, to be disposed of as you will. God does not desire the sacrifice of a child – in fact, God forbids it. This would have been surprising to the surrounding people, who regularly practiced child sacrifice.

The reading begins with these words: “After these things.” After what things, we may ask? After the many adventures that Abraham and Sarah and their family have had after heeding God’s word and leaving their family and people and ancestral gods. The LORD said go, so Abram went. After the promise, made to Abraham and to Sarah, reinforced several times by God – which moved both Abraham and Sarah to laughter. A child? At our age? Dark, bitter laughter. The laughter which comes instead of tears. And then, miraculously, the arrival of Isaac, child of the promise, named after laughter.

God and Abraham have an ongoing relationship, a long journey of Abraham learning to trust God.

The passage sets the scene at the opening, saying: “God tested Abraham.” So, we know what the passage is about from the get-go. It’s a test. We might be tempted to think that it’s an archaic, even offensive, way of thinking about God. Like he’s some sort of sadistic schoolteacher in the sky picking out people at random and setting them horrible challenges, just to make some sort of point. But we don’t believe in that sort of theological sadism[1].

However, life can, and does, put us in very difficult, even impossible situations. Situations where we have to lay it all on the line. The latest developments in the Coronavirus situation, with Darebin named as a hotspot and the tightening of restrictions in Victoria might seem like a trivial thing in comparison to Abraham’s problem, but it’s real enough for all that. It’s a test of our faith.

“And [Abraham] said to [God]: ‘Here I am.’” One way to deal with an impossible situation, something that threatens to overwhelm us is to avoid it. To invest ourselves in an ideology, or a faith that pretends to have all the answers – a faith that keeps us safe from the frightening outside world. A conspiracy theory, perhaps, where if only we stop the 5G rollout, then we’ll solve the virus.  Or the sort of theology-light that says that, because Jesus has promised that God will hear our prayers, nothing bad will happen to us.

Because, as Abraham would tell you: being a person of faith in no way protects you from bad things happening. In fact they can sometimes make things harder. If Abraham hadn’t trusted God’s promise, then he could have just shrugged off his problems, and given way to a comfortably numb cynicism.

But God is, in fact, revealed to be faithful. Abraham trusts God, we are told, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. The fundamental fact about Abraham is his faith. Not that it was easy for him, not that God didn’t ask hard, even impossible, things from him. But Abraham has the courage to be open to God, and to life.

God, Abraham shows us, is faithful.

Abraham trusts when all human hope is gone. Life can call us into situations where hope is gone. Sometimes it’s our own fault. Sometimes it’s not. This is a messy, ambivalent, paradoxical story. Just like life itself is messy, ambivalent, paradoxical. When something terrible happens to you, or someone you love, it seems to go beyond “fair” or “unfair.” You might ask “why me?” You might equally ask “why not me?” You lose your bearings, find yourself stranded overnight on the winter mountainside, with the night coming on. Your fundamental vulnerability suddenly and terrifyingly obvious.

How do we find our way home?

Roll it forward to the New Testament, and we see the same pattern as in Abraham’s story. Abraham is put to the test in sacrificing his son. Jesus is put to the test in the crucifixion. Will he go through with it? Does his faith equal, or even transcend, Abraham’s? Jesus is open the God, and open to the world, and takes full responsibility. God, in Jesus, willingly sacrifices himself for our sake.

And there the matter might have rested. But, just like God provided a substitute for Isaac, God raised Jesus up from the dead. When all human hope was at an end, when everything seemed to be over, God surpassed anything we could have expected.

God is faithful. Our challenge is in learning to put our full faith in him. There are lots of good things in the world to help us in life – science and medicine and government funded health systems and all the rest, and I’m not saying that we should just ignore all those things.

But underlying everything, how do we become people who know, who really know in our bones, that everything really is OK? How do we become people with an existential stance of trust?

God gives himself for us and to us. In the final analysis, we have nothing to give but ourselves. Not our money, our time, our energy, or at least not just those things, but our very selves – our deepest trust. Life as a disciples is a long journey to learn what it means to have “no other god before God.”

This is the choice which is ours to make. God calls us. Do we block our ears, distract ourselves with ideology or shopping or whatever? Or do we open ourselves to God and to the world, as Abraham did? Because it is only to those who trust God, that God can give Godself.  And in the final analysis, that is the only thing really worth having. And in that gift, we find everything else given back to us.

A sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA on 24/6/2020

[1] Read Suffering by Dorothee Soelle for why.

By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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