“When Following God is Hard;” Genesis 22:1-18; June 29, 2014, FPC Jesup

“When Following God is Hard”
Genesis 22:1-18
June 29, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01There’s a lot you can find out about the faith we practice, by what we teach our children. There’s a particular canon of stories that make it into children’s story Bibles. I bet you could help me name them. What are some familiar ones? Creation, Adam & Eve, Noah and the Ark, Moses in a basket, Jesus Turning Water to Wine, Feeding 5000, Last Supper, Jesus’ Baptism, Nativity Story. Though I won’t go so far as to say that these stories are necessarily easy to understand, we can tell kids about how God show’s God’s love, promises, works miracles, and in general, shows up for God’s people.

SLIDE 2 - Abraham and SarahOur story today is of a different variety. Abraham is someone we lift up to our children as a great and faithful man, but if we want to be authentic, we cannot distill his story so easily into a child’s storybook. We may tell the story of an angel telling Sarah she’s going to have a child and her laughter at the thought given her age. That is a sweet story with a happy ending, at least how we usually hear it. And sure you may have sung “Father Abraham Has Many Sons, Many Sons Has Father Abraham!” but that song comes after this story. In this particular story we are situated between two happy anecdotal understandings of Abraham’s larger story. We are in the strange in between of God’s incomprehensibly painful request, and Abraham’s incomprehensibly obedient faith.

Slide03We read that God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…and offer him…as a burnt offering.” And then in the very next sentence, without so much as a gasp, moan, or shout, any of which would be more than understandable given the circumstances, we read, “So Abraham rose early in the morning…” and then he goes about readying himself to take Isaac to the mountain to sacrifice him.

Would the God you believe in ask a parent to sacrifice their only, long awaited child? Would the God I believe in do this? There’s no point in really asking, since here God is, asking Abraham to take Isaac up to be sacrificed. But it is worthy of reflection, how does this strange and painful request change how we view our God? Is our God so cruel? What is God getting at? Abraham is one hundred years old! Hasn’t Abraham been through enough? How would you react? How would I?

Slide04What was the conversation like between Abraham and Isaac as they’re going up to the mountain? We’re told that they traveled for three days. Three days that Abraham knew resolutely of the dark and terrible thing to which he had been called and to which he was driven to complete. What on earth did they talk about those three days? Did they talk about Isaac’s school lessons? Did they talk about their fieldwork? Or maybe Isaac spoke of his affection for another girl in their village. How could Abraham keep the conversation casual? How could he not weep at Isaac’s dreams for his future? How could be not weep at his own dreams for Isaac’s future?

Slide05And where was Sarah in all of this? Sarah who had walked beside Abraham in seasons of both scheming and faith, surely she would have something to say. Maybe she didn’t know. Maybe Abraham didn’t say anything to her. Maybe that’s why he rose early in the morning, to avoid her eyes that could see right through his intentions. While she has been a partner to Abraham throughout both the good and the bad of their relationship, she is nowhere to be seen in this story, left at home while Abraham takes the burden of this request on by himself.

Slide06In this story there’s a strange covenantal conversation happening between God and Abraham. God had promised to Abraham over and over again that he would be the father of many nations[1], and then, requested Abraham sacrifice his only son from his beloved wife, Sarah. Isaac was more than just the son whom Abraham loved, he was also the answer to a promise, the conduit through which the many nations would come to being. God was asking Abraham to sacrifice that which God had promised.

It’s seems like God is playing a strange game with Abraham, which given the history between the two of them, doesn’t seem like a great idea on God’s part. Of course, God is God and will do whatever God wants, but still, it’s strange. Sure we know Abraham for his great faith now, but we needn’t go too far back in Abraham’s story to see his weakness. He did not trust that he would have a son with his wife, and so he had a son by his wife’s servant, Hagar. The family line started by his first-born son, Ishmael would continue on to be the beginning of Islam, solidifying the theological break began by two very differently regarded half-brothers; a rift in God’s people that began with Abraham and Sarah’s mistrust in God’s plan.

Slide07As is the case among many of God’s people, including and perhaps especially us, it can take a long, long time for us to understand what God is doing in our lives, and desiring to do through our lives. God’s the only one that sees all the gears turning, all the many lives unfolding, all the pieces coming together, and when we approach our all knowing God from our own particular circumstances, it can be frustrating to not have God’s perspective. We have so many questions, many with answers that are only incrementally revealed throughout our lifetimes, understanding our lives through living them.

Some look at the lives of Christians and see faith, while others see willing ignorance, two sides to the same coin. From the edge of these two perspectives we approach Abraham on the mountain bound journey, asking how he could be so uncritical in his obedience even while we applaud his faith.

Slide08I’m not sure what it was that allowed Abraham to go all in on this request of God. Sure the Biblical author chalks it up to faithfulness, but the history between Abraham and God is such that it makes me think that there was more at play. Faith, yes, but perhaps also acceptance of how utterly outmatched Abraham is by God. Maybe there’s even a sad sort of curiosity? I could see him shouting out in the night “come on God, you’re the one who promised I would be the father of many nations…what’s your plan now?” And yet, day after day, for three days they travel to that mountain with wood for the burnt offering, but no burnt offering.

Slide09The way Abraham’s actions are described in this story are rather frightening in their detachment:

“Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.”

There is no, “lovingly he regarded his son for the last time,” or “with a tear in his eye he took the knife.” The description is dry and perfunctory, inevitable, unflinching.

I don’t know about you, but that bothers me. To me, Abraham has always come across a bit callous and resigned. Is that what faith is? Is this is the sort of faith to which were called?

Slide10In the next verses we hear, “the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’” This is the third “Here I am” of the passage: the first, Abraham answering God’s call in the night; the second, Abraham answering Isaac’s question at the absence of a sacrifice; and the third, Abraham answering the angel. “Here I am” is Abraham’s constant reply. Over and over again he doesn’t know what is to happen next, but his response is being present, listening, and obeying.

The angel continues saying to Abraham, “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.”

Slide11While God does ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, God ultimately stops him. After three days of sorrow, it turns out God was only testing Abraham. Surely this relieved Abraham, but I don’t think that’s the type of sorrow you can really forget. I’m sure that it changed his relationship with God, both in how he understood God’s requests and understood his own ability to respond. Abraham learned through his experience that sacrifice was not God’s ultimate goal with Abraham, rather God wanted Abraham’s obedience.

SLIDE 12 - Hosea 6 6In Hosea 6:6, Hosea brings these words from God: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

Slide13Sacrifice is not something God asks of us, but it is something that God has offered for us. Abraham did not have to give up his son’s life on that mountaintop that day, but God willingly gives up his son, Jesus through death on the cross. God offers that unfathomable sacrifice, pays that unimaginable price, for the sake of all of God’s children. God does not ask us to make the same sacrifice. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

[1] Gen. 12:2-3, 15:5, 17:2-9

“Seeing in a Mirror Dimly;” Jeremiah 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13; February 3, 2013; FPC Jesup

“Seeing in a Mirror Dimly”
Jeremiah 1:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13
February 3, 2013

First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide01Since Valentine’s Day is coming up next week it may seem fitting that today our New Testament passage today is from the “love chapter” of First Corinthians. This passage is often read at weddings, usually preceded by the rest of the chapter, but today we will be intentionally focusing on the later part of the passage and what it may be saying to us today. This passage is a message about love, but it is more than earthly and relational love. It is about the unimaginably vast love that God has for us. A love that God desires to reveal to us, a love that “now we see in a mirror dimly.”

SLIDE 2 Ancient MirrorThe original intended audience of this text, the community of Christians in Corinth, would’ve understood what was meant by the dimness of a mirror. The city of Corinth was famous for its mirrors. However, their mirrors were not like ours, but rather were made of hammered copper or brass. The reflection that they showed could give some idea of shape and form, but not exactly a clear image.

SLIDE 3 - Eye Doctor EquipmentA couple of weeks ago I went to the eye doctor for an eye exam. They used that big machine that goes in front of your eyes, and the doctor clicks through on the different prescription, asking “is this one better?” “or this one?” Each prescription changing my view ever so slightly. One might be a little clearer, one might compress the vision sideways a bit. As I have to make each decision, each preference, I come a little bit closer to what is the right prescription for me, the view I’d like to keep for my next pair of glasses.

This is we’ll be doing in worship this Lent. Though our view of God is as in a dim mirror, we will be discussing various spiritual practices that will hopefully each allow us to see God a little clearer, each one allowing us to focus a little bit differently as we seek to see God through each of them.

Unlike this eye exam we are not looking for one set prescription that will give us the way to see God. Our vision of God will only be entirely clear when we leave this earth and meet God in heaven. So, these different lenses of spiritual practices, this different mirrors reflecting God are all tools that may help to reveal just a bit more about God, help us to see God from a different angle.

Slide04 So, what are spiritual practices then? Just as we refer to doctors as “practicing medicine,” practicing our faith is a similar exercise. We can dig deep into the knowledge of God by encountering God through scripture and through shared experiences of God in history and our lives today. The more we get to know God, the more questions we have, but we also grow in our familiarity and comfort in asking those questions. They also seek to prepare us for the sort of encounter with God that Jeremiah experienced in our text today, enabling the Lord to “put [God’s own] words in [our] mouth[s].”

Slide05Today the nation will watch as the 49ers and the Ravens face off in the Super Bowl. These teams have been training for this one event for months, some of them playing football for their whole entire lives. This one game is the culmination of every other NFL game that has happened this season. Fans all over the country, and even around the world will watch with intensity to see what will happen on that football field.

Can you imagine how very different this game would be today if there was no sort of preparation? If there was no work to come to this point? Perhaps if someone like me decided to walk on the field and play today? I can say with certainty it would not go well for me. Best case scenario I would confuse everyone. Worst case scenario I would get utterly crushed. Nothing in my life has been directed towards becoming a professional football player. I am utterly unsuited for such a game and trying to jump in would be a terrible situation for everyone

SLIDE 6 - Spiritually FitThis is not to say that each of us needs to have professional athlete level of understanding of God in order to “get in the game,” but that we should work to be as spiritually “in shape” as we can be in our own lives, in our own time, so that we may be equipped to do the work of God in this world. God desires to meet us just as we are, just where we are, and to change us through the ways we seek God in our world.

SLIDE 7 - Encountering GodSome of the pieces of this spiritual equipment that we will encounter this Lenten season are: iconography, seeking God’s image in this world; fasting, hungering for God; prayers of petition, crying out to God when we feel hopeless; traveling a labyrinth, encountering God on our journey; prayers of confession, admitting our need for forgiveness; foot washing, encountering others with a servant’s heart; and prayers of praise. Each week we will discuss a different spiritual discipline and each week we will add another lens through which we may seek God.

SLIDE 8 - MirrorEncountering our 1 Corinthians passage with today’s mirrors in mind provides another level of understanding what was intended here. Though our mirrors are much clearer than that of ancient Corinth, mirrors only show us one side of things. Even when we use another mirror to reflect an image behind us, we are still only seeing the surface of things. Mirrors only allow us to see what is tangible, not what is intangible. Trying to encounter an uncontainable God in a two-dimensional way will always lead to disappointment.

Richard Foster, theologian and author of “Celebration of Discipline,” writes this of our need for spiritual practices: “Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people. The classical disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to answer to a hollow world.”

Slide10During Lent, many Christians around the world temporarily give up something that is life giving, so that we can seek life in Christ alone. Throughout worship this Lenten season we will be focusing on another way that you can seek life in Christ, through encountering God in these various spiritual practices. I would encourage you to use this season to discover new ways that you may connect with God through adding a new spiritual practice to your life. It is my hope that in exploring these spiritual practices we all might walk a little closer with Christ during this season of Lent, in anticipation and reverence of Christ’s great sacrifice of love.

In our passage in Corinthians, Paul says we will know God even as we are known. That is an exciting thing to think about: that one day we will fully know God, and that right here and now God fully knows us. This knowing of God requires us to “grow up” in our faith, as it says in verse 11: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

What does it mean to understand God as an adult? Episcopal pastor, Rev. Robert Wright explains that it has much more to do with an attitude of selflessness than with our age. He writes, “The beginning of understanding comes with listening. A grownup love listens.  It listens to God and it listens to the world.  It hears what is said and what is not said.  It hears with the heart.”SLIDE 13 - Lent Child

This message of calling us into adulthood seems contradictory to Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10: 14-15: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

We are called to live in this tension: to have the faith of children but seek to understand God as an adult. The faith of a child is one of trust but also one of questions. As we study the different spiritual disciplines throughout this season of Lent, I would encourage you to ask these questions, but also to live firmly in the faith that God is seeking to be present in your life.

May we discover new ways to connect with God, so that we may be spiritually fit to bring others into God’s kingdom. Amen.