Thursday, July 1, 2021

Abraham and Isaac - the sacrifice of a child?!

Genesis 22.1-19 - Abraham goes to sacrifice Isaac.

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        Once upon time there was a cave woman, who lived in cave-women did in those days. Outside her cave was a tree. And verily, it came to pass, that Cave-woman noticed that when it rained, the tree seemed to come alive. She also noticed that at certain times of the year, if conditions were just right, the tree produced delicious fruit that she could gather for food.

Now Cave-Woman had a cave-husband - who wasn't especially interested in fruit. He preferred his food to have been running around before he killed it and ate it, fresh. Cave-husband used to go off with his mates to hunt animals. Sometimes they would be gone for days at a time...and when they returned home, they would talk about the hunt, around the campfire. They wondered why each hunt was so different. Could it be that someone, or something, was affecting how each hunt went?  Cave-woman would listen to these stories around the campfire. She saw similarities between the hunters' talk about the hunt, and her own observations about her tree.

One night, Cave-woman said to Cave-husband, "I wonder whether there are forces that interfere in some way with my tree, and your hunt". "Hmm," replied Cave-husband, "perhaps you are right." That would explain why every hunt is different. I wonder if there is a way to persuade these forces to do what we want them to do for us?"  Cave-woman thought for a moment. "Where do you think these forces might be?" she asked. "Well," replied Cave-husband, "I reckon they must be up in the sky...looking down on us. After all, that's where the big burning yellow thing is. And that's where the rain comes from. They must be sent by these forces".

"I know!" said Cave-woman "What if we were to put some of my fruit, and some of your last hunt up on the top of that hill...and maybe set fire to it? Then the forces will smell the smoke from our food, and will know that we are grateful to them, and sorry for anything we’ve done wrong.  Maybe then they will help us to find more food?" "Great idea," said Cave-husband. "Let's do it!"

And so burnt offerings were made to the forces in the sky...forces that came to be known as 'the gods'. There were gods for everything. Gods of fruit, gods of rain, gods of the hunt, gods of the lake. One of my favourites is the god of beer!

But, over time, people began to puzzle over why the gods didn't always respond to their offerings and prayers.  Larger and greater sacrifices were offered, but the gods seemed deaf.  Then, around the camp-fire, some bright spark suggested “Perhaps we have to sacrifice one of our very own children?" There was initial horror at this suggestion, of course. But still the rain didn't come. Eventually, one family, unwillingly, desperately, for the good of the people, agreed to let one of their children be sacrificed.

And the day after, the rains came. That did it. That unhappy co-incidence meant that now people thought they understood what the gods wanted. And so all sorts of horrific sacrifices began...human sacrifices, child sacrifices.  Children's bodies were built into the walls of houses - to protect the house from evil. Children were carried up to mountain-tops, at key points of the year, and sacrificed to bring the Spring.

Into that kind of world, the Bible tells us that Abraham came. He was a traveller. He explored the world around him and as he travelled, he became convinced that all these small gods were, at best, pale manifestations of one Supreme Being who bound the universe together.  For a while, however, he still imagined that this one God had the same bloodlust as all the small gods. And so when, in great old age, he unexpectedly became a dad, he thought that his duty was to sacrifice his new son to God.  So, he set off for a nearby mountain-top, to carry out his duty.

But when he got to the mountain-top, he had a mountain-top experience!  "Why," he thought, "would God give me the wonderful gift of this son, just to have me kill him as a sacrifice? It doesn't make any sense. Surely there is another reason why I have been given a son at such a great age?"  At that moment, he noticed a ram, with its horns caught in the bushes on the side of the mountain. He saw this as a sign...a sign from God that indeed, the sacrifice of children was not what God wanted. Joyfully, he caught hold of the ram...and sacrificed it instead, as a substitute for his son. A new day had dawned in the world's understanding of God.

Over the centuries that followed, Abraham's descendants slowly began to change the world's understanding of what God was like. Abraham's many-times great grandson, Moses, wrote a book of laws that limited the sacrifices to something rather more reasonable. A dove, a sheep, a bull - a simple transaction that enabled the penitent sinner to walk away, assured of forgiveness.  

However, even this limit on sacrifice wasn’t enough for God. He sent prophets to the people who said, "Don't bother any more with your sacrifices of animals. God isn't interested in you trying to earn his love...he loves you anyway.  Learn his wisdom and follow his ways.  Just ask for God’s forgiveness and favour, and it will flow!"  Their words were written down for us...we can read their frustrated cries in the pages of the Hebrew Bible. But, they were still ignored. After all, the leaders of the people had grown very wealthy on the system of sacrificing. Until, that is another man entered human history...

Jesus of Nazareth was a man like no other. He talked to God in a startlingly new and intimate a heavenly Father.  Instead of demanding blood sacrifices of the people, this Jesus offered his own life as an ultimate sacrifice for the whole world.  God didn’t want human sacrifices; and to prove it, God was willing to sacrifice himself instead! The writer to the Hebrews makes this clear, in chapter 9, when he explains that after all the centuries of blood sacrifices, Christ “appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself”.

Then something wonderful happened.  Somehow, the sacrificed Jesus came back to life. He appeared again to his followers, and promised them that he would always be with them, in Spirit...leading them ever onwards into a deeper and deeper understanding of who God is, and who they are as his children. 

That in a nutshell, my brothers and sisters is the history of our religion.  We worship the God who leads us across the ages from ignorance towards wisdom, from fear towards love, from the blood sacrifice of animals (and even children!) towards the willing, living sacrifice of our own lives.  Amen. 

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