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What Kind of God Would Ask
GENESIS 22:1-13, MICAH 6:6-8
This sermon was requested. Actually, several times over the years I have been asked the question in one form or another: What kind of God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? What about God's own Son? Did God sacrifice Jesus, as we sang in "How Great Thou Art" this morning? Did God send him to die?
Throughout history, adults have been quite willing to sacrifice children, and child sacrifice is still with us. Many children have been sacrificed on the altar of success by parents who sacrifice the lives of their children for the sake of making money, denying them time, attention, discipline, adequate role models, and love. Throughout history, so-called civilized people have been quite willing to sacrifice their sons on the altar of war, sending them to battlefields, never to return. Child sacrifice has been with us a long time, even though it was abolished by Abraham centuries ago.
Some 4,000 years ago in the Abraham family, the time had come to make a sacrificial offering to God. Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, lay wood and food on the donkey, took his son, Isaac, and two servants, and set off for the land of Moriah. Three days later, Abraham saw the top of the mountain in the near distance. He told the servants to remain with the donkey. He had Isaac carry the wood and they walked on foot to the top of the mountain where the temple would some day be built. Isaac noticed something was missing and said, "Father, we are carrying wood for the burnt offering, but where is the lamb?" Abraham answered, "My son, God will provide the lamb." And they continued walking.
When they arrived, Abraham carefully built an altar and placed the wood on the altar for the fire. Isaac watched with rapt attention. What must Isaac have felt when his father reached out to him, tied his hands and his feet and laid him on the wood. What must Abraham have felt! According to the Genesis account, neither of them said a word--Isaac with horror and fear, incredulous that his father would actually sacrifice him; Abraham with sorrow, anguish in an attitude of resignation. Abraham then reached for his knife, raised it, and prepared to thrust it into his boy so that the blood would flow to appease God, and then burn the body to offer God the smell of a burnt offering.
But, Abraham was interrupted! A voice clearly spoke to him, calling, "Abraham, Abraham!" Abraham answered, "Here I am." "Do not lay your hand on the child, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God." Then Abraham, filled with relief, saw a sheep caught in a bush. He grabbed the sheep, freed his son, slaughtered the sheep on the altar, and offered it up to God as a burnt offering.
The main point of this incident is that God stopped the sacrifice of Isaac. Even though child sacrifice was common in those days, it was not to be practiced by Abraham's new religion. Abraham, you remember, was called by God to move from the city of Ur in the Tigris-Euphrates valley to the land of Canaan. God entered into a covenant with Abraham where Abraham and Sarah would be parents of God's people. God promised to bless Abraham and make of him a great nation through whom God would reveal his way for the world.
The stopping of Abraham from sacrificing his son reveals a God of mercy, not a God of sacrifice. Abraham abolished child sacrifice but retained animal sacrifice. It was centuries later that animal sacrifice was also abolished by Judaism. It was the prophets who led the opposition to sacrifices.
The offering of sacrifices is based on the theology that God, in order to forgive sins, needs to be appeased. In order to forgive sin, justice requires that someone or something pay for, or compensate for, the wrongdoing. Sacrificing an animal or a bird satisfies the requirements of justice. The prophets challenged this theology. The prophets said it makes no sense for a person to sin, and then go to the temple and sacrifice an animal. The prophets preached that what God wants from his people is right living, not sacrifices; that sin and evil are overcome, not by sacrifices, but by right living.
One of the most eloquent expressions of this theology was given by the prophet Micah a few centuries before the birth of Jesus. We heard it read this morning. (Micah 6:6-8)
With what shall I come before the Lord? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my oldest child for my transgression? The Lord has shown you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
The theology of sacrifices is based on the idea: Send someone else. Sacrifice someone or something else instead of me. Here, take my child. Take my goat. Take my lamb. Take Jesus. We have a war, take our boys. The prophets rejected this theology, and called individuals to accept responsibility for their own lives, and sacrifice themselves, not someone else.
Throughout the pages of the Old Testament, we see the prophets challenging the priests and the sacrificial system. The prophets were concerned with the moral strength of the people. The priests sacrificed animals to atone for sin. The prophets preached repentance: change the way you are living. The priests sacrificed animals to appease an angry god's sense of justice. The prophets preached the doing of justice.
In Jesus' time these two traditions were alive and strong. The priests offered sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. The rabbis continued the prophetic tradition of preaching the word. In each village there was a synagogue where prayers were prayed and the word was preached. The congregation was invited to participate. We read in the gospels that Jesus stood up in the synagogues, quoted a passage of scripture from a prophet and preached. We read in Acts that Paul went to synagogues, took a passage of scripture, and applied it to Jesus; preaching that Jesus not only continued the tradition of the prophets, but fulfilled the hope and expectations of the prophets.
Jesus aligned himself with the prophets and strongly opposed the priests and sacrifices. Remember how Jesus drove out the money changers from the temple, decrying the fact that the temple was far from being a place of prayer. Jesus' opposition to the sacrificial system led to his death.
The historical development of these two traditions is interesting. After the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D., Judaism never again offered sacrifices. Nowhere today do you find priests in Judaism. Today, throughout the world, you find Jewish synagogues and rabbis still doing what was probably done in the synagogues of Jesus' day--praying, reading and teaching the word.
In Christianity, conflict between the two traditions continued. In the early centuries, they tried to combine the two traditions in worship. The first part of a worship service resembled the synagogue service, where the word was preached. After the service of the word, the unbaptized were dismissed and the baptized then participated in a service which gradually became a reenactment of temple sacrifice, believing that the death of Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice. God's firstborn, unlike Abraham's Isaac, was sacrificed. Even to this day, Roman Catholics believe that in the Mass, Jesus is again being sacrificed for their sins.
During the next centuries of Christianity, the service of the word was eliminated and sacrifice became the sole form of Christian worship. In a very real sense, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was a reaction to the dominance of the sacrificial system, and a reinstatement of the synagogue service of the word. Protestant clergy, like the prophets and rabbis, now preached the word. Our worship service today is a service of the word, where the Word of God is preached and applied to our lives, emphasizing right living and right relationships, rather than a reenactment of a sacrificed Lamb or firstborn son on the altar to appease God, to atone for sin.
I personally place myself with the prophets rather than with the priests. I don't think it is necessary to believe that Jesus was sent by God to be sacrificed for sin, that the death of Jesus somehow satisfied some celestial scale of justice, or that the sacrifice of Jesus appeased an angry god.
I do believe, however, that Jesus willingly sacrificed his own life in order to defeat sin and evil. Jesus gave up his life. Jesus sacrificed his life, gave everything he had, everything he owned which, when he died, consisted of a robe the soldiers threw dice for. Jesus gave his blood, offered it not to appease an angry god, but to reveal the depths of God's love for humankind. To overcome sin and evil which are so deeply rooted in individual lives and so pervasive throughout society, takes the life of a good man, the Son of God, willing to shed his blood and die.
It is not so much God who demands sacrifice, as it is the hurts, pains and injustice of life. To make any changes in this world requires sacrifice--complete, total dedication.
To overcome sin and evil requires personal sacrifice, not the sacrificing of someone or something else in our place.
To touch heavy hearts with a word of love; to lift heavy burdens of grief, guilt, and fear from people's shoulders, might require you to sacrifice some plans you had made for yourself.
To break through walls of prejudice, suspicion and hatred, might require you to sacrifice your social standing and prestige by challenging the assumptions of your friends and associates.
To offer sanctuary to El Salvadoran refugees who are fleeing for their lives might require you to sacrifice your reputation by disobeying the immigration laws and policies of our government.
To save youth from low self-esteem, drugs, and defeat, might require you to sacrifice time to spend with kids, by volunteering to work with our church's youth ministry.
"To do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God" (Micah 6:8), requires us to sacrifice selfishness, self-centeredness, pride, and greed.
To overcome sin and evil takes people who will believe in something so deeply, so wholeheartedly, they will gladly and joyfully sacrifice. To make a difference in this world takes people who will sacrifice their time, money, and energy to do God's work.
Life demands sacrifice. The needs are so great. Sin and evil are so pervasive, it takes sacrifice to overcome them; not someone else's sacrifice, but yours!
© 1989 Douglas I. Norris