Friday, July 04, 2014

Sermon: Whose Voice Is It?

Whose Voice is It? 
A Sermon by Fr. John R. Smith, June 29, 2014.

I have two special joys this week. First joy was Terri and my fourth wedding anniversary Thursday and thankfulness for so many of you who celebrated with us that day four years ago. My second joy is that today is the 39th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood on the feast of SS Peter and Paul June 29th, 1975. I am so thankful for the gift of priesthood and all the people that I've been privileged to minister and who have also ministered to me!

Except when I've been on vacation, or another clergy has taken a turn, for 39 years I've given a sermon almost every week. In recent years the preaching task has taken on a greater urgency. I understand more clearly that the words of Jesus and his example in the Gospel are so vital for us and the world right now. Like today's Gospel: Jesus gives us the basics for reaping a heavenly reward:
  • offer a cup of cold water to a child or thirsty person (a man who had come for food asked if he could have a cup of water!);
  • welcome a righteous person;
  • welcome a prophet;
  • welcome one who comes in Jesus’ name.

Doing these things create a new atmosphere in the world and usher in the Kingdom of God (heaven) here and now.

So, most often, my focus in preaching is usually on the Gospel and Jesus' actions. But today I'm led to consider one of the most important texts in the Hebrew Bible that over two billion people (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) look to: The Sacrifice of Isaac. Muslims call it the "Sacrifice of Ishmael." Christians see Jesus pre-figured in this text when, after the climatic part of the scene is over, and the boy Isaac is spared, he asks his father Abraham: "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Isn't it interesting that we call Jesus "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?"

Some background: In the ancient near east child sacrifice was a common practice. The gods required child sacrifice in order to earn their favor and help in all aspects of life. So to see a father taking a young son up the mountain with a knife tied to his waist and a bundle of fire wood would not be surprising at all. It happened often. What would be surprising is to see Abraham and the boy returning to the village! People would ask themselves: Why did God stop him from sacrificing his son?

Rembrandt's depiction of Abraham and Isaac
Now, of course, we are happy God stopped Abraham just in the nick of time. The very thought of child sacrifice turns us off completely, sickens us. Most sermons on this story, even a few of my own, focus on Abraham's faith in willing to go all the way, even sacrificing his son, if necessary, to obey God. But this interpretation begs the question (not mentioned usually) of what kind of God do we worship in Jesus? Do we believe in a God who would ever ask us or expect us to kill another human being? I think not! Or, do we have a God that requires us to pass one test after another, even to being willing to sacrifice our own flesh and blood, and then who says ok, you passed the test? Is faith about one test after test from God after another, or, and this is crucial, does our faith help us to find out who God truly is and what God really wants from us? I think so!

Jesus revealed to us a heavenly Father who would never ask us to kill another person as a test of our faith- to prove our love. But In ancient cultures, 4000 years ago, the world was filled with people who believed in their heart of hearts that God wanted them to kill other people to obey and please God. Didn't God give the word to Abraham in our first reading this morning?

"God tested Abraham. . . and said. . .Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you."

Based on what I've just shared with you, was this the command of the living and true God? A clue is in the Hebrew text. "God" here translates the Hebrew word "elohim" that means God, yes, but is also plural. It can also refer to the "gods of the nations," the gods everyone was afraid of and wanted to appease. What if Abraham, a man of his culture, heard one of these "false gods" commanding him, like so many others of his day, to sacrifice his son? Like I said, child sacrifice to appease the gods was very common. But, when Abraham is ready to thrust the knife into Isaac, at the very last moment, the text says "The angel of the Lord called from heaven" and commanded him to "stop!" The "Lord" in this text is not translated by "elohim="the gods," but rather the word Yahweh, the living and true God who created the heavens and the earth.

So there are two competing "voices" in the text. One "god" voice saying "Take your son Isaac and sacrifice him for me." Or another "God" voice that cries out "Abraham, Abraham!" Don't do it! Stop the killing, stop the bloodshed. Don't sacrifice human beings for the "gods." If you must sacrifice something- take a ram. God has a different plan!

Years later the psalmist of Ps. 40 sings out at vs. 6: Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.

It's all about tuning our ears to the true voice of God. Abraham had to learn it and so do we. Think about it. Would the true God ever ask us to sacrifice our sons and daughters? We shouldn't answer to quickly in the negative. As much as we abhor the whole notion of child sacrifice and look back upon ancient, primitive cultures with disdain, we still in our day, practice a very real form of child sacrifice, believing God telling us to send our sons and daughters to be sacrificed for our god-like and god-given freedoms our nation holds dear. We speak in very religious tones about "harm's way." Sacred truths must be defended even if it takes the lives of our sons and daughters.

So whose voice are we listening to? Is it the voice of the "gods" of the nations, or the voice of the Lord God, whose angel stayed Abraham's hand. God got Abraham's attention and stopped the killing. What would it be like if two billion people in this world, who look to Abraham as their father, heard the voice of the true God and stopped killing each other? What kind of world would we have? What would happen? Abraham, at this key point of his life, discerned what kind of God had called him and stopped listening to the false gods. Abraham heard the Voice of the true God who creates life and never sanctions killing. I believe we can do the same, with God's help. Amen.