Sermon: Advent Sunday, Year B – The Patriarchs
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, I have been signalling it for some time, and I hope that as we begin our walk in Advent, you have brought your Scriptures with you. If we are to become a dynamic, spirit-filled church then we must become a sacramentally-based, bible-inspired church which listens to the word of God and shares in his holy mysteries.
This Advent marks the beginning of that radical journey: a journey which will take us to places which none of us know where it leads us, but which I can guarantee will lead us towards a greater awareness of the ever-present God. It is not necessarily a comfortable journey, but then the Gospel was never a comfortable message.
The Advent Wreath which is lit before us today reminds us of the Patriarchs: the ancestors of the faith who walked with God and who were his first witnesses. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, and God also walked with many others whose names are not recorded in Scripture, just as the names of many of the Saints are now known to God alone.
Of course, some names from the Old Testament clearly form the canon of the patriarch’s: Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, David, these are the names of the great and the good, the unimpeachable heroes of the faith.
But we should not see these patriarchs as unquestionable characters, and we have much to learn from them from their walk of faith, for they were people who questioned God and expressed difficulty with what they were asked to do. Moses, for example, did everything he could to avoid doing what Yahweh wanted him to do, Noah got drunk at the first opportunity, and Abraham, although a man of faith, was not graced by fidelity from the start.
If we look over his life, we see a mixture of success and failure. Knowing that there are so many teachers and former teachers in this congregation, perhaps we should look at Abraham’s life as a school report:
Abraham’s Report Card
Text Test Abraham’s Response Grade
Gen. 12:1 God’s Call He eventually obeyed. C
Gen. 12:10 The Famine He went to Egypt and stumbled. F
Gen. 13:8 Quarrel with Lot He trusted in God’s providence A
Gen. 14:1-16 The War He trusted in God’s protection. A
Gen. 14:23 The Offer of Sodom’s Booty He valued God’s riches. A
Gen. 16 The Waiting on the Promise He tried his own means to fulfil the promise F
Gen. 17 The Covenant of Circumcision He obeyed, not concerned with its impact on the promise A
Gen. 20 Sojourn in the World He went back to his worldly ways. F
Gen. 21 Separation from Ishmael He forewent his work of the flesh. A
Gen. 22 The Sacrifice of Isaac He demonstrated great faith. A+
So, Abraham was one whose long life was filled with a series of challenges from God. Many of us experience challenges in our lives: times when we seem to be asked for too much, to take too much on, to bear heavy burdens of physical, psychological or emotional weight. Sometimes we feel capable of dealing with whatever life throws at us, to take it in our stride or even to step up to the challenge, and at other times we may demur, we may seek an easy way out or a compromise solution, while at others it may be too much for us to bear.
Of all of Abraham’s challenges, and the one which makes him the most worthy of God’s blessing is the last one. Let us turn to the book of Genesis, Chapter 22, verses 1-13.
Out of interest, the division of scripture into chapter and verse happened only in the 12th Century AD to make it easier to do what we are doing now, to be able to find a part of scripture quickly. Do not ever make the mistake of thinking that the author of the text is responsible for them: the author (or authors) of the text only wrote or redacted (edited) in short episodes or stories which redaction critics refer to as pericopes.
Most of the stuff is on the screen, but nothing, no nothing compares to studying the scripture before you. I have a couple of bibles at the front, but next week…
It does not matter that we may have different translations (although for the purposes of these, I draw the line at The Lion Collection of Bible Stories) because each translation is a contribution to the general mix, and a greater understanding, especially as none of us speak very good Hebrew… You will learn more from reading your own version and comparing it to what I am quoting. I use a mixture of texts myself. The best translation from Hebrew and Greek is the Revised Standard and it’s inclusive language sister the New Revised Standard, for modern language without slang I like the NIV or the TNIV (which is version 2.0), but I also enjoy the Contemporary English Version or CEV. I personally had the Good News Version beaten out me at Junior School but it works for many.
Take a moment to examine the pericope about the sacrifice of Isaac.
Close examination of the text of Genesis 22:2
“Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (v. 2).
Everything we want to know about the patriarchs are contained in this single verse, and so we will spend some time looking at it. Each phrase in this command is very significant:
• “Take your son”: Abraham as a parent most likely did not want to hear about a test concerning his son. We parents have our own ambitions and plans for our children. We say, “Oh, I know what’s best for my children,” often ignoring God’s will for our children.
• “your only son”: But wait. Was Isaac Abraham’s “only son”? What about Ishmael? Abraham loved Ishmael, so it must have been painful to Abraham that God did not consider Ishmael as his son. The conception of Ishmael was Abraham’s attempt by his own means to help God fulfil His promise. It was a result of Abraham acting on his own, outside of God’s will. It is a vain pursuit to act outside God’s will. As the Psalmist said: “Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labour in vain” (Ps. 127:1). God ignored Abraham’s work of the flesh and considered Isaac to be Abraham’s “only son”. By the way, the consideration of Isaac as Abraham’s “only son” strengthens the typology of the events of this chapter. Abraham’s offering of “his only son” points to God’s offering of “His only Son”: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son” (John 3:16).
• “Isaac”: His name, meaning “he laughs”, becomes sadly ironic now.
• “whom you love”: This is the first mention of the word “love” in the Bible. Appropriately, the first mention of love concerns a father’s love for his only son. Interestingly, in the New Testament, the first mention of the word “love” also concerns the love of a Father for His Son: “And a voice from heaven said, `This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.'” (Matt. 3:17). God emphasizes Abraham’s love for his son. This strengthens the typology. Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son whom he loves. God sacrificed His only Son, whom He loved and with whom He was well pleased. On another level, challengingly perhaps, perhaps God emphasized Abraham’s love for Isaac because Abraham loved Isaac too much, at the expense of his love for God. Our love for God is to overshadow our love for anything or anyone else (even our family members). Christ Himself said: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37); and, more radically, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Abraham’s love for Isaac was quite possibly a stumbling block for him, so God, in this chapter, asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, thus testing Abraham’s love for God. God wants all. What or who is your “Isaac”? What or who is getting in your way to God? What or who do you love more than God? Can you offer up to God your “Isaac”: your lust for power, your love for wealth, your obsession with a hobby, even your love for a family member?
Think about this for a moment.
• “go to the region of Moriah”: The region of Moriah is the area where, later on, Jerusalem was to be built. (In 2 Chronicles. 3:1, we are told that the temple was built on Mount Moriah.) Jesus was crucified just outside the city gates, so Golgotha is also in the “region of Moriah.” Many think that Jesus died on the very same mountain that Abraham offered Isaac. This is plausible, especially since God guided Abraham to the exact mountain (“…one of the mountains I will tell you about…”) that Isaac was to be offered.
• “Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering”: This is the test of faith. This command must have been shocking for Abraham to hear, for a few reasons. First, Abraham must have known that the human sacrifices of the pagan religions were detestable to God. Second, the sacrifice of Isaac would seem to nullify the promise of God. God said: “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (Gen. 17:19); and then, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Gen. 21:12). At times, we are asked by God to do things that would seem to jeopardize all of our future plans. We have God’s promises; based on them, we have made our plans. We have it all figured out. We know exactly how we are going to fulfil God’s promises. However, it is not for us to fulfil God’s promises; rather, it is for us to obey the will of God. God knows what He is doing, and has the wisdom and power to fulfil His promises. So, Abraham faced a conflict of sense versus faith. And rather than this test of God causing Abraham to disbelieve the promise, Abraham instead looked for a way to reconcile the test with the promise. Paul describes Abraham’s faith: “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:20-21). To help himself in the test, Abraham reasoned a way that God could reconcile the test and the promise. As the writer of Hebrews tells us: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, `It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death” (Heb. 11:17-19)
• “on one of the mountains I will tell you about”: Abraham did not have the luxury of heroic, hasty obedience concerning the test of God, or even choosing where the sacrifice was to be made. Instead, he was made to wait on the Lord concerning the time and the place of the sacrifice, not knowing where and when the end would come. This must have been difficult for Abraham, for he had to contemplate in all its import the distressing action that he was asked to undertake.
Did you perhaps realise that so much could be drawn from a single line of Scripture? Did you appreciate that the whole role of the patriarchs could be set forth from a single line?
This single passage speaks to us of the challenge of God, the sometimes outrageous challenge of God, of the demand it places upon us, and how we are often asked to enter into that challenge without knowing where it will lead us. God does not usually give us the blueprints, which is why we need to be faithful when it doesn’t always turn out as we plan: when this parish takes a radical new direction do you try to embrace it or do you try to subvert it, do you see where it takes us or do you seek to undermine it because it isn’t your idea.
As we embark on our Advent journey, as we seek out the incarnated Lord, we can draw from the example of the patriarchs, and indeed, the patriarch Abraham and we too have the opportunity to become as blessed as Abraham was.
(Advent Wreath Prayer)