Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our creator and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.
Most of us know the story of the Good Samaritan. He’s the guy who rescued a mugging victim on a wilderness road, without wondering who that victim was. Does loving our neighbor mean helping a stranger? Yes, of course. This teaching of Jesus has entered our culture so completely that it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But this parable is one of the ways God shaped our world to be what it is today.
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. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “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.” — Genesis 22
The same is true of today’s Genesis reading. These are hard Bible words for us to hear: their cold-blooded brutality makes our ears tingle. They confirm our worst fears about human nature and contradict what we think we know about God. But let’s remember what Dr. King said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Let’s look at how these words push the universe towards justice. Let’s hold them up as a mirror of our human situation. Let’s listen to them as words that have changed the world, and words that will change the world.
Many scholars believe ritual mountaintop child sacrifice was acceptable four thousand years ago in the place where Sarah and Abraham lived (2054 BC). Even 1400 years later, the Lord spoke through Jeremiah (19: 3-5, 609 BC) to condemn this evil practice.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon [Judah and Jerusalem] that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. (19: 3-5, 609 BC)
An epic rant against a great evil! God used Jeremiah to deliver urgent messages: this business of building the high places of Baal to sacrifice little ones must have been going on. But thus says the LORD, “nor did it enter my mind.” We can wonder: has something changed God’s mind since the episode on Mount Moriah? What is going on?
We don’t know the mind of God, of course. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. But the weight of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience makes us sure that God is love. So what is going on here?
In the culture Isaac was born into, God’s instruction to Abraham didn’t go against the culture. Remember how Sarah resisted the news that she would bear a child in her old age? That was countercultural. She knew countercultural when she heard it but she didn’t say a word about this project. Neither did Abraham’s servants, nor even did Isaac make much of a fuss when he started to suspect what was up. What was countercultural? The scholar Gil Baillie put it like this:
What we must try to see in the story of Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac is that Abraham’s faith consisted, not of almost doing what he didn’t do, but of not doing what he almost did, and not doing it in fidelity to the God in whose name his contemporaries thought it should be done. (Violence Unveiled, Crossroads, 1996)
What was countercultural? Abraham’s servants, his friends, and even Isaac, expected him to return alone. But he came back from Mt. Moriah with Isaac!
God repeatedly says “no more of this!” when we, God’s people, think it’s somehow holy and life-giving to sacrifice somebody. We do this sacrifice because we’re afraid of something.
Abraham was afraid of losing God’s favor. But right at the moment of deadly violence, the word of the Lord stopped him. The word of the Lord said “no more of this!” and gave him the courage to buck his culture and obey.
In Jeremiah’s time the people of Jerusalem were afraid of being hauled off into slavery, and hoped that sacrifice might somehow change their fate. God used Jeremiah to shine the light of truth on that sacrifice in 609 BC, and say “no” to it.
When the people of Jerusalem demanded, “crucify Jesus, crucify him!” they were, rightly, afraid of Herod, the Romans, and their high priests. They hoped that choosing Jesus to catch the violence of their culture might save them.
But Jesus was the worst sacrificial victim ever. He didn’t die quietly. Instead, he gently forgave the ones who killed him. In his dying he gave even the Roman execution squad leader the courage to recognize the pointlessness of the sacrifice: “Surely this man was the son of God.”
And in his glorious resurrection he makes clear the way for you and me, for humanity, to escape the need for sacrificial violence, just like the angel did for Abraham. His resurrection, once and for all, says “no more of this.”
But, even with this example, we still act like human sacrifice will solve our problems. In the late 1600s 20 miles south of here, some of our neighbors became afraid they were losing God’s favor. A great panic ensued. Those folks thought they had to act fast. They had to restore public order and with it God’s favor. They accused many people of witchcraft, then tried and killed them.
But Samuel Sewall, one of the judges, had second thoughts. Four years after the trials he heard his son say something, just like Abraham heard Isaac say “where is the lamb?” Judge Sewall’s son recited the words of Jesus to the temple Pharisees from Matthew:
But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. (12:7)
A year later, in 1697, he publicly repented of his part in the witch trials and publicly begged forgiveness from his neighbors. It was far too late for the victims, of course, but this one judge did witness the suffering of victims and hear God’s word “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”
In this age, we human beings continue to be willing to sacrifice people for what we understand to be the public order. For example, consider the endless parade of shootings in schools.
We highly value the personal right to possess and use powerful weapons. As a culture we seem to have concluded that the routine loss of life is an acceptable price to pay to preserve that right. However strongly we personally deplore school shootings, we continue to have the collective will to accept them, just as the people of Abraham’s and Jeremiah’s times accepted child sacrifice on mountaintops.
For another example, consider the universal human tendency to go to war – to organize ourselves to employ ritual violence – to try to solve our problems. I’m sure you can think of many other examples of the human attachment to violence.
My point is this: the world is still like Abraham’s. We’re not as different from the people 4000 years ago as we think we are. It’s STILL countercultural to do what Abraham did: to bring the sacrificial victim back alive. It’s STILL countercultural to do what Samuel Sewall did: to hear God say “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” and act on it. It’s STILL countercultural to say what Jesus said “Forgive them, Lord, for they don’t know what they are doing” to your tormentors.
The moral arc of the universe does indeed bend toward mercy and away from sacrifice. We can still hope that it continues to bend that way. It takes the moral courage of Abraham, Jeremiah, and Sewall, the grace of God, and the example of Jesus on the cross to be witnesses to that bending of the arc of the universe. I pray we may all, by the power of the Holy Spirit, have the courage to respond to the evil of human sacrifice by saying the resurrection words “no more of this!”