St Bride's: Sermons

Rev Brian Beck

Genesis 22:1-18, Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1-8

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22 And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am.

And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.

Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.

And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.

And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I, my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?

And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together.

And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.

10 And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

11 And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.

12 And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me.

13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.

14 And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.

15 And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,

16 And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son:

17 That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;

18 And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

26 And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.

27 And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship,

28 Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.

29 Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.

30 And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?

31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.

32 The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth:

33 In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.

34 And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?

35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus.

36 And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?

37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

38 And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him.

39 And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing.

40 But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.

15 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.

Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.

If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.

Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.

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I guess we all have problems with the Old Testament reading. What sort of God demands the death of a child? What sort of God would tease a man with such a demand, just to see how far he would go? But the story comes to us out of an ancient world. In the days when it was first told, before being committed to writing and incorporated in our Bible, such questions would not have been asked. It would have been taken for granted that God's purposes were good, even if we didn't understand them. Later ages did find it troublesome. Jewish interpreters around the time of Jesus regarded Isaac, not as a boy but as a grown man, not a victim but going voluntarily, prepared to offer himself. But that hardly does justice to the text nor does it take away all the difficulties.

 Some countries in the ancient Near East three thousand years or so ago did practice child sacrifice. In those cultures this story would not have seemed outlandish. But in Israel it was different. The law of Moses generally provided for the first fruits of everything to be offered to God. The first fruits of the harvest, the grain, the grapes, the olives, the figs, and the firstborn of the livestock, lambs, kids and calves - all were to be offered back to God in gratitude for the gift of abundance - which is the origin of our practice of harvest festival. But not children. For the firstborn child the law prescribed a substitute, the size and value depending on one's means: for the poor a pair of pigeons, which is why Mary and Joseph come to the temple after the birth of the baby Jesus to make their offering for their firstborn. So even by the standards of the time Abraham was being asked to do an appalling thing.

 Even so, we find the story difficult.  If we are to make anything of it we have to treat it as a product of its time, lay aside our modern objections and take it at  face value, as generations of Christians have done. What might it still say to us today? I offer two lines of thought.

 First, it challenges us about commitment and loyalty. We often refer to the story as the sacrifice of Isaac, but in fact it is just as much the sacrifice of Abraham. He is ready to let go of his only son and heir, and his entire hope for the future, in obedience to God, hanging on to the conviction, in spite of all appearances, that at the end 'God will himself provide the sacrifice', as of course he does.  That is the price Abraham is ready to pay for his faith in God.

 As I think of that I think of the stories we have all read and the pictures we have seen of Christians lined up to be shot or beheaded if they did not renounce their faith. And I ask myself, how firm would I stand if I were among them? Would I have the courage? Would my faith mean that much to me? Or would I renounce it, if only outwardly, to save my life? And what would I do if it were not my life but that of my child or grandchild that depended on my apostasy? God does not arbitrarily impose such dilemmas - let's be clear about that. God does not impose such dilemmas - but people do, and they are the ultimate test of what really matters to us.

 But let's remind ourselves of less dramatic tests that may occur any day. How far do we go under peer pressure to transgress principles we profess? A little compromise her or there? Or if not peer pressure, company policy, perhaps, or the demands of the job, or the fear of losing it, or not even that: just personal convenience, the more profitable option. The choices are not always clear-cut in the world we live in, and we may agonise over them and sometimes make mistakes. But at root they are the same as the one that faced Abraham in the story: how much does our belief in God and the moral principles of our faith mean from day to day?

 The second line of thought takes us in a different direction. St Paul in one of his letters picks up on this story when he writes of God 'not sparing his own Son but freely giving him up for us all'. Paul looked at this story and in the figure of Abraham he saw God the Father and in Isaac he saw Jesus the Son. And just as it cost Abraham to surrender Isaac, so, Paul is suggesting, it cost God to surrender Jesus to the cross. When you think about the crucifixion clear out of your mind notions of an angry God contrasted with a loving Jesus. Father and Son together suffer for us in the crucifixion of Jesus.

 And that  leads us to the reading from Acts. An Ethiopian court official is reading from the book of Isaiah and asks Philip to interpret. Philip, along with generations of Christians ever since, sees in the image of the sheep submitting to shearing or to slaughter a picture of Jesus submitting himself to humiliation and death for us - Jesus who had the option of backing away from confrontation with hostile authorities, who could have avoided stirring up opposition by teaching openly in the temple, who need not have attacked the money-changers with such zeal, who need not have gone to Jerusalem that Passover at all, but who did not back off from what God had called him to do. Here is the prime example of loyalty to the end - and for us, so that the truth about God might finally be made clear, the truth Jesus had devoted his ministry to declaring: that God loves us, and especially the downtrodden and the underdog; that God's kingdom is open to the meek and peace-loving and poor, and those who long to be good, while the rich and powerful find it harder to get in. For that, and so for all of us, Jesus gave his life. It was loyalty not only to God but to us, and in this Easter season we celebrate the fact that God endorsed it with resurrection.

 So, finally, to the gospel. This too is about loyalty, and much more, with its talk of painful pruning that must take place if we are to be faithful disciples of Jesus. The call to be fruitful, to reproduce in our own lives the lifestyle of Jesus so that others in turn may be captivated by it. The call to abide, stay close, stay loyal. But this gospel passage turns what might otherwise be just a challenge to grit our teeth and stick it out to the end, into a message of reassurance and comfort. Jesus presents himself in the analogy of a vine, with the disciples - us - as branches. A branch is not fruitful simply by being attached to the stem, but by drawing life from it. And we shall find the resources to stay faithful only if we continually look to Christ and draw from him the wisdom and strength we need.

 Today we meet in the season of Easter, celebrating the one who freely gave himself up for us all. And at this Table we meet with the risen Lord, seeking from him not only forgiveness but the strength to be faithful from day to day in whatever tests we face, so that others in turn may catch a glimpse of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

 

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