The Truth Test - St Bride's: Reflection

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St Bride's: Sermons

The Truth Test

Reflecting on our Old Testament reading during the week, the story of the binding of Isaac, I experienced a strong recollection of an incident that occurred whilst I was at primary school.  A member of the class I was in had wet themselves and rather than this being dealt with discreetly, the teacher chose to draw attention to it, they were made to come to front of class and were humiliated. 

I had a clear sense that this shouldn't be tolerate and resolved I was going to report the matter to the headmaster.  Shortly after the class the teacher spotted me outside the headmaster's office and asked what I was doing there.  I lacked the guile to have hid my intention.  I was shouted at for answering back and then command to speak only for this to begin over again as soon as I opened my mouth and on it went.  I don't know how long this lasted but I was left disorientated by the experience.

I never did speak to the headmaster about the incident, or indeed to my parents at the end of day, my expectations of adults in positions of authority and of my place in the world shifted in that moment.  There was a profound loss of trust.

The story of the binding of Isaac is surely one of the most horrifying passages of scripture.  If we are able to put aside the resolution of the story and squarely face God's instruction to Abraham, it is surely devastating.  The scripture doesn't reveal to us anything of the impact of the command on Abraham.  I imagine that it must have left him entirely disorientated. 

Abraham had placed his trust in God.  He had journeyed from his own country to an undesignated land to become the founder of a nation.  He was 99 years old, his wife Sarah was 90. They had no children and yet God promised "you will have more descendants than can be counted".

At the Oaks of Mamre, Abraham was visited by 3 angels and was told that Sarah is to bare a son.  Sarah overhears the exchange and laughed to herself at the prospect of her conceiving at her advanced age.  The miraculous birth occurred and they called the boy Isaac - laughter.   Then in Issacs youth, Abraham receives the bomb shell, he is commanded - "take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will show you".

The narrator repeatedly emphasises the relationship between father and son - "Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac", "Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac." "Isaac said to Abraham his father, "My father!" and he said, "Here I am, my son".

When they reached the top of the mountain the scripture tells is that Abraham built an altar. "He bound his son Isaac ... Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son".  At the crucial moment, the LORD calls with great urgency, "Abraham, Abraham!".  He replies "Here I am." Is his tone now one of relief and hope?  I imagine him to be beyond that.  I imagine him to be numb, his world already changed forever but from the earliest days of the church this story has provided an example of great faithfulness: "By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac" as the letter to the Hebrews puts it.  His trust was unshakeable and his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of the cross. 

There is a theological depth in this story that has gripped the religious imagination of Jew and Christian for thousands of years.  It leaves many feeling profoundly uncomfortable though and perhaps it isn't surprising that there are those who point to suggest that Jews and Christians alike proclaim an abusive God and perpetuate religious violence on the world.

Some suggest that it is essentially a story about the shift from human to animal sacrifice, a boundary marking of the distinctiveness of Jewish practice.  There might be something in that but if we would want to claim that the passage has continuing relevance for us today I think we have to look beyond this. 

It is important to recognise that by this point in the story Abraham has learnt something of the unreliability of his own judgement.  He, and indeed his wife Sarah, had assumed that she could not conceive, and he had consented to her suggestion that he sleep with Hagar her servant and Ishmael was born.  As we heard last week, when Isaac was weaned Sarah asked Abraham to 'cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac'.  The matter we are told was greatly distressing to Abraham. 

It's a struggle I think to make sense of Abraham's actions but even more so to understand God's testing Abraham in the first place.  Some note that the story does not describe an omniscience God.  The LORD speaks, "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".  The story needs to be understood in the wider context of the revelation of scripture, particularly in relation to what we might infer from it about God. 

That strikes me as very sensible but I suspect that the attempt to neatly settle the tensions that the text throw up is mistaken.  The interpretation of scripture will never be complete whilst there remain people of faith who seek to live by it. Living faith is not a neatly boxed up package that prescribes exactly how we should live. The tensions we face in scripture are significant.

Scripture provides great comfort but challenge too.  We see this in our Gospel reading today as well.  It emphasises the importance of welcome and reminds us that this demands more than being polite or even hospitable to others.  It extends to welcoming the prophets, those who speak truth to power, to the righteous who work for justice, to service of the young.  This will inevitably create tension with those who are satisfied with the world as it is and we are called to engage with that rather than seeking some false conviviality - hence those words of Jesus that we heard in last week's Gospel - "do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword".  It would undoubtedly be more comfortable if passages like that were expunged from the scriptures but that wouldn't be the Gospel. 

Thinking back to that primary school experience, I'm pleased of course that I at least wanted to do something about the unnecessary humiliation of my classmate.  Unfortunately, I was diverted from that and realised that adults in positions of authority are not necessarily trustworthy.

Most of us face times in our lives when we find it a challenge to trust in God.  I imagine it was the same even for Abraham but he learnt to place his trust in a certain hope.  Abraham said to his son Isaac as they journeyed together to Moriah - 'God himself will provide' and it was so.

Thanks be to God.


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