Are we getting it wrong?
Abraham’s Faith Confirmed
22 Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”
And he said, “Here I am.”
2 Then He said, “Take now 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 of which I shall tell you.”
If we saw someone we knew heading up Beacon Fell, & they said ‘I’m on my way to sacrifice my son because God’s told me that’s what he wants’, I hope we wouldn’t say ‘how very obedient of you, carry on’, we’d be on to social services and possibly the nearest psychiatrist asap.
But here’s Abraham – a patriarch, a great hero of faith, the founder of the nation of Israel because he obeyed God’s call doing just that.
We can try to explain it away through cultural differences.
In Abraham’s time child sacrifice did take place – but that doesn’t answer all the questions. So what’s going on here? What does this story tell us?
A couple of years ago there was an article in the Church Times – a list of ten things not to say to people who are bereaved or going through difficulties.
And the way today’s readings are sometimes interpreted can lead to some of the things the writer thought were unhelpful.
Of course, i’s always better to say something than ignore someone’s pain because you don’t know what to say.
& some of things that were listed I’ve said, possibly you have too.
Things like ‘It’s all part of God’s plan’; this will make you stronger.
You can see how they might arise from passages like these – God seems to ask Abraham to sacrifice his son (although he does step in at the last minute); Jesus talks about pruning, being cut back in order to bear more fruit.
That seems to suggest an obedient, fatalistic acceptance of any bad things that happen to us because they’re God’s will.
I have 3 basic rules for talking to the bereaved :
ask don’t assume (that applies to everyone);
listen to how they feel and their questions rather than having set things to say;
if you talk about God, ask yourself what would you think about a human being if these things were said about them, then ask if that’s what you want to be saying about God.
If someone said ‘my boss could have prevented this but chose not to because she thought I’d do my job better this way’, what would you think about the boss? selfish? arbitrary? dangerous?
Is that what you want to say about God?
I know some people find those things helpful – perhaps it works better if you have a more fatalistic world view.
Maybe if they’re going to help, people need to find them for themselves.
If they’re given at the wrong time, as though they’re the answer to everything, they can have the wrong effect.
I’ve wrestled with these things, maybe you have trouble with them as well.
I want to look at the passages differently.
If we look at what the Bible says about the grown-up Isaac he comes across as rather a pale character. His wife has to be found for him; he moves around a bit; he prays; & when he’s old his wife and son deceive him so that he gives his blessing to Jacob not Esau.
With a psychological perspective, might say he was traumatised by his childhood experience.
I think Abraham got it wrong. I’m sure he felt he was being obedient to what God wanted; I’m sure he agonised about it.
But none of us R infallible – not even patriarchs; not even clergy/ Readers/ people who are great prayer warriors – sometimes we get it wrong.
I wonder sometimes what we’re getting wrong when we think we’re doing God’s will.
If that’s so, the nice thing about the story is that it suggests that when we get it wrong despite good intentions, God can sometimes step in to prevent complete disaster.
Yes, Isaac was affected by this - how could he not be? - but he was still one of the patriarchs; he was part of the story of Israel, the continuing bloodline, the family.
What of the gospel passage? Doesn’t that suggest we should resign ourselves to what happens to us because it’s God’s will?
The main point of what Jesus is saying isn’t the idea of being pruned – the passage is mostly about ‘abiding’ – abiding in him.
Abiding is a word that crops up a lot in this section of John’s gospel.
It doesn’t just mean ‘staying put’ or even ‘living’– like the difference between a house & a home, it’s about where our true home is – in Jesus.
& if we abide in Jesus, make our home in him, he will make his home in us.
We become part of his kingdom – part of his family.
& then we will bear fruit – not for our own benefit, but for others. Branches of the vine draw nourishment from the life that flows within the vine.
If we cut ourselves off from Jesus, from each other, we won’t be able to bear fruit – it’s not something we can make happen on our own.
Life isn’t always easy. Bad things happen – to us, to those we love, to thousands of people in Nepal. Bad things happened to Jesus too.
& when bad things happen, it doesn’t feel like pruning – sometimes it just feels like being cut, being damaged. Sometimes it is just being cut & damaged.
But I’ve discovered something about pruning.
Sometimes it’s about shaping a plant so it will be healthier & bear fruit.
Sometimes it’s about restoring a plant that’s been neglected.
& sometimes it’s about dealing with damage – attending to what’s broken so that the plant can heal itself through the life that’s within it.
I don’t believe God plays with our lives; I don’t think God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.
I don’t believe God does testing to destruction: I do believe his life within us can bring healing when we’re damaged & broken by life.
I believe God healed Isaac as much as was possible, & used him even though he was damaged by what had happened to him.
I believe God can bring us healing, & use us to bring healing to others, & bear fruit, if we abide in him. I pray that we may all abide in Christ.