“When We Get God Wrong” Genesis 22:1-14
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Sunday, June 28, 2020 By Rev. Dr. John Henson
The recent launch of Space X captured a lot of people’s attention for a few minutes in the midst of the pandemic and protests. It was great to see another small step for humankind into the unknown. As I watched, I thought about an earlier trip when astronauts took and sent the first photo of Earth and how powerful that image was for people, how it created a breakthrough for humankind, changing our understanding of our world, showing us one that is bigger and better than we thought we knew.
Our Genesis text for this morning gives us a kind of breakthrough moment for Abraham. What Abraham saw and heard in that moment changed his view of God, his view of himself, and his relationship with other people. And what we find for ourselves in this text is that the same kind of breakthrough can happen with us.
First, this happens with our understanding of who God is. Abraham’s understanding of God at this point in his life is based in part on the experiences and beliefs of the people around him. Anthropology and archaeology of the part of the world he lived in show how the people in Abraham’s area maintained practices of appeasing the gods they believed were around them. They typically did so with sacrifices, often human/child offerings, offered to a particular god to bring peace, rain, or another benefit. So it was not out of the ordinary for Abraham to think this is what he had to do with his firstborn child; that this is what his god was expecting or demanding of him. But God showed him something better. Paul Neuchterlein notes that “Abraham begins hearing the common tribal gods of ancient polytheism who demand human sacrifices. On the mount of Yahweh-yireh, however, he begins to hear and envision the one true God who wants us to stop that nonsense.” God challenged Abraham’s nonsense but also his understanding of who God really is and what God is like. So Abraham began a journey of learning that a relationship with God did not require the blood and violence of human sacrifice but of mercy, love, and justice. It was not only a change for Abraham but for humankind.
Aren’t we still in need of correcting our views and understanding about who God is and what God is like? Our understanding is often more shaped by the people around us and the places and time we are in rather than a God who self reveals to us in specific ways and events, especially showing us a God whose interaction with us is one of love rather than sacrifice. The ways we get God wrong are increasingly apparent in these times, in our nation, as we are in the midst of a cultural and societal upheaval that has almost everything to do with who we think God is and what we think God is like. From the colonization of America on the lands of native peoples to the protests of knees on the throats of black men in the streets of our cities today, so much of the movement of our nation’s history has been directed by what we have made of God; of what we think God is like, especially when it serves our interests, our economy, or our race. But God is saying what he said to Abraham: that’s nonsense. You’ve got me all wrong.
But God breaks through our nonsense about who God is and also helps us with our understanding of who we are. Abraham’s understanding of himself at that point is that he had no relationship with God except through appeasement. He must not have had a positive self view when he believes that there’s always a god out to get him, never knowing the peace of communion with a god who knows him, who cares for him, and who loves him unconditionally. What we see here in these verses and as Abraham journeys on is how God changed how Abraham would view himself and his relationship with God.
In the same way, what we think of God has a lot to do with how and what we think of ourselves. If we think God is capricious and ready to zap us at any moment, we aren’t going to have a healthy relationship with God and certainly not a good self-image. If we think God won’t answer our prayers or interact with us until we have spilled blood–ours or someone else’s–then our time on this earth will be at best filled with the futility and exhaustion of never measuring up and, at worst, behavior that is dangerous to us and the people we intend to use for God. What a great awakening for us there will be when we can drop the knife, throw away the wood, and go back down the mountain knowing that God loves us and has a better way for us in this world.
This breakthrough with how God thinks about us relates directly with our understanding of other people and how to live with them.This is what happened for Abraham. And you know Isaac was glad it did! Abraham learned that day that people–especially his family– are precious to God and not to be treated as sacrifices for their personal peace or gain. As Rene’ Girard put it,
“The prophets operate in a world where violence is getting worse and worse. And people think they are going to be saved by sacrifices. But the prophets all say, sacrifices are no use anymore. You can pile up a lot of meat on a lot of meat, and it’s not going to help you. The institution of sacrifice is dead. And the only way to replace sacrifice is to be good to your neighbor.FOOTNOTE: FootnoteRene’ Girard, http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper_8a/
The words of Micah 6:8 come to mind here as the prophet would instruct Israel once again on this issue, “ . . . and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Before we judge Abraham for being ignorant or a barbarian, we need to see that we really aren’t different. We may not have a knife in hand to slay someone for God, but we are guilty of mistreating other people for God, our view of God. A look at events in Christian history like the Crusades, Inquisition, heresy trials are certainly obvious examples. And we have examples in our nation’s history of Christians mistreating people for God: the dehumanizing and annhilation of Native Americans, the practice of slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, voter suppression, lynchings, anti-semitism, LGBTQ discrimination, and the death penalty, just to name a few. As Rev. William Barber with the Poor People’s Campaign recently said, “People in power are too comfortable with other people’s deaths.” We are in a moment where many people–those in the white, Christian majority– in our nation are actually hearing the voices of Black people who have been crying out from their mistreatment for the last 401 years. It remains to be seen if this will be a breakthrough moment for white people in our nation. And sadly, that is true. The proof of whether or not white Christians have let God break through to them about how to treat other people (and if Black lives really do matter) will be in the pudding of real justice and change in our nation’s laws and systems.
Author Brian McClaren writes about Abraham and Isaac in his book, We Make the Road by Walking, a book we went through together a few years ago. He noted that,
It was commonplace in the ancient world for a man to lead his son up a mountain to be sacrificed to his deity. It was extraordinary for a man to come down the mountain with his son still alive. Through that ancient story, Abraham’s descendants explained why they had changed their theory or model of God, and why they dared to be different from their neighbors who still practiced human sacrifice. It wasn’t too late to challenge widely held assumptions and change their theory of God!McLaren, Brian D. We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (p. 30). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.
It isn’t too late for us either when it comes to how we view God, ourselves, and each other in this world. As we begin a new week today, let us allow God to break through our false notions and show us something far better.