Does anyone happen to recall the first message proclaimed to the neighborhood on our beautiful new message board, after of course the “God Bless Our New Message Board” announcement? What was the first message Paula wrote? She wrote, “The God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist.” A very provocative statement. What does it mean? I think it means that the juvenile understandings of God which we learned and absorbed growing up and which many of us have come to reject are actually understandings of God that are worth rejecting; understandings that we would be wise to lay aside as we grow up and mature. You know that bearded, white-skinned, robed deity sitting on a throne in the clouds that you no longer believe in? Well, that’s good because that God doesn’t exist. Or perhaps I should say, that God image falls drastically short in conveying the infinite God who is beyond all understanding. Much of the spiritual journey involves letting go of our old and limited understandings of God and reaching out for new and wider understandings as we make new discoveries and have new experiences. In fact, I think one of the main differences between atheists and mature believers is that mature believers, who often reject the same God whom atheists reject, have reached out for a new understanding of God that makes more sense with reality and their experiences; while atheists tend to say, “Well, since that god I learned about in Sunday School doesn’t exist there must be no god at all.” Atheists throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak; while mature believers keep the baby while constantly replenishing the bathwater.
And forgive me for extending this metaphor, but some of that bathwater can get pretty nasty and that baby won’t get clean; that baby will get sick. What I mean is that our belief in God needs to be informed by mature and sophisticated understandings of God; otherwise, our faith will become unhealthy and sick and we will be part of a toxic religion.
Our story from the Hebrew Bible this morning, which is one of the most powerful and disturbing stories in the entire Bible and perhaps in all of western literature, recounts the spiritual journey of Abraham who lays aside an old understanding of God and reaches out for a new one, just as he lays down his sacrificial knife and reaches out for the ram in the thicket.
Abraham held an understanding of God which he learned and absorbed from his family, his parents, his culture and his neighbors in the ancient Near East. We have ancient Near Eastern textual references to the practice of human sacrifice and specifically child sacrifice. These texts imply an understanding of God as a deity who demanded that innocent blood be shed, a deity that required his followers to demonstrate their devotion by sacrificing that which was most precious to them. And what is more precious to a parent than a child? Anyone who may have participated in human sacrifice in the ancient Near East, including Abraham, would be someone who believed in a God that doesn’t exist. And thanks be to God that that God doesn’t exist.
We as Christians know that that bloodthirsty god doesn’t exist because God revealed himself to us fully as a vulnerable, non-violent human being who died on a cross not to satisfy a bloodthirsty deity – God didn’t kill Jesus—but rather to satisfy a bloodthirsty humanity. In Christ, God says to us very clearly that whenever and wherever there is religious and political violence—violence done in the name of God—that the God revealed in Christ is on the side of the victim, not on the side of the perpetrator. This realization comes to Abraham as an angel and then Abraham sees in the eyes of his beloved son Isaac, a new understanding of God. He realizes that God is not the violent and bloodthirsty deity; we are. God is the self-giving victim who lays down his life in order to free us from our addiction to violence.
Now we may be thinking that we are not addicted to violence and hopefully that is true, but we live in a world that clearly is addicted to violence. And we are all connected to and, in some ways, complicit in systems and social structures that continue to violently oppress and victimize vulnerable people. We are all probably somewhat horrified by this story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac, wondering how could someone even consider committing such a heinous act? And yet before we judge him, let us consider how many Isaacs have been sacrificed for us, for us to enjoy the many benefits we take for granted. When I read this story, I also wonder, ‘Where was Sarah, Isaac’s mother? What was she doing? Why didn’t she try to stop Abraham? Did she not know what was going on? If so, does her ignorance excuse her?’ Does our ignorance excuse us? Our ignorance of the many young innocent lives that have been sacrificed for us, for this country? In a couple days, we will celebrate our nation’s independence from an oppressive English monarchy and we know that many young Isaacs were sacrificed on the altar of the very freedom we enjoy today. And we honor them, we acknowledge Christ in them and in the many sacrifices of our nation’s founding fathers. And yet don’t we also lament? Lament the fact that so many innocent people had to die as a result of humanity’s addiction to violence? Don’t we lament with the psalmist who asks, “How long? How long? How long must violence triumph?”
We lament the fact that we are still addicted to violence and that many of us still understand God to be a very violent and bloodthirsty deity. Many Christians believe this. Many Christians in positions of great political power believe this. How long must this violent theology triumph?
Our Genesis reading this morning invites us to lay aside our old understandings of God as a violent deity, to lay them aside as Abraham laid down his sacrificial knife, to “lay down our sword and shield” in the words of the African-American spiritual, “down by the riverside.”
And as we hopefully do lay down our sword and shield and let go of our old understandings of God, I wonder what new understandings and images of God we are being invited to pull out of the thicket of our sacred Scriptures and our life experience. The God image that I have been pulling out with you at this pulpit ever since the Feast of the Ascension is the perichoresis: the circle dance of the Triune God; the same circle gathering that embraced Abraham and Sarah and then bubbled up within them as a giddy, joyful, and communal laughter and which gave birth to a baby boy named “laughter”: Yitzhak, Isaac, the very same boy that Abraham was about to sacrifice before he laid down his old understanding of a violent God. And it’s in Isaac, I see an invitation for all of us to pull out a new and life-giving understanding of God.
And I’m not alone in this. Out of all the characters in Genesis, the one character whom the early Christians thought pointed to Christ most clearly was Isaac. And although Isaac appears to be very passive in the biblical text, the Jewish rabbis described him as deeply pious and prayerful. Isaac would often meditate and pray and walk with God in the evenings. There’s even a Jewish myth of him studying Torah with his great grandparents in Heaven. And also, according to the Jewish rabbis, Isaac was not a young boy when he was bound to the altar by his father Abraham. Based on a close reading of the text, the rabbis conclude that Isaac was 37 years old when his very elderly father Abraham tried to sacrifice him. So just try to imagine a man who is over a hundred years old trying to bind a 37-year-old man with ropes to an altar. Since an elderly Abraham would not be able to overpower his 37-year-old son, the rabbis suggest that Isaac realized what was going on and instead of running away or even fighting back, he actually offered himself as the sacrificial victim. Now why would he do that? I don’t think he would do it because he was masochistic or suicidal or naïve to pain and suffering. If Isaac was indeed a man who spent decades in prayer, laughing and dancing with his God, then I like to think that he already held a mature understanding of God as one who is always on the side of vulnerable victims and always vindicating them, even when those victims appear to be at death’s door. I like to think that Isaac was so deeply rooted in the radical vivaciousness of God that he could stare death in the face and laugh, knowing that God would ultimately protect him and vindicate him, even if he were to die. Christian existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who wrote a whole book on this story of the sacrifice of Isaac called Fear and Trembling, said, “The only intelligent tactical response to life’s horror (death, violence, bloodshed) is to laugh defiantly at it.” That’s exactly what I imagine Isaac doing, Isaac whose name means “laughter.”
This idea of Isaac having an understanding of God that gave him the courage to laugh in the face of death is an idea that I see expressed most beautifully in a painting by a Russian Jewish artist named Marc Chagall. I got to see the original painting at the Marc Chagall museum in Nice, France. And I brought a photograph to share with you that shows how huge the painting is because I’m standing right next to it. And if you look closely at Isaac’s face, which is upside down, you see two things: he is smiling and he is winking. He is winking at us, as if to say, “I am so confident in the loving vivaciousness of my God that I don’t even need to fear death, even at the hands of my father.” In Isaac’s wink, I see the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who could also stare down death and the grave and then re-emerge laughing. And Isaac’s wink invites me and us to continue letting go of our violent god images and to keep pulling out of the thicket of our Scriptures and of our lives the radical vivaciousness of God that can empower us to face death and violence and all the other wages of sin because we are participating in God’s free gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. And that is a God we can believe in because, my brothers and sisters, that God does exist.