by Rev. Stephen C. Butler
Sermon # 7 in the series ""Resident Aliens"
McKownville United Methodist Church
November 5, 2006
The most famous highway in America may be the former Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. But for musicians it's Route 61, the "Blues Highway" that follows the Mississippi River up from New Orleans through Baton Rouge, Memphis and St. Louis, along past Illinois, up through Minneapolis towards Duluth, Lake Superior and the Canadian border. Several musicians have written tributes to Highway 61, including one of my favorites: Robert Allen Zimmerman, known to most of the world as Bob Dylan. "God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son." Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin'me on." God says, "No." Abe says, "What?" God says, "Do what you want but, next time you see me comin' you better run!" Abe says, "Where you want this killin' done?" God says, "Highway 61." (© 1965 "Highway 61 Revisited") Bob Dylan was born and raised in a Jewish home in Duluth, MN, just off Highway 61. His father's name was Abraham and he probably learned this story in the local synagogue, just like most of us first heard it in church. Is it familiar to you? This story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah is the climax of the Abraham cycle of stories in Genesis. So, I've saved it for last in this sermon series called "Resident Aliens".
Everyone who considers this story has to wonder: Why is this in the Bible? Would God actually command something like this? Was it all a mistake, or what?" The Bible says, "God tested Abraham, saying, 'Take your son... and offer him as a burnt offering on the mountain that I will show you.'" Once upon a time, people actually used to do this kind of thing. The book of Exodus (22:29-30) says, "You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep." But in another place (Exodus 13:12-13) it explains: "You shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are
males shall be the Lord's. But every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem (with a sheep)." So by that time, Israel proclaimed that while other nations might still be sacrificing their first children, the people of Israel should instead substitute a sheep for their first-born sons. But at the time of Abraham, 500 years earlier, this was probably still a common and well-known practice. How would you like to be Isaac saying, "Dad, we've got the fire, the wood, the knife, and we're going up the mountain. Where's the sheep for the sacrifice?" And Dad says, "Don't worry, God will provide." Finally, he takes you by the hand, ties your arms behind you, and you understand. Not a pleasant thought, is it?
Artists and sculptors have depicted this scene for over 600 years from Donatello to Raphael and Rembrandt to Chagall. The French artist Laurent de LaHire painted "Abraham Sacrificing Isaac" in 1650 showing Isaac lying on his side with his hands tied in front of him. The angel calls Abraham to stop him, and we see the ram with its head caught in the nearby tree. Rembrandt's version focuses more closely on the action. Abraham has covered Isaac's face. His neck and chest are arched upward facing certain death. But the angel has grabbed Abraham's wrist and the knife is in mid-air, falling from his hand. It's a one of the most dramatic scenes in all of ancient literature.
And after all this God says, "Now I know that you fear me, for you have not withheld your only son." God didn't know that already? Apparently not, according to this story, anyway. And also it appears this story was used as an attempt to put an end to child sacrifice in Israel, because the Bible also says in Jeremiah (7:30-34) "The people of Judah have done evil in my sight... they burn their sons and daughters in the fire--which I did not command, nor did it (even) come into my mind." So it took a long time to put a stop to this kind of thing. And Christianity affirms that Jesus Christ was the last sacrifice for all time.
And yet, children are still killed unnecessarily, and needlessly, often violently. There are those who argue that all violence against children is a form of child sacrifice. People of good will can argue many sides of every social issue from food stamps to pre-natal care, to abortion laws, to funding for public housing, to handgun control laws, to national politics nd our pursuit of warfare. As you may know, personally I'm a pacifist and I believe that all intentional killing is murder and warfare is a form of child sacrifice, where nations offer up their children because, like Abraham, we believe that's what we're called to do. Whether our children serve in uniformed armies or strap hidden explosive vests around their
bodies, their fathers in government call it heroic sacrifice. The old terminology still continues. Nobody wants to die. Everyone says they hate war. But still on opposing sides of armed conflicts in many lands, we send our children off to battle, perhaps never to return alive. Next weekend, we'll honor everyone who's served their country in armed service: many in battle, many who have died, and many more wounded and disabled. I honor them. I thank them. I hope I will always respect what they and so many generations of others have done for all of us. Yet don't we all wonder, "Isn't there a better way? Can this really be God's will? Is God on anybody's side in this, or any war?" I just feel like we've all been here before, don't you? The rhetoric sounds so very familiar once again, doesn't it? And this time around, can't we do better than last time, and the time before, and the time before that?
"Abraham!" called God. "Don't harm the boy! I know you trust me. And I will bless you." So God provided another way. And maybe God has another way for us, too.