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Bring on the Receivers

June 27, 2014

Genesis 22: 1-14, Matthew 10:40-42caravaggio_sacrificeofisaac-r1

Welcome to another difficult passage of scripture: the story of the binding of Isaac.

Let’s begin by asking: How did Jesus think about this passage? There’s section in John’s gospel which sheds some light on this. It comes at a time when Jesus’ life is increasingly in danger. At one point in Chapter 8 he replies to the Judean crowd “I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you look for an opportunity to kill me, because there is no place in you for my word.” And then in verse 39 and 40 we read:

“They answered him ‘Abraham is our Father.’ Jesus said to them ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.”

So what did Abraham do? Lots of things… took his family to a strange land, had children in his old age… sure… but what did he do in relation to killing? Brian Zahnd (the book I referred to last Sunday) says the answer is plain and simple. Abraham put down the knife.

What Jesus sees in the story of the binding of Isaac, was not so much a man who was prepared to kill his son, what Jesus sees, above all else, is a man who didn’t sacrifice his son, the man who put down the knife.

Context is so important for our Genesis reading. In the world out of which the story of Abraham arose, sacrifice of children was normal. We can hardly imagine such a world. And (more than any other reason) that’s because we live after Jesus. For us after Jesus, the story of Abraham and Isaac is simply horrible… child abuse, perhaps even divine child abuse. And yet in the economy of the Ancient Near East god’s and humans did business in human life and human blood. Children were currency in the business of propitiating (or pacifying) the gods. It was just part of the necessity of staying alive. In that context there is nothing at all strange about this mysterious God calling for a child sacrifice. That’s what gods did. In that context, sacrificing your child is not strange. What is strange is not sacrificing your child. What is strange, new, and decisive for the world after Abraham is this story of the end of sacrifice. The slogan from this story is not ‘God demands sacrifice’ it is ‘God provides’ – that’s the name they give the place on Mt Moriah – God provides an alternative to human sacrifice.

And as a result what you see in Israel is a radical break with the whole tradition of sacrifice in the Ancient Near East. Not an instant end to religion and the rituals of sacrifice. Israel developed a different kind, a unique kind of religion from anything else in the Ancient Near East. They still had a temple, at least until Jesus time when he challenged it and then the Romans knocked it down, and they still had sacrifices of sorts, albeit not human sacrifice. But the important difference that is not always noticed is this: the sacrifices of Israel are no longer directed towards God. In the sacrifices in Israel’s temple the priest represents God and the sacrifices represent what God provides for the cleansing and healing of the world. God doesn’t have to be appeased, or propitiated in order not to punish. There is no exchange going on whereby sacrifice is a kind of payment proportionate to how bad you had behaved. (for those interested Darrin Belousek’s book has an excellent chapter with full detail on this issue).

In Israel it begins to be all about ‘God provides’. It moves from exchange with the gods… to a celebration of God’s giving (grace). God provides what is necessary for the restoration of life. Restorative justice… rather than retributive.

And in continuity with that Jesus reads the story of Abraham and Isaac with its key moment in the point God provided and the potential sacrifice of Isaac was halted. At that point God was defined for Israel, not as the God to be propitiated, not as the God who demanded blood, but as the God who provides.

What that means for us, I think, is that that one of the first things we need to learn as Christians is to be people who can receive gifts…. who can receive the gift of life. God provides.

Jesus sends his disciples out to be prophets of the kingdom. To declare the news that God’s government of the world is arriving. And to go from house to house. The provider is coming ready or not. And one of the things Jesus focuses and spends some time emphasising is that the ambassadors of this provider need to be people who can receive hospitality – not merely those who give it. Imagine for a moment if our task after leaving this service were to go around the local community knocking on doors asking for hospitality?… It would be bad enough if it was just our fellow parishioners wouldn’t it?

Is Jesus naive… sending them out like this with such optimism. Well, hardly, he tells them at the beginning of his speech that they will be hated. He tells them they are going into conflict. And yet knowing that he invites them to prepare also for hospitality. To be ready also to receive from others.

It’s kind of a nice flip-side to last Sunday’s sermon. In spite of the fact that what Jesus teaches is so deeply challenging to the way the world works that it will bring division even within families (“not peace but a sword”), nevertheless Jesus is still confident that some will open their doors. They are being sent out in the power of the spirit… and they will discover that the Spirit is not their possession, the Spirit will also go ahead of them.

So they are going up nervously to doorsteps knowing from Jesus that they could face anything from a ‘sword’ on the other side of the door, to a warm meal and a bed for the night. That’s the kind of vulnerability he called them to.

Let me share for a moment about Lunch at Sidey. (for those of you from other parishes… this is a project in our parish that is giving me a lot of joy at the moment – free lunch on Thursdays at 11.30am every week).

When you start up something like a free lunch… it’s very easy to think in terms of providers and clients (to use the current terminology)… its almost automatic, people ask whether you have done your ‘market research’. But very quickly you discover that everyone who comes along to lunch is a provider. There are no customers. Each person provides hospitality for everyone else… I find myself learning from people’s life experience, accepting their welcome, discovering friendship.

When Brenda, and Jan and Trina, and Mary and I got started on this we didn’t do our market research. We simply saw an opportunity to express the kingdom of God. As it turned out God provided and continues to provide. But one of the things God is providing is hospitality for all of us. We are the beneficiaries.

In learning what it means to be “missional church”, we are learning to be receivers. And as people trained from childhood in self-sufficiency. It is not always an easy lesson.

Thanks be to God.

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