A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

Jason Micheli —  September 30, 2019 — 1 Comment

Genesis 22 and Hebrews 10

I know you’d never guess it from unimpressive me, but I have been a preacher for almost twenty years.

And sure, it reveals a lot  about me that in those years I’ve preached four different sermons on the prophet Isaiah prophesying in nothing but his birtday suit (it’s really in there). 

I’ve preached three different sermons on King David collecting one hundred Philistine foreskins from reluctant donors in order to win Michal as his bride (it’s in there too), and I’ve somehow managed to preach five different sermons on the talking ass in Numbers 22.

Every time, someone has left church telling me, “It takes one to know one.”  

Twenty years—

But, in all that time, I’ve never once preached on today’s passage. 

Luther was haunted by it. Rembrandt and Chagall painted it. In his asthmatic kitty dry-heave of a voice, Bob Dylan sang about it going down on Highway 61. 

But, I’ve never studied it closely until this week. 

I’ve never preached on it until today. 

And yesterday…

Yesterday, I stood outside in the church cemetery next to a shallow grave and a tiny two-foot coffin. 

Tossing a fist full of dirt I clawed from the ground, I looked into a mother’s vacant, tear-filled eyes and, in the name of Jesus Christ who is Resurrection and Life, I promised her— I promised her— that God did not take her child from her. 

Was I wrong?

Sylvia was only four months old. 

The way the undertaker had prepared her body— she looked like she was nursing. She’d been dressed in a coat that looked like the kind Marilyn Monroe wore on her wedding day. 

Next to her body, I told her parents about Jesus Christ, about how God-in-the-flesh wept beside a grave just like Sylvia’s, wept over a friend who, like Sylvia, died much too soon. “On a day like today,” I said, “it’s good to remember that Jesus is weeping and is angry that any of you need to be here.”

I promised. 

Was I wrong? 

Did I bear false witness?

———————-

Is the God I promised to them, the God I promised was for them in Jesus Christ and with them in the Holy Spirit, the same God who tells Abraham, “Take your child, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him there as a burnt-offering?”

It’s hard to hear Jesus saying, “Abraham, I know I said “Put down the sword” but I’m going to need you to pick it up and (really big favor) take your son Isaac, slit his throat, and set him on fire. As a sacrifice to please and appease me.”

It’s hard to hear Jesus saying that, and that’s a problem, because if God is Trinity then, by definition, God has always been Trinity. 

Because God doesn’t change. 

God is immutable. 

“God is the same,” the Bible says, “yesterday, today, and forever.” 

Therefore, if Jesus Christ is the exact imprint of God’s very Being, as the Book of Hebrews declares, then not only is God like Jesus, God has always been like Jesus. 

There has never been a time when God has not been like Jesus. 

The Son who prays “forgive them for they know not what they do” is the same— of one being— as the Father to whom he prays. 

The Father was always like the Son. 

From before was was. 

God has never not been like Jesus. 

If Jesus Christ is the one by whom all things were made, as the creed confesses, if Christ was present at creation, as the Bible teaches— if Christ was present at creation and God doesn’t change, then present with Christ from before creation was his desire for mercy not sacrifice. 

———————-

“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus tells the grumbling Pharisees in the Gospel of Matthew, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” 

“Go study that Bible you like to thump,” Jesus says, sending them back to the prophet Hosea who declared, “Thus, says the Lord: I desire mercy not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt offerings.” 

God’s desire apparently is always falling on deaf ears because God keeps repeating himself. Through the prophet Micah, God speaks the same word, 

“Hear what the Lord says: With what shall you come before the Lord? Will the Lord be pleased with the sound of a thousand rams sacrificed? Shall we offer our first born children, the fruit not of the land but of our bodies? He has told you, o mortal, what is pleasing; to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk in humility under your God.”

When King David gets caught red-handed, having broken about half the Ten Commandments, God doesn’t demand any quid pro quo.

No, God reveals to David that “God takes no delight in sacrifice.” 

“If I were to give you a burnt offering,” David sings in Psalm 51, “You would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart.” 

Not only does God not want sacrifices of any sort, sacrifice, as the preacher of Hebrews says in today’s text, does not work. 

Sacrifice just tempts us into thinking we can right the scales of relationship with God. 

Thus sacrifice doesn’t atone for sin, it exacerbates sin because, fundamentally, it’s a refusal of grace.

But there’s the question:

If God doesn’t want sacrifice, if God has never wanted sacrifice, if sacrifice is a futile gesture that accomplishes nothing but deluding us into thinking we’re steering our standing before God, then why would God want to assess Abraham by Abraham’s willingess to do what God does not want done?

———————-

To test his faith?

That’s the usual explanation. 

God takes Abraham through this sadistic charade to test his faith by asking Abraham to do the unthinkable. 

Abraham has already sacrificed his past, being summoned by God out of his homeland. 

And here, Abraham is asked to sacrifice his future in order to make his future dependent not on biology but entirely upon God’s gracious provision. 

Just kidding— I was only testing you. 

Never mind that this makes the God of infinite Love and Goodness exponentially worse than Michael Scott fake-firing his employees at Dunder Mifflin, that’s the conventional answer. 

And, that’s why for Jews this passage is about akedah, obedience, and for Islam this story is about the virtue of surrendering to the will of God no matter where your discernment of God’s will takes you. 

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that Abraham here demonstrates what true faith entails. 

True faith is contrary to what our senses tell us (even our sense of right and wrong). 

True faith exceeds the rational; such that, to anyone else faith looks absurd.

Which I take to be an absurd answer. 

Because in scripture the proper measure of faith isn’t the quantity of it. 

It’s the character of it. 

It’s not how much faith you have.

It’s who and what your faith is in. 

It’s not about amounts; it’s about allegiance. 

The chief priests and the Pharisees had alot of faith. 

They just placed their faith in the wrong who, “We have no King but Caesar!”

The measure of faith is not how much you have but to whom and to what you are allegiant. 

For Christians, there’s no such thing as blind faith, because God has shown himself.  

Fully in Jesus Christ. 

And God has also revealed himself through the law— laws like “Do not kill.” 

Therefore, it’s not a leap of faith to do that which is contrary to who God has revealed himself to be. 

This is not a test of faith, asking Abraham to do the unthinkable. 

For one thing—

Everywhere else the Old Testament , when God tests his People it’s for the purpose of making them holy. 

Holy means different. 

Whenever God tests his People, it’s to make them distinct from the pagans and idolators around them. 

So, for example, after God gets his chosen People out of Egypt, he tests them in the wilderness in order to get the Egypt of them. 

And this is how Jesus’ testing in the wilderness functions too. It’s to shape him to be different than all the other would-be-messiahs. 

“All these kingdoms of the world, I will give you,” Jesus is tested. 

And only Jesus declines the opportunity.

The purpose of testing in the Bible is make God’s People holy. 

To make them different. 

And that’s the other thing—

Child sacrifice was not different.  

This is not a test of Abraham’s faith, to see if he’ll go through with the unthinkable, because for Abraham it was not unthinkable. 

Not at all.

Don’t forget—

Abraham exists in an ancient near eastern world where child sacrifice is not unusual. 

The reason God has to spell it out in the law and say, “Don’t do it,” is because the Canaanite religions of Israel’s day did do it. 

Thus, child sacrifice would not be a way to test Abraham. 

It would not be a way to make the People of Abraham different because everybody else did it too. 

It would not make Abraham holy. 

It would make Abraham the same. 

And remember—

Abraham is only a recent convert from paganism. 

When God called Abraham, he was a ziggurat-attending, moon-worshipping pagan. 

Abraham’s father, the Talmud says, was an idol maker. 

That’s why Abraham doesn’t question this command he discerns to kill his kid. Child sacrifice— it’s what the gods do.

But what about the God who is Jesus Christ?

“The whole Bible is about me,” the Risen Christ tells the disciples on Easter, “go back, read it, and find me in it.”

It’s like there’s two different gods here testing Abraham. 

———————- 

Yesterday morning before the burial, I was standing by the bell tower, talking with Sylvia’s uncle about how we’d process down to the gravesite with the baby. 

Stupidly, I asked him how he was doing.

And he said to me, “I know God didn’t do this to my family. I know God didn’t take her. But, still, I keep thinking God did it. I can’t help it. It’s like I’m being tested to sort out what’s true and what’s not.”

———————- 

What if the true test Abraham passes is a different test than the one we presume? What if the actual test Abraham passes is a test we fail to the extent that we fail even to notice it? 

It’s all right there in the text. 

The key to the passage is that it uses two different Hebrew words for God. 

The text refers to God as Elohim. 

Elohim is the generic Hebrew term for God. Elohim is like our English word God. 

And, in the Old Testament, Elohim can refer to the God of Israel but just as often— because it’s a generic term— elohim is the word used to talk about all gods, even the other false gods.

When the First Commandment says, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” elohim is the word for gods. 

And when the prophet Elijah does battle against the false prophets of Baal, the Bible uses elohim to refer to the false god. 

Today’s text uses the word Elohim, but it also uses a different word, Yahweh. 

Yahweh isn’t a generic term. Yahweh is the name given to Moses at the burning bush. Yahweh is the true God who can be known only by God’s self-revelation.

It’s Elohim who asks Abraham to take his only son to Moriah, slit his throat, and set him ablaze as a sacrifice. 

It’s Yahweh who tells Abraham to stop. 

Actually, it’s the angel of Yahweh— who the first Christians identified as the pre-incarnate Son— who stills the blade of sacrifice. 

There are two gods in the story. 

And discerning the true one— that’s the test Abraham passes. 

That’s the test that makes him holy. 

Different.

Different even than from many of us, who think God demands payment.

———————- 

Traditionally, today’s passage is assigned by the lectionary for Easter. 

And to understand that scheduling, to hear today’s text as the Easter Gospel its meant to be, imagine that Abraham went through with the deed on Mt. Moriah. 

Imagine he did it. 

Just like we do it, for Moriah is Golgotha. 

Imagine Abraham raising his arm and plunging the knife. 

Imagine Isaac’s scream and the silence that would follow it, save for the bleating of a lost and forgotten ram amid the bushes. 

Imagine Abraham making his three day trek back down the mountain path to Isaac’s mother. 

And imagine a stranger approaching Abraham’s campfire that first night and, in the comfort of the darkness, Abraham confesses to this stranger his story about what he had believed god required, how it led him to violence and murder, how in his grief he knew now that heaven wept with him, how he had been blind and deaf, his faith had been unfaith, how as he plunged the knife he realized he had mistaken the gods for the true God. 

Imagine Abraham spilling out his shame, and then realizing he’d not even asked for the stranger’s name. 

“Tell me your name,” Abraham asks. 

And the stranger lifts up his bowed head and pulls back his hood and replies, “Isaac.” 

And then imagine Isaac showing Abraham his hands and his side. That’s how to hear this story as Easter. 

———————-

God doesn’t take. 

God gives. 

Ceaselessly.

Even when we take— taking, even, God’s own Son— God returns the gift. 

That’s the Gospel. 

The suffering of Christ upon the cross is not the punishment God demands for our sins. 

The suffering of Christ upon the cross is the patience God demonstrates in the face of our sins— in our act of sinning. 

The cross isn’t the really big sacrifice God wanted all along, of which Isaac is a hint. 

The cross is the end of sacrifice, the final judgment on the whole way of thinking that God collects on our debts.” 

We’re naive if we think that ours isn’t still a world of many gods. 

False gods.

Idols who convince people that sacrifice— payment— must be made; therefore, this must be happening to me because of that thing I did (or didn’t do). 

God must’ve taken Sylvia because of…

And that’s why it’s important that we pay attention to today’s text from the Book of Hebrews. 

There, Jesus declares that God wants not sacrifice, but a body. 

The body that God has prepared for Jesus. 

The Body of Christ. 

A people who are holy, Hebrews says. 

Different. 

Different enough from the world to assure Sylvia’s mother and father, as we did yesterday, that “the True and Living God does not deal in death, for Death is God’s Enemy.”

They were wearing t-shirts with Sylvia’s picture on the chest. 

They were all wearing t-shirts with her picture emblazoned on the front

“Nor does the God of Jesus take from us to make good on our debts,” I promised them, “God did not, God could not, God would never take her from you, for the empty grave reveals once for all that God’s grace is a gift that exceeds every debt and the promise of the Gospel is that in the fullness of time every good gift will be given back.”

And, even though they were sobbing, they nodded their heads. 

Like Abraham before them, they’d passed the test. 

Jason Micheli

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One response to A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

  1. Wow. Just wow. Beautiful, true, and leaving me with tears and renewed hope. Thank you.

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