Genesis 22-24, Psalm 8, Matthew 8
All life is gift and would make a fine present for someone else
Genesis 22 – 24
Three things occur in today’s reading that are worthy of note in Genesis. Abraham nearly sacrifices his own son. Sarah dies and is buried in an alien land. A wife is found for Isaac, so that God’s dream for Abraham and the Jewish people might be fulfilled.
One of my colleagues Barbara Brown Taylor admonishes those who attend her classes on preaching to preach always about the most difficult text in the lessons selected for Sunday morning. “They can figure out the other texts on their own. You need to address the text that is most difficult to understand,” she instructs student preachers.
These, of course, are the very texts that leave clergy scratching their heads as well or wishing that they could avoid addressing these texts altogether. There is no finer example of this than today’s text from Genesis 22, which no preacher relishes addressing. After all, how does one stand before a congregation of parents and grandparents and explain why God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son?
According to the story, “…God tested Abraham.” God instructed Abraham to take his son and offer him as a “burnt offering” on one of the mountains in the land of Moriah. Tradition has it that Isaac was 37 years old at the time. He was hardly a child. This is most likely based on the next story that informs us that Sarah died at the age of 127 and was 90 when Isaac was born.
Some commentators speculate that Isaac’s near death at the hands of her husband prompted her death. Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian, wrote an introspective dialogue and analysis based upon this story called Fear and Trembling, which is an imagined conversation between Abraham, God and Isaac and what went through their hearts and minds as this story unfolded.
Why would God do such a thing? A close friend of mine, who is a rabbi, took an entire semester-long course at an Ivy League university during his sabbatical based solely on this one Bible story. The story is known among Jews as “the binding” of Isaac or “Akedát Yitzhák.” Thousands of pages of commentary by rabbis, scholars, theologians and priests have been written about this story across the centuries.
In addition, this biblical account has been the subject of countless works of art by painters and sculptors such as Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Brunelleschi, Veronese, Giordano, del Sarto, Rubens, Titian, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Tiziano, Velazquez and Chagall, just to name a few. It is indeed one of the greatest and perhaps the most perplexing stories in the entire Bible.
Scholars generally agree that it was written to signify the end of child sacrifice, which was a prevalent practice among ancient Semitic peoples. Semitic tribes believed that if families sacrificed their first-born son that the divine forces of the universe would bless them with a large family and much prosperity. This story was told as a way of instructing Jews that that child sacrifice was no longer acceptable.
Many other theories exist as well, including the belief among some Hasidic masters that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in punishment for dispatching Hagar and Ishmael into the desert to meet certain death. Most Bible interpreters, however, have found this interpretation fails.
More recently, the German scholar Gerhard Von Rad, perhaps the most important Old Testament scholar of the 20th century, wrote that asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac was God’s ultimate way of testing Abraham. God did this, notes von Rad, in order to determine whether Abraham still realized that all things came from God and ultimately belonged to God – even Abraham’s own son.
Reading Von Rad’s commentary of Genesis one evening as he prepared a sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac, author and preacher John Claypool, who had lost his daughter to leukemia, suddenly realized that everything that we have is a gift from God. Likewise, everything that we have would make a nice present for others.
This simple but profound realization deeply affected Claypool, who wrote and delivered a powerful series of sermons about death, loss, suffering and healing based upon the death of his own six-year-old daughter, who died from leukemia. His book Tracks of a Fellow Struggler is the best book that I have read about suffering and loss, and I have given copies of it to scores of people who are grieving.
Indeed, all of life is a gift, and everything that we have will eventually be required of us – including all of our possessions, friends and family. We can take nothing with us on our eternal journey. A shroud has no pockets, as Claypool often noted. Hence, the journey of life and the journey of joy are to take what we have and share these things with others along the way. In doing so, we discover the deep joy and the purpose of our lives.
Hence, God put Abraham to the test to see if Abraham still knew that nothing ultimately belonged to him and that all that he had ultimately belongs to God. When God saw that Abraham had not forgotten the lesson, God provided a ram for the sacrifice so that Isaac would not be harmed.
The angel of the Lord therefore reaffirmed God’s promise to Abraham, “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.” (Gen. 22:16)
Chapter 23 informs us about the death of Sarah, who died prematurely at 127 as compared to Adam and Noah, who died at the ages of 930 and 950 respectively. Abraham was very attached to her and sought to bury her in the land of the Hittites, where she died. He is clearly taken advantage of while grieving by Ephron son of Zohar, who makes him pay 400 shekels of silver for a burial cave and an accompanying plot of land.
Chapter 24 tells the delightful story about how a bride is found for Isaac. Abraham, desperate to keep his lineage pure, sends his oldest and most trusted servant in search of a bride among Abraham’s tribesmen so that Isaac will not have to marry among the Hittites. Laden with gifts of gold and silver and other commodities carried by ten camels, his trusty servant returns with Rebecca, from whom Abraham’s lineage will be preserved.
Anglican theologians such as Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), who was known as a thinking man’s bishop, have long said that there are two books that reveal God to us – the book of revealed religion or the Bible and the book of natural religion or nature. These reveal what we need to know about God.
In his The Analogy of Religion, published in 1736, Butler wrote about ways that religion was like nature and could be understood through reason as well as revealed religion, which is knowledge of God that comes solely from divine revelation. Butler wrote that just as eggs hatch into birds or worms change into flies, the law of nature tells us that humans shall transform as well. It is reasonable to believe that upon death we will change from one stage of existence to another, Butler noted.
Likewise, the English physician Thomas Browne (1605-1682), who was the author of Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician) – a very popular book that was translated into many European languages in the seventeenth century – wrote,
Thus there are two Books from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of His servant Nature, that universal and publick Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the Eyes of all: those that never saw Him in the one, have discovered Him in the other.
Psalm 8 is one of many psalms that speak powerfully to us about experiencing God through nature. Throughout the psalms we discover a deep connection between God and the beauty and power of nature. Millions of people experience God through nature each day. A fine balance for us is to discover God in both God’s Word and God’s creation – the Bible and nature – just as Browne and Butler have noted. We need never apologize for sensing the presence of God in the created world around us, but to depend solely on discovering God in nature and not to experience God as revealed in the Bible is a true loss.
This chapter introduces us to Jesus as healer. In his classic book written in 1985 called Jesus through the Centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan, one of the most famous church historians of all time, wrote about the different ways that Jesus has been portrayed across the centuries. This include Christ as rabbi, light of the Gentiles, King of kings, the cosmic Christ, the Son of Man, Christ crucified, Christ as monk, Jesus as the bridegroom of the soul, universal man, Prince of Peace, teacher of common sense and liberator.
One of the most important images of Jesus is that of healer or the beloved physician. After my first year of studying at the Yale Divinity School, which was a very heady experience as I studied with some of the most renowned professors of Christianity in the world, I spent a summer working for the Church in Kenya. I worked in a seminary located in a jungle area near Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, not far from the border of Uganda. Because I took almost nothing with me to read, a missionary gave me a copy of Francis McNutt’s book Healing.
I must confess that I initially balked at the idea of reading it. The book seemed trite compared to the heady works of biblical theology that I had been reading at Yale. Faith healing sounded hokey after I had been reading erudite works by famous Christian scholars. Fortunately, I read it, because I had almost nothing else to read and found it to be most worthwhile.
What amazed me was how much time Jesus spent healing people. This was not just a small portion of his ministry. Rather, it constituted a large portion of what Jesus did. These stories were also not stories solely about healing someone’s spirit, but they often involved the healing of a person’s body. McNutt demonstrated how one story of healing followed another. This is something almost completely lost upon academic theologians in divinity schools today.
Somehow, I had read the Bible carefully and never realized just how much time Jesus spent healing the bodies of those who were blind, lame, sick or dying. It opened my heart and my mind to reading more over the years that followed about the impact that attitude, prayer, meditation and faith have when it comes to healing our body and spirit.
For now, Bible readers would be wise to note the vast amount of time that Jesus devotes to healing people physically as you continue to read through the gospels. Jesus’ focus on healing is one of the reasons why the Church established hospices for pilgrims, which were models for today’s hospitals.
It Matthew 8 Jesus heals a leper, then heals the servant of a centurion, then heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law and then spends the evening healing “many who were possessed with demons” and “cured all who were sick.” (Matt. 8:16). We all told that this was all in order to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah, who said, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…” (Is. 53:4)
Matthew carefully illustrates how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant or the Messiah as described in the Book of Isaiah, which offers the clearest description of the future Messiah to be found in the Old Testament. It is worth recalling that Jesus is so impressed by the faith of the Gentile centurion that he tells his followers, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Matt. 8:10) This kind of honesty, no matter how true, did not win Jesus friends among many of the Jews.
Second, it is worth noting that archeologists have uncovered the house which they believed to belong to Simon Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum. A strange-looking modern church has been built over the site among the ancient ruins in Capernaum, where pilgrims to the Holy Land can visit to this day. It is just another of many sites that remind us that many of the stories found in the Bible, where healings and miracles occurred that transformed the world, are verifiable and can be visited to this day.
Towards the chapter’s end we have a miracle of a different sort, where Jesus calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The Dutch Golden Age painter Rembrandt van Rijn depicted this scene in his only seascape. This masterpiece, which was painted in 1633, was stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990 and has not been recovered.
I had the good fortune to see it before it was stolen. It captures a violent storm at sea with a small boat filled with Jesus’ disciples hanging for dear life onto the mast and other parts of the boat, while Jesus is soundly asleep in the stern of the boat. There is something utterly fascinating about Jesus’ tranquility while others are fearful for their lives. It is the ultimate depiction of “non-anxious presence.”
What the story teaches us is that Jesus was truly God incarnate and capable of calming the deadly forces of nature. These were in his power to control. Why God does not do this at all times remains a mystery. Not every storm is calmed. Not every tornado is stopped. Not ever tsunami is prevented from killing people. While Jesus may look like just another passenger in the boat, he has dominion over nature.
The chapter closes out with a strange miracle where Jesus heals two demoniacs living among tombs in a cemetery. As in most cases, the demons clearly recognize Jesus and realize that he possesses the power to destroy them. Jesus casts the demons out of those whose bodies they have inhabited and allows the demons to enter into a herd of swine, who then hurtle themselves over the cliff.
While I was Spain during a recent sabbatical, I visited several famous food markets and saw Iberian hams for sale that cost as much as $900. One can only imagine only much revenue was lost when the herd of swine plummeted over the cliff in this story. The pig farmers were thrilled to see Jesus leave their community. We read, “Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave the neighborhood.” (Matt. 8:34)
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor. (Ps. 8: 3-5)
It is good to read the Bible in the same place each day, if you can. In so doing, that place will become your sacred place, a quiet place hopefully within your house, apartment, office or school, where you can spend time in expectation each day encountering God.
How has God’s inability to act at times made it difficult for you to believe in the power and the reality of God? What crisis has struck our world or your own life that God did not prevent that caused you to wonder whether God indeed exists?
Gracious God, help us not to be afraid of bringing any concern before you whether it be emotional, mental, relational or physical and asking for Jesus to bring about healing and create a path to wholeness and holiness. Nothing pleases God more than healing his people. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie