THERE'S A RAM IN THE BUSHES
The story of Abraham and his son Isaac that we read from Genesis is a huge problem for a lot of people. What is God doing testing Abraham, and what possible excuse could God have for asking Abraham to do such an abominable thing? Well, the long and short of it is...I don't know. I do know, however, that I had to be taught to have a problem with this story. I've known the story all of my life, it seems; yet I was never frightened by it as a child or appalled by it as an adult until others told me I should be and called my social conscience into question.
I thought about that this week and tried to figure out why I've never had a problem with it. The only answer I could come up with is that I have known God as long or longer than I have known the story. I have always known darn well that God is love and that a loving God would not ask a father to kill his son without providing a way out.
Remember that the Bible is written to show us who God is and what God wants of us. The truth of this story is that when we trust God completely, even in the darkest times when God's leading seems to be our worst nightmare, God will provide a ram in the bushes. The God of Abraham wants only the attitude, not the sacrifice. God wants Abraham's heart, not his son. Once God is sure that Abraham values and trusts God above all else, an angel stays his hand and points to the ram in the bushes.
This story shows us that it is the nature of God to provide the sacrifice. It certainly prefigures the sacrifice that God provided about 2000 years later in giving the Lamb of God to the world in Jesus, but I think the story also works on a more practical level. When we are willing to give it all up and put our lives in God's hands, God provides a ram in the bushes, the means of our salvation. That doesn't mean that God always bails us out of difficult situations by giving us what we want. But God always does provide a light in the darkness.
It has been a truly amazing thing to live with this story during this week. Dave Lepine spoke during prayer time last week about his daughter Sarah and said that she was losing her battle with anorexia. She needed to be in a residential facility, but they didn't have the money. I asked him after church how much they needed. The amount was staggering. When financial aid came through from the facility on Monday, they still needed $25,000, and they had to have it up front or the facility would not admit her.
In the meantime, Sarah was losing weight and eating nothing. The doctor had forbidden her to drive because of her condition and was checking her vital signs daily.. Her life hung in the balance, where each day brought her closer to permanent damage to major organs or even death. With Abraham, they were walking up the mountain as Sarah struggled along beside them. They were trusting God, but it seemed like the sacrifice of their child was imminent.
From the church's view, we were struggling as we watched them climb. We could raise the money, but that would take time...too much time. By the time we got it, Sarah could well be dead. And so the Church Council gathered and we voted to simply write out a check to the treatment center for $25,000. It was a risky thing to do, because that money was already committed to the 2002 budget, but as person after person spoke around the table, God's direction was clear. Don't worry about a deficit budget. Give the money. Someone else came forward with two plane tickets and an hour after the meeting the family had both check and tickets.
But what struck me was what happened when I called their house. When the phone rang, they were in the middle of an argument. They had realized that there was no way they were going to come up with $25,000. The family knew that God had led them to the facility in Arizona, a faith-based program that everyone said was Sarah's best chance at recovery. Even national experts on anorexia said the very best place, the most holistic place for treatment was Arizona. How could they not give her the best chance? But then how could they give it to her if they didn't have the money?
It was like they had Sarah tied down on the table of sacrifice, the knife raised above her and tears running down their faces. In the midst of their tears and screams and anguish, I called to say, "There's no need to sacrifice your child. There's a ram in the bushes." Sarah noticed. She noticed that at the height of the storm, God stepped in to show a way, and she said to her mother, "I have a little of my faith back now."
As the church, we agreed that we would make the sacrifice instead. Sarah could have the best shot at a new life that we could give her. It will still be largely up to her, but we have given her a chance...not because we are especially good or righteous, but because, by virtue of her baptism, Sarah is not just the Lepine's child and not just God's child. Sarah is our child.
We have baptisms fairly frequently. It doesn't take a long time, and we read words out of a book. But behind those words stands the power of God that in some way beyond our understanding takes each one of us and makes us family. At baptism, a child or adult is recognized as part of Christ's church...not just the local church here, and not just the United Methodist Church. In baptism we are part of Christians everywhere...one body with Christ. And if we take seriously that as Christians we are one body in Christ, to let one of us die is to let us all die.
In a way, I think you could say that the Abraham and Isaac story is about baptism, in that it is about that kind of commitment. God has befriended Abraham and has promised him that Abraham's people will be God's people...Abraham's family will be God's family, and if somebody in Abraham's family is in trouble, God will step in and provide a ram in the bushes. Because that's what family does...or should do. And that is God's action for us in baptism. When the congregation at a baptism promises to surround a person with a community of love and forgiveness, that is just a dim echo of what God has already done for us in Jesus. Jesus was the ram in the bushes for us, when we had been so far separated from God by sin that our lives were forfeit...God stepped in and provided the sacrifice so that we might live.
So what's the catch? The catch is, the vows that we take as we become part of the family. "Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression?" we ask. "Do you reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord? Will you nurture this child in Christ's holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God's grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?"
Basically, the questions asked of parents or of a person being baptized are the questions being tested in Abraham. Are you really ready to be committed to God? Completely? Are you ready to love the Lord your God with ALL your heart and with ALL your soul and with ALL your strength? Suppose doing what is right puts your family in jeopardy? German Christians often faced this question as they considered hiding Jews during the Holocaust. Ultimately, who has our allegiance?
It's interesting that we often find it easier to declare our allegiance to our country than we do to our God. Soldiers put country before family all the time, and while we see sad and tragic situations as a result, everyone understands that oath and honors it. But somehow God becomes harsh if God wants a similar level of sworn allegiance. We take the vows at baptism, and then many of us hardly think of them again, thinking God terribly demanding to ask that we keep them.
Well, remember Joshua from last week. Our choices and our promises should not be made lightly, and I am sure that Abraham did not lightly agree to sacrifice his son. But the good news is that while our country will require that some of us march to our death, God provides a ram in the bushes. It's not a promise that life will never be difficult; it's not a promise that will keep us from all tragedy, but it is a promise of ultimate victory. The story of Abraham and Isaac, the story of St. John's United Methodist Church and Sarah, tells us that if your oath to God is true, you need not worry about death. God has provided a ram, a way out. God has gone there for us so that we can get up off the table of sacrifice and live forever.
But the promise of God is tied to our promise...which is why in those traditions where a candle is burned at baptism, that same candle is lit again at a funeral. It is a reminder that the vows made at baptism and kept throughout life mean that when we finally lie on the table with a knife at our throats, we will find that we are saved by a ram in the bushes. Death is swallowed up in victory. And if the community has not kept its vows to help to raise a child in the faith or to surround a person with a community of love and forgiveness, the funeral candle burns also as a witness against those who took their vows lightly and allowed a child of God to suffer alone. We are in this together...the Christian religion is not a private affair.
Instead of our usual prayer time this morning, I invite you to turn to page 50 in the hymnal. This is a service provided so that we can remember what we promised or what was promised for us at our baptism and so that we can have a chance to renew vows that might have slipped in importance to us over time. There is always forgiveness for our lapses when we recognize our sins and turn back to God.
Brothers and sisters in Christ:
Through the Sacrament of Baptism
In the fullness of time you sent Jesus,
Pour out your Holy Spirit,
Remember your baptism and be thankful.
Sermon (c) 2002, Anne Robertson
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