Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 13, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42 When I was a teenager, my dad cashed in some frequent flyer miles and took the family to Maui. And from the moment we arrived, I could understand why people describe the islands as a kind of paradise. Beauty was everywhere. And it wasn’t just the mainland. During our trip, we also did some snorkeling at a volcanic crater a few miles offshore (Molokini). It was amazing. The crater, a half-crescent, began hundreds of feet below sea level and rose to about 150 ft. above the surface of the ocean. Inside the crater the waters were crystal clear, it was sheltered from the waves, and there was a thriving coral reef with thousands of fish and marine animals. You could even find rare plants and birds on the crater’s surface because this little oasis was also free of many predators.
And yet, this marine paradise was also incredibly dark and dangerous. At the edge of the crater, just below the surface of the water, the ocean floor dropped hundreds of feet. A thundering current of water rumbled along the edge of the crater. Our travel guide simply called it the “aloha current” because he said that if we were foolish enough to go wandering off and get caught by that current, the only thing he could do was wave goodbye as we were swept out to sea - aloha!
After hearing this deadly news, of course, the first thing me and my brother did was go explore that current! We swam just close enough to the edge of the crater so that we came face-to-face with a massive wall of thick, dark ocean. We were really just a couple dozen feet from the clear waters of the marine sanctuary, but this ocean current was pitch black. We couldn’t see anything in front of us, we could only feel the rumble of all that water - hundreds of feet in height - moving faster and further into the darkness. I couldn’t stay in that place more than just a few moments before my entire body was tingling with a sense of danger, feeling like if I made even the smallest mistake I might get swept away. So we turned back. We went back to that little paradise inside the crater - and we never looked back at the “aloha current” ever again.
This morning’s reading from Genesis (22.1-14) feels a lot like that dark, dangerous current. Because we’re really just a couple dozen chapters from the God who created the Garden of Eden - a paradise. God looked at creation, called everything very good, and blessed people to fill the earth. And now suddenly we come face-to-face with a dark, terrifying current. It’s the kind of story that’s hard to see past and makes us wonder if we can even go any further with this God. Maybe, let’s just turn back to the clear waters of an affirming God and never look back at this dark current ever again. Because if this story is any indication, there’s at least the possibility that the closer we get to God, the closer we may find ourselves to getting swept away. After the headlines in this week’s news, it almost makes God look like a really powerful version Whitey Bulger: “he could kill you for a good reason, he could kill you for a bad reason, or he could kill you for no reason at all.” What are we supposed to do with a story like this?
In the opening chapters of Genesis, God gives Adam & Eve a command that’s pretty hard to understand. He says, “Don’t eat the wrong fruit.” I mean, really? What’s the big deal? He just gave them paradise. What’s the big deal with some fruit? And the point of that story, we learn, isn’t really about the fruit. The point is that God is inviting people into deeper trust; into a deeper relationship with God. In today’s story something very similar is going on. But, it’s a lot harder to swallow because in the story with Abraham, God’s command isn’t just silly - it’s sick. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” (the first time love is even mentioned in the book of Genesis)... and God says, “take the one you love and sacrifice him as a burnt offering.”
And we don’t know what’s more shocking: the fact that God seems to be playing a sick joke, or the fact that Abraham actually goes along. I mean, just a few chapters earlier Abraham was pleading with God, trying to save the people of Sodom. He showed some amazing compassion. God announces that He’s off to judge a city with destruction, and Abraham says, “God, now don’t be upset, cuz I’m just asking, but would you really destroy an entire city if there were even 10 good people?” And God says, “You’re right, if there are even 10 good people in the city, I’ll relent.” Abraham was pleading mostly for strangers. But when it comes to his own son, he’s completely silent. He simply “rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey” and took Isaac to be slaughtered. That’s hard to swallow.
So let me tell you why I’m glad this story is in our Bible. I’m glad because it shows God at His best, working from the inside. God is working from inside all of the dark beliefs people have had about life and death, war and religion, love and trust. It doesn’t matter how bizarre or twisted people get - past, present, or future. God is there, committed to us, working with us. In Abraham’s world, whether we like it or not, it would not have been all that shocking to sacrifice a child. It was one of their beliefs - a common theory - about how to maintain peace and stability in the world. And whether we find it shocking just isn’t the point; any more than whether future generations will judge us for the brutal ways that we’ve sacrificed our own children in the trenches of war over the past century. Many of us believe that war is a regrettable, but necessary sacrifice for the peace and stability of the world. History will be our judge.
The point of today’s story is that God is committed to working with us and through us to achieve the healing and restoration of all creation. Let’s make no mistake: it’s a fearful thing to be used by this God. Not because God is mean or a bully; not because He’s a dark and deadly ocean current - but the exact opposite. It’s a fearful thing because this God’s compassion knows no bounds. There is no place in creation where God’s compassion will not reach. And the frightening thing about being used by this God is that wherever the pain and suffering of creation is greatest, God is going to be looking for people to bring life and healing. You and I are God’s image in this world.
So yes, God even infiltrates some really dark beliefs about child sacrifice, and He transforms them from the inside out. Because what were people trying to say when they sacrificed their own children? They were trying to say that they wouldn’t hold back anything. They would trust that god - whoever it was - with their entire future. Children were the only hope, and Abraham’s son, Isaac, is the only future he’s got. Abraham’s 100 years old. He’s supposed to be the father a great nation. And at the ripe old age of 100, he’s got exactly one son for the inheritance. God says, “Abraham, Abraham. Don’t touch that boy. I see and I know. You haven’t held back anything.” Unlike our ancestors, Adam & Eve, who went their own way and tried to build their own future, Abraham takes a massive step of trust into God’s future.
None of us are going to face that kind of request from God. Child sacrifice was at least questionable in Abraham’s world. In our world it’s just sick, but, we might notice, not completely absent. Right now in Florida, a young mother (Casey Anthony) is on trial and she’s been accused of sacrificing her daughter, we might say, on the altar of pleasure and convenience. It’s repulsive and shocking, and people can’t seem to stop watching. But no one is trying to use God as their defense. We don’t face that kind of option. Here’s what we do face, here’s the thing. God still calls people, God calls you & me, to bring life into the dark places creation. And what do we do when it seems like we or someone we love, is being offered as a cruel sacrifice on the dark altars of pain and suffering in this world? Let’s be honest, when we’re facing pain and suffering - real tragedy - whether we think we’ve heard the voice of God or not, it sure feels like God’s got some explaining to do. As we hear from today’s psalmist: “How long, O Lord? will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face?... Look at me and answer me...” (Psa. 13.1-3).
And in these dark moments we learn a couple of things from Abraham’s story: (1) God will provide for us, and (2) God will provide for His own promises. “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided” (Gen. 22.14). God will provide. And it isn’t just the promise of a comforting feeling - that can just be denial as much as anything. It’s a promise that as we trust this God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, He’s going to use us in the process of healing this world. He’s going to bring us to some dark waters for the hope of healing. That’s at least part of what Paul is talking about today when he tells the Romans to “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your[selves]... as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6.13).
I don’t have an easy answer for pain and suffering. I don’t have an easy answer for real tragedy. What I have is this: God’s promise to the world. It isn’t just about making us feel better, it’s about renewing creation and making all things new (Rev. 21.5). In the end, God’s not going to sweep us away; He’s going to sweep away pain, suffering, and brokenness. And strangely enough, frighteningly enough, God wants to use us in that process. So our work in this world isn’t just what happens when we’re rescued from pain and suffering. More often than not, it’s also what we do in the middle of that pain and suffering to reveal God’s healing and compassion.
At any particular moment of any particular day, I’m going to be wrestling with God just like the psalmist: “How long, O Lord?! Will you forget me for ever?!” And even with the Resurrection of Jesus as our hope and our destiny, I’m still learning how to reach the end of that psalm in one voice with the psalmist. I’m still learning to say, “I put my trust in your mercy” (Psa. 13.5). I don’t actually feel that mercy every moment of every day. But I trust where God’s mercy is leading: to new life. So today let this be our prayer, and let this be our energy for work in this world: “I put my trust in your [promise of] mercy; my heart is joyful because of your [promise of] saving help” (Psa. 13.5). Amen.