This sermon was part of a series on James and was linked with Genesis 22, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. These are two difficult readings, both of which have had a lot written about them. Genesis 22 is known in Judaism as the Akedah (binding), which is a much better description. The picture of the akedah was painted by Marc Chagall, and links the near-sacrifice of Isaac with the actual sacrifice of Jesus in a way I find very helpful.
One of the main sources of discussion in the James passage is the contrast between how James uses the story of Abraham, and how Paul uses the story of Abraham, particularly in Romans 4. I don’t deal with it directly, but I hope that I make it clear why I don’t think there’s a contradiction between them.
There was obviously too much to say in one sermon, but this was what I thought it was right to say at this time…
What kind of God is this? What kind of God do we see revealed in these passages? These are not easy passages, and hearing them may have made us feel uncomfortable, or outraged, or repulsed us. What kind of God can drag a man to the edge of murdering his son, and then use it as an example of what our faith should look like?
I guess that many of us are thinking, well I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t want to do that, I have no intention of letting God do anything like that to my son, my daughter, my loved one. And you’d be right. Because that isn’t the point of this passage from Genesis. Because, actually, we’ve learned something important, something that it’s very probable that Abraham didn’t know. We’ve learned that God does not demand the actual, literal sacrifice of people.
That’s a lesson that’s taken humanity quite a few thousand years to learn. In an awful lot of cultures for an awful lot of human history if things have got bad enough then the almost instinctive reaction seems to be ‘take one, so you don’t take us all’. People’s answer to ‘What kind of God is this?’ is ‘one who will accept human sacrifice’. And if you want a biblical example of this answer, in the midst of 2 Kings in the 8th century BC we read about King Ahaz “he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire”.
So, over a thousand years after Abraham has this encounter with God, people are still answering the question ‘What kind of God is this?’ by sacrificing their children. They are still getting it so far wrong they think that sacrificing their children is the right thing to do, is going to make a difference. But, parts of the Bible are meant to be shocking. In part, the Bible is meant to stretch us, meant to make us look at things in a new way. So, we’ve learned one of the lessons of this passage so thoroughly that we’re shocked that anyone could have ever thought this way. And that’s good, but it also blinds us to all the other things that, actually, it might be better we were now shocked by in this passage.
One of the many problems with this passage in Genesis is that it doesn’t describe anyone’s emotions or thoughts. It doesn’t even describe very much of the action. That makes it more difficult to work out what’s going on and why. But, Abraham probably goes because he trusts God. He might have thought that God was going to sort it somehow, he might not. But he had three days to think about the promises God had made to him, the promises that he had made to God, and the difference that had made to his life.
What kind of God is this? The kind who knows that everything worth doing takes time and effort. Whether that’s learning to drive a car, play an instrument, do a job well, learn a language, or whatever else. To be able to do things well there is a cost and effort involved. To be able to keep doing those things well requires time and practice. So, why do we sometimes think that learning to follow God is any different from those things? Why do we sometimes think that that doesn’t take much time or effort, or is something that we can do once and then not work at anymore? That’s one of the shocking things about this passage from Genesis; Abraham has spent a lot of time with God and discovers that there’s still more to discover, still more to learn, still more to do.
What kind of God is this? The answer that James gives is one that calls you to change. James talks about your faith in God actually making a difference to how you live your life, and uses the example of Abraham being a friend of God. And that makes sense really. If you become friends with someone, then you demonstrate that friendship by spending time with them, finding out more about them, doing things with them and for them. And the more time that you spend with friends, the more likely it is that the things they do rub off on you. Which is why having friends who are a positive influence is so important.
Now, one of the things I like about Facebook is that it allows you to share in people’s lives in ways that actually it’s more difficult to do without it. You can find out what people are upto, what they’re thinking, see their photos, and so on much more easily, for more people, and for people that are a long way away. For those of you not on Facebook, anything that you put onto the site appears on your own personal page, and also onto the newsfeed of people you’re friends with. So, you can see what people are upto, comment on what they’re saying, even arrange to meet up in real life! But, you can do something else as well. You can choose to stop getting updates on certain people. So, even though you’re Facebook friends with them, they pretty much vanish. It’s almost the same as if you weren’t friends with them.
I hope that you can see the point I’m trying to make. Friendship makes a difference to our lives, whether that’s because you see another picture of an allegedly cute kitten on Facebook, or you get invited out for a meal. But, it makes a difference because our friendship leads to changes in our behaviour. Even if that’s just seeing more pictures of cats than you’d otherwise want to. It’s not a real friendship in any sense if you’ve accepted someone’s friend request and then unsubscribed from everything they actually do. It’s exactly the same with our faith.
Faith isn’t simply, or mainly, about intellectual acceptance, or about feeling good, or about a social gathering. Faith is about a living relationship with God, and about that relationship making a difference in your life. I always worry when I say that. I worry that people think I mean ‘go off and become a missionary’ or ‘go off and get ordained’. It doesn’t normally mean that, although it might. I worry that people think I mean ‘become churchwarden’ or ‘become a licensed Reader’. It doesn’t normally mean that, although it might. I worry that when I say your relationship with God makes a difference in your life you think about the big things. Because, actually, I think, that God is at least as interested in the little things, the day-to-day things, the stuff that we do every day, every week. And that’s true whether you’re an ordained minister, or a churchwarden, or whatever. It’s in the day-to-day things where our relationship needs to be reflected in how we live. And that might lead to big changes, or it might lead to lots of little changes.
What kind of God is this? The kind who goes further and comes closer than we realise. The kind who calls us to adventures beyond what we can imagine, and the kind who cares about all our hopes and fears and dreams.
What kind of God is this? Abraham tells his son ‘God will provide’. Did Abraham believe it? Did he say it wanting to believe it? We don’t know. But God did provide, God provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice, and so on the mountain in Moriah Abraham named that place, The Lord Will Provide. And we are told “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided”.
And where is Mount Moriah? In 2 Chronicles we’re told the answer to that: “Solomon began to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah”. The same place where God prevented Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, is the same place where God’s Son, Jesus, was sacrificed for us. God goes further and comes closer than we realise. In Jesus, God calls us to adventures beyond what we can imagine, and in Jesus God shows us he cares about all our hopes and fears and dreams.
One of the crucial aspects of the teaching of James in this passage is the importance of living lives of Christian integrity. Living lives of Christian integrity. The integrity not to gossip, not to say things behind people’s backs, the integrity not to get drunk, the integrity not to think yourself better than other people, the integrity to use your wealth to show God’s love, the integrity to use your time in ways that shine God’s light, the integrity to use your skills to God’s glory, the integrity to live lives that grow God’s kingdom. Living lives of Christian integrity is about doing because we believe and believing in what we are doing.
What kind of God is this? The kind who desires to call us, like Abraham, ‘friends’. The kind of God who desires the best for us, and so wants to see the best from us. The kind of God who knows our strengths and wants us to use them, the kind of God who knows our weaknesses and wants to help us overcome them, the kind of God who calls us, and who provides when we answer that call.
What kind of God is this? The only one worth knowing. Amen.