By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, October 15, 2000

Genesis 22:1-18 The sacrifice of Isaac

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you." Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?" "Yes, my son?" Abraham replied. "The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together. When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied. "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided."

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, "I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me."

Luke 14:25-33 The cost of being a disciple

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."

"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'

"Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything you have cannot be my disciple."

Arcana Coelestia #10227.18 Giving up all our possessions

If we do not know that in the inner meaning, "possessions" are spiritual riches and wealth, which are intuitions and knowledge that come from the Bible, we can only believe that if we want to be saved, we will have to get rid of everything we own.

But that is not what these words mean. In this passage, "possessions" means everything that comes from our own intelligence. None of us can be wise from ourselves, but only from the Lord. So "giving up all our possessions" means claiming no intelligence or wisdom for ourselves. If we do not do this, we cannot be taught by the Lord, which is what it means to be his disciple.

Any of you who does not give up everything you have cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:33)

Life can be hard sometimes. It throws us many challenges: sickness, financial misfortune, broken marriages and friendships, the death of a loved one. These things can be very painful, testing us to the depths of our soul. They may even cause us to question our faith in God. We ask, "Why would a God of love allow such terrible things to happen?" We question deeply what God is really like, and whether it is really true that God is pure love--or whether God doesn't really care about us, and has left us to our own devices.

Our Old Testament story involves a situation in which Abraham was tested to the depths of his soul. It helps to understand this story if we realize that in the cultural and religious atmosphere in which Abraham grew up, people believed that it was pleasing to God to kill and sacrifice animals and even human beings. Human sacrifice was a common practice in the religions of the ancient Near East. As Abraham grew up, he naturally adopted this belief along with many others that we now consider to be mistaken and contrary to God's will.

This leads us to our first lesson from this reading. God cannot change all at once the mistaken beliefs that we grow up with. If God instantly took away the beliefs that have been ingrained in us as sacred from our earliest childhood, we would have nothing left to keep our faith alive. So God works with our current beliefs, leading us forward until we have grown in spirit enough that God can show us a deeper and higher belief.

This is what God did with Abraham. And this is a matter of deeper wisdom about the Bible that is not always apparent on the surface. On the surface, the story says "God tested Abraham," by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac. The matter of deeper wisdom that we must understand in reading this and many other passages in the Bible that attribute such things to God is that though the Bible is God's Word for us, it is written from a human perspective in order to reach us where we are. It often says things in its literal meaning that are the way we perceive them--or the way in which the culture through which it was written perceives them--rather than the way God perceives them.

It is hard for many people to accept the idea that God would allow anything into the Bible story that is not literally true. But if God did not allow this, most of what was written in the Bible would be beyond our comprehension--and it would lose its power to reach us where we actually are in life. As we read in Isaiah:

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)

The story of Abraham's "sacrifice of Isaac" (as it is traditionally called, even though he did not literally sacrifice his son), is the story of how God allowed the faulty beliefs held by Abraham to test him to his utmost, until he was ready to move to the next level of spiritual understanding, awareness, and commitment.

The story is told with great understatement. It does not dwell on the deep anguish Abraham must have felt as he traveled for three days, believing he was about to give up what he cherished most: his beloved son and heir. It does not dwell on the terrible pain Isaac must have felt when he realized what his father was about to do. It does not dramatize the flood of relief they both must have felt when they realized that their worst fears would not be realized.

Outside of the movies, this is how life happens for most of us. Even when we are in the midst of deep anguish and struggle, we do not go around dramatizing our inner pain for all the world to see. We do our best to hold our lives together even when we feel that we are breaking apart inside. At these times, we move along on our life journey full of fear, anguish, and deep pain that may outwardly be expressed only in a few words or a gesture that could only be understood by someone who knows us best of all--and perhaps only by God.

This should not lull us into thinking that no one else feels the deep pain or experiences the deep struggles that we do. Nor should it cause us to think that these inner feelings are not important--that only our outward lives matter. In fact, the struggles of our souls are an essential part of our lives. When we are facing our deepest fears and our greatest challenges, that is when we are expanding the growing edges of our lives. That is when we are traveling beyond where we have ever been spiritually, to a new stage of life in which we can gain a deeper understanding of our own souls, of one another, and of God.

Abraham gained a new understanding of God that day on Mount Moriah. Just as he was about to carry through the ultimate sacrifice that he thought God was asking of him, God called to him: "Abraham, Abraham! . . . Do not lay a hand on the boy." From a literal standpoint, we can see this story as a turning point, in which it was established for Abraham and all his descendents that God does not require human sacrifice as Abraham and many others of his day believed. Human sacrifice played no part in the ancient Jewish religion, even though it was still practiced by many of the peoples among which they lived.

But there was a deeper lesson for Abraham as well. The lesson was that if he offered everything he had to God--even what was most dear to him, even in the pain and anguish of his soul--then from that complete faith and devotion, God could bring about something better than he, in his old and faulty ways of thinking, could ever have imagined. It was after God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac that God made to Abraham the beautiful promise that he would be blessed and would have many descendants, and that through his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Though Abraham's concept of how to express his complete faith and devotion to God may have been faulty, the fact that he was willing to act on that faith made it possible for God to bring him to a new level.

For Abraham and for us, the new level to which God is seeking to bring us has very little to do with our outward circumstances. Though it may seem, as in our reading from Luke, that God is asking us to give up our family, our friends, and all our possessions in order to live by our faith, we are the ones who interpret the "sacrifices" of the Lord in that way when our hearts are focused more on outward things than on God.

Our reading from Luke phrases it in the starkest of ways: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple." (emphasis mine) We simply cannot take this literally. If we did, then Jesus would be contradicting his own clear teachings that we are to love everyone--even our enemies. There must be a deeper meaning that the Lord is leading us to in these "sacrifices" that are commanded in the Bible.

The deeper meaning is stated in the Bible itself, in this beautiful passage from Micah:

With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)

And in Psalm 51:16, 17, the Bible tells us very clearly that it is not outer sacrifice, but inner change that God requires of us. Speaking to the Lord, the Psalmist writes:

You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.

These words have the power to change our perspective on those painful struggles and losses that we face in this life. Our natural tendency is to think, like Abraham, that God is testing us, asking us to give up the people and abilities and things we hold most dear. But as hard as it sometimes is to understand, God never asks us to give up anything good in life. Rather, God is continually asking us to give up everything that stands in the way of our becoming the best, deepest, most spiritually wise and loving person that we can possibly be.

When we approach our times of deep testing, what God is really asking us is that we leave behind all of our old and faulty feelings and attitudes. These are the spiritual "father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself" that we must give up in order to follow the Lord. We must give up our false self-reliance: the idea that we can make it through life without any help from others or from God. In place of that faulty self-reliance, we must recognize deeply and fully our complete dependence on God for everything we have and everything we are

We must give up our focus on material possessions and pleasures. In place of that material focus, we must learn--sometimes only through the painful loss of someone we love--that the most important thing is not what we possess, but how much we grow in true love, compassion, understanding, and kindness for one another.

Sometimes, like Abraham, we feel that we are being asked by God to sacrifice what we love most. And when we follow through on that inner dictate, then God does bless us for being willing to give up everything in order to live out our faith. And though we sometimes do lose father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even our life itself, the true sacrifices of God are giving up our pride and self-reliance in favor of the "broken spirit" of complete reliance on God to provide for us, both outwardly and inwardly, every moment of our lives.

If it takes painful experiences of loss and anguish in order for us to arrive at this "sacrifice of everything" to God, and this new faith and trust in God at a deeper level, then God will allow those painful things to happen to us. Please understand, though, that God takes no pleasure in our pain, and would much prefer that we could learn in an easier way. But our old attitudes die hard. Sometimes only the loss of the people or possessions we love most is enough to shake us out of our fixed ways of thinking and feeling, and open us up to God's presence in a new and deeper way.

Always, always, it is not the outer sacrifice that the Lord desires or requires, but the inner sacrifice of our whole being--of everything we love, believe, and do--to the will of God. What God truly desires is that we turn over our whole life to our Creator, leaving behind every self-centered and materialistic desire in favor of the true, deep, burning love and wisdom that can transform us into angels of light even while we are here on earth.

Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.


Music: The Prism (Colors of Love)
1999 Bruce DeBoer

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