Sermons & services

Sermon for Lent 3 - Abraham and Isaac

Published Sunday 12th March 2023, at 3:13 p.m.

One of my favourite hymns is Alleluia, Sing to Jesus. In the last verse, you may remember, we sing this: Alleluia! King eternal, You the Lord of lords we own: Alleluia! born of Mary, Earth thy footstool, heaven thy throne: Thou within the veil hast entered, Robed in flesh, our great High Priest: Thou on earth both priest and victim, In the Eucharistic feast! Last week, I spoke about how we are to see Jesus in the person of the high priest Melchizedek because Jesus is the true high priest, the bridge-builder: the one who has re-united heaven and earth in his own Person. The story of Abraham and Melchizedek is in Genesis chapter 7, and this week – as we look at how to read the Old Testament in the light of the Risen Christ – we stay with Abraham, and that other famous story: the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s only son and so the means by which God’s promises to Abraham would be fulfilled: that his descendants would as many as the grains of sand by the sea. Now the first thing to ask here is why on earth would anyone even contemplate sacrificing their only child? Well, part of the answer lies in the fact that Abraham lived in a land where human sacrifice was practiced. And it happened because when people wanted to appease the gods, they believed they had to offer the most valuable thing possible: which was a human life. Why did they feel the need to appease the gods? Well one theory is because of the need for a scapegoat. The pages of human history are spattered with the blood of dissensions, rivalries, jealousies, and quarrels between tribes and communities. The Montagues keep killing and being killed by the Capulets. So do the Tattaglias and the Corleones, if you prefer The Godfather to Romeo and Juliet. Or the Watts and Mitchells if you’re an Eastenders fan. There is no natural end to the destructive cycle of retaliation and revenge. And according to the social scientist, Rene Girard, this was the problem that sacrifice was developed to resolve. If tribes A and B, who have been fighting each other, can sacrifice a member of tribe C, then A and B will have sated their desire for bloodshed but without inviting revenge from the other. Poor old tribe C, by the way. So what was going on with Abraham? Well the theory goes that God was testing Abraham to see if he trusted Him: do you trust me so much that would offer me your only son? Do you have faith in me and in my promises to you? God is tribe A. Abraham is tribe B. And poor old Isaac is tribe C, stuck in the middle! If you read the story you’ll quickly see how the early Church latched on to it as a type of the story of Jesus. Both were miraculous. Isaac’s birth was seen as miraculous: he was born of a woman who it was thought was barren. Jesus’s conception and birth from the Blessed Virgin Mary are miraculous. They both involved an offering. Abraham offers his son, his only Son. God offers his only Son. Both involve a victim. Isaac does not fight back: he is the victim who carries the wood of his own offering of himself. So, too, Christ is the willing victim. The whole story Abraham and Isaac is one of obedience and faith. The whole life of Jesus is one of obedience and faith. In attempting to sacrifice his own son, Abraham is essentially on the point of destroying the promise made to him by God that his descendants would be as many as the sand on the seashore and the stars in heaven. The stakes were that high. The Church saw that as a type of the Passion of Jesus which, with his death, looked like an apparent defeat: the defeat of God’s kingdom of love. But when Abraham receives his son back, that is a type of the Resurrection, of the Son who comes back from death. So the Church saw Jesus in both Abraham and Isaac. Jesus is both the one who offers, and the one who is offered: hence me beginning with that hymn, Alleluia, sing to Jesus. Christ is both priest and victim. As I said last week: Christ is the true high priest. The one who offers. The Letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as the one who “in the days of his flesh, offered up prayers and supplications”. He is the true high priest who is the mediator between sinful humanity and God: the bridge between heaven and earth. But Jesus is also the offering. He is the one who, as St Paul tells us, “loved me and gave himself for me”, Offered Himself for you and me. The whole life of Jesus was an offering to his heavenly Father: an offering of human life lived as it was meant to be lived. As humble, self-sacrificial, love, in obedience to the Father. That offering reaches is climax on the Cross, the sacrifice of Calvary, where the battle between love and sin reaches its final climactic conflict. When Jesus says those words – ‘it is finished’ – he’s speaking of the battle against the Devil, evil, sin, and death. And throughout it all Jesus remains the offerer and the one who is offered. He is what’s known as the victimless victim. I say victimless, because in him that cycle of retaliation and revenge I mentioned at the beginning, comes to an end. Unlike you and me, Jesus does not seek revenge. He does not recycle the violence. He does not call down legions of angels to fight on his behalf, even though he could have. In him the human history of violence comes to an end. In him no-one else is made a victim. Like a lightning rod, the violence is earthed through the wood of the Cross. Sin and evil cannot defeat love: the love of the Son for the Father. The love of the Son for you and me. The victory that wins for us salvation and opens to us the way home. This time there is no recycling of revenge: no need for a tribe C caught between the warring tribes A and B. Because Jesus is A, B, and C. Alongside the world’s victims, the world’s dispossessed and marginalised. And in this Eucharistic feast, that once-for-all, unrepeatable, sacrifice on the Cross is re-presented to us through signs of bread and wine: his body broken and blood outpoured. Jesus is the true priest here at this and every Eucharist: the priest merely stands in his stead. Here at this altar table – at every Eucharist – we can stand in the light of the one true sacrifice that takes away our sins, and the sins of the whole world, and experience within ourselves – through faith – its power for healing, forgiveness, and salvation. Because he is the victimless victim whose offering is made present and effective to us and for us, so that ‘by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, we and all thy whole Church may obtain remission of our sins, and all other benefits of his passion’. Thou on earth both priest and victim, In the Eucharistic feast!