This week’s sermon from First Presbyterian, Boonville.
The text is Genesis 22:1-14.
Rev. John Buehrens, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has an interesting response to folks who tell him, “I don’t believe in God.”
“Tell me about the God you don’t believe in,” he says, “Chances are that I don’t believe in ‘Him’ either.”
I’ve got to say that I love Buehrens’ response for the way it insightfully cuts through the veil of cultural assumptions and seeks to help both speaker and listener come to a deeper understanding of the words they use.
There are several good reasons for not believing in God. Many of these reasons depend on which conception of “God” is being rejected. In our society, there are several popular conceptions of God that manage to float around in our collective unconscious mind.
First, some have the idea of God as an old man with a long, white beard who lives in the sky. Cartoonist Gary Larson often depicted God like this in his famous comic strip, The Far Side. This God is the product of medieval superstition, not the ancient wisdom given through the scriptures and traditions of the church. This is a God made in our own image: complete with physical form, location, and gender. I am inclined to agree with my atheist friends that such a deity is not worth believing in.
Next, some think of God as a distant judge who stands aside like the referee at a ball game, just waiting for someone to break a rule. Whenever that happens, this God makes sure to write it down for all eternity. This God is kind of like Santa Claus, who is “making a list and checking it twice” with the assumption that someday, God is “coming to town” in order to dole out rewards and punishments. This God is more interested in following the rules than growing in relationship. I don’t blame my atheist friends. I wouldn’t want to believe in that kind of God either! As a matter of fact, I don’t.
Next, some have the idea of God an almighty being who controls everything that happens in the universe. This God causes earthquakes and hurricanes as well as cancer and car accidents. All tragedy can be attributed to “God’s will” according to this understanding. Furthermore, this God predestines certain people for eternal salvation and others for eternal damnation. Human beings have no free will, but are mere pawns in this God’s cosmic chess game. I can understand why someone would not want to believe in this kind of God.
Next, some think of God as a kind of tribal deity or mascot, who is associated only with certain people in a certain place and time. This God loves some people more than others, depending on some predetermined characteristic. They say that God only loves Americans, or straight people, or Christians. Anyone who doesn’t fit into the right category is excluded from God’s favor. This kind of God is also not worth believing in.
These concepts of “old man in the sky”, “distant judge”, “almighty chess player”, and “tribal totem” arise from our culture’s assumptions about what God is like. When people think of “God”, they are usually thinking of something (or someone) similar to one or more of these categories.
In the ancient Middle East, people had their own socially accepted ideas about what God must be like. Most folks in those days believed that gods lived in stone or wooden sculptures. The early Jews and Christians had no such idols, so they were referred to as “atheists” by the culture of their day. People in that culture also believed that their gods needed to be fed by humans in order to thrive and survive. Offerings and sacrifices were made so that the gods could “eat”. No one in that society would have thought it strange that a deity would ask for some kind of sacrifice from people. Occasionally, these gods would demand a human sacrifice in order to guarantee peace and prosperity during the coming year. This was an accepted practice.
So, it would have come as no big surprise in their society that God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his firstborn son. It fit with their cultural conception of spirituality. It’s the kind of thing any god would have done in the ancient Middle East. So, that’s why Abraham hardly batted an eye when God told him to go sacrifice his son Isaac on a mountain. “It’s just what gods do!”
When we read this story in the modern world, we’re horrified by it. We can’t imagine the God we worship asking someone to kill their own child as a test of faith. We take people who do that sort of thing and lock them up in jail. Jews and Christians alike have tried to understand this passage by interpreting it allegorically or symbolically. Jews call this passage the “Akedah” and see it as a story about themselves as Isaac on the altar with his survival and God’s promise hanging in the balance. A lot of Jewish theology written since the Holocaust has paid special attention to the Akedah as a lens for understanding what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany. The Jewish people were brought to the brink of destruction, but were spared at the last minute. Many Christians, for their part, interpret this text as an allegorical symbol for what happened to Christ: the beloved son ascended a hill carrying wood on his back, and faced a sacrificial death. Philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard have analyzed this passage as a metaphor for individual choice and personal faith. The list goes on…
What all of these renderings have in common is that they are trying to either sidestep or understand the sheer horror of a God who would call someone to kill his or her own child. But we miss something as we project our modern values on this ancient text. In that culture, a deity calling for human sacrifice was considered normal. In fact, it was so normal that Abraham hardly thinks twice when his God seems to be asking for it.
If there’s anything strange and shocking about this text from an ancient standpoint, it’s the fact that Abraham’s God stops the sacrifice at the last possible second. This must have been mind-boggling to Abraham! His whole idea of who God is and how the world works must have been turned upside down in that moment!
By stopping the human sacrifice, God was challenging popular cultural notions about religion. God was changing the way religion worked in that society. God was saying to Abraham, in effect, “I’m not like that. I’m different.”
God isn’t like that. God is different.
I wonder what this idea would look like if we applied it to some of our own cultural conceptions about God?
Remember the conception of God as the “old man in the sky”? We already identified this kind of God as “not worth believing in”. How might God say, “I’m not like that” about the “old man in the sky”? Let’s look at the first part: Is God really male? Well, did you know that there are several places in the Bible where God is actually described as a mother? Sure enough in Deuteronomy 32, Job 38, Isaiah 46, and Jeremiah 31, God is a woman giving birth. Likewise, the name “El Shaddai”, usually rendered as “God Almighty” by English translators, probably comes from the word that is used to describe nursing mothers. What about the second part? Does God really live “up there” in the sky? Well, our annual Christmas celebrations would seem to deliver a resounding “No” to that question. At Christmas time, we Christians celebrate our belief that God “took on flesh and dwelt among us”, as it says in John 1. Later on Jesus said repeatedly that if we want to look for God, we should look among the people in this world who suffer most. “Whatever you have done for the least of these who are members of my family,” Jesus said in Matthew 25, “you have done for me.” If you want to go looking for God, don’t look on some cloud floating up in the sky. Look around you, down here on earth! That’s where God is! God lives in the people around us who need help the most. So, when it comes to our culture’s idea of God as “old man in the sky”, I think we can safely say that God isn’t like that. God is complex, diverse, and intimately present in our lives. That’s what God is like.
How about the idea of God as the “distant judge” who is “making a list and checking it twice” in order to find out who is “naughty or nice”? We’ve already said that it’s not worth believing in a God who is more interested in rules than relationships. Is our God really that kind of “distant judge”? Well, let’s look at the kinds of things that Jesus said and did. He went out of his way to welcome outcast sinners who had been kicked out of their synagogues for failing to live up to “old fashioned family values”. Jesus went so far as to break time-honored religious laws in order to express God’s radical welcome to those who were least deserving of it. Again and again, Jesus showed us that forgiveness, rather than judgment, is the way that God operates in this world. When it comes to harsh judgment, Jesus tells us, “God isn’t like that.” God is more interested in loving sinners than upholding the self-righteousness of judgmental hypocrites. That’s what God is like.
What about God as the “almighty chess player” who causes everything that happens in the world, including tragedy and disaster? This one is a bit trickier (especially for us Presbyterians, who have historically emphasized God’s sovereignty). Philosophers have been wrestling with this question for centuries. There’s no way we can sum up their arguments in a single paragraph. But we can point to passages in the Bible that refer to God’s character. I’m thinking of passages like Jeremiah 29:11: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” In James 1:17, we learn that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights”. When it comes to predestined salvation and damnation, we read in 2 Peter 3:9 that God is patient with us, “not wanting any to perish”. As we piece together these snippets, we begin to get the idea that “God isn’t like that” when it comes to the “almighty chess player”. God is a generous giver who works for the good of everyone. There are no dispensable or “extra” people in God’s eyes. That’s what God is like.
What about the conception of God as “mascot” or “tribal totem”? Does God belong to only one group of people? Passages like Psalm 87 describes the community of God’s people as an extremely diverse group, made up of all the nations of the world, even those who were regarded as Israel’s enemies at that time. The Jewish prophet Isaiah spends a lot of time describing this reality in detail. We see it spelled out in Isaiah 2, 55, and 60. Jesus and the early Christians began to fulfill Isaiah’s vision as they opened the doors of the church to include Greeks, Romans, Africans, and Samaritans as well as Jews. God does not belong to one group of people as their mascot. God isn’t like that. God loves all people and wants to gather us together into one human family. Jesus himself said it best in John 12:32, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Notice that he said “all people”, not just “some”. Not just Americans, straight people, or Christians, but “all”. That’s what God is like.
There are some ideas about God that just aren’t worth believing in. Abraham learned that in his experience on Mount Moriah. I think we can have a similar experience when we compare our cultural notions about “who God is” with what we actually read about in the Bible. With Abraham, I think we will discover a God who is bigger, better, more loving, and more amazing than we can possibly imagine!