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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Plan B

2011-06-26 Genesis 22:1-14

Plan B

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

OK. Let's get straight to the heart of the matter. If you're in bed one night and you hear a voice, claiming to be God. And if this voice tells you to go build an altar in your backyard. And if this voice tells you to sacrifice ANY member of your family - especially your husband... Roll over and go back to sleep.

The point is that if you're feeling like Abraham? if God's talking to you in a voice no one else can hear? and if God's telling you to do strange things? you really need to check it out. And I mean this seriously. The brain is a very tricky place. It might be God. But it's more likely it's a sign that you need to talk to a doctor before something bad happens.

Which is precisely where we are in the story of Abraham. Here's God talking to this man in a voice no one else hears. God's telling him to do something violent. Here's God telling this man to do something unspeakable. Something criminally wrong. Morally wrong. And, after seeing where this is leading, in the end, God says, "OK. You know what? This was a bad idea." God rethinks.

God rethinks.

You see, back in these Old Testament stories, especially the early ones, God's working out this relationship with humanity. Humanity's trying to figure out God. We still are. But back in the early days, God's made these people and now he's trying to figure out how they work. In some cases, like the story of Abraham and Isaac, really bad stuff comes this close to happening. In other places, really bad stuff does happen. But in either case, the reason is always the same. Bad stuff happens, and people say, "God told me to." Sometimes that was true. Back then, God did tell people to do some pretty brutal things. But even so, there's this underlying question: Could it have been re-thought? Could there have been another way? Is this the way things were supposed to be?

So, after 4000 years of human evolution and centuries of religious wrangling, what's changed? Well, at least where people are concerned, not much. People still do really, really bad stuff and those same people are almost always really, really religious. People who do really bad things are certain they're being tested in some way by some God. They're being directed in some way by some God. Maybe the Christian God. Maybe Allah. Maybe some other deity. Where's the line between extreme faith and extreme delusion? 4000 years and we're still not sure about that.

God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son. God tells Noah to build an ark and his neighbors laugh at him. Jesus says he's going to die and rise from the dead in three days and his disciples say, "Please don't talk like that."

There's always something unbelievable about belief. No matter who you are, no matter what religion you practice. If you're going to believe in God, you're going to have to accept some unbelievable things. Things that may not obey the laws of science. Things that might defy what passes for common sense. Maybe why this story is right at the front of the Bible. Maybe it's a warning label in parable form, for people who are picking up this book for the first time. Maybe it's a warning label and it's saying, "Fasten your seatbelts and extinguish your lighters (really). This is going to be a wild ride."

That's one lesson for people who are getting started in faith. But here's the lesson for those of us who think we're good with God, and who have gotten pretty comfortable. Maybe a little too comfortable. And I have to believe this lesson is pretty important because it comes near the very beginning of the Bible. And the lesson is this:

The minute you start believing God's speaking only to you... to you and nobody else but you...

The minute you get so cozy with the Almighty that you stop questioning what you've heard from God (or what you think you've heard),

the minute you stop checking out what you've heard about God...

really, really bad things start to happen.

Because no matter how divine the Word of God is, you're not. You're human. You might be wrong.

Now, I can hear of lot of people thinking, "Wait a minute. preachers can't say things like that." Just to be clear, I can't actually hear you thinking. It's a figure of speech. But I can imagine it. It's OK to ask questions about what you've heard from God. It's not only OK, it's necessary.

Again, I can hear a lot of people thinking, "Wait a minute. If you're questioning your faith all the time, it must not be very strong." No. That's false logic. The more questions your faith can handle, the more hits your faith can take, the stronger it's going to be. If you go around scared to death that's God's going to zap you if you say the wrong thing, or if you think the wrong thing, you don't have much faith in a loving, forgiving God. And that's another thing the story of Abraham and Isaac teaches us: God is, in the end, loving and forgiving. In fact, God is loving and forgiving enough to say, "You know what? This was a bad idea."

Look closely at your Bible and you'll read how very strong God wants our faith to be. The Bible (Psalm 1, actually) says your faith should be like a strong tree, planted by streams of water. But all of us have seen what happens if trees can't bend. They break. And what are broken trees used for? Firewood.

We have friends who have been working so hard on their little house. It's a bungalow, about 100 years old. They've spent so much money and time restoring it. They even got the formula for paint and made their own paint so it would be be historically accurate.

The week before last, during one of those rain and hailstorms that come out of nowhere, their beautiful little house got slammed by a tree. It was their neighbor's tree. It was a tree that they had told the neighbor was dangerous. The tree was old and dry. It wasn't refreshed by streams of water. It couldn't bend anymore. So when it couldn't bend to respond, it broke. And bad things happened.

Now, I can hear some of you thinking, "Well, I know some healthy trees that got knocked over in the storms." Good point. Sermon illustrations, like faith, are not necessarily bound by the laws of science.

The Bible says to have a childlike faith. That does not mean an ignorant faith. In fact, the opposite. You know how children are. They're always asking questions. They're always growing. They can drive you nuts asking questions. Why is this? Why is that? What is this? Should I have eaten it? (No, son. Let's head back to the pediatrician.)

Childlike faith isn't afraid to ask questions. Childlike faith isn't afraid to bend, and grow. Childlike faith can weather a storm.

Abraham almost did something really bad. He should have stopped. He should have asked a few questions. You see, here in the story of Abraham and Isaac is the truth that it's OK to question God. You're not going to get zapped. You're not going to get hurt. In fact, you might prevent some zapping. You could put out some fires before they ignite by saying, "Hey, let's wait a minute." You might stop some hurting by saying, "You know, is this really the way things are supposed to be?" "Is it really ordained by God that this is supposed to happen or that's supposed to happen? Really?"

In today's story, both Abraham and God learned that sometimes the answer is, "No." It may not be that there's always another way, but maybe there is. Maybe there is another way, a better way. Maybe we think we've heard God, but maybe we're wrong. And maybe we're just too comfortable, or too stubborn, or too lazy to raise the question.

Abraham and Isaac were two-thirds of a family. Their family also included Abraham's wife, Isaac's mother, Sarah. Strangely enough, or maybe not so strangely, Abraham never told Sarah about his message from God. We'll never know, but I'm guessing the Bible would be different if she found out what her husband had in mind. Maybe she would have bound him over a fire pit. I don't know if it's because God made Adam out of dirt, but sometimes we men can be dumb as rocks. And just as immovable. Which is not to say women can't sometimes, occasionally, be a little bit... OK, let's just not go there, shall we? The thing is that families, no matter how you slice them up, can get stuck with the consequences of really bad behavior. Families - like Abraham's, of which we are spiritually a part - for good for for bad - Families can get so rooted, so inflexible, that un-childlike that collateral damage starts to happen. And a home gets broken. It's always good to back off and ask yourself, or ask each other, "Is there another way to do this? Are we sure we're doing the right thing?"

Maybe at work, you see something unethical, or something careless, or overly-comfortable, or lazy, accepted as the word from on high. Maybe you feel like Isaac, being told to go gather wood for your own barbecue. Can you find a way to ask, "Could there possibly be another way?" Maybe you can't ask questions like that at work. Maybe that's too scary to think about.

And so it is with faith. Faith requires flexibility. Faith requires hard questions, not just of people but even of God. Faith drives us to look at the way things are and ask, "Is this the way things are supposed to be? and then to follow up with that next question, "Really?" "Is this the way things are supposed to be... really?"

"Am I the way I'm supposed to be... really?"

"Is my family the way it's supposed to be... really?"

"Is my obedience to God balanced with my sense of compassionate common sense... really?"

The story of Abraham and Isaac is like a warning label, saying, "Fasten your seatbelts, folks. Because faith is a bumpy ride." But Abraham and Isaac are also promises that no matter how crazy life gets, God's got a Plan B. God will help you work it out.

- James