Sunday, June 26, 2011

2nd Sunday after Pentecost - June 26, 2011

What with the Brunsville Centennial and all, this has been a busy and fun-filled few days. Classic cars, beard contests, the crowning of the queen of Brunsville, dancing, rib contests and so on....  
Now on a weekend like this, it almost seems out of place to preach on something dark and awful.  And yet, that's what I'm about to do.  But that isn't to say that we have to be all grumpy about it.  In that spirit, here's a verse from the famous Bob Dylan song "Highway 61 Revisited" to get us started:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

This morning, I would like to talk about the traditional Lutheran idea of how we understand God.  The understanding is this: There is ONE almighty God, but we have a relationship with him in two particular ways.  We experience God as a God of wrath, of violence, of mystery.  And we experience God as our great comforter, as our savior, as our father.  Martin Luther had a name for each of these.  The first he called “The Hidden God.”  The second he called, “The Revealed God.”  There is only one God, but we experience him in different ways and how this happens makes all the difference.

In our lesson today from Genesis, we see the God of Wrath, the angry God, the violent God, the God who smites.  This God demands of Abraham that he kill his own son, Isaac.  Who can understand this?

So let's back up for a second to get a look at the broader context of Abraham.  

Back in chapter 12 of Genesis, God chose Abraham to be the father of his chosen people.  God gave Abraham a series of promises. He promised to give Abraham many descendants; he promised to give Abraham a land; he promised that through Abraham the nations of the world will be blessed.  Looking into the future, Abraham is the father of Isaac, the grandfather or Jacob, and the great-grandfather of Joseph.  He is the ancestor of King David and Solomon, and the ancestor of Jesus Christ.  It is from the line of Abraham that all these people, and many more, come.  

Now, as you may recall, Abraham's wife Sarah was barren; she couldn't have kids.  And then she had grown old and the couple were childless.  But God promised them that they would have a son.  Finally, when Sarah was 90 and Abraham was 100, a son, Isaac was born to them.  It was through Isaac that all of the promises and all of the descendants would come.  

And that brings us to today, when God tells Abraham to go to the mountain and offer his son as a burnt sacrifice.  This is brutal and awful and makes absolutely no sense at all.  Why would God demand such a terrible thing?
And this brings us to the first part of Luther's understanding of God, what he called, "The Hidden God."  According to Luther, the Hidden God is beyond our understanding, therefore "hidden."  This Hidden God demands of us and judges us.  This Hidden God is powerful and mysterious.  This Hidden God is unpredictable and without mercy.  This is the only God that many, many people know.  This is the God that Martin Luther experienced early in his life and he hated him.  Martin Luther hated God because he could only see this "Hidden God."

This is where the Reformation began.  Luther began looking for a merciful God, not a judge, but a savior.  And slowly, in the pages of scripture and by the power of the Holy Spirit, this savior was revealed to him.

Which brings us to the second part of Luther's understanding of God, "The Revealed God."  The Revealed God is the God who speaks to us in his promises.  God chooses to show his mercy and his love in a particular way, not by showing us everything, not by explaining everything to us, but by giving us promises.  Another way of putting this is that God is not concerned with us understanding him; he is concerned with us trusting him and the promises he gives.

This is the key to the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Before our lesson for today begins, God has given Abraham promises.  He has promised him a Son.  He has promised him descendants.  He has promised him a land for those descendants.  And he has promised that through those descendants all nations will be blessed.  Abraham has heard these promises and by hearing them, he has believed them.  It took decades for Isaac to arrive after he was first promised, but Abraham believed and lo and behold, God delivered on his promise.
But then Abraham hears the terrible command from God.  (read verse 2) You would think this would tear him up, stir him to rebellion, cause him to doubt perhaps.  But instead of being torn apart by it, he continues to believe in the promises that God has given him.  In other words, he clings to the good news, the gospel, that God has given him, even when confronted by what he is commanded to do by God.

I want to make clear the implications of what is going on.  By killing Isaac, reason tells us that he will have no descendants at all.  By killing Isaac, he will make void the promises of God.  And it is God himself who is commanding him to absolutely gut the promises, by killing his son.  This makes no sense!!!  It is not supposed to make sense. God has made no promise to Abraham that everything will make sense.  God chooses to remain hidden from him.  But in the midst of this, Abraham believes that God will somehow still keep his promises.  He believes this because God has revealed himself in those promises.  And so he goes up the mountain to kill his son, clinging only to faith in the promises.

When faced with this story, it’s hard not to be a bit repulsed.  It’s hard not to look at God and his actions and be appalled.  There are a lot of things that happen in this world that are cruel and terrible and it makes my heart sick to hear and see them.  And I don’t understand how it is that God can let such things happen.  Isn’t he ultimately responsible for his creation?

This is the reality of God, the Hidden God, as Luther called him.  We do not understand him; his ways and purposes are hidden from us.  But it’s no good trying to apologize for him or trying to deny that such things happen.  And it’s certainly no good to suggest that he doesn’t have the power to make things right.  He is the Lord of the Universe, after all. 

As it turns out, God has decided to make things right and he has decided to do this by revealing himself in Jesus Christ, the descendant of Abraham and Isaac.  He reveals himself in a rather similar story, in which it is his Son who is led to the top of a mountain called Golgotha.  But this time it is the Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate, and the crowd, and us who have commanded the sacrifice.  And it is the son of God, Jesus, who is put to death there.

So the long and the short of it is this.  We will not understand God as we would like.  Life will sometimes be cruel and it might well be God himself who is responsible for it.  The reasons why will be hidden from us.  Nevertheless, we will cling to the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.  This God has given you a promise.  He has promised you that for the sake of his Son, your sins are forgiven.  The rest of it might be a mystery, hidden from our understanding, but be assured that this has been revealed to you; God has chosen you to forgive and he has given life to you.

The hymn that we just sang illustrates beautifully what I was trying to communicate in the sermon.  Look at that fifth verse.
Through all the passing years, O Lord,
Grant that, when church bells are ringing,
Many may come to hear your Word,
Who here this promise is bringing: (Who/which is bringing the promise here)
“I know my own, my own know me;
You, not the world, my face shall see;
My peace I leave with you. Amen.”
“You shall see my face,” says God, “because I have revealed it to you in the promise which the Word brings to you.”  On the other hand, “The world will not see, because apart from my promises, I remain hidden, inscrutable, incomprehensible.  Those who have not heard these promises cannot possibly see me.”  What this verse understates, of course, is even us who have heard God’s promises will not see the fullness of God; we won’t understand everything.  But we will surely know his peace that comes through faith. 

Now, there is an aspect of this verse which is troubling, “What about that world which cannot see?”  I don’t want to be in a small insider’s group that sees.  What about that world which does not see?  And this illustrates to us the Lutheran rationale for mission: Faith comes by hearing the promise, so we must be willing to speak it, to give it away freely to sinners!

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