07 Aug Sunday, August 9, 2020
August 9, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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When you think of Gwyneth Paltrow, most people remember her performance in Shakespeare in Love for which she earned an Oscar for Best Actress. You do not remember her as a 300-pound Peace Corps volunteer in Shallow Hal.
Jim Carrey’s elastic goofiness made his roles in Dumb and Dumber and The Grinch very believable. But many doubted he could pull off playing it straight in The Majestic.
In Hollywood, they call it going “against type” when actors appear in atypical roles. Like baby-faced Elijah Wood, still fresh from playing the heroic Hobbit Frodo in the Lord of the Rings trilogy doing a complete about-face as a sinister and mute cannibal named Kevin in Sin City. Or the prim, utterly English Emma Watson, best known to hundreds of millions of fans as Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series, unexpectedly appearing as a thieving, Los Angeles party girl in The Bling Ring. Muggles everywhere were caught off guard.
Could Jackie Chan (or Chris Rock) ever play Hamlet? Would Meryl Streep dare star in a Die Hard movie? What about God as a bad guy? Or Abraham as an abusive father?
It’s this “against type” edginess that makes us so uneasy when we come to Genesis 22. Here is a loving God telling a father to stick his son like a pig, drain his blood and leave his body as a fleshy sacrifice to an unseen deity. That doesn’t
sound at all like the God we know, or the Abraham we know, he who is described in Scripture as a friend of God and man of faith.
Talk about a leap away from typecasting. What, in the name of all we call holy, is going on in this story? Previously in Genesis, we’ve watched God believably star in the role of Tender Caregiver who provided a well for Hagar and her son in the desert. We loved God in the tent scene with Sarah and Abraham when the All-knowing One disclosed the almost-too-wonderful news that a couple of nonagenarians were about to become parents. We cheered when the Lord blessed Abram with a call and a country.
From the beginning of Genesis God has taken center stage as One who is our Rock, our Refuge, our Strength. God is the One who deals bountifully with us whether we deserve it or not. God is the Creator who made light and life, brought worlds into being and cast the stars into the skies.
And then … this? “Take your son, your only son, Isaac whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
And what about Abraham? In one scene, he and his friends party hearty in honor of Isaac and in the next scene, he’s heading determinedly into the mountains to murder that same child. The role is hardly even believable. This man who waited so long to become a father, offered no argument to God. He didn’t try to bargain with God as he had done over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Instead, he calmly rose up, saddled his donkey, summoned two servants and took his son—the son of promise—up on the mountaintop in search of a nice flat rock suitable for human sacrifice, to satisfy what appears to be a malevolent deity’s whim.
All the while, we can’t for the life of us figure out how the characters are going to get out of this horrendous situation. And we feel a little queasy as we squirm in our seats and think, “This is all wrong. Since when is God so diabolical? Since when is Father Abraham such a monster?” This is beyond lousy casting; this flies in the face of all the great parts we’ve witnessed God play in our lives and in the lives of others.
While we shudder to think what will happen next, Abraham himself seems to experience no heart-pounding tension at all. A loving father would at least express a little concern. But Abraham shows no signs of anxiety.
Maybe it was because he knew to his toenails something that we easily forget: God provides. God would provide the lamb for the offering. Someway, somehow God would fulfill God’s promise to Abraham—something about “as many descendants as the stars in the sky.”
This was a test of faith for Abraham, and Abraham passed, to be sure. As it turned out, Abraham’s role in life was to be the ever-trusting servant of God. Trumping even his role as Isaac’s father or Sarah’s husband, Abraham’s ultimate role was to be God’s faithful servant. And he performed brilliantly. So maybe God and Abraham did not act against type after all. Abraham obeyed God and God kept God’s promises and provided for Abraham. Simple, right?
Or, is it? Author Nancy Guthrie has written several books about loss and grief, a topic she knows intimately as the mother of two children born with a rare neurological disorder called Zellweger syndrome. There is no cure for this disease and nearly all children who have it die within the first six months of life. Nancy and her husband, Dave, lost their two children, Hope and Gabriel in the first year of their lives.
Nancy wrote an article entitled, “How could God ask that?” Like a lot of people who struggle with this story, she wondered, what is this story telling us? Is it trying to teach us that we should be willing to sacrifice what is most precious to us? No doubt you’ve heard it preached and taught that way. With this approach, Abraham is lauded as a superstar of faith because he is willing to give up what is most valuable to him as proof of his trust in God. The text seems to beg us to consider, what do we hold as more important than God? Is it our jobs, family, a hobby or talent, our status, other people’s opinion of us, our wealth or education? Am I willing to surrender it to God? There is some good insight that can come from this type of reflection. But Nancy Guthrie has a different idea of what’s going on in this story.
Instead of teaching us what we need to give up for God, she says it prepares us to take in the magnitude of what God gives up for us. “If we read the Bible assuming that we are expected to follow in the footsteps of those who are featured in its pages,” she says, “we will find ourselves always trying harder to sacrifice and obey, but never measuring up. We’ll assume that God asks us to do things that will make us miserable just to put us through a test of our allegiance, diminishing, rather than magnifying God in our hearts. But when we read the Bible recognizing that it is not about what we must do for him, but about what God has done for us through Christ, rather than being offended by what we fear God may ask of us, we find rest in what God has done for us.”
Abraham played his part as God’s faithful servant well because he focused not on the tragedy before him—the possibility of losing his son—but rather, he focused on what God had already and consistently done for him. He focused on God’s promise. He remembered and trusted God’s words to him: “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you.”
Like Abraham, if we want to live our real role in life, the role we were divinely created for, and live it well, we will need to remember a few lines, too, like the ones spoken at our baptisms. The line that says we belong to God. That we are children of the covenant. That God has given us God’s own Spirit to seal and protect us. Problems arise when we cast ourselves in roles we were never meant to play, roles in which we forget our most important lines.
The tough guy role is a favorite. Tough guys don’t need anybody. Tough men are always in control. Tough women are always strong.
Some of us play the burdened worrier pretty well. There is so much to worry about. We can’t possibly trust that God—or anybody else—can help us.
Then there are the hard-charging Type A roles. We have our priorities! We have our goals, our “to do” lists! Nothing is going to get in our way!
Or the better-safe-than-sorry types. We don’t like risks. We don’t want to upset anybody. We stay neutral even in the midst of injustice. We keep our mouths shut, because speaking up might get us into trouble.
Living in faith, by faith requires us to live against our familiar types. God calls us to stretch beyond the roles we’ve been playing all our lives and to try something new. Aren’t you tired of your old role, bored with its narrow limits and exhausted from trying to be more and better than you really are? Try trusting in God instead. Take on a scary new adventure.
Make a leap of faith. Try becoming a new character, one who remembers God’s promises and trusts in God’s unfailing love.
Live against type. Focus today not on your problems but on the One who provides in the midst of them. And watch God cast you in new role.
Thanks be to God. Amen.