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Sermon – “God Will Provide” – June 29, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, June 29, 2014 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

God Will Provide

Psalm 13; Genesis 22: 1-14; Matthew 10: 40-42

A map of the trails used by the Susquehannocks and Iroquois and others of the confederacy of the Five Nations, the chief resident power in this part of Pennsylvania when William Penn arrived, finds them converging where the eastern and western branches of the Susquehanna meet at Sunbury. For great distances the routes parallel the river, coming down what is now 220 and more or less following the course of 15 on this side, and pretty much following 11’s course on the other side. Below Selinsgrove the path swung westward, and not far below Sunbury the trail there swung east away from the river. Modern roads hug the same terrain, and make the same bends.

Topography dictates the location of roads. Native Americans sought routes that were as direct as possible, dry as possible, and as consistently level as the land would allow. They had a long time to work out which ways through the woods and mountains worked best, and though they didn’t engineer as their successors would, dry, direct and level made sense to the road builders who followed them. One consequence is that many of the roads we all drive in these valleys are built atop long sections of pre colonial trail. The great forests are long gone, some streams may have deviated their course, and the needs of the automobile don’t always coincide with that of the person on foot, but beneath the macadam and asphalt and bedding stone in many places lie the old walkways of the hunters and warriors whose world this once was.

Some people find the past intriguing, and that’s why we know all this. People have dug through old documents. Early missionaries and traders relied on the paths, and enough were able to record their lives that the connection between current roads and old paths is historical–there’s a readable witness to it.

I begin with this local example of current travel overlaying ancient custom in order to talk about the story of Abraham and Isaac. The Bible is the product of a writing and reading culture, but that culture itself had a long past. That past included a time when nobody wrote or read, when the continuity between ancient traditions and later conceptions was compromised, when differing recollection cast doubt on what had happened, and when new influences and ways of understanding reinterpreted and recast such traces of the past as had survived. It is as hard to get beyond the basis of the story of Abraham and Isaac as it would be to review the history of how Native Americans did things in the centuries before Europeans arrived. Both were real enough events, involving lifetimes of sage and serious- minded people, but nobody yet was writing anything down, and the partial record of archaeology is easily misread.

One of the great motifs of Biblical religion, the God-given Son required to be sacrificed, only to have a ram or lamb slaughtered in his place, first appears in the story from the book of Genesis we have read this morning. It will return much later in the story of the Passover, and find its way into the effort of early Christians to comprehend and convey the meaning of Christ.

It is presented to us as a story in which God tests the faithfulness of Abraham by demanding that Abraham prefer pleasing God to preserving the life of his long-sought son. That is the sort of sense religion often offers for incomprehensible things. What I suggest is that, hidden in the mostly-forgotten past of the people of the Bible, was a cult long before Moses and the law, when God was familiar and familial, as portrayed in the story of the patriarchs, and in which ideas of God and of proper religious practice were much different than they later would become. Before the religion emerged whose scriptures these are, ancestors were acquainted with the practice of human sacrifice. Whether it was their own custom, or whether, as much later in their history, something done by neighboring peoples, the story of Abraham and Isaac provides a chance to distinguish their own God from the sort of God who really would be pleased by such a thing.

See, Abraham doesn’t react at all like we’d expect. God’s apparent wish to destroy the possibility of fulfilling the promise represented by Isaac, and God’s desire for innocent blood, don’t make Abraham rebel. The story tells us that this is because Abraham is especially faithful. I think it’s rather the case that Abraham represents an outmoded and mostly forgotten approach to religion; one in which even the most brutish and immoral requests may be expected of God. Hearing this story told of the Bible’s God, we are indignant. We can’t believe that God would make a test of this sort, and we can’t believe Abraham would walk through it in this trancelike way, methodically traveling, preparing an altar, tying up his son and preparing to kill him. The rationale of the test of faithfulness, however little it satisfies us, gives God’s actions sense in terms of the story. What the story really is about, though, is describing a God who rescues the weak and innocent from danger, and provides a way out for people, in a world where death holds sway.

Though the story of Abraham and Isaac makes both Abraham and God look bad, it’s best to focus on the way the story ends. Though God’s devising such a dreadful experience to confirm Abraham’s obedience is awful, Isaac is saved. What is both dreadful and crazy in the progress of father and son to the mountain of sacrifice is disarmed at the last. Abraham’s cryptic answer to where the beast for sacrifice is– that God will provide the sacrifice–seems an evasion of the truth when told the boy to be killed, but it becomes true in the event. God works things out.

The need to look to the outcome, and endure what is disagreeable on the way there, is also in the psalm. Most of Psalm 13 is one long complaint. The singer of this song feels abandoned by God. This person can’t understand why things are the way they are. The expectations of religion are disappointed –innocence has not been secure, nor has evil been punished. Here, as in the story of Abraham and Isaac, something is wrong, and God doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it. The psalm concludes, however, with a statement of faith. God may have failed so far, but God will not fail. I may have been abandoned, but I will be rescued. Things may have been all wrong, but God will make things right.

The person who is equally able to recognize and lament the unfairness of his or her situation, and assert the reliability of God’s rescuing power, is close to the core of the Bible’s religion. Those who endure to the end will be saved, the New Testament says more than once, and it is the same message of patient humility and divine deliverance. Of all the messages of the Bible, this acknowledgment that the reward of faithfulness may be delayed is one that fits well with our experience of life.

One message to get from all today’s scriptures is that it is God who is in charge, and not us. It’s God’s timing, and not our own, with which we must live and die. It’s God’s grace, and not our need, which determines blessing. The way we think things should go may have all kinds of good arguments on its side, but things are going to go the way God takes them.

We are left to admit that much of our religion–the example of faithful persons from the Bible and from the world, the book of Ecclesiastes and the story of Job, the laments of the prophets and the story of Jesus, expects life to be difficult and unpredictable, and is far from believing innocence or virtue a safeguard against the vicissitudes of fate. There is nothing unrealistic about the Bible’s analysis of our condition, and there is nothing less than human about the Christ–a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.

That, however, is not all there is. There is more to life than the horizon of our own experience. There is more to the dispensation of good and bad than the caprice of chance, or the mischief made by selfishness, fear, or folly. Whatever else may be true– whatever else is true–God has the last word, and God has been revealed not to be a spirit pleased by wrong, but by right. God has been revealed not to be consumed by God’s own importance and holiness, but spent to alleviate the weakness and vulnerability of God’s creation. What’s right can be elusive in the reckoning of our own lives, but God cares about what’s right, and it is the assurance of faith that God’s good will gets done, sometimes in this world, sometimes in the next, but always.

This is one way to hear what Jesus has to say to his disciples in today’s gospel lesson. People aren’t told things they don’t need to hear. If the rewards of serving others in the name of Christ were obvious, if a little self-sacrifice and care always resulted in blessing for the kind, if it were evident that faithfulness were the same thing as happiness, who would have to say so?

It is because it is a matter of faith that discipleship will not lose its reward that Jesus insists upon it. It is something we believe, not because we can’t help believe it, but because Jesus helps us to believe it, so that in a world where neither innocence nor goodness may avail, we can enjoy the benefit of being both innocent and good.

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