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The First Sunday after Trinity, Proper 8, Yr A, Tr 1, 16.6.2011
Gen 22.1-14: The binding of Isaac
Ps 13: Hear me, Lord; I put my trust in your mercy
Rom 6,12-23: formerly slaves to sin, you are now slaves to righteousness
Matt 10.40-42:  re welcoming prophets (Matthew’s ministers) (1278)  

God of truth, help us to keep your law of love and to walk in ways of wisdom,
that we may find true life in Jesus Christ your Son.  

(Binding of Isaac imagery in Paul and John concerns the depth and costliness of God's love for us.)

        In the early 1960s there was a series of newspaper articles with all of them being headed by a black silhouette of what looked like a mushroom.  At that time it was obvious to the reader that all the articles would be about nuclear matters – nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, for we all had a clear memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki .  In a parallel manner there was a particular well-known backdrop to be drawn on by the writers of the NT, and I would like to share it with you.

            Now the great conviction of the NT witnesses is that ‘God is love’.  And the cross above all is the supreme sign of that love, but this has long struck me as rather strange.  But I believe our OT reading from Genesis can help you, as it has helped me, to understand why this is so.  Let me show you how.

            Our opening reading has been the story of Abraham being ordered to sacrifice his promised son, Isaac.  When we first meet Abraham in Genesis his name at birth is Abram and he becomes married to Sarai.  The Lord, that is, Yahweh, tells him to leave his country and that he will become a great nation and a blessing for all the families of the earth and this promise is sealed with a covenant.  Since Sarai remains childless, she gives Abram her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar and Ishmael is born when Abram is 86.  When he is 99 the Lord renews his promise, and he now names Abram and his wife ‘Abraham’ and ‘Sarah’, meaning ‘father of a multitude’ and ‘princess’, telling them that Sarah will bear a son, and this is Isaac.

          This brings us to today’s story of the testing of Abraham’s obedience to God by ordering him to sacrifice the one and only son through whom God has said he will fulfil his promise to Abraham.  The anguish of this story is nicely matched by today’s psalm, with its plea to God for mercy, with the psalmist ultimately saying, ‘I put my trust in your mercy’.

          As this story stands in the Genesis narrative, it demonstrates Abraham’s total trust in God come what may.

          But that is not the whole story, for this same narrative was taken up and re-interpreted by the time of Jesus, with the emphasis shifting from the obedience of Abraham to the  obedience of Isaac in allowing himself to be sacrificed.  It seems likely that this started happening about the time of the revolt led by the Maccabees in 164 BC against the Seleucid oppressors of the Jews.  The initial intention of the shift was probably to gird people up for martyrdom, but it ended up by going much further than that. By the time of Jesus a Jewish writer named Philo says that the merits of Isaac’s binding gain expiation for Israel,  And in the fourth book of Maccabees it is said that the Jewish martyr offered his life in expiation, just as Isaac did.  One rabbi even speaks of Isaac binding himself on the altar, and Isaac is said to have pleaded, ‘Bind me tightly, Father Abraham, so that I do not tremble and thereby invalidate the sacrifice.’  Some rabbis said that he even shed up to a quarter of his blood.  The binding of Isaac came to be viewed as the greatest expiatory sacrifice, the sacrifice for which God remembers Israel and which empowered all the sacrifices and offerings in the Templeand all the festivals.  Furthermore, the Binding of Isaac came to be  strongly associated with Passover, as in Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians that ‘Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast’.  We even find it said that Isaac carried the wood on his shoulder as a man carries a cross.

          In the story of Jesus’ baptism in Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, the voice from heaven says, ‘Thou art my son, the beloved; in thee I am well-pleased,’  In this passage there are echoes of Isaiah, Psalm 2, and Exodus, but it is only Genesis 22 where Abraham is told to sacrifice his beloved son that explains Jesus being spoken of as the beloved son,

          Paul draws on what the Jews call the Akedah Yitzak, the Binding of Isaac. We hear it in Romans: ‘God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. ... If while we were sinners, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.’ (Rom 5.8, 10).   Paul goes on to say, ‘God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.’ (Rom 8.3-4).  ‘He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him also give us everything else?’ (Rom 8.32).

          But the clearest evidence of Jesus being related to the Akedah Yitzak, the Binding of Isaac is to be found in the Fourth Gospel.  Here we find John the Baptist saying: ‘Behold, the lamb of God who is taking away the sin of the world’ (1.29).  Now this only makes sense in terms of the Isaac tradition, for no lamb as such was ever a sacrifice for sin, yet in the Passion narrative the evangelist identifies Jesus with the regulations concerning the Passover lamb such as (1) the timing of the crucifixion, that is, the eve of Passover, when the lambs are slain), and (2) the requirement that there be no broken bones (Jn 19.36), citing passages from Exodus and Numbers (Exod 12.46; Num 9.12), and John also adds details matching this morning’s story in Gen 22.  Thus, at his arrest Jesus is bound (18.12) like Isaac (Gen 22.9), and Jesus carries the cross (19.17) as Isaac bore the wood (Gen 22.6).  As Abraham gave his beloved son, so we find in John the famous passage, John 3.16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.’ 

          If Jesus is Isaac and the Passover lamb in John, then I personally think that he is also presented as such in Luke.  In the Passover meal right after the breaking of the unleavened bread one has to point to the roast lamb on the table.  In Luke’s version of the last supper the most likely text has no cup after the breaking of the bread but the very next words point to the passion: ‘Behold he who betrays me is with me and his hand is upon the table’, That is, Jesus is the lamb but he has not yet been slain, and the supper breaks off at this point and they go out.  I like to think that Luke is thinking along the same Isaac lines when he has Jesus address the Father from the cross, with Luke emphasising forgiveness and trust with the words, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’, and ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’.

          Above all, the most important use of the story of the Binding of Isaac in Paul and John concerns the depth of God's love for us, and the costliness of this love, in giving his beloved Son as Abraham gave his beloved son.  Let us rejoice in this every time we look at the cross.