For so long, we in the West have become comfortable with the idea that our science, our economics, our education, and our possessions, are the things that define us; these things have come, we believe, to define our relationships, our values, ethics, morals, even our worth, and our status in this world and with one another.
To say that COVID has pulled down the figurative curtain on our ‘comfortable assumption’ about what defines and gives our live value meaning and worth, would be a severe understatement. COVID has just begun to shatter all the ways, all the things that we presume are somehow deserved, givens, expectations, the proper ways. Of course we have economists, politicians, medical specialists, professors of various disciplines, all offering their various analysis about what has and might happen. And it’s certainly important to pay attention to these analyses.
But we as Christians must go deeper that this, to the root of what it means to have life at all, and then to ask, ‘where is God in the midst of this?’ This is really difficult for us to do at this point in time for a single reason: we most often presume that we have control over our futures, that rational choice, that careful planning, that competent management or government will lead us in a direction that keeps us generally in the lifestyle we have become accustomed to. And precisely because of this it is very difficult for us to imagine what God might be doing in the midst of this COVID pandemic. It is nearly impossible for us to imagine that God could be using COVID as a test or a trial – if not as its cause – simply using its outcomes as a trial.
But I think we need to ask ourselves whether this might actually be what God is doing in the midst of this pandemic. Why? Because we have precedent for God using the most difficult of circumstances we can imagine in just this way. And that’s what we see in our story from Genesis this morning.
God says to Abraham, “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.” At first glance this seems a most horrific command. Sacrifice in death, the child whom you prayed, begged, and longed for. Sacrifice the child who, as I said two weeks ago, is the very extension into the future of Abraham’s and Sarah’s own life; the person, the means by which God says he will fulfil his promise to Abraham to make of him a nation. We know from this passage that Abraham’s son is spared. An angel intervenes and Abraham, standing over his son with a knife, instead sees a ram caught in a thicket and this ram becomes the sacrifice offered to God.
The story remains shocking to us though. It does so, I believe, because we are so used to dictating the terms of justice on the basis of an illusory sense of power and control over ourselves and over creation. So to imagine that God would test us in such a way, given our perspective, can seem only an affront to goodness. The test however, isn’t arbitrary or capricious. It is intended to force us to face into our brokenness, our frailty, our violence toward one another and ourselves – original sin – that manifests in each of our lives and in all of the structures and relationships we develop, in so many ways. God testing us then, is absolutely an affront to our presumption that we must depend – before we seek him – upon broken things, upon the frailty of who and what we are and what we have, upon how we have made and structured our societies, our relationships, our countries, our economy, our possessions, our governments.
We can see this in the story of Job. God allows Satan to take Job’s entire world from him. Everything that ‘makes Job who he is’ is stripped away. Likewise with Abraham in our reading this morning, the dependence upon natural procreation as providing true life, is shown to be not irrelevant – no not at all – but not primary; not the first thing to which a person must attend in order to make sense of all the other things he or she encounters in life. In other words, if you wanna know what procreation is about and use it well, if you wanna know what owning property, or managing a company, or being in relationship with people, or having possessions is about, you must FIRST SEEK GOD. And not just seek.
You see what the story from Genesis this morning suggests, I think, is that out of those things we are tested by – whether the coronavirus, illness, or death of a loved on, or the trials of our jobs, or our relationships – God shows up in his most magnified form, his most powerful, precisely because we are stripped of all the things that give us a sense of control, order, protection, that we construct apart from him, that can be conceived apart from him.
You see Isaac represents the fruit of human fertility and life: he is ‘the next generation,’ the means of human survival and perpetuation. This is a reality possible only through human procreation. We can’t will a child into existence or create them from nothing. Abraham’s trial demands that he act in accordance with the reality that it is not by his own power that his future will come about; but by God’s own fulfillment of the promise that he makes to Abraham. Abraham that is, is entirely dependent upon the action of God for God’s promise to occur. Abraham’s role in this, is to be faithful to that promise and to the reality of how that promise is going to be fulfilled: by God himself. The trial then, is reorienting Abraham to fulfill the first of the two commandment’s, summarizing the 10, that God will give in Jesus Christ: to love God first and foremost. Nothing can or will be undertaken toward the fulfillment of goodness and truth, unless it is done foremost by seeking to do the will of God. In this case, Isaac stands in not just for the fragility of human fertility but also for the ways that we come to depend upon ‘making our own futures:’ plans, projects, governments, investments, etc.
For Abraham to be willing to put the knife into Isaac, he must first give up his life (remember that his life is essentially tied to his child’s life, the perpetuation of his family line). To gain life, one must lose one’s life, Jesus Christ says. And so we see in Abraham’s act, God’s own act of sending his Son into the world to be a ‘propitiation’ or a sacrifice, taking human sin upon him as the sole true human, and obliterating its effects upon human nature. This is why living into the defects of a fallen nature can only lead to brokenness and death: because not seeking God first leads us to seek death instead. It leads us to seek things that break, hurt, fall apart, and are self and other destructive. For in God alone we find the good, the truth, the way, and life. To give up one’s life – as Isaac symbolizes, as Job’s commentary demonstrates – is to seek, in everything a person does, the will of God instead of the frail and distorted constructs we have come to depend upon.
Let me be clear that this doesn’t mean we should retreat from the world. This lesson today is about how we live in this world we have. If we see COVID as a way through which God is testing us, we are not to retreat into little domiciles of isolation, rather we are challenged to ask how those things we have depended upon, our governments, our education systems, our ideological presumptions, our medical sciences, fit with God’s will for us. It may be that we have to live in peace and order with certain aspects of our culture and society. It may be that we need to challenge others. It may be that we need to make or challenge or strive to make changes. But central to our life as Christians in the midst of what is in fact a trial in which and through which God is acting, is the recognition that we ARE NOT to put our hopes in false things, but in God himself. From there – having renounced worldly things as being our be all and end all – from that orientation of loving God first and foremost; from that turning from worldly things to spiritual things; we can seek things like justice, good governance, medical interventions – not as goods themselves, but as things and as people that belong to God, being shaped, challenged, and pressed in ways that illumine his will. Attending to this perspective or orientation to worldly events, we can engage in this world seeking to learn and share God’s truth and wisdom with others, not with condemnation, but by reflecting the love and hope we have received in him. AMEN.