Speaking Out To Save Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19, 18:16-33)

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So God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his only son. It’s a famous but deeply unsettling story, and we try to take the edge off it: after all, it was a test, not a genuine command. I’m not sure that makes the story any less uncomfortable, but it raises an important question – it was a test, sure, but did Abraham pass?

Traditionally, the answer is yes: he was willing to follow God’s commands, even when those commands were horrific, and revealed Abraham as a man of great faith. Isaac is shown to have not been in real danger – God provides a ram for the sacrifice – and the story becomes an echo of what would happen at Calvary, with Jesus dying in the place of sinful humanity. Certainly that’s the interpretation I grew up with.

But there’s another interpretation, one that draws upon Genesis 18. Here Abraham is told that Sodom and Gomorrah are going to be destroyed and he immediately starts interceding on behalf of the cities. There’s something of a vested interest here – his nephew Lot is living in Sodom at the time – but nevertheless, Abraham dares to argue with God on behalf of others. So why didn’t he do the same for his son? The theory being that he should have gone to bat for his kid and therefore he failed the test.

I’d like to go with that interpretation because, frankly, it’s more comfortable. Problem is, it’s pretty clear from the text that Abraham does what he needs to do, even receiving a blessing for it. In that sense, it becomes a story about trusting God: after all, Abraham names the place “The Lord will provide” – God provides an alternative to human sacrifice, which seems to have been prevalent at the time, and shows himself to be different to the other gods people worshipped at the time. Certainly the idea of child sacrifice is shown to be detestable throughout the Bible, even being at the root of the word ‘Gehanna’ – child sacrifice leads, almost literally, to Hell.

Whatever interpretation you go with, it’s clear that children aren’t to be sacrificed as part of religious or political power games. We walk away from this story, uncomfortable but glad we don’t live in that kind of world.

And yet…

And yet three teenage rape victims have been bullied out of their school in Oklahoma.

And yet there are daily reports in the UK press of child abuse cover-ups.

And yet a 12 year old with a fake gun has been fatally shot by police in Ohio.

And yet NSPCC figures state that one in twenty UK children are abused.

And yet 408 children and babies were killed in the recent bombing of Gaza.

Too often the Church – or, more fairly, individual churches – has been complicit in crimes like this; it’s covered up and enabled abuse, it’s failed to be a prophetic voice crying out for the protection of children. And those facts should bother us more than the theology of Abraham’s story because this is our society, the theology of our story. The outcome of Abraham’s story is that children aren’t meant to be sacrificed, that their lives aren’t expendable. We’ve forgotten that lesson: we want someone 3,000 years ago to cry out for Isaac, but that was long ago – we need to be crying out for children now.

Abraham and Isaac left Mount Moriah together a long time ago. But people still walk that path to Gehanna.

Thomas and Thaddeus, Jonah and Mosul

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Thomas is remembered as the doubting apostle, which always seems a little unfair, given that he went on to take the gospel to India, Iran and Turkey. A community of Christians in Kerala still bears his name.

Thaddeus, however, doesn’t have a defining moment like that. He’s something of a mystery, a man of many names, the other Judas who became known as Jude (for obvious reasons). Maybe he’s best know as the patron saint of hopeless causes, or the Patron Saint of the Impossible.

In the period after the gospels, a hazy time of history, tradition and legend, it’s said that Thomas and Thaddeus brought Christianity to Iraq and, in doing so, founded one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Over the centuries, Christians lived alongside their Muslim neighbours, the ebbs and flows of history bring times of peace and times of persecution; despite this, the Christian presence in Iraq, particularly Mosul, has remained for over 2,000 years.

Until this weekend.

The biblical connection to Mosul doesn’t begin there. The city is located near to somewhere best known as part of the story of Jonah. Because this is where Ninevah was founded, where the prophet was sent prior to, and after, his encounter with the whale, where he’s now buried. And yes, okay, he’s also buried in Israel and Lebanon, but tradition remains a powerful thing.

Until this weekend.

Because this weekend the Tomb of Jonah was destroyed. Because this weekend, the Christians of Mosul were given an ultimatum: leave, pay a protection ‘tax’ or die. Mass wasn’t said this weekend; congregants have been murdered or raped or driven to suicide instead.

It’s difficult to reconcile the two situation – 2,000 years or more of history vs a flurry of tweets. No time to take a step back to appreciate context or perspective. And maybe that’s a good thing – the people fleeing with nothing but the clothes on their backs don’t have that luxury.

But there’s still a shared heritage here, a common tradition and iconography, a brother and sisterhood based on being followers of Jesus. Christians in the west have it easy, but that should never blind us to the pain and persecution experienced by our family elsewhere. We need to recognise that unity, that membership in the one body of Christ, and when one heart breaks, all should break in response as we say the same prayers, sing the same songs. We remember the Christians of Mosul. We remember the Christians of Nigeria. We remember the Christians of Gaza. They are our family.

And of course that’s not to say we ignore everyone else. We are not called to celebrate the deaths of Arab children, we are not called to promote anti-semitism, we are not called to shame our neighbours or despise immigrants. We are called to respond to suffering as the hands and feet and voice of Christ and any other response is just our own politics and prejudice. We stand up for our family so our family can stand up for others. The cities we read of in the Bible are often still inhabited today, individuals walking among the Scriptures. And so often they need our prayers.

(Information on an Open Doors appeal to support refugees from Mosul can be found here.)

Jesus the Refugee (Matthew 2:13-15)

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According to UNICEF, the Syrian conflict has forced 5.5 million children to become refugees; that’s roughly the population of Scotland or Denmark. The numbers are difficult to comprehend as anything other than statistics. The sheer human cost of this is overwhelming, safer processed through reports and spreadsheets than faces or tears. We get compassion fatigue, the headlines fade from the news, we stop talking about one crisis and move on to the next.

Isn’t that always the case? We hear the numbers and forget the names, names of the countless millions throughout history forced to leave everything they knew in order to save their lives and the lives of their families.

Names like Marlene Dietrich. Albert Einstein. Freddie Mercury.

Jesus.

Even that may be doing the displaced a disservice, remembering only the famous. There is more to the idea of Jesus the Refugee than simple biography.

There is a solidarity between Jesus and those who run, and making Jesus too ‘establishment’ risks eroding that solidarity. I don’t care how great your worship band is, how many books your pastor has sold, I suspect that Jesus, were he here in the flesh, would be heading for a Syrian refugee camp way before any of our churches.

Maybe that’s the power of Incarnation; not just that God became human, but that he became a refugee, an outcast, someone with scars on his hands, someone whose parents never forgot the night they had to run a hundred miles towards the safety of another land. An incarnate God of love will always be found among the poor, the weak and the suffering, rather than in ivory towers and gleaming palaces and religious arrogance. It was those things he fled and fought and ultimately they nailed him to a cross.

There are moments and spaces in which healing can begin, when children stop drawing bombs and start drawing butterflies. And these spaces can exist in the chaos and confusion and heartbreak of refugee camps, or soup kitchens, or shelters, or… A form of resurrection can be found in the worst of places, and as followers of an incarnate, refugee saviour, it’s our job to help create and maintain and defend those spaces.

That’s a challenge.

It’s outside our comfort zone.

I guess incarnation always is.

Vote For The Padley Centre

I don’t normally do this but a local charity, the Padley Group, is potentially in line to receive a £3,000 grant from Lloyd’s Bank. They support local people through both accommodation and specialist support, tackling a variety of complex needs such as homelessness, substance abuse, long term unemployment and mental health issues. If this is something you’d like to support, you can vote for them at this link. Voting closes on November 1st.

And I promise to update this blog in the near future!

Water into Wine (John 2:1-11)

Water transformed into wine is probably Jesus’s most famous miracle – it’s the one that gets referred to by comedians because, hey, being able to turn water into wine is pretty useful, right?

Thing is, it’s a miracle I’ve never quite been able to get my head around. John 2:1-11 calls it the first of Jesus’s miraculous ‘signs’ but there are a couple of things about it I don’t get.

The context: Jesus and his family are at a wedding when the hosts realise they’re running low on wine. This is a major social blunder, inviting gossip and mockery for years to come. You’re supposed to have enough wine for a wedding celebration, and if you haven’t, well, you’re either stingy or inhospitable. To put a modern slant on it, material for the next five years for the producers of Don’t Tell The Bride.

Mary finds out about this and figures that if anyone will know what to do, it’s Jesus – fair enough. Thing is, Jesus seems reluctant to do anything – his time has not yet come, ‘his time’ being John’s term for the crucifixion and resurrection. It’s almost as if his mission hasn’t quite started in earnest, that performing miracles starts the countdown.

Which is interesting, because there’s a theory that, because Jesus’s disciples are also at the wedding, possibly unexpectedly, the wine running low is actually their fault. Which may be an explanation for Mary basically ignoring Jesus’s reluctance and putting the ball firmly back in his court.

Regardless, Jesus ends up helping – he tells the hosts to fill huge ceremonial jars with water, which he proceeds to transform into wine. It’s good wine too – everyone else brings out the good stuff first, but at this wedding, they’ve saved the best for last. What could have been a social disaster becomes an occasion for the hosts to receive gushing compliments. But has the clock started ticking?

So maybe, perhaps more than any of the other miracles, this is a collision between the everyday and the divine, a wedding and the Kingdom of God. Wine in the Old Testament is a symbol of God’s blessing – obedience to God will lead to an outpouring of wine throughout the land. There’s something going on underneath the surface, and the provision of wine is about more than just saving someone’s blushes. There may also be parallels with the first miracle of Moses – he transformed water into blood as an act of judgement, Jesus transforms water into wine as an act of grace and blessing.

And yet let’s not overlook the hosts of the wedding. They were facing public humiliation, and yet Jesus comes along and saves them from that. Sure, the miracle may have symbolic importance, but it has immediate social value as well. Maybe that’s a lesson from the story we don’t think about too often – Christians shouldn’t be in the business of letting people be humiliated. I know that’s a difficult teaching, given how snarky we can get in proving our modern-day relevance, or how aggressive we can get when defending whatever belief takes priority over love and grace this week, but there you go.

And so maybe that’s why I’ve struggled with the ‘meaning’ of this miracle – it’s an intersection between two worlds that, through the mission of Jesus, are in the process of being made one. Sometimes it’s difficult to see the implications of that, hard to see what’s happening with Jesus’s enigmatic statements and Mary’s refusal to take “no” for an answer.

But at it’s core, this is a miracle of blessing, of love, of grace. And these are things to which we need to cling.