Staying Abraham’s Hand

Genesis 22 is an iconic text, for reasons perhaps unknown. It is told as a remarkable tale of the faith of Abraham, who nearly murdered his own son (in whom his hopes and God’s promises for the future were tied up) because God told him to. Likely the narrative’s vivid nature (it is filled with dramatic imagery, suspense, and foreshadowing) has led to its iconic status, but I also think it draws our attention because it is so scandalous. God inviting—nay! commanding—the murder of one’s own progeny? The dramatic image of poor Isaac tied up on the alter, with the elderly Abraham toweringly menacingly over him with a knife, ready to perform the coup de grace?

Sure Genesis 22 is entertaining. But it is so distant from my life. I don’t have that kind of faith. I don’t believe in that kind of God. So I am disturbingly amused by the text without the resonance of deeper meaning that makes it a significant part of my canon of scripture.

 

Until now. Perhaps for the first time (that I’ve realized), I have lived this text. Now please don’t call the Department of Family Services quite yet; hear me out first.

My knife is metaphorical. There is no alter; nor is there a ram per se.

But the peril has been real. The threat has been real. The danger has been imminent. And the only exit—as with Abraham and Isaac—is faithful obedience and submission, “hoping against  hope” (Romans 4:8) that God would somehow provide.

God has been telling me that God wants to use me somewhere else; of this I have been certain. God has made it clear to me that I have done great ministry in my present context, but that my time in this place is drawing to a close. As a result, I have been in the process of transitioning out of my current ministry position. I am seeking another one.

But things haven’t been coming together as I had hoped. Paperwork takes longer than we ever expect. Connections are hard to make. Sometimes it seems churches and committees drag their feet following up. Communication is always poor.

Deadlines loom ominously as weeks lead to months of uncertainty and being in the dark. Living in uncertainty has been the norm for my family for several months now. Not knowing where we will live. Not knowing what is next. Not knowing when another position will start. Not knowing what it pays or when that first check will arrive. Not knowing where or how to register for kindergarden. Not knowing if there will be enough to cover our expenses between the “now” and the “then.”

Like Abraham, God called me to a sacrifice. And I, my family, and everything we love have been traversing the wilderness and climbing Mt. Moriah. Each day I mark off the calendar looks more and more like it is my children and spouse I am about to sacrifice. Each step I take up that mountain—each stone I place to build that alter—I become more and more horrified by what it appears God is asking of me. I don’t know what to do, but I don’t want this. And yet somehow, I am graced with enough faith to believe—with Abraham—that “God will provide” (Genesis 22:8, 14).

After weeks and months of darkness and vacant of possibilities, the last three days have been a laser-light explosion of possibilities (potentialities?) more blinding than the Griswold family Christmas display. Still no certainty, but provision and potential opportunities—and that is enough.

 

The sacrifice, I understand, is the notion of control. For reasons beyond my comprehension (yes, I could label this “a test of faith” or something else, but I think that is just our religious way of saying we don’t understand it), I had to take my family through the wilderness, climb the mountain, build the alter, and perhaps even raise the knife before God’s provision was made apparent to me.

Only faith that led to such radical obedience was able to cleanse me of my need to control. Only when I let go of even my children’s well-being could God be certain of my faithfulness and readiness for the “what next.”

 

Maybe I’m overly optimistic. But I suspect Abraham was too, despite what had happened, as he and Isaac traveled back down Mt. Moriah. That God stayed Abraham’s hand was enough for Abraham. And it is enough for me too.

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Sent

Text: Acts 8:26-40

Intro

The book of Acts is written so as to highlight the fulfillment of the last commission of Jesus to the disciples: “Be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Where today’s story begins, the Good News of Jesus Christ is just beginning to bleed over onto “the end of the earth,” as Philip (one of the first deacons of the church, not to be confused with the disciple by the same name) encounters a representative of “everyone else”: an Ethiopian eunuch.

From the perspective of the book of Acts, our reading today is about the beginning of the full realization of Jesus’ commission to the disciples. But it is as much about Philip as it is about the Ethiopian. It is as much about the one who is sent as it is about the one who converts.

So this morning, I want to quickly suggest seven learnings from the text about how God sends us.

1. God sends us to a desert place.

So first, God sends us to a desert place. We read in v.26 that “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place.”

Philip was not called to a nice, upper-middle-class suburb to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Nor was he called—at least for this moment—to remain in Samaria where he was currently located—despite the fact that Philip was so successful in his missionary endeavor there that the apostles Peter and John come up from Jerusalem to give a hand.

No, Philip was called to leave the success he was experiencing, to travel several days‘ journey, and to end up……where?……in the middle of nowhere. In a desert place……barren…desloate…dangerous……and noticeably empty of people.

I can’t imagine Philip understood it either.

But we cannot deny that God sent Philip to that desert place, and we cannot deny that God sends us to desert places as well. We may not understand, but obedience and faithfulness on our part yields great rewards.

2. God sends us to people different than us.

Second, God sends us to people different than us. Philip and the Ethiopian could hardly have been more different. Philip is an itinerant preacher commissioned as a deacon in a minor Jewish sect known as The Way. He is also, in all likelihood, a local from Jerusalem, a medium-skinned Semite, and fully endowed member of the Jewish community.

The Ethiopian, in contrast, rides in a chariot (which indicates status), possesses an Isaiah scroll (indicating wealth), and can read (so we know he is educated). Acts 8:27 tells us he is the treasurer to the queen, indicating the tremendous financial resources at his disposal.

In further contrast, the Ethiopion is a dark-skinned foreigner who probably falls under the religious category of “God-fearer.” This means he follows the Jewish faith, but has never fully converted, likely because of his problematic sexual status as a eunuch. Deuteronomy 23:1 excludes eunuchs from entering the “assembly of the Lord.”

Philip could have felt intimidated by this man’s status and resources. Philip could have thought he had no possibility of relating to someone so different. Philip could have written the man off as a lost cause. Philip could even have tried to use that Deuteronomy text to discriminate against the man because of his ambiguous sexual status.

But he didn’t. Instead he went into a desert place and engaged someone very different than himself.

3. God sends us at the opportune time.

Which brings us to the third point: God sends us at the opportune time. As I already said, Philip had to journey a few days to arrive at this particular stretch of road. That the Ethiopian is also in transit introduces untold logistical complexity. It reminds me of those old math problems about two trains:

Train A, traveling 70 mph, leaves Westford heading toward Eastford, 260 miles away. At the same time Train B, traveling 60 mph, leaves Eastford heading toward Westford. When and where do the two trains meet?

(Answer: They meet in two hours. Train A is 140 miles from Westford; train B is 120 miles from Eastford)

But there is of course a further complication. The Ethiopian is more devout than his ambiguous religious status might suggest, and he is spending the journey reading and contemplating Isaiah. At precisely the moment when Philip catches up with the man, the Ethiopian is reading from a particular passage of scripture—Isaiah 53:7-8—which speaks of the Suffering Servant and is interpreted by the early Christian community as a direct reference to the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

What are the chances? That Philip would respond and traveling conditions would be just right for both travelers…that the Ethiopian would start reading at a particular rate of speed so as to be at just that point when Philip arrives…… There are a thousand places where everything could have gone wrong, but God sent Philip at precisely the opportune time.

When God calls us to share the Good News with others, there are a thousand reasons for delay or complication, but God sends us at precisely the opportune time as well.

4. God sends us to shepherd those we encounter.

Next, God sends us to shepherd those we encounter. In the Ethiopian’s own words (v.31), what he needs is a guide……a shepherd, to use the language of last week’s readings. He can read the words, but he doesn’t understand the significance. If only someone could interpret for him…

When we get down to v.34 we recognize the core of the Ethiopian’s interpretive struggle. He asks, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Without a doubt he means: “Is this only about Isaiah and his situation, or is this passage about me as well? Is this a word from God for someone else, or is this God’s word for me, today?” As preacher Tom Long is quick to note, “The biblical word is never merely about ‘back then.’ It is always a word to us, to this moment, to these circumstances” (Feasting, 456).

Shepherding those we encounter is one of the most challenging parts of being sent by God. But it doesn’t mean being perfect, and it doesn’t mean you have all the answers. It just means you are willing to listen and patiently engage another person, showing them the love that God has shown you.

5. God sends us to share the Good News.

Closely tied to this is the fifth point: God sends us to share the Good News. Now—just to be clear—I am using the phrase “good news” to refer to the work of Jesus in the world and in my life and yours. It is the story recorded in the Gospels, the echoes of which can be heard throughout the Bible. But it is also my story, of my struggles, and of God’s redemption of my life as I seek to be discipled by Jesus. For Philip it is the same—scripture is a starting point for the story of Jesus: v.35 says that “beginning with this Scripture [Philip] told him the good news about Jesus.”

If we struggle to go to a desert place, to encounter people different than ourselves, and to shepherd those we encounter, it is because we fear this moment—the moment of sharing the Gospel.

Maybe we don’t know what to say. Maybe we feel silly saying it, for some reason. Maybe we are afraid of saying the wrong thing. But there is comfort. In our text, Philip’s sharing of the gospel is preceded by the expression “He opened his mouth.” This phrase is used in the Bible to suggest the work of the Holy Spirit in providing the words that are said, hearkening back to Luke 12:12 and other places, where we learn that the “Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”

Sometimes, if we faithfully open our mouths, the Holy Spirit causes the good news to just fall right out.

6. God sends us to adapt and respond to those we lead.

We’re almost done now. The sixth learning from our text is that God sends us to adapt and respond to those we lead. A shepherd can’t rule with an iron fist (forgive me for the mix of metaphors), lest the sheep be driven away. The shepherd must continually adapt to the movement and needs of the sheep.

In the case of Philip and the Ethiopian, the “sheep” might be getting ahead of the “shepherd,” but the “shepherd” readily adapts to these new circumstances. While they are talking about Jesus, the chariot happens upon a water source large enough for a baptism. The Ethiopian sees the water and—bada boom, bada bing, carpe diem—he wants to get baptized.

But he still fears that something might stand in his way. Maybe it will be that pesky Deuteronomy passage, that prevents him from converting to Judaism. Maybe it will be something else. But there seems to be a tone of apprehension that suggests the question: “Is there anything about me that might keep me from being a full participant in the people of God—of becoming a member of the Christian sect of Judaism?” (Walasky, Feasting, 459).

As an answer, Acts 8 simply tells us they went down to the water and the man was baptized.

7. God sends us to perform PART of God’s work.

Lastly, God sends us to perform PART of God’s work. Part, not all. When you are sent by God, you are always tasked with something, and never everything.

Philip has the unexpected blessing of concretely knowing when his work was done—for as we learn in Acts 8:39-40, “the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and…Philip found himself” somewhere else.

His task…his role…his commission was to interpret one scripture, to introduce Jesus to one person, and to baptize him. That is all. He was not tasked with giving him a tract or a Bible. He was not tasked with “discipling” him. He was not tasked with connecting him to a local church. Philip had no responsibility for this Ethiopian beyond this ultimately small role in the man’s life.

But we know that others had come before, who also performed minor roles in shaping the Ethiopian in his convictions and commitments, preparing him for this moment of encounter with Philip and Jesus. And we know many others will come after, refining, shaping, and leading the man in Christian discipleship.

Doing part of the job is hard for us, because we tend to be stubborn, arrogant, and anti-social. We think the only way to have a job done right is to do it ourselves. We think that if we don’t do it, it will never get done. We think it all revolves around us.

But it doesn’t. It never did. It revolves around the One who created us all, the only One who is able to affect our lives for good.

Doing part of the job is a matter of trust: We have to trust that the Builder will ensure the job is finished. Only that kind of trust will guarantee that we do not undermine the Builder’s efforts. Only that kind of trust can free us up to focus on what we do best. Only that kind of trust will give us the confidence to do our part of the job, living into our part of the Kingdom of God, fulfilling our part of God’s mission.

 

Like Philip, we are sent:

sent to a desert place,
sent to people different than us,
sent at the opportune time,
sent to shepherd those we encounter,
sent to share the good news,
sent to adapt and respond to those we lead,
and sent us to fulfill a part of God’s wider mission in the world.

May we accept our commission.