Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Good Friday + April 3, 2015
Do you remember the old story of Abraham and his son Isaac? How Abraham was so faithful that he did exactly what God told him, and he took the son he had been promised, the inheritor of all of God’s promises to his family, up the hill to make a sacrifice to the Lord? Abraham carried the fire and knife, and Isaac carried the wood on which he would be sacrificed. Isaac wondered to his father, “Where is the lamb for our offering?” And then Abraham tied down his own son, the promised one, strapping him down tight against the wood he had carried. And Abraham raised the knife over his own son’s throat.
And then God was faithful to Abraham and sent an angel to stop the falling of the knife before any blood was spilled. And Isaac lived. And together with his wife, Rebekah, he gave birth to Israel (Genesis 22).
But that’s not how it always works out.
Wilfred Owen was a young soldier during World War I. He lived and fought in cold, muddy trenches where war seemed endless and fruitless. He wrote poetry describing the constant scream of artillery shells, and the sudden bursts of poison gas that would send all the men scrambling for their masks. Those who were not quick enough looked like they were drowning in the thick green air.
Owen searched deep inside this life of war, but he could not hear the story of Abraham and Isaac ringing true on the battlefield. He wrote this poem, “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” and retold the old story as he saw it there on the front lines of the Great War:
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
When we hear the story of Abraham and Isaac, we are usually amazed by Abraham’s strong yet terrifying faith: that he would raise a knife against his own son at the command of God. But Owen’s reflections on the story lead us to look at things differently, to be amazed that Abraham actually listened to God’s messenger and stopped the suffering before it began.
Tonight, we focus on a different story, and yet it is the same story: the torture and crucifixion of God’s son, the Promised One. In this story I hear the same truth that I hear in Owen’s WWI poem. God has sent us messenger after messenger, and we have so often responded with killing, with sacrificing them and so many others on the altar of our own pride or power or love of the way things are. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus stops on his way into Jerusalem, on his path to death, and cries out over the city: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Lk. 13.34). Even when God’s own Son came to us with words of peace and life, we were not willing to lay down under God’s wings.
Instead we made God’s son carry the wood, while we carried the hammer and the nails. And we bound him to the cross. And we sacrificed God’s son, God’s messenger, and God’s self, all on that one cross.
But no tragedy can stop God’s longing for us to live in God’s love. And so when we, the human race, killed God’s only son, God did not condemn us. God saved us. God transformed the sin of the crucifixion into the truth that sets us free from the power of sin. And this truth has two sides: first, that we are sinners who find it so hard to keep from sacrificing one another and Creation, and even God and God’s messengers. But the second side of the truth is this: that “God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only Son, so that whoever believes in him” — whoever trusts in him and his way of self-sacrifice rather than the world’s way of other-sacrifice — “will not perish, but have life in the world to come” (John 3:16). Jesus died because of us, yes – but Jesus also died for us.
The truth of the crucifixion reaches to the deep, hidden parts of us. Into the corners of our heart where we tuck away our heartache, our sin, and our despair. The crucifixion tells us that God already knows our failings and our weakness and our darkest thoughts. And God is strong enough to see our sin and still hold us in unfailing love.
O love of God! O sin of man!
In this dread act Your strength is tried;
And victory remains with love;
For Thou our Lord, art crucified.*
*Faber, Frederick W., “O Come and Mourn with Me Awhile” (hymn, 1849).