Tuesday, December 24, 2013

December 24, Christmas Eve: "The Akedah: The Binding of Isaac, and of Jesus"

Good evening, and welcome, I’m happy to welcome you here tonight. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, Christian or Jewish or something else, no matter your belief or unbelief, we are glad that you are here to celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord.

Tonight you will hear the nine lessons that are read in thousands of churches throughout the world. Here at Old First, perhaps uniquely, you will hear the second lesson chanted in Hebrew, our Christmas present from Congregation Beth Elohim, given tonight by Miss Allie Roth. You will hear God promise Abraham that "in his seed would all the nations of the earth be blessed."

Why so? “Because thou hast done this thing.”

What thing? That he sacrificed his son, his only son. How awful. That in obedience to God’s voice he held a knife to Isaac and was about to kill him. At the very last moment God told him to stop and to kill instead the substitutionary ram that was in the bushes, so technically he was innocent, but in the intention was the deed. Why this on Christmas Eve?

The story of the Binding of Isaac is crucial in the Bible. It is mysterious and monstrous and dark and light. Theologians both Jewish and Christian have wrestled with it through the centuries (see James Goodman's recent book, But Where is the Lamb?), and questioned Abraham: “How couldst thou have done this thing?” And questioned God: “How couldst thou have done this thing?” One particular theologian, a controversial one, a divisive one, will have asked this question too. I mean Jesus of Nazareth. He seems to have taken this story personally, and learned about himself from it.

How much did Jesus know, and when did he know it? The doctrine of the Incarnation is not that he carried a God-sized mind in his brain. He was a newborn, an infant, a toddler, a little boy, an adolescent, a young man. He had to learn his Aleph, Beth, Gimmels like everybody else.

His parents will eventually have told him the mysteries of his birth, and that the angels had called him the Son of God, and what did that mean?

His cousin John the Baptist addressed him as the Lamb of God, and what did that mean — that he would be a substitutionary sacrifice?

You can well imagine that as both the son and the sacrifice, he will have identified with both Isaac and the ram, and asked himself the very question that is asked by one of our songs tonight: “And am I born to die?” The story was binding on him, it was Torah to him, and a law for him, requiring his obedience. How much would that obedience cost him?

He learned more welcome things from our third and fourth lessons, of the peace and healing he should bring as the Messiah and the hope of Israel, and of the Gentiles too. He heard them say, “God with us,” and he took that very far, he dared to speak for God and act for God as if God inhabited him. So much so that when he was born, God was fully in humanity, God was in humility, God was in poverty, in mortality, in society, in festivity, in joviality, and in full complicity. So that God lived through him and even died through him.

So that in the Binding of Isaac, God inhabits all four characters: God in heaven, the father, the son, and even the substitutionary sheep. God is both sacrificed and rescued, God is both guilty and innocent, God takes it all on; God has to, if God is fully with us. I suspect it was this story by which Jesus most deeply understood the reason for his Incarnation: not only that he might save us, but also that he might save God for us.

And so tonight we say it back to God, “because thou hast done this thing.” What thing? This nine-step investment of our God in us. The Incarnation is God’s self-sacrifice for us. It is God’s great Yes to us and our humanity. It is God’s great Yes to you and to your life.

“Yes, Yes, my beloved creatures, Yes, Yes, Yes, my fragile human beings, of whom I have been one,” and you sing your Yesses back with your songs and your carols. So Yes to all of you who came here tonight to listen and to sing. Yes, Yes, to the eight of you who came to read, and Yes, Yes, Yes to the multitude of musicians up there like the heavenly host upon the hillside. It is good and right for all of you to enjoy this thing that God has done in peace and in good will. God bless you one and all.

Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Meeter, All Rights Reserved.

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