Sermon by The Dean of Salisbury, The Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Good Friday Liturgy - 18 April 2014
Genesis 22:1-18 and Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12
Do you know ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’?
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 stretched 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 the 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.
(Wilfred Owen 1918)
On the front cover of our service sheet for the earlier meditations was an image of ‘The Cross of Sacrifice’. This design of a cross appears in all the larger military cemeteries cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It’s a symbol of the Christian hope of many who have sacrificed their life in the cause of this country and from right across the Commonwealth.
That particular ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ I photographed in a rather unusual cemetery. St Symphorien looks out over the Belgian countryside just outside Mons. You’ll possibly remember that Mons saw both the first and last battles of the First World War as it was fought on the Western Front. Indeed the very first and the last British soldier to die in that conflict are buried here almost opposite each other. But that isn’t only what makes St Symphorien interesting. The land on which the cemetery rests originally belonged to a Belgian landowner who allowed the Germans to bury some of their dead provided they also buried equal numbers of Allied soldiers. Whilst they were enemies in war they lie as neighbours in death, and all those nations – as we commemorate the centenary of 1914 – now remember what Wilfred Owen called ‘the pity of war’. Whatever the rights and wrongs within Europe at the beginning of the 20th century Wilfred Owen, in his poem ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, used the biblical story I read earlier to wish that humankind could learn to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’ rather than millions of its young, one by one, in war.
Today we focus on the very first cross of sacrifice.
- In the crucifixion of Jesus we see the ugliest portrayal of human nature, warning us that yes, we’d be capable of a war which produced 37 million casualties and the traumatising of a generation, only to do it all over again 20 years later.
- Through that cross of sacrifice we also see our world differently because we see our God differently and in the ugliness we see the greatest beauty of love.
Yet as we imagine the events of Good Friday we stumble, as clearly Wilfred Owen did, over the issue of God’s sacrifice of his Son. The extraordinary story of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham helps us recognise our unease about what’s going on. Let me offer you two reasons why we find what’s happening here distasteful.
Firstly, surely it’s a dubious moral vision which is able to validate the sacrifice of anyone, but especially a child, for transactional purposes, as a means to an end.
It has to be said that the story of the sacrifice of Isaac in the Hebrew Scriptures may be there precisely to outlaw the known practice of human sacrifice. We’re told later on of an incident where the Moabites were able to gain military victory over the Israelites because their king was willing to sacrifice his son and heir as a burnt offering on the battlements (2 Kings 3 v27). But even if the sacrifice of Isaac is a cautionary moral tale the repugnance remains. No father can use his son in a transaction, even a metaphysical transaction, without us finding that morally offensive.
Which is why abstract ideas of God being owed something, of a wrathful God needing to be appeased by an atoning sacrifice, of Jesus as a substitute buying our redemption, have never translated well into an attractive and intelligible faith.
Secondly, we don’t find this story easy to understand because sacrifice seems to be going out of fashion. Our whole sense of the benefits and nobility of sacrificial living have given way in our time to the virtues of self-fulfilment, of our own well-being and personal authenticity. Think of some situation you know where someone has made a huge sacrifice: the one I hear very often is of someone caring for a relative who’s living with dementia or physical frailty and wants to resist them having to go into residential care. Around such a situation questions hover such as – ‘is this really the only way?’ or ’won’t they do themselves harm’. We are quick to suspect that sacrificial deeds might be disproportionate, even manipulative or at root self-promoting. For the most part laying down our life has become tragic rather than heroic.
And yet despite all that there’s something in the cross of sacrifice of Good Friday, in the vicious scene of kangaroo justice, torture and crucifixion, there’s something compelling and beyond morality: God is sacrificing his most precious expression of his self for the sake of true love. It is God’s great and sufficient gift. It is here we see God in all his glory – committed to every one of us in our context and limitations and infinitely merciful. Let me remind you that Thomas Kelly wrote in his hymn which we sang earlier “Inscribed upon the Cross we see in shining letters ‘God is love’”.
What we surely do know is that love is never more clearly seen and experienced than when willing sacrifice is offered.
- When we’ve got ourselves into a mess and someone sacrifices their hurt to release us from our guilt.
- When we’re at the end of what we can manage and someone releases us from our obligations.
- When someone puts our needs before their comfort.
Sometimes the examples are of simple day to day surrender to the needs of others. At other times we encounter a sacrifice which leaves us totally awestruck.
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love . . . This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Let’s return to Abraham for just a moment before we finish. There are two interpretations of the sacrifice of Isaac which I find say something to me. Neither of them is without problems but we are in the realm of deep and difficult things.
One is the traditional Jewish and Christian understanding, that Abraham’s faith was being tested and that he showed his willingness to sacrifice everything he had, even his very dearest possession - his only son – as an act of trusting in God’s greater purpose. In the same way Jesus surrendered his will to God’s desire to redeem the world and as he was lifted up so he drew the whole world to himself.
The other I owe to Jonathan Sacks who’ll you remember used to be Chief Rabbi in this country. He argues that there have always been two great promises to the Jewish people from God, one being the land and the other children. They’re also our natural endowments and our security. A place to call our own and our family. He points out that neither were secure possessions for the likes of Abraham. Most of the matriarchs were infertile and Abraham leaves behind his claim on any land; he even has to haggle in order to buy a burial plot for Sarah his wife.
In God’s instruction for him to sacrifice Isaac Abraham is discovering that even his child is not his by right to do with as he will. He receives Isaac back as God’s gift to him which is a very different relationship to thinking that your children somehow belong to you. It challenges the most prevalent untruth of human pride that our security comes from what we own and possess.
Instead in the sacrifice of his Son God gives us a revelation about himself to show us a better way to live our life.
God makes himself utterly vulnerable, empties himself and becomes obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, for the sake of love. This is not a God who shows us his power through force and coercion and holding on to what is his by right but through the claim love has on him.
And here’s one very important thing to end with. Had I carried on reading the story of the sacrifice of Isaac earlier we’d have discovered that the angel who prevented Isaac’s death then made another visit to Abraham, to tell him that abundant blessing was going to be his. Sacrifice made for love and trust may be crucifyingly painful but it never goes unrewarded. It has God’s blessing attached. We do not need to be afraid.