Breaking with the ways of the world

Readings: Genesis 22:1-14, Matthew 10:40-42.

If you’re trying to work out the link between these two passages, I must apologise: there really isn’t one, at least not that I can discern.

In a moment I want to comment briefly on both of them, and then who knows, we may even be finished before the hour is done.

This story with God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is considered by many to be an irredeemable horror, either against God (if it’s true) or the story-teller (if it’s fiction).

But like as the instructions for my super-Rubic’s Cube, the Megaminx, were hard to understand, so too sometimes the Bible.  It takes the journey of life and learning to unravel much of the Bible’s meaning.  This morning it helps us enormously to know about ancient religious belief and practice.

The ancient world of the Old Testament is a place of many gods.  In Abraham’s time there were a multitude of gods, as we said a couple of months ago.  From among that multitude, God spoke to Abraham.  Yet there is no reason to think that Abraham believed anything different about the gods from everyone else in his time.  A God called him on the journey, and that was apparently enough for him.

Many years later when Moses spoke with God at the burning bush, it was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – that is, the God who spoke to them.  Moses asks for a name, presumably because there were many gods, and the people would want to know which one was speaking.  After all, there were going to do battle against the powerful Egyptian Gods, and a weak God would be a very bad thing.

Even much later in the exile in Babylon, they wonder how they can sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Even then they thought of their God as the god of Israel – not God in other lands because other lands had other gods.

It isn’t until the New Testament that we see the idea that these other gods are false gods, and that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the one true God.  We cause ourselves a great deal of confusion if we write a “One true  God” understanding back into the Old Testament.

It’s true the Israelites were expected to worship only one God.  But that doesn’t extend to a belief that there is only one true God to be worshipped.

One of the ancient religious practices was child sacrifice.  So while it would have been heartbreaking to Abraham, God’s instruction to sacrifice Isaac would sit within what could be expected of a God.

But God doesn’t allow the child sacrifice to occur, and indeed there is no mention ever made of such a thing again, except to condemn it.  It seems to me that here God brings an abhorrent religious practice onto stage, and there puts an end to it.

It serves therefore as a good news story – they have learnt one true thing about God, and God has removed one bad thing from among them.  In this way the journey of the Old Testament is a journey of learning more truth about God, until the ultimate truth became visible in Jesus.

Of the short account of Jesus’ teaching this morning, what shall we say?  He is speaking in vague terms about rewards, that those who welcome a person who comes in Jesus’ name will be rewarded by God like the one who has been sent.

Again, I don’t think specifics are called for.  There is no point trying to work out what the prophet’s reward is, or what the righteous person’s reward is.

Rather, I think it is just an extension to the opening remark – Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  They will be treated by God as part of the family.

This is a beautiful thing about being the church together.  When you travel elsewhere, visiting a church should be like going home.  Your welcome should be like meeting brothers and sisters, because that is what it is.  It honours Jesus when it is like that, and dishonours him when it isn’t.

So also when others visit our church.  Our welcome should be as though already belong, as though it is their church as much as our own.  In truth that is what it is, because we altogether belong to Jesus.

That is what I hear from people about their visits to our church, and I hope we guard that feature of this place and keep it alive.  When we welcome a visitor, we welcome Jesus, and so we welcome our God.

Let me propose to you a reasonable extension to this in principle.  When we join ourselves to some missional project that God has inspired, we become part of that mission.  The world has become both large and small; large in opportunity and small because we can communicate with the world in an instant.

So it need not apply only to those we welcome face to face, but whose work for Jesus we welcome by our support, whether financial, by our manual efforts, or by our promotion of their work.  By doing such a thing, you join yourself to the work that God has given them.

Such are the bonds within the family of God; such is the unity of the Spirit that binds us together, that the links between us in the work of the Kingdom of God cover this world like a heavenly hug.  It is great to be in this family, and all are welcome.

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