4th Sunday after Pentecost
July 2 2017
Genesis 22.1-14, 19; Psalm 87; Mathew 10.40-42
Rev John Howard, Methodist Church of Great Britain
I have always wondered how the conversation with Sarah went when Abraham arrived home. I would have loved to have been a fly on the tent wall.
“You did what? Abraham, what did you think you were doing tying him up on the fire to be burnt? You know what a chest he has – think of the effect of the smoke….”
She might have added, “He didn’t come home with you – is it any wonder?
“What do you mean, you don’t know where he has gone?”
There is a hidden aspect to this story that is seldom is reflected upon, but I think that it has within it a lesson we really do need to hear at the beginning of the 21st century, and nowhere more than here in Israel/Palestine.
What happened to Isaac after he was released from the pyre?
Notice that in verse 19 it says that Abraham returned to Beersheba, no mention of Isaac. The next chapter has the death of Sarah and her funeral. Isaac never appears in this account – though you would have expected the son and heir to be there, no matter what. It’s Genesis 24.62 when we next hear of Isaac.
What explains this absence?
Few commentators pick up this feature of the story. However there is a rabbinic story that does, and it adds some very human touches to the account of Abraham. How would we expect Isaac to respond when it seems that his father is about to sacrifice him on the pyre? Abraham seems to have taken leave of his senses. What would you do when released? Wouldn’t you run? Was there here a rift between Abraham and Isaac? We cannot know for certain, but it seems at least a credible explanation. That is precisely the gist of the rabbinic story.
But there is yet more. When Isaac does return, Genesis 24.62 says “Now Isaac had come from Beerlahairoi and was settled in the Negev.”
Where have we heard before of “Beelahairoi”?
Genesis 16.14 is the only other place in the Bible when this oasis in mentioned. Why is it mentioned there?
Remember the story of Hagar conceiving Ishmael? Sarah is jealous of her and throws her out of the household. Hagar flees to Beelahairoi, and Ishmael is born there. When history repeats itself, and Ishmael and Hagar are thrown out again in chapter 24, the text is a little less clear about where they go; but what it does say is consistent with the suggestion that it might well have been Beelahairoi again.
Thus, when Isaac flees his father after the near sacrifice, he goes to the very same place that Hagar goes to for refuge, certainly once in her life and very likely twice. The place that saved Ishmael becomes the place that saved Isaac.
So what? Remember that while Isaac is the father of all the Jews, Ishmael is known as the father of the Arabs. So here in one of the most important passages of the Bible for Jews, Christians and Muslims we have an account of how the fathers of both the Jews and the Arabs sought refuge in the same place, and quite possibly at the same time – Hagar and Ishmael being there and Isaac taking refuge with them. Indeed what could be more natural than the young boy, justifiably feeling alienated from his father, should flee to the servant girl he has known most of his life?
Taking the story in this way there is a wonderful lesson for us in the oneness of human society – even between two peoples that have often been seen as enemies. There is a moral here, a lesson for us all – that even those who have so often seen themselves as separated from others, alien to each other, have a deep brotherhood and sisterhood in the story of God. In the way God brings things into being there are no enemies, only brothers and sisters who much more naturally are at peace with each other than at war.
Then let’s look at the psalm we read. Psalm 87 is one of my favourite psalms. It is, though, a little challenging to understand.
“On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.”
The psalmist is here speaking of Jerusalem – the city we are in. It is God’s holy city and has both temporal and spiritual significance. Jerusalem is a special place. Whenever this psalm was written – and there are difficulties in being sure about its date – it proclaims a special message. Verses 4,5 and 6 are really important:
Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia—
“This one was born there,” they say.
And of Zion it shall be said,
“This one and that one were born in it”;
for the Most High himself will establish it.
The Lord records, as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.”
Now the word Rahab used here refers to Egypt. So the very states that are usually seen in the Bible as the enemies of Israel are included here as rightfully finding their homes in God’s city, Jerusalem – if you like, as having a claim on the land.
In a poetic form the psalm holds out the vision of all people across the world – even those who were thought of as the enemies of Israel – having their home in the holy city. The joy expressed at the end of the psalm reflects the significance of this state. It is a proclamation of nothing less than the oneness of all God’s people. They all have their home in this holy city.
Our Gospel reading comes at the end of the instructions Jesus gave to the disciples when he sent them out in mission. Matthew tells the story of an event during the lifetime of Jesus. By the time that Matthew was writing his Gospel, however, the church was wholly committed to the mission the risen Christ entrusted to the disciples. While the disciples are sent out by Jesus to the Jewish people of Galilee, for the people Matthew was writing to the mission was to all. Hence the words of Jesus here are not restricted: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me.” The universal mission of the church is now the focus Matthew gives to the words of Jesus.
Too often the Bible is used to divide the people of God. There are passages that we all know that divide the people of Israel from others. Too often they are assumed to be the only words of significance regarding God’s ancient call to mission. As the passages in the Bible develop from the oldest books through to the letters of the New Testament we see an increasing sense of the oneness of God’s mission to all people – until Paul in Galatians can say “There are no longer Jews and Greeks but all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That I would maintain is the heart of the message of the gospel, truly good news.
As Isaac the father of the Jews finds sanctuary where Ishmael the father of the Arabs finds peace, the message for us all is that there can truly be peace, in this land – and indeed throughout the world. Conflict does not have to be. Peace between God’s people is the natural state, it is how God wants things to be.
May we each be instruments of God’s peace, bringing people together as one. Remember Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”