Our readings today are about obedience and disobedience, sin, righteousness and free choice, which is a big topic for one little sermon. However, as we read the Bible, we find that most of the stories are about obedience and disobedience, sin, righteousness and free choice.
So we’ll begin with Abraham. God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And Abraham said, “Here I am.” God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
This is a terrible thing for God to ask Abraham. God knew perfectly well that Abraham was faithful and obedient. This is why God gave Abraham and Sarah a son in the first place. God had no need to test Abraham, and certainly not with such a terrible testing as this. For us, living in the twenty-first century, it is an appalling case of child abuse. But, in those days, a man could do what he liked with his wives or his children, and the writer never criticises Abraham for his actions. Instead, the writer lets us know that this is the very worst thing Abraham could be asked to do. “Take your son, your only son Isaac.” Isaac is the only hope that Abraham has for the future of his family. Has God given Abraham hope for the future, only to take it away again? But there is worse, for Abraham loves his son, Isaac. Does God, our Father in Heaven, expect a loving father to kill and burn the son he loves?
These are not the questions the writer wants to answer; what the writer wants us to understand is that Abraham is utterly committed to God and will do anything that God demands. The angel said to Abraham, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” Abraham has chosen absolute commitment and obedience to God over any other consideration.
We do not know what might have happened if Abraham had said, “No!” to God, but St Paul explores the possibility that some people in the Roman church may have said, “No.” to God.
Paul describes sin as if it was a slave owner which owns its slaves and demands obedience. Selfish human passions, if followed slavishly, are sinful. Destructive passions like wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. – the seven deadly sins, if you like. Let me make is clear that God has given us humans the gifts of anger and strong feelings, the desire for a good comfortable life, the need for rest, a proper self esteem, sexual love, an appreciation of the gifts of others and the capacity to enjoy good food. However, if these gifts become our masters, then they become destructive and sinful. The reward we get for misusing God’s gifts is death, as St Paul says, “The wages of sin is death.”
St Paul uses this figure of speech because the Romans understand slavery and how slaves are bought and sold and have to be obedient to their masters. He says, “I am speaking human terms because of your natural limitations.”
So then, Jesus Christ has bought these people who were once slaves to sin. Christ has bought them by his death on the cross, or as we could say purchased them by his blood. So these Roman Christians, who were once slaves to sin are now slaves of Jesus Christ and, as St Paul says, must be obedient to him. Paul says, ‘having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness.” And near the end of our reading, “you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God.”
Our Evangelical brothers and sisters call this “two ways of life”. One leads to death and the other to life, and we can choose either way.
Now, if St Paul were speaking to us, here and now, he might make his argument using a different figure of speech because slavery is no longer legal. When we hear that Jesus has paid the price of sin on the cross we are very happy to say, Jesus died for me so I am set free. Whatever figure of speech we use we are happy to accept the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. It’s a good Biblical idea and we like the idea of freedom. In the letter to the Hebrews we read, “We have perfect freedom to go into the most holy place by means of the death of Jesus.” And St Paul says, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.”
But there is one aspect of Paul’s figure of speech which is important and easily overlooked. To be a slave is to be obedient. Our commitment and faithfulness to God means that we must be obedient to God. Which brings us back to Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham’s commitment and obedience brought him to the point of killing his only beloved son, sacrificing his love, his hope and his future.
What is God’s command to us? In the gospel reading Jesus speaks of welcoming others as a way of obedience. Whoever welcomes a prophet or a righteous person will receive a prophet’s reward or a righteous person’s reward. Even the gift of a cup of cold water can be enough to show obedience to God. Our utter commitment and obedience to God does not have to be the same as Abraham’s.
Finally, I have chosen a hymn which completes the sermon. We have sung it before, but not very often. It is a song to the Holy Spirit, the Wisdom of God, Hagia Sofia, the enemy of apathy. Apathy means not caring, not feeling. It means taking the freedom which Christ has won for us and then doing nothing. Mother Wisdom is the wind and fire of the spirit which wakens our consciences and inspires us to the good works which God has prepared for us to walk in. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)