Sermon 2017 July 2nd




Listen here:


He 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.” Genesis 22:2
One hundred years ago, a mother wrote to this Church: “Boys like mine brought up in a country place have very little idea of London, and I am sure it must be a relief to many a mother besides myself to know that there are kindly folks to look after their boys.” St Columba’s Magazine, 1916.


Between 1915 and 1919 St Columba’s offered hospitality to nearly 50,000 troops of the First World War. Identified at the train stations on Saturdays and Sundays, Scottish soldiers were invited back to Pont Street where they could wash and shave, be fed, enjoy concert parties, write letters or sleep. Often, they were piped back to the station the next day for their onward journeys – leave in Scotland or return to the Front. Next year, the 100th Anniversary of the End of World War I, we will try to tell that story more fully, via a variety of events – historical, educational, cultural and prayerful. both honouring a remarkable chapter in this congregation’s history, and seeing how it challenges/inspires us, in our own day and age.


A different filter/lens from that era, from the pen of war poet, Wilfrid Owen, a direct quoting, of today’s story of Abraham and Isaac.

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 stretchèd 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 a 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.


There is a Yiddish folk tale:

Why did God not send an angel to tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

Because God knew that no angel would take on such a task.

Instead, the angels said, “If you wish to command death, do it yourself.”


For Richard Dawkins, it’s an example of religion’s barbaric cruelty. In The God Delusion (2007), he writes,

“this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse,  bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence:

“I was only obeying orders.”


[Preachers must learn to speak of the demands of faith, without resorting to stories that employ the abuse and murder of a child, especially in an era so stained by abuse within the Church.]


Known by Jews as the “Akedah” – the binding of Isaac, how do we react to this deeply disturbing story? Which is more unsettling – Abraham’s preparedness to sacrifice everything, Isaac’s co-operation or God’s command/”test”? And what of Sarah, the mother? Or is it a story of faith and obedience?


Some scholars argue the story represents a shift in understanding – from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice. Child sacrifice was known in cultures surrounding Israel; hence the prophetic condemnation of the practice, (e.g. Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 7:30-34; Ezekiel 20:31).


Others might point to the wider Abraham story: Abraham and his descendants are the means by which God has chosen to bless the whole world (Genesis 12:3). At the outset Abraham is given a clear command concerning his family: “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you” Genesis 12:1 God has risked everything on this one man, and God needs to know if he is faithful. So, to the setting of and passing of the Divine loyalty test. “Now I know that you fear God,  since you have not withheld your son,  your only son, from me.”


The story of the Akedah/the binding of Isaac lays a claim on us: All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place. On a baptismal day  – adult or infant – it is a reminder of the sometimes quoted: “The entry fee to Christianity is absolutely free;  the annual subscription is absolutely everything.” In honesty, that sounds both tough and scary, but the Isaac story is also the promise that God will provide, and God will be present. (“Where God will surprise, inspire – we cannot say –  but this we know and this we declare – God is with you and you are precious in his sight.”)


While helpful in part, these scholarly suggestions/explanations come up short. The tale remains full of questions, the most profound: “What kind of God would ask the destruction of a child?”


If all that we knew of God came from this story – even with its happy ending – a providental, substitute ram – I hope we would have the courage to say enough – that we would have no truck with this “I was only following orders” tyrant.


But our stories of God don’t stop there; A makeshift altar on Mount Moriah is not the pinnacle of our understanding. There is another story, another man, who walks towards a rendezvous with death. Another son, who carries the sacrificial wood. That which God ultimately did not require of Abraham, God permits himself.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”


On this day of considering loyalties and obedience, orders and duties, I finish with two fragments – a letter and a story. Ministers of the Church of Scotland all received correspondence

from the Moderator this week. It begins:

The world has a bad habit of forgetting its tragedies. 

It goes on to explain: During the Balkans conflict in the 1990s the Bosnian town of Srebrenica was declared a UN Safe Area but was overrun by Serbian paramilitary units. In the days following the town’s fall more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically massacred and buried in mass graves. Thousands of women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported and between 20,000 – 50,000 women were raped. It remains the greatest atrocity on European soil since World War II.


Marking the genocide (on Sunday 16th July) has significant meaning for the Bosnian community in the UK and demonstrates powerful interfaith solidarity. When any form of violence is carried out in the name of religion,  faith is sullied and God must weep.


That led me back to  Donald Nichol – a professor and theologian who taught in the UK, USA and Israel. In 1984 he was invited to the town of Marzobotto, a small community in the mountains, to the south of Bologna, in Italy. The occasion was a commemoration. Forty years previously, (1944) at least seven hundred and seventy civilians had been massacred, in reprisal for local support to the partisan resistance forces. [Among the victims, 155 were less than 10 years old, 95 were aged 10 to 16, 142 were over 60 years old, 454 were male, 316 were female and five were Catholic priests.] It was the worst massacre of its kind committed by the Waffen SS in Western Europe during World War II.


One of the abiding memories of Nichol’s trip was this: If ever one of the guests spoke of the massacre “by the Germans” one of the locals  – the citizens of Marzobotto – would politely correct them, explaining – “Not the Germans but the Nazis” – who were responsible. Eventually Nichol enquired about this insistence.


He learnt: On the day of the massacre, one young German soldier refused to take part – and was himself shot, in consequence.

Nichol concluded: “That young soldier, in his stark loneliness,  saved the good name of his nation.”


Grateful mothers of World War I;

The slaying of sons, one by one;

A solitary act of defiance; questions of loyalty:

In the end, a God who held nothing back from us, for us –

Let us think on these things.