Last week, we spent some time on Sunday morning asking about who we choose to serve. And as we did so, we focused on priorities… about what happens when you choose to place one thing at the forefront of your life. When you make one thing more important than all the rest.
And you know what? We are going to think about it again this morning. Because the question of “who we serve” is so much harder and more difficult than it looks. It is painful really to have to ask the question… to place one thing above another, to make those kinds of choices, because it means that some things in life – some things that we truly love – have to be placed second. Or third. Or stop becoming a part of our lives all together.
If last week we look at this question from the perspective of priorities, this week, the question comes at us from the perspective of love. What do you love more than anything?
What are you “in love” with more than anything?
I ask the question that way, because when we think about being in love with something – or someone – we forget how often our culture uses the language of servitude and slavery. Last night in fact, I was out to dinner with my brothers and my dad and after we finished eating my brother, Tony pulled out his phone and called his wife. Darren proceeded to kid him: “Boy, are you whipped!”
Oftentimes, you will hear someone talk about being “tied down” with someone – as in – not available, or even worse a spouse referred to as a “ball and chain” – or the thing they are imprisioned to!
Bob Dylan once sang a song called “Gotta Serve Somebody.” And the things we are slaves to are the things we love. As much as we love to talk about freedom here in the United States, the truth is, we are always, every day, serving someone or something. We are always, every day, slaves to something. Whether it is our jobs or our families or a certain value like freedom itself – we live our lives so that that thing determines all of our actions.
And for most of us, we serve that thing because we love it. Or we love what it will bring us. We love it so much that we would be willing to do ANYTHING for it.
If like Bob Dylan sang, we’re gonna have to serve somebody… or something – then I guess what Paul is really trying to ask us in today’s passage from Romans is: Why can’t that be God?
In the Book of Romans, Paul takes us on a trip from our old sinful lives, where we loved everything – ourselves, sin, the world, everything under the sun more than we loved God, and he is taking us to a new place where we choose to willingly submit ourselves to God’s will because he loved us, and because we love him. We stop being slaves to sin and we now becomes slaves of God – slaves of righteousness.
We don’t like that slave word. It makes us uncomfortable. We like to have choice. We like to have freedom. We want to have our own thoughts and actions and wills come into the picture. We want to soften the image up a bit with a word like “serving.” And for a while I thought that would work just fine. We could take the hard edge off. I mean, who doesn’t want to serve God?
But Paul specifically uses “slave” in this text for a reason. He does it because we really and truly have been slaves to sin. We have been stuck in patterns and lives that we didn’t want to live. And Christ broke free those chains and set us free… set us free to choose a new yoke. Set us free to choose a new master. Set us free so that we could make the decision and choose of ourselves who we would serve this day.
Because we’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Paul goes even farther and as a prime example of what it means to love God in this way turns to that father of our faith Abraham. And I think he does it to say that this whole following God thing isn’t easy. At all. We have lots of great stories to tell about Father Abraham… and this mornings reading from Genesis isn’t one of them. It is a painful story. It is difficult. And many times it leaves us with more doubt about God than faith. What kind of God would demand human sacrifice? What kind of father would willingly lead his own son up that mountain?
This is a story about love. And about loving two things. And about trying to choose and decide which is more important. And nothing about it is easy.
Isn’t that what Matthew has also been telling us for the past few weeks? That following God isn’t easy? Just last week we had that extremely difficult passage where we are told
“35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The week before that, we focused on being sent by God to the hurt and helpless of the world, but if we had kept reading that passage in Matthew we would have been told:
16“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; 18and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles… 21Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
No one ever said this following God stuff was going to be easy. And the thing is, if we don’t whole-heartedly give ourselves, 110% into his care, we won’t have the strength, the courage, the power of the Holy Spirit within us to endure to the end. If we let our own selfish thoughts, our own loves, everything else that pulls on us and drags us back down into that pit of sin have a voice, then we won’t make it. So we give ourselves fully and totally over to God and trust that He will get us through. We trust that God loves us and knows what is best for us. We hold fast to the truth that our lives are in the palm of God’s hand.
We gotta serve somebody… why not let it be God?
And that takes us back to Abraham. Abraham who truly loved and cherished his son. Who loved his son, not just because he was the promised heir and the future of his line. But because this was the joy of Sarah’s own heart and a gift from God. And probably because of his dimples and his curly hair… I always picture Isaac with dimples and curly hair.
Abraham loved Isaac. But Abraham also loved and served the Lord. Abraham who was practically a king in his own right with herds and flocks and land and a trained army at his command. Abraham who had no want for any money or power. Abraham had to serve somebody too. And he could serve himself. He could choose to align himself with others and serve them. He could serve his wealth. But he didn’t. He chose to love and serve the Lord.
And then God does this terrible, terrible thing. God tests Abraham. God says: Put ME first. Above everything else. Even above this precious gift of a child that you love so much. Take him, take your son, your only son, the only person who really matters to you, that one person that you love so much, and take him up to Mount Moriah and offer him as a burnt offering.
Maybe what I find terrifying about this story is that Abraham doesn’t say a word in response! He doesn’t cry out! He doesn’t protest! He just gets up extra early the next day and goes!
I have trouble with this story. I’m not a parent yet, but I cannot even imagine entertaining the possibility of such an act. It is horrifying. It is awful. The only way that I can even begin to wrap my head around such an idea is that Abraham did it because he loved his Son, but he loved and trusted God more. He not only loved God, but he put his life and his son’s life in God’s hands. He gave himself 110% over to God.
And the reason I know this is that when Abraham and Isaac were making their lonely way up that mountain, with the wood strapped to Isaac’s back, with the torch and flame being carried in Abraham’s hand and Isaac looked around and asked where the lamb was, Abraham didn’t flinch. He didn’t panic. He didn’t doubt. He looked his son right in the eye and he said “God will provide.”
He knew that whatever end God had in mind was the best. Whatever end God had in mind could bring no harm. Whatever end God had in mind would come to pass if Abraham followed and listened and obeyed.
That doesn’t make the story any less horrific. Isaac was bound, lying on the altar and Abraham had his knife raised in the air before God stopped him. It was only at the last possible nano-second that a ram appeared. The story isn’t easy. It isn’t nice and tidy. It’s kind of crap actually. It is not the kind of reading that we want to claim as being a part of our faith. It’s not something that we ever want to experience, or want anyone else to ever have to experience. The trouble with this passage is that it means “even when God says crazy, unimaginable, horrible things, you need to listen to him.”
Because you gotta serve somebody.
I think we can hold this passage as a part of our message today with a few caveats. 1) When we choose to serve God, we don’t do it on our own… but we do it in community. And so there are other people around us who can help us to tell whether or not God is really speaking and whether we should act. Faithful people who can tell us whether or not we are ourselves crazy. 2) Abraham had a happy ending in this story. His son was spared. But there are many people all across this world who chose to follow God and who suffer for it. Who lose their lives or whose families are in danger. And things don’t always work out to be such a happy ending. But they do so, because as individuals and as families, they trust that their lives are in the palm of God’s hands.
Whatever we make of this passage, we can say without a doubt that no one can ever question who Abraham chose to serve. That is why Paul calls Abraham a righteous man. He trusted with his whole self the God whom he chose to serve. He loved God and put his life in God’s hands. He believed that the end God had in store…
And by saying that, I don’t believe that the end that Abraham was seeking justified his means. No, I think that when we talk about our journey of faith, the ends and the means are really the same. The only way that we get to experience that wonderful, beautiful end that Paul talks about – of life with God and of freedom to serve God through Christ is by accepting that it is a gift and not something we earn, and by living our lives every day in that reality. Or as the Psalmist says, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” I trusted that you loved me first and so I was able to love you. I trusted in your promise and gave myself over to you, and so every day your love and your grace flows through my body and allows me to serve you ever more. We have the choices to love and serve God freely… because we know that God loves us. Amen and Amen.