I have to admit, until a couple years ago, I was not familiar with the tradition of the Night Watch service. After doing a little research, I learned that it was a Moravian tradition started in Czecklesavakia and made its way to America by way of the Methodists. Then, on December 31st 1862—the night before the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect—African Americans, and many Methodist and other Christian congregataions—gathered together in churches and in homes on that Freedom Eve—to wait for the realization of Lincoln’s words, “thenceforward, and forever free,” and Watch Night has been an African American tradition ever since.
Our first reading this evening departs from the usual lectionary choice, and comes from Genesis 22. This reading from the Hebrew Scriptures has been rattling around in my soul for a good many years, going back to my undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin. I could tell you some random historical facts about these 19 verses, for example, that the philosophical movement called Existentialism is based off the philosopher Soren Keirkegard’s reading of these same 19 verses when he was pining away in love for a woman whom he was never to marry. I could give you a fair amount of background and modern interpretation about how old Isaac was when he went up with his father to be sacrificed. I could tell you how the Ancients re-wrote this story to fit their understanding of the world, and I might even include the “secret” rabbinical teaching that Isaac was in fact killed, but resurrected at the end of the story.
This would no doubt be fascinating to no one but myself, so instead I want to focus on one particular phrase found in verse 13 of the 22nd chapter of Genesis: “Abraham looked up.”
Now you should realize that this simple sentence, in Hebrew, comes out sounding odd. It makes the action sound extremely literal, as if Abraham has taken his eyes out of their sockets and raised them above his head. In other words, “Abraham lifted up his eyes.”
Let’s try that all together. Take out your eyes, lift them above your head and say with me, “Lift up your eyes.”
No, Father hasn’t been dipping into the New Year’s punch bowl early. No, Father isn’t losing his grip on reality. Instead, I want to instill that phrase in your muscle memory, “Lift up your eyes.” So later tonight, when we’re celebrating New Year’s in some night club and the DJ tells us to put our hands in the air, your very muscles will remind you to “lift up your eyes… lift up your eyes.”
You should know that Abraham is not alone in attempting to practice human sacrifice, and he is not alone in attempting to sacrifice his own child. This was a common practice in the ancient near east and in various parts of the world, including Central America.
I would go so far as to say that humans have a propensity for sacrificing. We want to sacrifice. We sacrifice too much of ourselves to nicotine or alcohol, double-cheese pizza or laziness, narcissism or self-interest.
This is why, I firmly believe, why we go through the annual ritual of New Year’s resolutions. We look at the past year and we see our most glaring examples of sacrifice, our most extreme habits of self-destruction, and we affirm that we will try to change. If you think about it, we often sacrifice our present to our past: we carry regrets to an extreme so that today’s happiness is marred by our unwillingness to release the past’s errors of judgment. We sacrifice a lamb—our present and our future—for the sake of a ram, our past.
Returning to that night in 1862, that first Freedom Eve, I think that that night was itself a response to just such a sacrifice, a national sacrifice of millions of God’s children to slavery. For the sake of an economic system reliant upon unpaid labor, millions of people were treated like tools, separated from their family, and forced to suffer countless indignities.
The poet Wilfred Owen observed another such sacrifice in his poem “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.” He wrote that World War One could have been averted if old men—the Abrahams of his time—would simply sacrifice their pride. The poem ends with the line, “but the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”
And again on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul today we again see young men—Isaacs—being sacrificed for decisions of Abrahams.
And again on the streets of Fort Wayne we see Isaac bound up in systems that lead to his being stabbed or shot. We see sacrifice for gang affiliation, sacrifice for drugs, and sacrifice for money. Then there are the children born since the millenium changed: these Isaacs have never known an America at peace. Their innocence and future security are being sacrificed again and again because by the mere fact that they are born into a world where it is the norm to meet violence with even greater violence, does violence to our children.
And for the simple reason that we, like Abraham, will sacrifice Isaac, I will say again, “Lift up your eyes.”
Lift up your eyes and you will see the ram caught in the thicket.
Lift up your eyes and you will hear God sobbing, “I’m not that kind of God.”
Lift up your eyes and read the words of the prophets, “God demands mercy, not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, not burnt offering.”
Lift up your eyes and find yourself at the foot of the cross.
Lift up your eyes and view the new creation in Christ, the reconciliation to God through Christ Jesus, the transformation of the world according to God’s Reign.
Lift up your eyes, because freedom has already come for us!
Does this mean we will still become weary? Yes. Does this mean we will still shed tears? Yes, of course. Just because Emancipation was proclaimed didn’t mean the Civil War was over, and it didn’t mean that civil rights for all was now an automatic reality. It doesn’t mean that we are where we need to be.
Lifting up your eyes means within the struggles of life we have the hope of God wiping every tear and a future in which mourning, crying, and pain are no more. We have a hope and a trust in the faithfulness of God. So, lift up your eyes in this New Year unbound by your ridiculous sacrifices.
Lift up your eyes and see the immense challenges of the world we live in.
Lift up your eyes and still hope that this new year could be a year where we remember that God is so faithful that mistrust is sacrificed, not love,
inexperience is put away not passion,
fear is burned on the altar, not hope.
Lift up your eyes and see that our God is faithful.
Lift up your eyes and see that God is always in charge, no matter what!
Lift up your eyes and sing, “Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!”