I am sure you have had the experience of hearing or reading something that you thought was interesting, and then being frustrated when you can't remember where you heard it. Well, I remember hearing someone on television talking about God, and they were using the story from Genesis that we read today—about God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac—and the person said, "Why in the world would anyone want to know this God?"
Now, as I said, my recollection is spotty. He might have said, "Why would anyone love this God?" Or "want to have this God." But the point still gets made. If God would actually ask someone to sacrifice his or her child… Or, let me put it another way… If this were a human being asking this what would make you want to even know them?
And these sentiments are not new. I remember when I was about 18 years old I was talking to a man who had lost his son. This man described himself as a mystic—someone who was very spiritual, but he said he wasn't really a Christian anymore because he couldn't wrap his mind around the idea of God asking someone to sacrifice their own son—or of God allowing his only son, Jesus, to be crucified.
Nothing could convince him that there could exist a being—any being, whether human or divine—who would willingly endure such pain. And I would hasten to say that that man's experience, and theological convictions, deserve our respect, because you and I cannot know what it's like unless we have experienced that kind of loss ourselves. I pray it never happens. Again, the point is made: why would anyone want to know this God? Or love this God?
But the problem with lifting this story out as some kind of proof that God is harsh or cruel is that it misses the overarching context of the story of Abraham—which is a story that, for us, shines a light on the story of Jesus. And for Jews is about the radical faithfulness of Abraham.
Now, you remember Abraham right? He started off as Abram. Abram was from a place called Ur in what is now Iraq. Abram heard the voice of God saying, "Get up, and go from your family to the land that I will show you." And Abram got up and took his wife Sarai, and his brother's son Lot, and all his possessions, and they left for the land of Canaan. And when they got to the land of Canaan, the Lord appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." (If you'd like to follow along, turn to Genesis 12.)
Now, I'm going to fast-forward a little bit, because there was a famine in the land of Canaan, and Abram and his wife and Lot had to go to Egypt to find food, but when they returned, the Lord came to Abram again. And Genesis 15 records this famous dialogue between Abram and God.
When I was a boy, around age 13 or 14 I used to read this part of Genesis, and I imagined Abram out in the desert at night, listening and talking with God, and it would raise the hair on my neck just thinking about it. I was going to paraphrase this story, but it's more powerful to just read it from the Bible. (Again, if you'd like to follow along, pg. 10 of the Pew Bible.)
God said, (15:1) "`Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.' 2But Abram said, 'O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?'3And Abram said, 'You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.' 4But the word of the Lord came to him, 'This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.' 5He brought him outside and said, 'Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.' 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. 7 Then he said to him, 'I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.' 8But he said, 'O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?' 9He said to him, 'Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.' 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13Then the Lord said to Abram, 'Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14but I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. 15As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.' 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day theLord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.'
All right, now… Do you hear what is at the heart of this covenant that God makes with Abraham? Land, yes, and offspring. Descendants. Children. Children's children. In Genesis 17, God changes Abram's name to Abraham which means Father of Nations. Sarai, becomes Sarah—linguistically her name change means very little, but the understanding is that God's blessing is upon her.
But now remember, Abram was 75 years old when God first spoke to him, and there were a couple years in Egypt. In Genesis 17 we learn that Abram is 99, and God is telling him that he's going to have descendents from his own body, and with his own wife Sarah—who is not exactly a spring-chick.
I'm going to fast-forward again to Genesis 18—one of most mystical encounters of the Old Testament. God comes to Abraham in the visit of three strange men. Christians like to read the Holy Trinity into this story, since the men are never given names, and this is a divine encounter. The three men tell Abraham that Sarah will have a child. And when Sarah hears this, she laughs. And the men tell her that because she laughed, the child shall be named Isaac—which means "Laughter."
There are some interesting parallels here between the story of the Annunciation to Mary, and the visit of the three men. For instance, in Mary's story Gabriel says, "Nothing will be impossible with God." In the story of Abraham and Sarah, God says, "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" In both cases we're talking about a child born unexpectedly, and that it will happen as a sign from God.
But let's get back to the text for today. You see, if you read this story as part of the larger story of Abraham it becomes even more dramatic. The covenant is based on land and descendents through Isaac—the child of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham had a child with his wife's servant, Haggar, named Ishmael. But the covenant is understood to be passed down through Isaac. If Isaac dies, the covenant cannot be upheld.
So the dramatic tension in the story is between God and God. God has made a covenant, and then by asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God seems to be invalidating the covenant. The conflict we feel within Abraham is on several fronts. On the primal level: the tension of a father losing a son to death. That tension is supremely heightened by the fact that Abraham will be the one killing him.
But the overlay of this being God's request makes it an incalculably anxious situation. It brings all sorts of questions: Why would God do this? Why would God think that this is a good thing? How could God do this to a human being—put him in this kind of predicament? And that then raises all these questions about why we would ever love a God who would do this.
If you take the entire sweep of the Abrahamic story and look at it as a whole, the entire story hinges on faith and faithfulness. Abraham's faith. And God's faithfulness to him.
Remember that Abraham does not have any tradition or scripture to look back on for information about God. He is flying by the seat of his pants, and the impressions of his heart about what God wants of him. Abraham has heard the voice of God in his mind; he has met him in the visit of the three men; he has walked faithfully and courageously with God who he believes is the Creator of heaven and earth.
And here he is asked to do something that completely contradicts everything he knows and believes. In fact, he asked to do something that would invalidate all that he has heard God say about descendents, children, children's children and land.
God says, "Take your son, your only son, 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." (Gen. 22) So God is asking Abraham to walk with his boy out into the wilderness, while knowing what he has to do, and not able to tell his son. He will need to kill his son, and then make a fire, and burn him. You and I cannot imagine what passed through his mind and heart.
We cannot imagine the tears in his eyes, or the conflict in his soul. I would imagine that most of us, upon hearing God say something like this, would check ourselves into the hospital psych ward. We would never believe that God would call us to do this. And if we had absolutely, incontrovertible evidence that God had asked us to do this, we would probably say, "Forget it, God. I think I'll give Buddhism a try."
It is a test in what is a series of tests. And each time, Abraham is faithful to God and God is faithful to Abraham. But now we come to a point where every hint of absurdity and playfulness is gone. There is no laughter on Sarah's lips. In sacrificing Isaac, who is named for Sarah's laughter, all laughter will die.
Abraham has nothing to look forward to. His son will die, by his own hands, and with Isaac's death, the covenant will die.
Or will it? Perhaps not. We don't know. Abraham does not know. All he knows is that the same voice that has given him a son is now asking to have him back. And so he gathers his things, assembles his men, saddles his donkey, kisses his wife on the cheek, and takes his son. "Daddy, where are we going?"
The story is told with such drama. They come to mountain. Abraham tells his men to stay at the base, and he walks up the mountain with Isaac with wood for the sacrifice. Isaac asks where the lamb for the sacrifice is. And you can almost see right down through the centuries into Abraham eyes as he "draws his breath in pain" to say, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." Notice that you can read that two ways, "God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering, my son," or "God will provide a lamb for the burnt offering. My son."
Abraham built an altar there. I would imagine Isaac helped. Can you imagine it? Can you feel the tension in the air? And then Abraham begins to bind his son. "Daddy, what are you doing?" Abraham took out his knife and raised it above his head, and at the last instant an angel calls to him from heaven, "Abraham, Abraham…Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, you only son, from me." Abraham looked up, and there was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns, and they killed it and offered it as a sacrifice. (Pause.)
Do you know where they were? Do you know where God had led them? God had led them to the Land of Moriah, and in time, the Land of Moriah became a city, named Jerusalem. And because this story was told and remembered, when they wanted to build a temple, guess where they decided to build it…
By tradition, the Temple Mount is the place where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. It's a story of faithfulness, you see. The story of God's unfailing faithfulness. God would not allow a man to place his son on the altar and sacrifice him—even though it seemed he would.
God knew the kind of pain that that would cause, because, you see, even then, God knew a thing or two about offering a son, an only son, out of faithfulness.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.