The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Genesis 22:1-14

 

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.

This story used to scare me half to death every time I heard it as a child in Sunday school. Even knowing how it turned out, I sat tense as the teacher repainted the scene. I can remember nights (no doubt, Sunday nights after hearing the story) lying in bed, thinking: Could my father do something like that to me, even for God? No way! And now, as a father and grandfather myself, when I hear this story, I wonder: Could I do something like that to my son or grandson or anyone, even for God? No way!

The story of Abraham and Isaac is a troubling story.
The story of a father who loved his son.
“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love,” the text reads.

And yet this father took knife in hand to slay his own son at the command of God: a command for which God gave no reason. Nor was this an impulsive act. Abraham took Isaac on a three-day journey to the place of sacrifice, concealing all the while his murderous intent.

It’s a horrible story, shocking to the conscience and troubling to any reason-based theology. Rabbinic Judaism has probed every word of the text to try to find some good in this primitive tale. And Jews are not alone in their struggle to understand Abraham’s conduct.

For loving parents, it’s an act that is virtually incomprehensible. Our children are our lives. When they hurt, we hurt. But Abraham loved his son, the text says. So this we don’t understand.

And if we look back over Abraham’s life, this incident becomes, at once, more clear and more inconceivable. Abraham grew up in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. Mesopotamia where the most sacred moral duty was the duty owed to parents by their sons. Abraham’s duty was to stay home, to care for his aging father, and to serve the family and the tribe.

But God called him to leave his country, to leave his father’s house, to leave his family.

So Abraham became an outlaw. He broke the sacred law and left the only civilized land on earth
to become a drifter in a wild, barbaric wilderness,
to live in tents and wander as a nomad.

A remarkable action, but he did it in exchange for a promise. God had promised him that his descendants would be a great nation.

Now, this may sound like an appeal to pride; but it was much more than that. You see, in Abraham’s day, they had no concept of eternal life as we do. The idea of living forever in God would not come for thousands of years. The only life after death Abraham could hope for was to live on in his descendants.

So on God’s promise, he wandered the wilderness of Canaan with his wife, Sarah, for 25 years. And nothing happened. No son was born to be his heir. And Sarah was now well past the age of child-bearing.

It looked for all the world as if Abraham would die childless in the desert, having lived his life without meaning or honor, and that death would be for him the final word. Either Abraham had misheard God, or God had reneged on his promise.

But then when Sarah was old and Abraham was one hundred, God finally fulfilled the promise; Isaac was born.
And never could a child have been more loved.
Never could a joy have been so complete.

God had been faithful. And Abraham’s life of faith had been rewarded. He would have the benefit of his bargain with the Most High God.

Abe and Sarah loved their only child, the child of their old age, the child of all their hope. And for perhaps ten years they lived in the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Then Abraham heard that awful commandment: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering.” And Abraham, who had dared to argue and bargain with God for the sake of wicked Sodom, said not one word. He didn’t question. He didn’t delay. He rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, chopped the wood, and took his son to the mountain of sacrifice.

And there he built an altar, and set wood upon the altar, and tied his son atop the wood. He raised his knife and was so intent upon his act that the angel had to call him twice to stay his hand. “Abraham, Abraham! Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.”

And just like in my Sunday school class, everybody goes, “Whew!!!” It’s tense, I tell you. But the relief that comes at this point in the story doesn’t make it any less troubling, does it?

On the unexplained command of God, Abraham, who had left his father, who had left his home, Abraham, whose whole hope in life was that boy, whom he loved, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac.

And for what? He had already sacrificed everything else in exchange for God’s promise, which could be fulfilled only through Isaac. Now God had asked him to sacrifice Isaac.

Up until this point, Abraham had related to God much like we all do: on the basis of a bargain. I give this in exchange for that. I’ll believe the Bible and be good, and in exchange, I get . . . what? What do you expect from God? Health? Security? Peace of mind? At a minimum, salvation and eternal life.

The sorts of things that Isaac meant to Abraham. Abraham had given up everything in exchange for Isaac. Now God told him to give up Isaac. Give back the benefit of the bargain. How many of us would do that and still love God? What if God said, “All the promises you have in me are off. Null and void. Finished.” Would you still love and obey God? Would you still come to church? Still strive toward the Christian life?

Meister Eckhart once said, “The man who loves God for the blessings God has given does not love God at all. He loves his own well-being. Abraham answered that question on Mt. Moriah. “Take your son, whom you love, and offer him as a sacrifice to me.”

I have a son. I have a grandson. Abraham’s answer is beyond my comprehension, but I know that the key is that Abraham had faith in God. Note that I said faith in–not faith that. That’s the faith most of us have. I have faith that God will do this.

Well, what if God doesn’t? What if God doesn’t heal our sick spouse, or bail us out of a bad situation, or stay the knife in our hand? What if, to the best of our understanding, the very worst happens? Would we still have faith in God? In God’s plan? That things will be all right?
Abraham’s faith was in God. He made himself secure in God and God alone.

Because Abraham had placed his faith in God, and not what God would do for him, he could do something beyond our comprehension –do something absurd and beyond the realm of reason. He could sacrifice Isaac – give up his joy – and at the same time, paradoxically, he could trust that all would be well. That Isaac would be all right. That Abraham would be all right. Because their security was in God. Their faith was in God.

The Danish Philosopher, Soren Kierkegard, in discussing this story, admitted that he didn’t possess such faith. Neither do I. But, like Kierkegard, I stand in awe of it. And I see Abraham’s faith as putting to shame my own bargains with God, what I think I need.

Think about it. When is the last time you went out of your way for God? Most of us really do live a faith of convenience, don’t we? Not a heck of a lot of sacrifice; not much putting God first—really first—ahead of all else, including ourselves.

But Abraham’s faith flies in the face of any of us who base our faith and our relationship with God on our own self-interest, and not on the intrinsic worth of God.

Abraham calls us to sacrifice our false religion that serves our own interests, so that we may love God for God’s own self. For in God’s own self is a greater glory than anything we could dream of bargaining for. Such a sacrifice is faith in God.

I read a story not long ago about an incident that occurred at Stanford University Hospital. There was a little girl there named Lisa suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her five-year-old brother, who himself had miraculously survived the illness, and had the antibodies to defend against it.

With the parents’ permission, the doctor explained the situation to the little boy, and asked if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. The boy hesitated for a moment, took a deep breath, and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it for Lisa.”

As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister, smiling. When the color began to return to the cheeks of his sister, his face paled and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor, and in a trembling voice asked, “Will I start to die right away?”

That is faith in, and not just faith that. That is sacrifice. A setting aside of one’s own self-interest – our own selfishness – for the sake of others. It’s an incredible thing to do for others. And when we do it for God, who has certainly done it for us, it must please him, and convince him that his sacrifice was worth it (and has had a lasting effect).

Today is the day to ask ourselves this question: On our journey of faith, Will we choose our will and our way, the way of self? Or will we choose God’s will and God’s way? The way of the cross. The way of sacrifice and giving. May we all choose wisely, and faithfully, and pray for grace to accomplish our journey.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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