Summertime and the livin’ is easy! Unfortunately, this story from Genesis is not easy at all. It is a particularly awkward scripture lesson on the day we baptize a beautiful child and his parents sit here full of hope. It is no wonder that an Anglican on-line lectionary guide advises not to preach from this text at all; not even to read it with children in the congregation. And it is not hard to understand this admonition. “Daddy, have you heard God say anything to you lately?”
I have heard it said that the best preachers really only have two or three sermons … well, I only have one: “You are a beloved child of God”, right? I believe it. And then this passage comes along and suggests that this is how God shows divine love to his children – asking them to go sacrifice their own beloved child – well, no wonder God doesn’t have more happy followers.
It is passages like this that cause many to wonder if faith in God is not more of a problem then a solution.
But never being one to shy away from a difficult text – I want us to plunge ahead into these troubled waters – and hopefully there is a bridge to another side.
Flannery O’Conner was asked once why her short stories and novels were inhabited by such weird and strange creatures: an ugly girl, a racist woman, a traveling salesman who collects prostheses, a misfit who shoots a grandmother? Her answer was “for people who are unable to see clearly you have to write in large letters.” She wrote to grab people’s attention and to unsettle them; to “pull the rug” out from under any simplistic or comfortable reading of reality.
Whoever brought this narrative of Abraham being “tested” to the light of day, whoever thought it was a good story to agitate the reader, must have had a similar notion. Same theme in the book of Job – the inscrutable sovereignty of God both to provide and take away – with no explanation other than…. “Where were YOU when I set the pillars of the earth? Or created the Ostrich?”
That is God’s best answer to our most searching and searing question of why? It is completely unsatisfying. It reminds me of that scene from a “Few Good Men.” We are like Tom Cruise yelling at a Jack Nickelson (God), “I want the truth!” To which God/Jack responds, “You can’t handle the truth.”
This story in Genesis makes me wonder if I really want to handle the truth – or if I even can – or whether some things are simply too big to handle, or that the ultimate forces tend towards shadow and not light.
Sometimes just when you are feeling comfortable, the rug gets pulled out from under you. Just when you think you have it figured out, it all comes crashing down. Just when you think your journey has survived the bumps, then the real hill comes. Just when you thought you could put your worries about your children aside – well guess again. Just when you thought you had it made – well, then the real sacrifice begins. There is chaos behind the order, there is a heart of darkness in the jungle – there is the experience that the real meaning behind the meaning may not be what you want.
But sometimes … on the other side, just when you think that tears really may tarry for the night, then often times joy comes in the morning – just when you think things are at their darkest, a light shines, just when it feels as if the swirling waters of chaos are about to overwhelm – something creative happens.
Life happens and you and I have to find our location in it. You and I are asked to struggle to find our meaning in it, our relationship with others in it, our very relationship with God – in the midst.
Oh how we want easy answers to life’s problems. I want success for hard work. I want to believe that things really do work out for the best; That good things happen to good people. I want to believe that there is a plan for my life. I want to protect myself from hardship. I want to protect my children. I don’t want to experience suffering and dwell in ugliness, or struggle with the unanswerable. I want to think I am in control … if I just stick to the plan, if I just follow the rules.
But nine innocents die and 18 are wounded in Libya by a NATO bombing.
Two beautiful sons commit suicide.
Little children, just born, suffer horrible pain.
Across the graduation stage walked 421 healthy looking young people – and one disfigured in a wheel chair, and one name read of a child who had died.
And God asks Abraham to kill his son and burn the body as a sacrifice, to test him. Life is a test – let’s face it. How do you answer the question?
I wonder if the sacrifice of Isaac story is not a kind of test for God too – will this strange pair, God and Abraham, both go to the limit? What God asks Abraham to do is grotesque but it is the potential end of both their dreams, their identities. God has chosen Abraham and Abraham has chosen God and now it is all put to the test. God has promised to create as many descendants of Abraham as there are stars in the heavens… and now it seems as if the only one descendent of Abraham AND God have is about to go all super nova and get destroyed.
And I guess, this story which defines faith in the starkest of realities, lays this little question before you:
Are you going to put more faith in the promise of providence, or in the despair of the immediate situation you may be facing, or the sacrifice you are making. Are you going to give ultimate reality to what you are experiencing, or what you are hoping for? The one is lost in the present. The other is find a way into the future.
For the scripture opens: “And after these things God tested Abraham….”
But the climax of the story, in my mind, is not necessarily when the angel of the Lord shouts “DON’T DO IT!” The high point of the story structurally is the middle verse: Abraham saying to his son, in verse 8, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering.” It’s the cry of hope in the midst of despair, the vision of something beyond the present horror.
Walter Brueggemann writes: “We do not know why God claims the son in the first place nor finally why he will remove the demand at the end. [but between verse 2: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love….” And verse 12 “You have not withheld your son, your only son…”] of divine inscrutability stands verse 8 – Abraham’s faith, his hope against hope that “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
I have been reading a fascinating book by Isabel Wilkerson entitled The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. You read real first person stories of African American men and women who left the Jim Crow south, with all its horrifying reality of lynchings and degradation, and put their dreams and lives on the line to move North and West – and yes there was a bit more freedom, you didn’t have to step off the sidewalk when a white person walked by, you didn’t have to move to the colored section of the bus – but it was hardly the promised land of opportunity – the racism was more subtle and demeaning. Why did these people pack up and leave? Why do we still strive to move as a nation beyond race? Why keep in the struggle? Why put more hope in deliverance, more hope that God will provide then just giving in to what you are experiencing now – to the bitter and horrible sacrifice that you are being called on to make? Why?
Well, there is the real faith question.
With any relationship the crises will make or break you. A death of a child can destroy a relationship or bond it stronger. The crisis puts pressure on the stress lines, the fault lines and you see really what you are made of and who God really is to you.
This doesn’t explain the mystery of this story – the inscrutability of God. There is no explanation for that. Just like the book of Job – the mystery of the God who is completely free and the mystery of human kind who is NOT.
But I think there is something to it. God and Abraham have committed to this relationship, they have thrown in their lots with this covenant promise. And now the promise is about to be broken, the hope about to be shattered and both God and Abraham are watching how it is all going to evolve. Will Abraham really go through with it; kill his own beloved, only son? Will God really provide a “lamb for the burnt offering?”
And we read that it gets pretty close to the horrifying. God has to rush an angel down quickly: “he’s really going to go through with this.” And so the angel of God says his name twice “Abraham! Abraham!” STOP!
This isn’t a game. God doesn’t know how it will turn out. Just as Abraham has had to trust God as he journeys across the desert wilderness, so now God has to trust Abraham in this partnership – rolling the dice too. An amazing exposition of the relational quality of Jewish faith – God does not force the things to happen – humans have complete freedom to say “no thank you.” But for some reason Abraham said “yes.” For some reason Mary said “yes, I will be the handmaid.” For some reason Jesus said “yes, I will carry the cross.” And I think the question comes hauntingly through the ages – will I say “yes” in the face of compelling reasons to say “no”? Will I sacrifice my safety to stand up for what is right? Will you sacrifice your relationship to deal with the dysfunction?
The only reason I can assume that we say “yes” is because we believe – we trust – that there is a larger narrative then this one strange and fearsome story. That this story in Genesis says something about God but not everything about God – that there is more – and we see by reading the scripture that there is a LOT more – of liberation, and restoration, and reconciliation, and justice, hope and mercy. This particular sacrifice was for a specific time and place and person should not be over-generalized.
This story is shaped by all the other stories – and the faith question for you is this: how do ALL the stories (your own and others) shape what you believe, who you trust, what you think you are being called to do?
We live always between horror and hope. And I leave you with the words of William Stafford from his poem “Yes.”
It could happen anytime; tornado, earthquake, Armageddon: it could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation. It could, you know.
That’s why we wake and look out – no guarantees in this life. But some bonuses, like morning, like right now, like noon, like evening.
I would encourage you this day, in your life, right now – no matter what the test is that you are facing – to remember verse 8 and to cling to it with all your heart – “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” and move on in hope up the Mount Moriah of providence, and into the promise of deliverance.