A Sermon on Genesis 22:1-14
What was I thinking? Seriously. When I decided that this was the text on which I should focus our thinking this morning, what was I thinking? Because this is hard stuff.
I don’t preach often, but I do preach often enough to have a sort of rhythm to my sermon-writing—a way of listening, reading, studying, and writing that eventually leads to this thing we call a sermon. But this text was different.
Now maybe it’s arrogant of me to think that because it was hard for me, it is hard for others as well. But because it was hard for me, and because it IS a hard text, I wanted to share with you a bit about how I worked through it.
Once I had committed to preach from this passage today—about a month or so ago—I started living with it in my head. I read it a few times here and there, and really, that’s when the anxiety began.
Just thinking about having to make some bit of sense of this horrific account would make me squirm. But I persisted. I wrestled. I procrastinated. And on about Thursday, when I could really procrastinate no more, I dove in and began my attempts at reconciling this story of Abraham and his God—this God who asks of him the unthinkable--the God who we worship…the God whom we have come to know in Jesus Christ…with our own stories.
First, I tried to look at the story as a mother, as Sarah—a mother who is not mentioned at all in the narrative, but one who surely was aware of what was going on.I laid this narrative beside the reality of my week—walking beside a friend through the death of her own son Michael, gone too young, in his early 30’s.
“God did not will this,” I told myself over and over in my head as I carried this family in my heart this past week. “God did not cause this,” became my internal mantra as I tried to be present for her in whatever way I could.
And really, that only made this story more difficult, because as I embraced and leaned on a God who was mourning with my friend over the death of her son, I became more and more certain that God would never have asked this of Abraham. And yet the story is there.
These musings made it impossible to tell the story from Sarah’s perspective because I honestly think that if Sarah had had a clue about what was going on, she never would have allowed Abraham to take the first step up that mountain. And the story would have been told and recorded very differently over the years.
And so I couldn’t get into Sarah’s head at all.
So I tried to get into Abraham’s head. I read and re-read the story, searching for some clue as to Abraham’s emotions, his feelings, his doubt, his uncertainty, his anger…something. Anything…but there was nothing there. There was this vacuum of emotions—unlike the Abraham we have come to know earlier in Genesis who doubted God’s promise in Chapter 15, and laughed out loud when God told him that Sarah, age 90, would have a child.
Today’s narrative tells us that this same God who made unbelievable promises to Abraham—promises that he surely still doubted from time to time despite the fact that Isaac had, in fact, become a reality—was now asking that Isaac be given as a burnt offering.
And I couldn’t really seem to get into Abraham’s head at all.
So I sought out other voices.
The commentaries had packaged it up a bit too neatly for me, the sermon blogs that I often consult left me with more questions than answers, and the few of my clergy Facebook friends who had committed to preach from this text were struggling as well. I read comments and encouragement from folks in the same perpetual state of perplexity in which I found myself, and so I moved on.
Friday morning, I asked our oldest son Adam why he thought God would ask this of Abraham. His response…humorous but not altogether helpful…was that God must have done it because Isaac’s car insurance and college tuition was going to be too much of a burden on his parents and he was trying to ease their load. Not at all helpful with the text, but it does give us all insight into the mind workings of a 17 year old young man.
My final outside voice before I sat down to write was Joel. Now I think is a wonderful preacher, and he constantly amazes my dad with how he can find new things in the same Bible that he, my dad, has been reading for years.
The conversation began Friday night over dinner, carried us to the movie theater, then was suspended for a few hours while we went to the movie then picked up our younger two sons who had returned from a weeklong middle school church retreat. It resumed just after 11:00 PM Friday night, and it grew heated as Joel shared his own take on the text, and I wrestled some more.
Finally, at 2AM, I put my wrestling aside and lay my head on the pillow, hoping for clarity or brilliance or enlightenment to come while I slept. It did not. So I woke up yesterday morning and wrestled some more. And here’s where I landed.
Did God really intend to test Abraham in this way? Did God really ask for a child sacrifice? Sacrifice alone is a difficult concept for us to understand in our context, but we know that it was a part of the ancient Jewish rituals.
But human sacrifice? Especially a child?
Despite the fact that the Israelites had been warned NOT to offer child sacrifices, it was this time, a part of some ancient rituals.
And this is where it’s helpful to look at what scholars say. In OT Survey class in seminary, Walter Brueggemann cautioned us not to bring our own modernist, 21st century assumptions to our analysis of the text b/c we simply don't know from experience what life was like then.
At some point, we have to move on from the details to the larger picture. Difficult texts like this cannot be ignored, but at some point, it is okay to move from wrestling with the “why” and the “how” to the “what.” We can linger on the “Why did God ask this of Abraham?” or even “did God really ask this of Abraham?” for a time, because the wrestling is good. But as with everything we read in scripture, our focus should eventually come to rest on what the story tells us about GOD. And this text tells us that despite the difficulties life brings our way, God is faithful, and God provides.
Abraham was obedient. Although the text doesn’t tell us how Abraham questioned or doubted the message he received to sacrifice Isaac, I am quite sure he did. But tradition told him that God required sacrifice. Tradition told him that God demanded obedience. And his commitment to tradition is what, I think, allowed him to take his beloved son Isaac and bind him to the altar.
Is Abraham willing to give up the promise that is wrapped up in Isaac’s very life to allow God to be the one in control, to allow God to fulfill the promise in God’s own good yet often frustrating time? Apparently so. In following what he believes God is commanding him to do, Abraham chooses to turn is life, his very future, over to God.
Abraham is obedient But so is Isaac.
Can you imagine what he must have been thinking as his father bound him to the altar? We’re told very little about him in this story, but as several people have pointed out to me this week, after their journey down from the mountain, Isaac and Abraham have little to do with each other anymore. There is no record of Isaac having anything to do with his father until Abraham’s death a few chapters later.
Can you blame him?
Whether we identify with Isaac in this story, or with Abraham, the story calls us to listen--for God’s voice amidst the trials and tribulations of life, and to do the sometimes very difficult things that God calls us, demands us, to do. .
As I read and re-read the passage, looking for some sign of Abraham’s heart, I found a glimmer in one little phrase in verse 5.
“Then Abraham said to (the two young men traveling with them), “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.”
WE will worship, and WE will come back to you. Like so much of the biblical narrative, the heart of this message is not in the part of the text that first attracts our attention—the notion of Abraham sacrificing his son, but in that tiny word “we,” telling us that Abraham thought that both he and Isaac would actually return.
I don’t think Abraham ever expected that God would actually require this of him. When he tells Isaac, in verse 8, that God will provide the offering, I think he truly did believe that God would provide it. And God did.
With every step Abraham took, from the time he walked out of his camp, away from his home, away from his wife Sarah, and up the mountain, he trusted in God’s providence. Not with a shallow faith that produces blind obedience, but with the gift of a deep faith that scripture tells us has been “reckoned to him as righteousness.”
From The Message, Romans 4:3: “Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.” (Romans 4:3, The Message)
The stories found in these pages are hard. And whether we believe that they are true stories and happened just as they are told on these pages, or that they are stories that were told to pass on a deep truth about the God to whom they all point, we cannot ignore them. We must wrestle with them.
Just as a few generations later, Abraham’s grandson Jacob wrestled with God in the night, so too must we wrestle with these stories, with this Bible…with this God. And as we wrestle, keep this in mind. In the end, God is faithful. God provides, and grace abounds.
This is a difficult story to hear. It’s not one we should ignore or gloss over, but we should ultimately end up focusing NOT on the horrific nature of it, but on what matters most—that Abraham trusted and God provided.
What difficult thing is God calling you to do? Whatever it is, my prayer for you this day is that you are able to step out in obedience, with the deep faith of Abraham, trusting that no matter what happens on the mountains or in the valleys of life, God is faithful. God will provide. And grace abounds.