On a Wild and Windy Mountain
| Genesis 22:1-14
||Sun, June 30, 1996
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Let’s be frank. This is a terrible story. There can be no getting around it. It may be the beginning of summer holidays down at the beach ... but up here on the hill there is a definite chill in the air. Oh, we may sing of God, the "fount of every blessing" and even "praise the mount, we’re fixed upon it" ... as if Isaac’s bondage on the mountaintop pyre makes perfect sense to us (Voices United #559). But, face it, do we really see the ropes binding him to the kindling as "grace that, like a fetter, binds my wandering heart to God?" This old familiar hymn recasts the images of a dark story in the language of grace. How can it be? Dare we imagine that such an awful memory carries with it a fount of blessing? We want to say ‘No ... it is not possible. This cannot be the God we know. We want to forget this story, ignore it, deny it, pretend that it does not exist.’ I wonder if this is the reason that, in sixteen years of preaching I have never dared to venture up the mountain with Abraham and his son. Certainly it was the instinctive reaction of the group that gathered to read the story in my office on Wednesday. And yet ... this is a story that will not go away. Look in the VST Library, discover the surprising variety of Jewish and Christian reflection wrestling with this ancient narrative. Still today, in the oh-so-modern century, this mysterious story of testing and sacrifice and faith continues to compel response. Still today ...
"After these things", the story begins. After what things? After leaving home and kindred, after Hagar and Ishmael, after Sarah’s miracle baby, after all of this and more "God tested Abraham". The rabbis say that it is not the first. Instead it is the tenth ... the tenth and last ... the ultimate test. We don’t care very much for the thought of tests. You don’t need to hang around a University campus very long to develop an instinctive dislike of the word ‘test’! Perhaps it is because we are so shaped by the modern habit of grading tests, of providing a numerical score which ranks us "scientifically" over against our peers - a practice unheard of until ‘modern’ times. Recall the longer history of testing. The ritual tests held in common by so many cultures through which children discover that they have become adults. The ‘Outward Bound’ experiences in which young men and women are sent out into the wilderness to survive without the web of communal support. I remember the fear my nephew felt when he left on such a journey ... and the utter exhilaration he felt upon his return from such an arduous test. Listen to stories from the Depression, stories that describe the way so many individuals and families and communities responded to such a great test of our national character. Children born in those years have never forgotten watching their mother feed every hungry man who knocked at the door. The test was clear: in a time of shortage would the ancient call to sacrifice one’s own food and comfort still be heeded? Some opened their doors ... others locked them tight. All faced the test. We are all tested ... perhaps even tested by God. But, surely, not ever like this ...
"God said: ‘Abraham!’. And Abraham said, ‘Here I am’." That is all Abraham says: "Here I am". There is no arguing with God, none of the bartering moxy of Abraham negotiating over the future of Sodom and Gomorrah. Just "Here I am" and open ears to God’s directive: "Take your only son, Isaac, whom you love ... and offer him as a burnt offering". Without words, Abraham makes ready to carry out God’s outlandish request. He packs for the journey, cuts wood for the fire, readies the donkeys and wakes up his son. We look on aghast. How can God require such a thing? And how can Abraham even contemplate it? What about the God of justice and mercy? What about ‘Thou shalt not kill’? What about Sarah and this miracle baby ... this promise of a bright future about to be extinguished in flames? We want to shout "No. Stop. This cannot be." But Abraham sets out for the mountains and we follow, in shock and disbelief. Is this the same God who calls us? Is this the kind of test demanded of us? Like the rabbis, like the church ... we are filled with questions which go unanswered. Inexorably the story carries us, with our questions, up into the mountains.
Then "Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’. And Abraham said, ‘Here I am, my son’." Again he says it: "Here I am". He does not hide from the voices that seek him out, voices that ask of him hard tasks and hard questions. "The fire and the wood are here", notes Isaac, "but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?". The child asks the obvious. "Where is the sacrifice?". Perhaps it is an innocent question. Perhaps not. Children know what is going on. They don’t need to be told. Parents cannot hide the truth. Abraham’s response is noncommittal: "God will provide the lamb" he says. Does Abraham already believe in his heart of hearts that God will not require young Isaac’s life? Or does he remember that Isaac is no natural born child ... that he is truly a gift of God, God’s own child ... not the possession of his parents? Who knows? Maybe, in fact, they both know the truth ... that parents do offer up their children on the altar, that sacrifice is the name of the game. Perhaps it is not a question of the child being sacrificed or not ... perhaps it is really a question of on what altar and to which god the child is offered. Remember the terrible choices made by a country which sends its sons off to be sacrificed in the trenches and on the beaches. Maybe the ancient tale is not so ancient as we like to pretend. Maybe we find ourselves on the same wild and windy mountain. We, who cherish freedom for our children - the freedom to pick and choose what to believe and who to become - all the while sacrificing their lives to the enslaving god of ‘freedom’ ... freedom to self-destruct. Or perhaps we choose the altar of success, of social status. Perhaps we lead our children through school, carrying their own firewood, giving their lives over to the gods of achievement and appearance. Isaac is not the only child to ask of a parent: "Where is the lamb that is to be sacrificed" knowing all too well that it is he - or she - who is to be offered up to the gods. Our own families are full of such painful stories.
Including this family. Yes, this family also offers its offspring to God. Watch the next time there is a baptism in this place. Notice the similarities. Parents bringing a child and offering her to God ... a God who drowns them in the water and raises them to new life. It is an act of sacrifice, giving the child back to the one whose she is in the first place. Of course, we don’t think of this as a literal death ... we hardly even like to think of it as a metaphorical death. Yet, which one of us really knows where these rituals will lead? Andrew Young, veteran of the Civil Right movement in the United States, once mused about the decision of his daughter to work in a very dangerous part of Africa, saying: "When we brought her to church and Sunday school, when we had her baptized, we didn’t really know that she was going to take all of this religion so seriously. It’s sort of scary to realize that you are putting your own child at risk when you bring her to the Lord!". Scary, indeed. Listen to the rabbis’ reflect on Jewish life after the Holocaust. Now, they say, as never before it is clear that the act of raising children as Jews is equivalent to Abraham binding Isaac onto the wooden altar. The God who calls us to be faithful calls us to risk those we love the most. It is the test of all tests.
The test of faithfulness, that is what it is. Will Abraham continue to trust even when the call of God goes against all of his natural instincts. At the beginning of the story God calls Abraham to let go of his past and to journey without roots. In the middle of the story God calls Abraham to let go of the status quo of his barren present and live in radical hope of a child. Now, near the end of the journey God calls Abraham to let go of his future ... of the one in whom everything is invested ... all the while living in trust. It is as if we were asked to take our greatest hope for the future and to slaughter it ... all in awe of the One who does not need our plans to succeed in order to realize the promise. Having witnessed the new birth of this congregation with all its promise for the future we can hardly imagine God calling us to sacrifice it all, to close it down, to let it go. "Trust me", says God, "I will keep my promises".
So there stands Abraham, knife raised above the boy’s throat when an angel’s voice calls out: "Abraham, Abraham". Abraham responds as always: "Here I am.". He was ready to hear the impossible call ... he is ready to hear the amazing grace. "Don’t lay your hand on the boy ... for now I know that you are in awe of God." The test has been passed. Abraham has endured. This is good news ... good news considering the harsh trials that his descendants will sustain through the centuries. He will not be the only one faced with terrible dilemmas and agonizing questions of conscience. The test is faced in every generation ... and the offspring of Abraham have learned what to expect. Namely, that God is also on the spot. There are those among the rabbis, in fact, who see in this story that Abraham is slowly and silently putting God to the test ... waiting for God to remember the Promise, waiting for God to have a change of heart. At the moment of truth, God is faithful ... death is not the end of the story, tragedy does not triumph. Instead, Isaac is a survivor ... he is graced with life when it seemed to be all over. This God gives life, not death. See why the first Christians saw in this story a prefiguring of their own peculiar story: an only son called to sacrifice his life, carrying the wood of his own destruction up the mount and spending three days on the deathly journey only to be raised from death when all seemed lost. We are the inheritors of such a story ... descendants of Isaac ... the ‘laughing one’ whose laughter is not that of an innocent giggler anymore. Now Isaac laughs the tragic laugh of one who has learned that the line between darkness and light, between death and life, between doing evil and doing good is very fine, indeed.
And when God does not speak in the nick of time? When there is no last second reprieve ... what then? What are the survivors of the Holocaust to make of their survival in the face of so much death? What are we ... who have lost too many children, siblings, parents, friends to all kinds of darkness in the name of good ... to make of it all? Is this some awful test sent by God? Is it some awful test of God? The questions remain unanswered, the story is open ... not closed. There is no moral to it all, no neat ending for the sermon. Just the promise found in the name that Abraham chooses for the spot. He calls it: "The Lord will provide". Tradition says that Abraham saved one of the horns of the ram provided by God for the sacrifice. With it he made a ‘shofar’ ... a shofar that, like a church bell, calls the people to worship. Its sound, like our bell, a constant reminder to keep faith in the One who has promised to provide. But more than that ... its trumpet blast intended also for the ears of God ... a reminder that God, too, has promises to keep.