| Genesis 22:1-19
||Sun, June 27, 1999
|Perhaps my choice of the text to preach on this morning could be explained by the hubris of the young. I made the mistake of reading through Ed’s sermon on this text from three years ago and discovered that was the first time in what had then been sixteen years of preaching that he had dared to go up the mountain with Abraham and Isaac...opps. My partner, who this morning is preaching on one of the other texts, thought that I was being courageous...and perhaps a wee bit foolish. I, with my head spinning from the engagement with the text and with my own life, concurred. I knew myself to be on dangerous ground - after all, this text has been used in the history of the church to propagate much suffering and blind obedience.
Then, I came across a comment suggesting that in the depth and breadth of this passage, we find ourselves standing on holy ground...holy ground?! Those of you who participated in the study of the book of Job back in March might recall our discomfort with a God who seems to baffle us...and our tentative conclusion that when we are in the presence of suffering, where the really hard questions get asked, we find ourselves standing on holy ground - a place from which we must acknowledge our limits and open ourselves to a God we do not fully know...terrible, yet holy ground.
In the sermon notes I sent out over our email list last Wednesday, I suggested that we run into problems with this text as soon as we begin to read it in isolation from everything that has gone on before. Indeed, the story begins with the phrase, "After these things..." which indicates that what is to come is related to what has gone on before. The story takes place within an ongoing relationship between God and Abraham that began ten chapters ago with God’s call to Abram to leave his country and follow God to a new land and with Abram’s response to that call. Theirs is an established relationship. God has made promises to Abraham and has been striving to have those promises come about. Abraham’s actions have been a mixed bag of responses to God’s call and promises...which seems very human of him! He faithfully leaves his home country, cutting himself off from his past as he has known it, yet he endangers the covenant by trying to pass Sarah off as his sister and by agreeing with Sarah that perhaps a child conceived with Hagar will be the promised son. After all this, finally, Isaac, the precious, promised son is born.
Then come the next words of the story that finish the first chilling sentence, "After these things, God tested Abraham." And we cry out, Why? Why must Abraham be tested in such a manner as this? Our only hint comes in verse 14 when the angel of the LORD states that God now knows that Abraham fears God. Abraham is tested because God needs to learn if Abraham remembers who God is and what God is up to - that there are other promises besides Isaac yet to be fulfilled...a bigger picture is involved. This is more than a story of origins...Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob...this is a story that shows us how serious faith is. The tensions around Isaac are built up in the story by the five times Isaac is named and the 13 times reference is made to Abraham’s "son". Now that Isaac has been born, the son whom Abraham loves, will Abraham remember God? The text also uses a particle of entreaty or urgency in the command God gives to Abraham, a particle rarely used elsewhere by God. Much is at stake here...the whole shape of God’s future, which God has been struggling to bring about, is given over to Abraham. Is Abraham serious about his faith in God, can God’s present plan for salvation be entrusted to Abraham?
Perhaps Abraham’s behavior, his seemingly unquestioning obedience, is in response to this urgency. It is remarkable really, especially in light of his questioning of God’s intentions back in chapter 18 in regard to the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps Abraham has learned that God is just and can be relied upon. We do glimpse in verse 5 his anticipation of a positive outcome to the command to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering when he informs the young men that both he and Isaac will return from their worship on the mountaintop. Throughout this story, Abraham’s obedience communicates to God that he can indeed be trusted.
But this does not reassure us...this is a scary story because it speaks of a God who tests. Surely God would not ask such things of us...surely God will not test our faith, our trust. And so, we find ways to try and explain away this disturbing story...it functions to illustrate how much God was against child sacrifice, it demonstrates that God surrendered a claim on the life of the firstborn son and provided for animal sacrifice instead, it is a way to explain the name of the place as "The LORD will provide.
But then, this morning, in the very prayer Jesus taught us...Jesus who was tested in the wilderness and the Garden of Gethsemane...we find ourselves pleading that we might be saved from the time of trial. And we are reminded by the cross which confronts and guides us each Sunday morning that the One who beckons us to follow is the Crucified One who marks as disciples those willing to loose their lives for the sake of the gospel. The testing, we quickly realize, is unavoidable.
At the height of tension in the text, we are suddenly confronted by the second characteristic of God emphasized in this story - that God is not only a God who tests but a God who provides...a ram is provided in place of Isaac, after Jesus’ wilderness testing, sustenance and comfort are provided, after his crucifixion comes his resurrection. Faith realizes that, in the end, it is only God who provides...in the same prayer in which we ask to be spared from the time of trial, we ask for our daily bread. Faith trusts that God will provide the way forward to life, even in the midst of deathly circumstances.
The God who tests is the God who provides. We tend to want to choose between these two characteristics. We will take the God who provides, the God of grace, but forego the testing, thank you very much. Or, in our bitterness, we prefer the God who tests but do not want there to be any generous providing. However, as Walter Brueggemann indicates, we are not permitted by this story to choose between these characteristics of God.
In the end, what haunts me most, and perhaps you too, is the question of what happens if we fail the test? When God beckons us out into the deep and we are unable to follow. I think of the disciples’ betrayal of Jesus...their fleeing in the face of certain death. And I think of the ultimate betrayal of a human system and human fears that resulted in the crucifixion of our God. In what myriad ways do we the church fail God’s testing? Then, I remember that it was on the wobbly foundation of Peter that Jesus claims to build his church...and I remember "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" - words of overflowing grace from the crucified criminal that is the Christ. And I know that when we fail, God will not let us go but continues to call us to faithfulness. Perhaps, in failing, we realize just how dependant we are on this inscrutable but reliable God and we begin to glimpse the faith of Abraham that encourages us onward.
In pondering all this, I recalled the contribution Laura McKenzie made to our Lenten devotional booklet. Her words and her prayer, written from the experience of her own life, speak to the mystery of a testing and providing God...
To know God intimately, to be reborn, is to abandon oneself, to let our old ideas of who
we are and what we are to do die. Indeed, even our ideas of what a holy life should look like,
or the nature of God itself, must pass away. In the words of Clifford L. Stanley, "any god who can be killed, ought to be killed," for our true God is glorious beyond earthly conception. To see with the eye of the Spirit is to open ourselves up to the sweet and terrifying madness of the Divine. Alone and quiet, we must prepare for the way of the Word, and yet know it cannot be wrought by human effort alone. Courage arises when we have faith that though the flood will destroy our earthly selves, it will end the exile of form. The mercy of Christ is that he rushes into our arms, even as we stumble towards him.
Sweet Lord, lead us ever into your arms.
Let our eyes see only your shining.
Grant us the courage to die and to die and to die,
that your arms might bear us up.
Our Jesus, our love. Holy, mad one.
Your madness is the sanity this world lacks.
Fill us of you, Empty of us.
Guide us by Fire, by Water, leave none of us intact.
When we fear, let us know your way is gentle,
When we rage, let us know your way is just,
Bring us to our knees.
Love us to remembrance,
Dance us to madness,
Hold us evermore.